BRAZIL, The green shrub-covered peaks
disappeared among the morning haze as the
road weaved along the valley floor through steep
coffee plantations. An old man riding on a cart
with his young grandson plodded along at the
pace of his slow moving burro and blocked trucks
from passing. For a hundred kilometers the road
was perfectly paved then abruptly disintegrated
into an ancient, pot-holed path, only to return to a
stream of clear black asphalt.
|Chapter 37 Tropical Windshield Wipers
Trucks trudged up hills so slowly that the van
bogged down and stalled in first gear. When
reaching a peak they accelerated with wild
abandon, making it impossible to pass on the few
straight stretches. Small new Fiats sped around
and caused the vehicles coming in the opposite
direction to slow and flash their lights.
A constant rain of large, pounding drops poured
down, filling the gully along the roadside with dull
red-brown muddy water and gave the air the
damp stench of a summer storm. The drops
evaporated when they landed on the hot asphalt
creating a hazy steam that misted the windshield.
Turbaned, chocolate brown mothers balanced
large bundles on their heads and walked with
children along the muddy roadside. Men rode
long distances on bicycles drenched to the bone
to work with machetes and hoes in the never-
ending struggle to keep the dense green tropical
vegetation from overtaking the roadway. Others
gathered in small groups out in the open,
squatting together, talking and laughing, oblivious
to the incessant downpour that soaked them.
Like food and shelter, rain is one of the most
basic elements in the life of the Bahian people.
Even though little clothing is worn, each family
spread hundreds of freshly washed T-shirts,
shorts and underwear on the barbed wire fence,
in a faint hope that the God of rain would
mercifully grant, if not today then tomorrow or the
next, a full day of sun. The fast moving, gray-
silver sky, the deep dark puddles of mud
surrounding the homes, the clouds of
mosquitoes, and the never-ending dampness, all
seemed to go unnoticed.
The windshield wipers in the van finally gave out
after several long days of constant use.
In the tiny beach town of Arraial da Ajuda we
rented a small colorful cabana overlooking the
sea with a comfortable white cloth hammock
strung on the porch and a mosquito net hung
over the bed. At night the bats rattled around in
the rafters while we struggled to understand the
Brazilian TV news of Anthrax and Cipro, bombs
and the Congress. Already news junkies, we
turned into information zombies, listening to the
half-understood Portuguese commentary while
watching the images of war and fear. Every so
often we tuned into the BBC World Service on our
short-wave radio and received the most up to
date news from a British perspective. The
dropping of bombs, spattered with the results of
the most recent Indian test cricket matches.
Arraial da Ajuda is one of a few hippie havens of
Brazil. The modern day South American
reincarnation of the unwashed, glassy eyed 60s
straggler sells hand made jewelry from purple
velvet sheets as they twirl dreadlocks and ignore
their children. In the evening they gather in
gypsy like troops at the outskirts of town and
camp in the blissfulness of paupers. While they
like to think of themselves as travelers who sell to
perpetuate their lifestyle, they are actually
traveling salespeople with a spiel as practiced as
the best door-to-door hack of the 1950s. Just a
glance in their direction unleashes an
unstoppable sales routine.
Running on the beach each morning we
returned to enjoy a large breakfast of tropical
fruits and yogurt. The bright orange papayas
bruised easily but melted in our mouths like sweet
butter. Juicy, messy mangoes and fuzzy green
kiwi fruit were practically given away at the shop.
Ripe coconuts littered the ground as the
hardworking caretaker trimmed the palms for the
coming season and we chopped at them, gorging
on sweet coco water and the tender white flaky
I spent one morning dismantling most of the
major components on the dashboard to get
access to the windshield wiper motor. After a few
hours of struggling I finally removed it and found
that the small plastic driving gear was stripped.
Amanda glued it with epoxy and let it set
overnight. The next morning I put everything
back together and gave it a try. The gear worked
perfectly without the wiper blades attached but
once I screwed them in place the thing fell apart.
I pulled everything out again and Amanda tried
Crazy Glue. Again, no luck.
We were determined to solve the problem using
the tools and limited ingenuity we possessed.
