Episode 4 (1st part): Road #1

Posted by on 30/03/2011
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When I woke up in the morning of our fourth day’s journey, the world seemed rather more hospitable a place than in the eve: there was a bright sun to cheer us up and news were good: Benito was already awakened and had taken the car to the workshop — right around the corner in the same block as the guesthouse. The mechanic had the spare part in stock and the Polo would be ready in half an hour.

Meanwhile, we had a jolly breakfast in the luminous lounge of the house, checking the weather forecast, planning our route for the day and basking in the sunrays that came in through the big window panes fiercely litting the premises. The worst part of the road was already past, we guessed. The highlands of the north were left behind and, but for around the first fifty kilometres that morning, the rest of our little odyssey was to run almost entirely at sea level and to windward of the not-so-cold southwesternly weather; and both factors strongly minimized the possibility of coming across what we had, by then, already identified as our worst enemy: the snow dunes on the road. The meteorological service predicted partly cloudy skies until before dusk, and then two snowfalls: a light first one and a heavier second one. But we weren’t much worried about them: in the south of the country — where we would be driving to — there was more life, villages and choice of accomodation; we had already spotted three alternative youth hostels in the map (the only affordable lodgings for us) where we could spend the night, depending on the weather and our progress on the road.

So, once our things were packed, we picked the car from the mechanic and set off, leaving the bill to the rental company. After all — we chatted — it hadn’t been that bad, meaning it could have been much worse if that crappy vehicle had broken down in the highlands, the middle of a blizzard or simply on a holiday’s eve, when no mechanic would be available the next day. Reasoning this way, and though psychological or emotional damage is impossible to evaluate, we decided to not pay a damn crown for the car rent. Whether or not this was fair might be discussed, but no doubt if we sued the rental company we’d win the case and that would be much more expensive for them.

Thus comforting ourselves we turned our backs to Egilsstadir and, boldly confident in the logic of things, retook our itinerary: Road #1, to which we should trustily stick, as we deemed it to be the main route–if only one–that had to be serviced, cleaned and maintained in Iceland.

In any case, it was undoubtedly an awesome road. As we started driving up the hills and into the mountains, we were fully captivated by the scenic views and bare wilderness, the black & white puissance of this God-forgotten region and the many hues of those icy moonscapes. There was a disquieting something in the solitude of that gravel road that, in the distance, seemed to merge into the surrounding terrain, swallowed up by it.

The road seems to face away into the ground

But wait a second… did I say solitude? Hmm… Certainly the road was strangely solitary for being the main Icelandic route. Since the beginning of our trip–and that was four days ago–we’d always been seeing some traffic, and even during a Sunday along the beautiful Nothing we’d come across a car once in a while; but now? For half an hour after leaving Egilsstadir we hadn’t seen a living soul. Maybe we’d skipped some sign and mistaken the road? But no: soon after this thought a notice by a detour (to what kind of winter hell could that trail go?) confirmed us that there had been no mistake; this was road #1. Yet not a vehicle could be seen as far as our sight reached.

We stopped and stepped off the car for a moment: examining the road we realized there weren’t even recent wheel tracks on the snow; probably nobody had come this way for the past couple of days. Fantastic as it seems, it was as if, by some trick of the matter or through a gap in the time-space substance, we had unnoticedly crossed to another dimension of the universe. Even the air didn’t stir: despite being close to the mountains, there wasn’t the slightest blow of the wind… Of course it’s a fantasy, but otherwise, how was it possible that in this region no one would drive along the popular Icelandic ring road? Where were the supply trucks? Somebody had to carry the cocacolas and the condoms to Egilsstadir’s supermarket, right? Or what about the postman? Somebody had to deliver the mail to the villages and farms on the way, true?

