Water, water everywhere

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

We’ve been enjoying the quiet since the storm died down. We found ourselves a quiet spot and settled in for some much-needed rest—and work, as it has been pouring in steadily, blatantly disregarding our lack of internet access throughout the storm. We are in Les Guilleries-Savassona National Park, overlooking the Sau reservoir. It’s a surreal landscape; tall, stratified cliffs rise from the water below, carved out by millions of years of erosion. Trees cover every scrap of land that is less than vertical. A week ago, this place would have been gorgeous; today, it’s a battlefield.

The water is a muddy yellow, littered with trees, branches and other debris. Gloria has left her mark on everything here. Water rushes across the road where sand and stones have clogged storm drains. Numerous landslides have covered roads and paths with rock and mud. Even now, days later, the occasional crack of rockfall echoes between the mountain walls. The weather, though calm, has been somewhat disappointing. The sun has been out in full force since the storm blew over, but we haven’t seen much of it; with the ground soaked from three days of heavy rain, the mountains are mostly shrouded in mist. The resulting cold and damp have put any thoughts of shorts far out of my mind. The clothes we bought for our Scandinavian summer are now proving their worth once again; even the knee-high, wool-knit socks have made a comeback—time to head further south, in search of warmer weather and cooler footwear.
We recently learned of La Fontcalda, a hot spring in Tarragona, just down the coast from Barcelona. It sounds like exactly what we need to warm our bones and cheer our spirits. We’ll stop off at the Montserrat mountain range along the way. The route has been selected, the camper prepared for driving. Mugs of steaming tea have been brewed for the drive—I’ll forget mine and drink it lukewarm in half an hour. The inside of the windshield is drenched with heavy condensation, almost as if it had just finished raining inside. We clamber into the front and clear the windshield and side windows. There’s another old Fiat camper parked 30 metres away, a slightly younger and slightly shorter model; we heard them arrive late last night.

I settle into the driver’s seat and turn the key. The engine cranks loudly in the mist, but nothing happens. It’s not starting. I check the choke knob; it’s out. I crank the engine a few more times, a little longer, adjusting the choke all the while. Nothing. Our headlights are linked to the ignition switch, so we can’t have left them on. I switch off the lights and other loads anyway and try again—still nothing. We’ve never had problems starting before; has our trusty Italian steed finally kicked the bucket? I pop the hood, as is appropriate in these situations, despite having little idea of what to do beneath it. If nothing else, the air in there will be fresh when the mechanic shows up.

The occupant of the other camper passes by, taking his trash to the nearby bin. “Is there a problem?” he asks, in surprisingly good English. “It won’t start.” He steps over and peers into the engine bay. He has the same engine, he says. His name is Nicholás; he’s a local. He and his girlfriend live in their camper, working during the week and driving up to places like this on weekends. They have had their fair share of breakdowns and malfunctions, by the sound of it. He says condensation in the distributor is usually to blame when his engine doesn’t start. I know the word, just not where or what it is. Nicholás points it out and heads back to his camper. “Let me know if you need more help”, he says as he leaves.

The distributor cap looks pretty dry to me, but I wipe it down for good measure. A few of the contacts are slightly corroded, so I abrade them with a bit of fine sandpaper. I remove the plugs one by one to inspect those contacts as well, but they seem fine. I study the open distributor for a while, tracing the four outer cables up to the spark plugs; the single wire in the middle runs back to the ignition coil; the little rotor that briefly connects each outer contact with the centre contact as it spins. I’m always amazed at how much you can learn just by taking things apart (one such lesson is that things can be quite tricky to reassemble, even without the leftover mystery screws). Fortunately, this is a simple design, and I refit the cap and give each of the plugs a wiggle to make sure they are properly connected. I’m doubtful that I’ve done anything, but I try the engine again—still nothing. I test the battery voltage; it’s lower than usual, but I’m not sure about the minimum requirements. It could be worth trying to jump-start it off the other camper if Nicholás is up for it. He is, and we soon have the two relics hooked up and ready to go. Nicholás lets his engine run for a few minutes before I try to start. Any hope I had of seeing hot springs fades as the engine cranks uselessly. It’s not the battery. Nicholás is convinced it’s the distributor and runs through the steps I went through earlier, right down to abrading the contacts. It doesn’t help. We’re out of ideas, so we’ll just have to call a tow. I thank Nicholás for the help, and he heads back to his side of the lot.