Many hours were spent lying in the hammock
discussing creative ways we could repair the
gear. Reading, then rereading the Volkswagen
manual we devised absurd plans,
â€œWhat if we drill a hole in the gear and insert
the spoke of a fork?â€�
â€œWe could drive a piece of inner tube into
the hole to add friction.â€�
â€œHow about if we used this wire to tie around
the outer edge?â€�
â€œWhat if we carved a new gear out of
We refused to admit to one another what we
both knew was true. We were trapped by
something as simple as broken windshield
wipers. The constant heavy rain and the narrow
roads that offered no place to pull off for twenty
or thirty kilometer, trapped us in paradise until it
A few days later we made a dash for the parts
stores about 100 kilometers away. Surviving a
brief torrential downpour with near zero visibility
we arrived safely in the small town. The shop
owner looked at the motor as if it was a piece
from the Mars lander and said he did not have
anything like it. Brazil continues to make a VW
kombi virtually identical to ours. A lack of proper
language skills kept me from asking the simple
question, â€œShow me the mechanism in that
van over there. The one that just passed.â€� I
pointed and muttered but the clerk looked at me
as if I was from Mars.
After asking directions a couple of hundred
thousand times, we found the VW dealer who
took one look at the part, consulted his computer
screen and said â€œNaoâ€�. If he had a
spittoon he would have spit in it. â€œAinâ€™t
got notinâ€™ like it hereâ€�. It took several
employees to explain in very slow and patient
Portuguese that they had never seen this
particular part. All agreed it was completely
different from the one the Brazilian kombis use.
One of the many loungers around the shop
perked up and spoke with hurried enthusiasm,
making a windshield-wiper motion with his arms,
not stopping between statements to see if I
understood, which I did not. He went on and on
and when heâ€™d finished with his long,
enthusiastic explanation, everyone agreed with
frowning nods that it could solve my problem.
At the end he realized I didnâ€™t understand
and started from the beginning, arms flailing like
wipers, counting off the steps on his fingers,
finally he looked up at the audience. Everyone
nodded the look that said, â€œIt might just workâ
€�. Everyone but me. He shook his head, â
€œStupid foreigner canâ€™t understand simple
Portugueseâ€�, and yelled at the guy behind the
counter to throw him a knife. I followed him out
the door and watched as he cut two pieces of
twine from a packing crate. Tying one rope to
each of our windshield wiper arms he let them lie
down in front of the van.
Palms up I gestured, â€œWhat?â€�
He shook his head and flung his hand in a
gesture that said, â€œHave I got to do it all for
you?â€� Apparently he did. He passed one
rope through the driverâ€™s window and another
through the passengerâ€™s then did a little
dance that looked like the twist.
It didnâ€™t dawn on me until he did the twist.
Pull one rope to bring the wipers up, another to
bring them down. Ingenious.
The next logical step would have been to visit a
junkyard and remove the entire mechanism from
an old kombi, but mysteriously, junkyards do not
exist in Brazil. Perhaps if old cars were left out in
the constant rain they would not last long.
Second hand parts stores fill in the gap. We
visited one in Ilheus with a wide variety of parts
from many different makes and models wrapped
neatly in plastic, piled on long, dark shelves. I
wandered the stockroom with the owner and
found a similar wiper motor that looked like it
would fit even though it wasnâ€™t exactly right. I
took apart the broken one and removed the
electrical plug, then connected the wires from the
new one and screwed it together. Miraculously, it
Not so different after all. The owner of the parts
shops was so excited he invited us to stay with his
family, tour the city with him and spend the
weekend fishing on his boat.
Thatâ€™s the beauty of Volkswagens, perhaps
the reason a company born from the maniacal
brain of Adolf Hitler, the fussy engineering of
Ferdinand Porsche and the anal retentive
German worker could spawn Herbie the Love Bug
and hippie vans. A simplistic design with
interchangeable parts, a bomb proof suspension,
good gas mileage, and cheap, cheap, cheap.
What more could the public want from the Volks
Wagen, the German peoplesâ€™ car?
Few vehicles have the personality of an old
Volkswagen. Look at one of those functional,
unstoppable Beetles and you canâ€™t help but
smile. It just makes you happy. Car companies
try so hard to inject personality into their product
but Volkswagen did the opposite, making it so
utilitarian that the vehicle assumed the
personality of the owner. It was a clean slate,
open and simplistic, willing to become anything
the owner wanted. Flower-power stickers only
added to the luster.
On the drive to Morro de Sao Paulo it didnâ€™t
rain at all but I turned on the windshield wipers
every so often, just for the fun of it. When the
wipers switched off they swept down past the
lowest point and flung back up a few inches,
settling somewhere near the middle of the
windshield. But heck, itâ€™s one of those
peculiarities that adds character.
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