Monday, August 29, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Seven

There are worse places to be stranded than in a city whose name always reminds me of rice and CSS code (Plovdiv, for those keeping track). On the side of the six-lane freeway around Istanbul, in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria, at any of the borders we crossed to this point. All would have been much more frustrating and time consuming.

Your options are fairly limited when your car is down for the count in a town you've been in for an hour. Amy and Sarah went back to the restaurant to see if the waiter knew what we could do. I decided to walk down an alley that housed a car wash place and, as I hoped, a car repair garage. Sadly, the latter was closed. I returned from the alley to find the girls sitting in the shade next to the car. It was a hot day. Thirty-eight degrees hot. Not exactly a day to be running around looking for a mechanic.

Now I'm not claiming divine intervention or anything like that, but what are the chances that a car parts shop would be located just around the corner (the opposite direction from the alley I had gone down). I didn't see any "Lada" or "VAZ" logos on the sign out front, but they would at least know where to start.

Unexpectedly, out of the three employees (two of which were in their 20s), it was the middle-aged man who spoke a few words of English. I attempted to explain what was going on and he attempted to understand my hand motions. He then went over to the computer, opened up Skype, and dialled a mechanic (ostensibly, at least). They chatted for a while in rapid-fire Bulgarian and when it was all over, the guy asked me to show him the car.

We weren't communicating very well at this point, so as he was examining the car, he asked, "Do you speak Russian?" I nodded and then he replied, "Ok, good. Then you speak Russian and I'll speak slow Bulgarian." Right, okay. He sat down in the driver's seat and depressed the flaccid clutch. "Aha," he said, "it's your clutch pump." Now we had to figure out a way to get the car to the Skyping mechanic's, which was apparently not far away.

His idea was to start the Colonel and then ram the gearshift into first. The sound was horrible. Gears grinding ranks right up there with nails on a chalkboard. But he managed to get it off to a clunking start. Getting into second was a similar exercise in bone-chilling noises. At one point, he approached a light that was just about to turn yellow. I told him to go, figuring it would be a good idea to not have to grind the gears again, but he decided to stop. So once again, he rammed the shifter into first, got moving, and then barely managed to get it into second. Poor Colonel.

The mechanic's garage was one of many in a yard specializing in older cars. He came out to greet us, but immediately delegated the work to his assistant (he was busy with what looked like a compressor). The guy from the parts shop took off, leaving me with the assistant who spoke even less-decipherable Bulgarian. He fiddled around under the hood for awhile and eventually emerged with a filthy clutch pump and hose. It was so caked with grime that you could hardly recognize it. He told me, "See that "Lada" parts shop across the street? Go over there and ask for Bulgarian word and Bulgarian word."

Over there, I had to talk to three people before an older guy mentioned that he spoke decent Russian because he was a Colonel in the army. That made life easier, mostly because it turned out the part he sold me didn't quite fit our car. The intake valve, it was explained, was perfectly perpendicular to the cylindrical pump. Instead, it should be slightly angled. The car parts Colonel, when I returned, claimed that the part we needed could not be found in the city. That isn't news you want to hear.

When the assistant heard about this, he looked on in disbelief. "Get in," he said and motioned to his car. It was a short drive, but we eventually found ourselves in another car yard outside a Lada parts shop. The guy inside heard what we had to say and then said, "You're in luck. I have the original part from the Soviet Union." That was exactly what we needed. As it turns out, the part I originally purchased was the modern Fiat version. The Colonel, being as ancient as he is, was entirely of Soviet design and manufacture, and thus needed Soviet parts.

Armed with the correct part, the assistant had the Colonel running smoothly again within an hour. I tested it out a few times and was impressed with the difference. We thanked him for everything he did and continued on our way, knowing full-well that we avoided a potential disaster. I don't think any of us will forget that day.

We arrived in Sofia a few hours later. We'd spend a couple of days there (one of which included a small jaunt to the a monastery by Amy and Sarah, and an oil change) before heading to the Serbian border. More on that in Part Eight.


At 6:32 AM, Blogger Muriel said...

Love this tale.


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