We’re stuck for now, as it’s Sunday and the tow company will have nowhere to take us until tomorrow; I might as well do some reading up on the problem. I have a Fiat Ducato workshop manual on my laptop, a last-minute purchase before we left last year; this is the first time I’ve opened it. One of the first pages is a troubleshooting checklist. The battery is on there, as is the distributor. Next on the list are the spark plugs, but I don’t have the required socket to remove them. This exercise in fault finding ends here, as most of the next items on the list either don’t sound like our problem or require spare parts and special tools to fix. I close the manual and sit glumly sifting through countless search results that don’t quite match the problem. One finally stands out. Check the ignition module, the comments recommend. I will, right after I Google ignition module to see what it looks like. I locate the module and pull off the connector. Sadly, the contacts look brand new.
There’s another connector further down the cable. I disconnect it. My skin is tingling like I’ve had an electric shock, but it’s only elation. The connector houses three metal pins and, currently, water—a lot of water. Probably rain blasted in at high pressure by the wind during the storm. I turn it upside down and gleefully watch it drain, shaking it dry and adding a spritz of WD-40 for good measure before clicking the plastic clips back in place. I scramble into the driver’s seat with anticipation and twist the key. The magic is back! The little engine roars into life, oblivious to the day’s frustrations and eager to get going. High-fives besiege me from the living room. We are both clearly relieved and about as excited as the Apollo 11 mission control team after touchdown. A small step for mankind, but a giant leap for the Tardis and its occupants. I set off to let Nicholás know that we’ve solved the problem and Anne gets up to make—Shit, I forgot my tea.

We’ve been enjoying the quiet since the storm died down. We found ourselves a quiet spot and settled in for some much-needed rest—and work, as it has been pouring in steadily, blatantly disregarding our lack of internet access throughout the storm. We are in Les Guilleries-Savassona National Park, overlooking the Sau reservoir. It’s a surreal landscape; tall, stratified cliffs rise from the water below, carved out by millions of years of erosion. Trees cover every scrap of land that is less than vertical. A week ago, this place would have been gorgeous; today, it’s a battlefield.

The water is a muddy yellow, littered with trees, branches and other debris. Gloria has left her mark on everything here. Water rushes across the road where sand and stones have clogged storm drains. Numerous landslides have covered roads and paths with rock and mud. Even now, days later, the occasional crack of rockfall echoes between the mountain walls. The weather, though calm, has been somewhat disappointing. The sun has been out in full force since the storm blew over, but we haven’t seen much of it; with the ground soaked from three days of heavy rain, the mountains are mostly shrouded in mist. The resulting cold and damp have put any thoughts of shorts far out of my mind. The clothes we bought for our Scandinavian summer are now proving their worth once again; even the knee-high, wool-knit socks have made a comeback—time to head further south, in search of warmer weather and cooler footwear.

We recently learned of La Fontcalda, a hot spring in Tarragona, just down the coast from Barcelona. It sounds like exactly what we need to warm our bones and cheer our spirits. We’ll stop off at the Montserrat mountain range along the way. The route has been selected, the camper prepared for driving. Mugs of steaming tea have been brewed for the drive—I’ll forget mine and drink it lukewarm in half an hour. The inside of the windshield is drenched with heavy condensation, almost as if it had just finished raining inside. We clamber into the front and clear the windshield and side windows. There’s another old Fiat camper parked 30 metres away, a slightly younger and slightly shorter model; we heard them arrive late last night.

