Shifting Gears

Back to Ecuador we go…time to shift gears, slow down and get back on South American Time.

Captain and I spent our time back in the States preparing for our transition from the US to Ecuador.  Our highest priority was getting our resident visas.  Currently we are traveling on a tourist visa but this allows us only 90 days in the country.  Once the resident visa is received, within the two-year ‘probationary’ time, a person is allowed to leave only for 3 months of the each two years.  After two years, we are permitted to stay in the country permanently.

Obtaining a resident vision can be done on your own.   We decided it was worth paying someone else to do it for various reasons but mostly because we wanted to ensure it was done correctly and in a timely manner.  Our responsibility was to gather our marriage license, birth certificates (the long forms), and criminal background checks. These all needed apostiled in the state where the form originated. Then each form needed to be translated to Spanish.

As property owners and now serious about beginning our life in Ecuador, our gears have shifted for our second trip to Ecuador.  Our agenda was mainly business: finalizing any necessary paperwork for our visas and finding a reliable architect and builder.  We decided buying a car would be in our best interest, allowing us to handle business matters more efficiently.

Cars are very expensive in Ecuador.  A new resident is able to import a car but this is also very expensive as the taxes are hefty.  After a lot of car shopping online, we decided on a Lada Niva.  A  mustard  yellow, Russian built, two door-hatch back, 4 wheel drive beast!

Yes-I have told you about him already. It was love at first sight and for months I couldn’t get him out of my mind.  Whole Lada Love!!! We had been talking with the owners for weeks getting updates on the whole Lada’s upkeep; oil change, new brakes, car wash, etc…  Lots of questions were asked and after much debate on what Captain and I should do, we decided this car was our best choice for our first ride in Ecuador.

Months ago, if I would have known I would be buying this vehicle, I would have taken it for a test drive! The owners from the coast met us in Quito as this was necessary to switch the ‘title’ to our name.  It was like a much-anticipated reunion.  He was very charming from the outside but rugged on the inside.  Equatorians are notorious for rebuilding and reworking their cars so often the body is much older than what is under the hood.  I hoped we had made a sound decision.

We spent our nights in Quito at Hotel Bonanza where we again met many wonderful people crashing at the family hostel.  I am constantly amazed with the commonalities I have with other guests: the Canadians from the country and their passion for horses; Barbie and Ken and their excitement for meeting warm, kind and accepting fellow travelers; the Doctor just looking for his place in this new world.

It worked out that we had a few extra days in Quito so we decided to make the drive to Otavalo and Cotacachi.  Doctor came along because he had no other plans. “Why not,” he said!

Both cities are quaint mountain towns with a European vibe.  The ‘mountain people’ are seen wearing their traditional garb: women in fedoras, long skirts and shawls over their shoulders.  The men wear white pants, colorful shirts and all with long beautiful locks that is often braided.  Cotacachi is known for its beautiful leather crafts that are terribly inexpensive.


Otavalo’s market has several vendors selling a variety of goods created by the indigenous communities made of alpaca and llama fur.


It is a 2 hour drive from Quito and makes a really long day trip so plan on spending a few days near the market if you want to shop around and experience the culture to its fullest!

On this day trip with the Lada, we named him Old Yeller.  He is a tank!!!  Nothing fancy….just a Whole Lada Metal!

Our way home from the market, it was growing dark and also began raining.  We missed our turn and ended up driving all the way into the city which was easily 45 minutes out of our way.  Being preoccupied with the crummy windshield wiper blades and all the lights from the city, Captain hadn’t noticed we had been driving for miles without lights!

There are only four buttons to choose from but even then it is difficult to depict what each does.  The switch with the light bulb picture was not the exterior lights.  And if they were the interior, the switch doesn’t work for the overhead lights!    Because the interior lights are a measly bulb above the seat belt, Doc was going to shed some light on the situation with the flashlight app on his phone.  Between Doc not finding his flashlight and Captain flipping switches in the Lada, I was in the backseat in hysterics!  How many Americans does it take to turn on the lights in a Russian ride?

Captain finally figured it out…the headlights are turned on by the switch with the half circle and squiggly lines.  Who knew?


Early the next morning Captain and I left for the coast.  We sure were ready to get out of the city.  We said our goodbyes and headed west.  The drive was very typical of any road trip in Ecuador’s countryside; unmarked speed bumps, unexpected cattle drives, and stray dogs napping in the roads.


It was on this 5 hour road trip we got to know Old Yeller more intimately.  For starters, always buckle up first.  With the difficult seat belt and the lack of power steering, it is impossible to drive and put on the belt at the same time.  Second, be sure to locate the window crank.  No, I don’t mean it’s location on the door; it’s no longer attached.  Have it close by because when the window needs to go down, and it will because there is definitely no AC, the window crank is necessary.  Third, top speed is 100 km/hr (approx. 60 MPH) in which Old Yeller starts shaking violently.  Don’t take it personally.  He’s just an ole man who has no reason to be anywhere quickly.