But then… which villages and farms? We checked the map, then stared at each other without saying a word: there was not a single black dot in around seventy kilometres, the only ones being on the shoreline, along a secondary road. Only then we understood: any possible traffic between Egilsstadir and the south would necessarily take that road–no matter how secondary–along which humans live; there, and not here, are the supermarkets, post offices and petrol stations. Nobody drove through here! So, was it safe, after all?

We pondered about it for a few minutes thus: we had lost much time the first day with the car problems and bad weather; we were behind our projected schedule and couldn’t afford–unless strictly necessary–to turn round, drive back and take the coast road, much longer as it traced the contour of all the fjords. Besides–what the hell?–after all this was Route Nr. 1 and it had to be cleaned by the snowploughs. Actually, despite its loneliness, thus far the snow was packed down and easily drivable. So we decided to carry on, still optimistic and light hearted. If worse came to the worst, we could always turn back. But we hadn’t gotten five hundred meters far when, zouf!, without even realizing it we passed over one of those dreadful snow heaps, blended into the terrain; it was not too large or too deep, but enough to check our speed to almost a halt, and certainly more than enough to put us instantly on the watch. Though we didn’t admit it to each other, both our minds instinctively went back to that blizzard the first day: the anguish, the wind, the cold and the fear…

We drove on, yet much more slowly. Because the car was going uphill we were quite likely to come across more and bigger mounds, so extreme care was to be taken and no mistakes, unless we wanted to get stuck in a road where not a man was probably coming in days. Fortunately the mountain pass was only a few kilometres ahead, and once beyond that point driving downhill would be easier, at least as to the snow.

As predicted, we soon came to another snow mound. Halting before it we jumped off the car to consider our chances. It covered the full road’s width (so there was no circling it), was about half a metre deep and eight metres long. This meant, if we couldn’t cross it we’d have to give up on our expectations for that day and totally redo our plans. But the morning was fine and our spirits high, so a few cubic metres of snow didn’t seem a big problem. We set to work, kicking it to the sides with our feet until we made a way through wich the car might pass; then I jumped in and backed around sixty metres, because momentum would be essential to overcome the dune. Then I put first gear and sped up towards it.

Kicking the snow away

Despite the car had gained a good speed, upon hitting the mound’s remaining snow we were checked as if driving on sand — and for a moment, where the layer was deeper, as the tyres lost grip of solid ground it seemed we’d came to a halt. But the car’s momentum was about just enough to surmount the dune, and finally I saw myself at the other end of it. Wow!!

Test passed!

Now we only hoped not to find another one like this, leave aside any larger, because, though the whole thing hadn’t take us longer than twelve minutes, if we were to get over several other snow heaps dusk would come before we got to the pass. And we were lucky!, our hopes were carried out and we saw no more of those. We kept going uphill on a firm road and, at its highest, we stopped for taking a few shots by a meteorological post that was placed there. Probably–we thought–the maintenance guy was the only person who, perhaps once a week, ever drove that road.

Benito by the anemometre

Rime appears when “underchilled” droplets, pushed by the wind, instantly freeze when touching a colder obstacle

And only one hundred metres further, after the first turn of the road, we stopped again holding our breath at the spectacular sight that was offered to our sight. I believe no astronaut who’d set foot on some new and strange planet would feel more bewildered and astonished than we did while beholding that unreal scene–the inmense glacier valley that stretched at our feet to the distant ocean–submerged in an bizarre, blueish atmosphere so dense it might be touched, as if it were a theatre set.

Breathtaking glacier valley

When we collected our breath again and were able to close our mouths (so strong was the impression this science-fiction scene made on us), we returned to the car and drove on. That mountain pass had made us happy not only for its beauty, but also because, being the very last we had to cross, it meant a practical end to the snow dunes, our main apprehension. From then on everything would be downhill or sea level.