I settle into the driver’s seat and turn the key. The engine cranks loudly in the mist, but nothing happens. It’s not starting. I check the choke knob; it’s out. I crank the engine a few more times, a little longer, adjusting the choke all the while. Nothing. Our headlights are linked to the ignition switch, so we can’t have left them on. I switch off the lights and other loads anyway and try again—still nothing. We’ve never had problems starting before; has our trusty Italian steed finally kicked the bucket? I pop the hood, as is appropriate in these situations, despite having little idea of what to do beneath it. If nothing else, the air in there will be fresh when the mechanic shows up.

The occupant of the other camper passes by, taking his trash to the nearby bin. “Is there a problem?” he asks, in surprisingly good English. “It won’t start.” He steps over and peers into the engine bay. He has the same engine, he says. His name is Nicholás; he’s a local. He and his girlfriend live in their camper, working during the week and driving up to places like this on weekends. They have had their fair share of breakdowns and malfunctions, by the sound of it. He says condensation in the distributor is usually to blame when his engine doesn’t start. I know the word, just not where or what it is. Nicholás points it out and heads back to his camper. “Let me know if you need more help”, he says as he leaves.

The distributor cap looks pretty dry to me, but I wipe it down for good measure. A few of the contacts are slightly corroded, so I abrade them with a bit of fine sandpaper. I remove the plugs one by one to inspect those contacts as well, but they seem fine. I study the open distributor for a while, tracing the four outer cables up to the spark plugs; the single wire in the middle runs back to the ignition coil; the little rotor that briefly connects each outer contact with the centre contact as it spins. I’m always amazed at how much you can learn just by taking things apart (one such lesson is that things can be quite tricky to reassemble, even without the leftover mystery screws). Fortunately, this is a simple design, and I refit the cap and give each of the plugs a wiggle to make sure they are properly connected. I’m doubtful that I’ve done anything, but I try the engine again—still nothing. I test the battery voltage; it’s lower than usual, but I’m not sure about the minimum requirements. It could be worth trying to jump-start it off the other camper if Nicholás is up for it. He is, and we soon have the two relics hooked up and ready to go. Nicholás lets his engine run for a few minutes before I try to start. Any hope I had of seeing hot springs fades as the engine cranks uselessly. It’s not the battery. Nicholás is convinced it’s the distributor and runs through the steps I went through earlier, right down to abrading the contacts. It doesn’t help. We’re out of ideas, so we’ll just have to call a tow. I thank Nicholás for the help, and he heads back to his side of the lot.

We’re stuck for now, as it’s Sunday and the tow company will have nowhere to take us until tomorrow; I might as well do some reading up on the problem. I have a Fiat Ducato workshop manual on my laptop, a last-minute purchase before we left last year; this is the first time I’ve opened it. One of the first pages is a troubleshooting checklist. The battery is on there, as is the distributor. Next on the list are the spark plugs, but I don’t have the required socket to remove them. This exercise in fault finding ends here, as most of the next items on the list either don’t sound like our problem or require spare parts and special tools to fix. I close the manual and sit glumly sifting through countless search results that don’t quite match the problem. One finally stands out. Check the ignition module, the comments recommend. I will, right after I Google ignition module to see what it looks like. I locate the module and pull off the connector. Sadly, the contacts look brand new.

There’s another connector further down the cable. I disconnect it. My skin is tingling like I’ve had an electric shock, but it’s only elation. The connector houses three metal pins and, currently, water—a lot of water. Probably rain blasted in at high pressure by the wind during the storm. I turn it upside down and gleefully watch it drain, shaking it dry and adding a spritz of WD-40 for good measure before clicking the plastic clips back in place. I scramble into the driver’s seat with anticipation and twist the key.

The magic is back! The little engine roars into life, oblivious to the day’s frustrations and eager to get going. High-fives besiege me from the living room. We are both clearly relieved and about as excited as the Apollo 11 mission control team after touchdown. A small step for mankind, but a giant leap for the Tardis and its occupants. I set off to let Nicholás know that we’ve solved the problem and Anne gets up to make—Shit, I forgot my tea.

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