The previous owner had boasted Old Yeller as the “fastest Lada in all of Ecuador.”  Captain claims, “That’s like saying I have the fastest turtle!”

With an appreciation for vintage and the ‘aged’, I soaked up Yeller’s character, flaws and all.  With our FM converter cable, Captain and I were able to listen to our favorite jams on our Ipod.  If I wasn’t singing at the top of my lungs and dancing in my seat, I was gazing out of the window in awe at the rolling hills, green landscape and common theme of simple living.

Like a flip of the switch, a heavy fog set upon us and a mist fell on the windshield.  Captain slowed to turtle speed as visibility was next to zero.  Until now, we had forgotten how much new windshield wiper blades were warranted.  Towns are few and far between on this road through the jungle. As Captain and I discussed regretting not buying wiper blades in Quito, we almost drove right past the local NAPA.  The auto zone was a wooden shack with a tin roof.  There was one glass counter with random car parts and various items hanging from the ceiling.  We looked up windshield wiper blades in our dictionary and bought a pair for $5.

The fog lifted as quickly as it set in and with new wiper blades Old Yeller was ready for anything…

Trucking right along through the foothills of the Andes, Captain yells, “Oh Shit!” I am always reluctant to listen to his antics because he is always trying to trick me.  Within seconds I knew this was no laughing matter.

In his right hand, Captain was holding the gear shifter.  After climbing the hill, Captain went to down shift when the shifter broke off.  I stared at the shifter with red eyes as if I could burn it back into its proper place.    He coasted Old Yeller to the side of the road, hit the brakes and let out the clutch.  I couldn’t even think.  Much like my brain, Old Yeller was in neutral.  The only thing I could think was, “we are in the middle of nowhere!”

Right away Captain started brainstorming. “Grab the little flashlight in the glove compartment; maybe that can act as a shifter…nope…get the lug wrench from the back…urgh…it’s to big…what else do we have in here???” I was still in shock and had no ideas to offer.

In frustration, Captain grabbed the shifter and wacked the gear knob.  Captain eased off the clutch and Old Yeller sputtered downhill in what must have been third gear.  We coasted through the hills for miles maintaining our speed and not revving Yeller’s RPMs too high.

I sat quietly in the front seat while PTSD set in…

The only plan at this time was to continue coasting down the hill.  Being at the top of the hill when this occurred was a blessing but meant only one thing, we would soon be approaching another uphill climb.  Third gear would not be getting us up any hill…

Santo Domingo, the next town on the map was quite a ways…maybe we could coast downhill??? All 25 miles!?!

We did not find Santo Domingo at the bottom of the hill. Sure enough though, in an unmarked town, a man and son stood inches from the roadside, working in their shop.  They were welding together parts of a motorcycle; what a Whole Lada Luck!  Captain steered Old Yeller off the road, grabbed the shifter and hopped out of the car to explain our situation.

Mechanic Joe’s face turned to a frown and my heart sank.  I didn’t need to understand his Spanish to understand our dire situation. Because we were on the opposite side of the street, Joe asked Captain to pull the car to the other side of the street. A simple request if Yeller had power steering, let alone a shifter! Captain got Old Yeller turned around but his ass end was halfway in the road.  The front tire was wedged against the curb.  On a hill with no reverse or steering, Yeller wasn’t going anywhere at this point.

When Mechanic Joe asked us pop the hood, I realized we hadn’t even looked under the hood before buying this hoopty ride.  Even for people who know very little about cars, look under the hood!  Because, like this moment with Old Yeller, when the hood comes up and there is a rubber glove shoved between two parts, one may have doubts about their purchase!  I laughed to calm my nerves but seriously asked, “Is this supposed to be here???”  We tucked the glove right back where it was…maybe it was keeping the damn thing running!  Was this car a Whole Lada Crap?!?

Mechanic Joe paced around the Lada a few times.  I thought for sure this was going to be a Whole Lada Work!  I was expecting a blow torch but Joe parked a small generator at the car door, unhooked the car battery and placed a metal hook on the car seat’s frame for a ground.  He placed on metal rod in what look like jumper cables and proceeded to weld the shifter in place.  Joe was leaning in one door with his welding tools and his son in the other door holding the shifter.  The Lada was lighting up from within as sparks were flying everywhere!

The weld took about 10 minutes and he only charged us $3.  Assuming we got ‘the gringo price’, this surely was only a dollar weld job.  Was it going to last???

The following hours were quite nerve-wracking.  I felt like at any moment the shifter was going to break off.  We drove for several more hours until we finally reached Atacames, our final destination for the month.  Captain pulled Old Yeller into what we thought was our rental’s parking place.  It just so happened we were in the wrong spot so Captain turned Old Yeller on, attempted to put him in reverse and the shifter broke right off.

Captain reminded me of the classic Old Yeller tale, “you know Old Yeller dies at the end, right?!”  Maybe we should rename the Lada…