We've had a tough few weeks here in Northern Spain and it's pushed us both to the edge of our nerves, budget and energy. It's also left us feeling pretty humbled and amazingly appreciative. Let me explain.
Back when our van broke down near Bilbao we spent two weeks waiting for the repair. When we finally picked up Sam we were so desperate to get the hell out of Sopelana that we crossed our fingers that all was now alright and headed west as soon as we could. Eduardo had done his best to fix Sam but we both had the sense that we'd fixed the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. Turns out our hunch was right.
Everything seemed fine until we got to A Coruna where we broke down again, this time in the middle of the city. Having learned the hard way that we need a specialist mechanic, we called the local classic car association and got a recommendation. An amazingly kind local café owner offered us a bed for the night and a hot shower (thanks so much Laura from Café Aruba) and the next morning the breakdown truck came to take us to Talleres Lago in nearby O Burgo. Lago, as recommended, was the right man for the job and he set about investigating the issue. We had water in the petrol tank and this had oxidised our carburetor the first time around and had now done so again. So he fit a new fuel line, new filter, cleaned the tank, repaired the petrol cap and cleaned the carb, took the van for a test drive with Carlos and within a day or so we were on our way.
So far so good, right? Well not quite. We got around 10 kilometres away and the van spluttered to a halt in a service station. We spent the night there and in the morning Lago sent the truck to pick us up and we and Sam were dropped off at the garage once more. Lago was more upset than either of us and apologised profusely. Now we had an issue with the fuel pump, and he spent another day adding a new pump and getting us back on the road. Carlos and Lago took our van for an hour-long test drive to make sure there were no more nasty surprises. Again we made our goodbyes as we'd now become quite close with Lago and his whole family. We set off west again towards the Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, so named for the treacherous coastline which has caused many shipwrecks down the centuries.
I'd read about the area's rugged beauty and we'd always planned to visit this area before heading south into Portugal. In Malpica a shop-owner recommended we visit the Punta Nariga lighthouse, so after wandering around the streets of Malpica we set off down deserted country roads to find it.
The only other people there were a father and son going fishing. The father told me it was too windy for fishing that day in a thick Galician accent, but they headed off regardless to try their luck. Carlos and I climbed up to the top deck of the lighthouse, looking down on the powerful Atlantic crashing against the rocks below. Sam looked so tiny from above, and you could see the road that brought us here snaking off into the distance through the strange bleak landscape.
It was a beautiful, wild and lonely place that felt perched on the edge of Europe, whipped by freezing winds and the unstoppable force of the Atlantic. We headed back to the shelter of Sam and enjoyed a lunch of home-made Chorizo sandwiches and a cold beer (just the one!)
From here we headed cross-country through tiny villages and endless fields, until we reached Muxia. Carlos was worried about Sam as he thought the steering felt strange so while he did a few laps around a car park to test what was wrong, I climbed up to an old church I could see on the hill. In the cemetery I met a lady laying flowers on the graves of her family. She told me she'd been baptised in that church, married there, buried her loved ones there. I was awestruck by the continuity of life in this tiny bleak village by the sea and was desperate to take her photo but felt like too much of an intruder to ask.
From here I saw a trail leading up to a cross on top of the hill, so I went back and convinced an unenthusiastic Carlos to come with me. At this point my husband had pretty much lost his energy for the journey. After so many problems with Sam we were both exhausted and now he was really worried about the steering. But I talked him into it and we climbed up together, taking in the views to the sea. We followed the trail down to the Iglesia de la Barca, past a contemporary monument to the sinking of the petrol-tanker Prestige which caused a natural disaster on this coastline in 2002.
Inside the church effigies of angels held ropes from which intricate model ships were hung, an offering asking for protection in the dangerous seas outside the door. Of all the churches I've visited in my life this is one of the most beautiful, and for some unknown reason I was moved to tears (I have a habit of crying in churches, as my friends can attest). Was it hormonal? Quite possibly, although I prefer to think I was feeling all the hopes and prayers of the wives of fisherman and sailors who had came here year after year praying that their men would come back safely to them. That church felt full of longing and sadness to me, the tiny model ships dwarfed in the giant space, as the real ones would have been in the vast immensity of the sea.
As we walked back to Sam, the sun shone through the clouds and onto the sea across the bay. It was a fitting end to our visit to this special hidden corner of the world, battered by the unforgiving Atlantic ocean. I was so grateful in that moment for the opportunity to be there, see that church, witness that spectacle of nature, however stressful the journey had become.