Our merryment, however, didn’t last long. For the past while inside the car we had been smelling something like burnt, though at first we didn’t pay heed thinking that maybe the engine had got a bit overheated when revving it a while ago; but as it didn’t go away, it had to be something else. Not be the brakes, for sure, which we hadn’t almost used. Rather the clutch, but… that wasn’t the typical smell of burnt kevlar. It was something more familiar; something you could scent at home every once in a while, like… like burnt paper. The cardboard!, we both shouted at the same time. The piece of cardboard we had put on the grille three days before for minimizing the heating system problem. But how could it possibly have got so hot?Well, it was no moment for theoretical questions; something was burning under the hood and we had to see to it inmediately.

We stopped for taking a look: a feeble smoke was coming from the radiator, but it wasn’t the cardboard as we had thought; it was the fan. As we found out, with the joltings the cardboard had shifted between its blades preventing it from spinning, and the current had heated up too much the stator’s copper winding, burning its lacker. It was essential to remove the cardboard as soon as possible, but as it was crumpled and half broken we wasted five minutes, and by the time the fan was set free it wouldn’t move any more. Had we been too late? Or the engine had cooled down during those five minutes and didn’t need the fan any longer? It was hard to know, but probably now we had to deal with a new problem: no cooling. Things were certainly getting more and more interesting.

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8 Responses to Episode 4 (1st part): Road #1

  1. james

    thanks for letting me know about burning out the fan on my car. also, it was nice to read that it wasalready at egilsstaðir that you decided to screw me over completely. when i paid your accommodation you had requested that i be “reasonable” with the rent which i agreed to. now i read that you actually damaged my car with your “mechanically knowledgeable” repairs. nice work there. well, i have learned something for this experience: no car leaves without me receiving credit card details. i trusted you and you ended up giving it backto me up the arse. you might want to cross iceland off any near future plans you have (just in case you really thought to show youself here again…) as everyone thinks you´re a cunt. i didn´t even have to lie when i told the story. you seriously are a nasty person and i truly hope it comes back to you. karma can be a bitch.

    • The Pabster

      Have you written those words in a fit of blindness, James, or are you really that shallow? It’s unbelievable that you think you have a point. I don’t know how legal is your business (at the very least, you’re evading taxes), and I wouldn’t care if it weren’t because, by renting cars in bad mechanical conditions, you’ve boldly put my health and welfare at stake. But in any case, let me draw clearly before your eyes a picture of the situation, so as to try to make some light in your brain:
      The driver’s door had forced hinges, and the co-driver seat’s back was jammed. Not big issues, but not trifles either, of which I’d have liked to hear before agreeing in the rent, not after. At the very least, they were a hassle.
      The handbrake didn’t work. This is a quite more serious bug, very inconvenient, and even dangerous when in a ramp. But -again- you only informed me of this when I’m picking the car. Why not two weeks before?
      Then, in the middle of a blizzard I discover that the heating is so feeble that it can’t deforst the windshield. And you simply “forgot” to tell me about it? How absolutely irresponsible, what a gross negligence to let a car with no heating in Iceland! Well, you’ve read the story; I don’t need to repeat how much this bug contributed to the dire straits we had in the highlands.
      Only for this, you could be sued to bankrupcy in Iceland.
      But to top it all, finally the generator belt tears. It obviously hadn’t been serviced for at least twice as long a belt is designed to work. Now this was pure irresponsible neglect. Simply madness. The drop which overfilled the goblet. Hadn’t we been close to Egilsstadir, we coud have got stuck for endless, freezing hours in the middle of nowhere! You’re not running a knitting workshop, but a car rental company, and you’re putting people’s security at risk. You get a fleet of crappy old cars to let, and you don’t even put on them the money for a thorough mechanical check. The most lenient court would punish you to starvation for this; and still you dare to complain and insult me because I’ve “damaged your car” and “screwd you over”?, still you think you’ve paid too dear a price for your greedy carelessness? You’ve got to be kidding, or a fool.
      Damage your car? Man, if it weren’t so blunt, it would be even funny. It’s the shoddy vehicle you rented me who damaged me and damaged itself. By the way, I’m not sure that the cooling fan is burnt down (mark that my tale of the trip is a literary composition); you’d rather check it before speaking; but if it is burnt down, it’s only your fault. Had you privided a car with a thermostat, nothing would have happened to the fan. Besides, when trying to fix it, it left permanent grease stains on my coat, which is worth perhaps more than the car itself. Oh!, of course now you’ll say: “nobody asked you to fix the car”. Sure, nobody did. But then, what was I supposed to do? Give up on me and my friend’s travelling plans, thus ruining our holidays? Wait until you sent us another equally crappy car, but twice as hard on gas as the Polo? You certainly don’t know what you’re saying, James.
      One of my friends, on hearing the case, told me: “that guy doesn’t know how lucky he has been with you”. I’m afraid he’s right: you don’t know how lucky you’ve been, your mistakes having costed you only a very few thousand crowns. And yet you’re upset and you insult me, even after having -hypocritically, I see now- shaken hands with me and expressed to me your thanks. Deplorable. Listen: I’d have been much happier not having any problem with the car and paying the full tariff; I’m not proud of not having paid the rent; but, given the circumstances, I’ve paid what I consider was the real value of what I got: problems, anxiety, work, disatisfaction and lots of time lost.

