Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Adv #7 Continued: Vera Cruz, Oaxaca, and that little piece of plastic

After two nights at Playa Norte, we headed further down the gulf coast to Vera Cruz. Nice town much like the others, but all big cities really just kind of seem the same at this point. We’re both most interested in riding, great scenery, and meeting people, but not so much into museums and that stuff. Vera Cruz was nice for the holiday parades and street-side entertainment, but only one night was spent here.

The ruins of Mexico did sound interesting to us, so we set our sites on the Monte Alban ruins west of Oaxaca at the recommendation of our friends. The two-day drive gave us an overnight stay in Tuxtepec, which really didn’t catch our eye too much. But the drive the next day was one to remember. Starting at about 500 feet in altitude, 2 hours into the ride, we were at 9500 feet on one of the more beautiful and twisty rides we’ll ever have. It was also another step into what we would consider “jungle-like” atmosphere, and it was 6 solid hours of riding up and down and around countless turns, leaving me so exhausted at the finish I had to take a quick nap when we finally pulled in Oaxaca. (See pic.) We found a great value at Hotel Florida about a 5-minute walk from the Oaxaca city centre, and really enjoyed the market, main plaza, and the Monte Alban ruins just west of the city. I even did some of my Christmas shopping at the city market which was quite a site.

Just as I was starting to think “not much interesting has happened lately,” that all changed.

We were leaving Oaxaca for the southern coast (Port Angel) when we rode past a motorcycle dealership and I told Peter I wanted to stop in and buy some extra oil. Next thing we knew, the owner of the shop, Juan Cajiga (who everyone calls “Don Juan” out of traditional respect) was chatting with Peter about letting us use his shop to change out a fork seal on Peter’s bike. So they quickly got started on the job, and Juan also said it was okay if I used some tools and space to change my steering bearings I had been meaning to get to. And that’s when it all started…

Not only were we given the space and the tools to work with, but Juan told his employees to work along with us and help where we needed. “The Maestro” as we came to call him was considered the best mechanic in the shop, and he was there for both of us, pulling apart the bikes and getting things going. When we inquired about how much all these services would cost us, Juan pretty much waved off the question explaining that it was all on him. (Pretty good deal!) To further the enormous display of hospitality, every moment I wasn’t touching my bike, Juan had one of his other guys cleaning my bike, polishing my windshield, cleaning parts, or doing something to get us set up for our trip. And if there was a part or lubricant we needed that he didn’t have? Within a minute, the delivery guy was on his way out the door to get it and back right away with the right stuff. We knew we’d get to use a shop somewhere along the trip, but this was hospitality to the fullest. We learned that Juan has a few other businesses in Oaxaca, but you could see that he spent most of his time here at the shop around the cars and motorcycles he loves. In a very rare coincidence, Juan actually rides the KTM Adventure just like I do. (Had not seen another bike like this in 3 weeks on the road in Mexico at that point.)

Juan also alerted the local BMW Riders Club (25 club members in Oaxaca) about Peter from BMW Germany being there, and sure enough, a bunch of guys started showing up on their bikes. Because there is no BMW dealership there in Oaxaca, Peter ended up doing some mini-clinics about their bikes, adjusting this, explaining that, etc. Meanwhile, Juan was talking about quitting work early to have a barbeque so we could meet the rest of the BMW Riders. This was so great!
This is particularly fun for me, cause I still love this kind of shop work. Back in high-school, I was quite crafty when it came to mechanical things, and I always loved working with my hands and fixing stuff. (I even had a mullet : ) So it really feels great again to get to do this kind of work and see things get fixed. I mean, I hadn’t packed a bearing in like 15 years…so as I’m doing so, all sorts of names and faces from the past bounced back into my mind. (Shop teachers, classmates, cars and motorcycles I used to own, etc.) And to think that I got to do this in a Mexican shop, thousands of miles from home. Pretty neat day.

We figured we’d be on our way or ready for a barbeque by early afternoon, but Peter wanted to replace the leaking O-ring around his oil fill cap. Juan was working with Peter pretty much the whole time, talking about bikes, business, helping out where he could. But somehow the they accidentally broke the oil cap trying to put the new O-ring on.

BMW parts are not readily available in Oaxaca, so Juan started making phone calls to the local BMW riders trying to see who had that cap available for Peter to use. We waited around for some riders to show up in that tough traffic, and the wrong cap was brought to us a couple of times, (oops) so eventually The Maestro rigged up some way for the broken cap to still work.

When they tried putting on the broken cap though, a small piece of plastic broke off and fell into the engine. Now, anyone that knows engines knows that is a pretty bad thing to have happen. Such incredible speed, pressure, and heat around moving parts cannot even have something as simple as plastic get in the way. So off came the valve covers, and out came the flashlights, looking for that little piece of plastic. Eventually we were able to see it, buried below the timing chain on the left side of the engine, but getting it out was another task. Tipping the bike to the side, poking at it with tools, trying to flush oil through it…nothing seemed to work. We worked on this until 9 in the evening, when all the employees had gone home and even Juan’s wife had shown up wondering what was going on. I mean, this is quite a decision to make here: Should just run the engine and hope its okay, or dismantle it until we can get that plastic out?
Knowing we’d be there one more night, we decided to grab a late dinner together and work on it some more in the morning. Juan told us to leave our stuff there, and Juan drove us back to the hotel we thought we’d checked out of. (Of course, Juan insisted on paying for dinner. Toughest part of all this is that he felt partially responsible for breaking the cap. It could have happened to anyone though!)

In the shop the next morning, we tried for a couple more hours to flush that plastic out and get ready to go. Eventually though, we decided to fill it up with fresh oil again and hope that the plastic would never become an issue in damaging the engine. Between tying that issue up though, and changing Peter’s rear tire, we figured it was silly to start riding just a few hours before dark, so we decided to stay for our fourth night in Oaxaca. Done with all the work by about 2pm, Juan had ordered some food delivered for us, and the 3 of us sat there in the lobby of the dealership watching motorcycle stunts and Travis Pastrana motorcycle acrobatics on the flatscreen. (Again, being treated like royalty while everyone else around us was working.) We simply had to do something to thank Juan for this ongoing generosity, so that evening, we instisted on buying him dinner and he accepted.

But in his generous nature one more time, we got a phone call from Juan while back at the hotel, saying we were invited to his company’s Christmas party instead of buying him dinner. Wow….I mean, he was really, really making us feel like we’re part of the gang around Oaxaca now, getting to meet his family, serving our third meal in 2 days, etc. We grabbed a taxi from the hotel, and made it to the party just fine. And sure enough, he had one of his employees waiting in the street to pay the cab driver before we could even get out our wallets. You’ve got to be kidding me! Everything short of a red carpet was being put out for us, and the food and drink inside the party was absolutely outstanding to.

I didn’t get any pictures of the party, but since it was there at one of his businesses (a plastic-bag printing company) we ended the night with a beer-in-hand tour of the operation and his car collection out in the garage. You can see a bunch of old classics here, and I’d say my favorite was that VW bus. It is in amazing condition with all original parts.

Sure enough, Juan drove us back to the hotel after the party, and we said we’d stop by one more time on the way out of town in the morning. Peter had the idea of making a couple of photo-collages for The Maestro and Juan to document our few days together, and we brought the gifts with a good bottle of mezcal to the shop in the morning as planned. It was a little sad as we exchanged contact info and reminded each other of the “my house is your house” policy. Juan sure did make the highlight reel in our journey, and his generosity and friendliness will not be forgotten. What a great experience. Thanks, Juan.

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