We got back to Sam and started him up to continue our journey to Finisterre, further south. We'd moved a couple of meters when the steering wheel made a sickening crunching sound and Carlos realised he'd lost control. We stopped at a crazy angle across the village street and half a meter from a large wooden door. A surprised old man came out to see what was going on. We got out to have a look and it soon became clear that our steering was completely loose. The steering wheel turned, as did the steering shaft but the axle and wheels did not. Carlos and I were both in shock. Firstly that it could be possible to have such a run of bad luck with the van, and then slowly as the realisation sunk in, how unbelievably lucky we were that this had not happened when we were driving at speed. Had we not taken that walk to the church we might have lost control driving on a curving cliffside road somewhere and this story would have quite a different ending.
We called yet another breakdown vehicle. Just so we're clear this was now the fifth of the journey. Carlos and I are experts at this now, but we couldn't figure out how we were going to get Sam onboard this time with no steering. The driver had a plan, and so with much too-ing and fro-ing, the highly vocal assistance of all the old men in the village who appeared as if from nowhere and the application of a metal bar to turn the wheels manually we were on board. My apologies about the lack of photos but neither Carlos or I were in any mood to document at this stage as we both suspected this would not be an easy or quick fix. We called an incredulous Lago to let him know what had happened and headed back to A Coruna, 90 kilometres to the east.
So the bad news was that our steering box was broken. In fact the bearing runners in our steering box were mangled and the teeth on the steering shaft were also very worn. That was why we'd had so much play in the steering. Lago looked crestfallen as he explained getting a replacement part here in Spain was not going to be an option. I got online and after much searching found a blog about a repair of the steering assembly on the same model as our van. This meant that I now knew what the part we needed was called in English; a helpful start. Carlos came with the model number off the side of our existing steering box. We spent all day trawling Ebay, called specialist suppliers in both the UK and the US and getting sidetracked by tractor parts (Ford makes tractors apparently). Steering boxes for a 1960s American van are not easy to find. In fact I even found a forum with several people asking for advice on where to get hold of one. It was around this point that we started to lose hope about continuing our journey with Sam.
Lago, in a gesture I will never forget, invited us for lunch at his home, and his wonderful daughters Andrea and Marta, and wife Maria made us laugh and took our minds off the problem. And then at around 4pm my amazing husband found the exact part we needed: the whole steering assembly, with the exact same model number as ours, on Ebay. It was NOS, new old stock, and came from a specialist supplier in Oregon, on the west coast of the US. We bought it immediately. It could have been in Antarctica and we would have still pressed 'Commit to buy'. I fired off an email to the seller asking that they give us a price for urgent shipping to Spain.
It turns out that if you buy an old Ford steering assembly in Oregon, USA, and need it sent urgently to O Burgo in Northern Spain, Fedex will charge you $566.72. I emailed the seller to explain that was a little beyond our budget and could I look at some other options and send him the details? He wasn't that keen... (see email below)
Why the urgency you ask? Well first of all we live in our van, so when we have a breakdown we not only lose our transport we lose our home, and sorting other accommodation and transport gets expensive, especially on top of all the mechanical bills. We also need to get to Lisbon by the 7th December to drop Sam off and take a flight to London for Christmas, and there are quite a few miles to go.
When the shit hits the fan it's best to call in back up, so we called our friend Ben in San Francisco to see if he could help. It turns out Ben has a friend who's an airline pilot, and that friend gets a 75% discount on Fedex. The only issue was that Ben was travelling from Tuesday night and we needed to get the parcel to him on Monday so he could send it out to us, otherwise we would have to wait another week. It was doable so we breathed an audible sigh of relief. Friends are amazing, and we are so lucky we have ours spread all over the globe for moments such as these!
The last test was paying. We had just an hour left once everything was confirmed to pay so the seller could ship it to Ben in San Francisco. And of all the moments, my PayPal account chose that precise one to have a tantrum and refuse to pay for my Ebay purchase. I called PayPal and they said the problem was with Ebay, so I called Ebay who reassured me the issue was with PayPal. I called PayPal again and spoke to a lovely lady, who told me that my account was now blocked for security as I'd made too many attempts. I literally begged her to help me. She put me on hold and then two long minutes later asked me to try again. It worked. Hallelujah. In tears of exhaustion and stress and sounding, I imagine, somewhat unhinged, I thanked her.
That night we did what any two sensible people do who have had a close brush with death, jumped through hoops for 24 hours to salvage their journey, and make it but only just and by a hair's breadth. We got drunk. The next day we packed a bag, left Sam safely in Lago's workshop and took a train to Santiago de Compostela. We've hired a tiny little garret overlooking the cathedral and we're staying here to rest, and enjoy something of northern Spain while a very rare 1960s spare part makes its way to A Coruna from the west coast of the USA. We're trying not to worry. And most of all we feel humbled by the kindness we've been shown by (most of) the people we've come across as our journey took a turn for the worst, humbled by how great our friends are and humbled by the fact that we could have had a very serious accident but didn't. Beside that last fact, any stress or difficulty we might be going through just seems utterly unimportant.