      As deplorable is the sad fact that, instead of learning to never again rent cars in bad conditions, the only teaching you’ve drawn from this episode is that you’re going to ask for credit card details from now on. Unbelievable. Well, my opinion is that you don’t have solvency for that. To start with, you’d have to first provide proper contracts, invoices, etc. Yours isn’t a serious business. But in any case I pity the CSers that will fall in that trap. I’ll do my best to prevent them.

      And, to finish: you’re warning me to… what? To cross Iceland off? Man, your daring knows no limits. “Everyone” thinks I’m a cunt? Amazing. Who’s everyone? You and a couple more people who advertise one another through Couchsurfing? I think you’d rather be happy that I don’t live there, lest it be you who had to cross Iceland off for good…

  2. Roel

    So did you use the full insurance to cover the damage you did to the car, or did you just return it, screwing over the car rental company?

    • The Pabster

      So, you’re the kind of person who would reimburse your daughter’s rapist for the shirt that she tore during the struggle?

  3. Christelle

    I’m really shocked to read you bragging you did not pay the car owner. You rent a car you have to pay it. The breakdown is not a valid excuse as the reparation was still paid by the car owner. You could negotiate a reduction of the price but not to decide by yourself not to pay it at all. What you have done is daylight robbery!

    • The Pabster

      Friendship is a very interesting feeling. It makes two different people read two totally different stories when reading the very same text. While your (likely) friendship with James makes you think I’ve robbed him something, my own friends recommended me to denounce him to the police. For exactly the same thing. Curious, isn’t it?
      In any case, to reply your remark, I’ll say that the only think I can brag about is not having rewarded James’ irresponsibility.
      For the rest, I know how the law goes. Certainly the “proper” thing to do would have been to try to reach an agreement and, if not reached, then leave it in the hands of the judges. But that’s the theory. The truth is that, as a temporary visitor in Iceland, it would have been quite inconvenient to initiate a civil -or a criminal- case, and I had already suffered enough inconveniences because of him. That’s why I took the unilateral decision not to pay (though I invited him to convince me of his own reasons and to tell me for how much, in his opinion, I was indebted to him; but he rejected this invitation saying “it’s ok, I’m still thankful that you didn’t come here screaming”). And yet, Christelle, I’m totally convinced that he has paid one of the cheapest possible prices for his negligence. The breakdowns (originated in his carelessness) are not my excuses: they are my reasons. Excuses are only needed for people who don’t have a clear conscience.

  4. jac

    Tendrás que hacer una versión en español para que podamos disfrutar la aventura los hispanoparlantes.

    • The Pabster

      ¡No hombre! Eso que me lo diga Maruchi tiene un pase, pero tú…
      ¡Ar si desempolvamos el inglés!

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