The Land Cruiser Restoration in Bolivia (2) – Cultural Differences, Car Welding and Engine Testing


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~George Bernard Shaw


This is part 2 in a 4-part series of the Land Cruiser renovation project we did in La Paz, Bolivia, in 2010. It was the biggest and hardest overhaul of the 4 we have done in our 16 years on the road. As to why I am sharing this story now, only after 9 years, please check out the introduction in part 1.

Here’s part 1

The Land Cruiser Restoration in Bolivia – part 2

The contract has been signed and the welding has started. The hope that the Land Cruiser restoration would go smoothly from now on soon made way for frustration and we renegotiate the contract. Things go pear-shaped with unbridgeable problems caused by miscommunication, cultural differences in the workplace and, strangely enough, the climate.

(Captions by Coen)

The original logo’s of the rear. Let’s see if we can paint them nicely one way or another. New they are available but will cost a fortune or, as they tend to say, they ‘vale un Potosi’ because of the big silver mines in Potosi. These logos are riveted on the cars here. We don’t know why, maybe they steal them here?

Day 25 – The Welding

The promised, dedicated welder never showed up. Today, the technician welder Esteban finally started on welding the tub. However, his promised buddy Simon would not be in the picture for yet another five weeks.

We were quickly and firmly confronted with the mañana mañana mentality of Bolivia.

During those first 3,5 weeks in Don Edwin’s workshop, Coen and I disassembled the Land Cruiser, and Coen focused on repairs that were not part of the contract.

Chatting with Esteban, I learned that Don Edwin had made a subcontract with him. It included a clause stating that in case of Esteban not fulfilling his obligations he would pay a fine.

Read More: Welding 2 Cracks in Aluminium

Land Cruiser Restoration in La Paz, Bolivia (©Coen Wubbels)
We gather the boys for the ‘moment supreme’ – getting the tub separated from the frame. Lifting a clean 45 frame is still pretty heavy even if it is stripped from the 85 liter tank.

A Contract

Just a week earlier Don Edwin and we had signed a contract. At the start of the project we had suggested making one (after Coen’s cousin, Jaap, who lived in La Paz and his friends strongly suggested us doing this) but Don Edwin hadn’t been interested.

After three weeks or so, he did want a contract – he realized how he had underestimated the job. And so we signed a contract in which we extended the 8 weeks to 12. Don Edwin then demanded $3000. It took a full day to settle on $2500 (the whole renovation, including new parts and the work that was not part of the contract, would ultimately cost us more than twice as much).

By then our spirits had sunk low. Coen and I were doing all the working and so when Don Edwin complained that the job was costing too much, we asked which costs he was referring to. We had one at least 80% of all the work. When he complained the project would take longer, we retorted that putting people on the job was a requirement to get anything accomplished.

Things went pear-shaped quickly.

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Turning the tub upside down on some old tires, so we can weld the bottom more easy.

Renegotiating the Contract

Anyway, Don Edwin’s subcontract with Esteban gave us the idea to insert a penalty clause in our contract with Don Edwin as well. If the job wasn’t finished on the day agreed upon, Don Edwin would have to pay a fine. To our surprise, he immediately agreed and himself suggested a fine of 50 US dollars per day after the contract expires.

The preparation of this contract turned out to be our best action in a series of months of errors: in communication, in repairs and in purchases. Without this contract, the Land Cruiser would still be there, in those 1000+ pieces.

Cutting metal with the saw to get rid of the rusted parts. This is the bottom of the cargo floor. Both sides of the supports have to be reinforced.

Day 52 – Evaluation Time

After seven weeks or so, it was time for some new decisions.

“Do you see how in the Land Cruiser can be ready in time?”

Coen looked at me in surprise.

“Take a good look at what is happening, or rather, what is NOT happening.

The Land Cruiser is in more than 1000 pieces, most of which Esteban still needs weld and paint, and then we have to get everything reassembled. And that is supposed to be done in five few weeks we have left?”

“Why not?” Coen asked.

He was optimistic, I had to admit that, although it had nothing to do with realism.

“I spoke to Esteban this morning. He said he had no clue how long the project would take. He suggested that we’d buy another visa for a month, which is enough,” I concluded.

The restoration of the Land Cruiser was more Coen’s job than mine. I knew nothing about cars, and frankly, didn’t have an interest in the technical part of it. After the first four weeks of dismantling and archiving I started staying in the apartment to write articles and earn money for this project.

Read More: Car Repairs in Peru and Ecuador

Labeling the wires.

Coen is the outgoing guy, talks to everybody, enjoys chatting with people all the time, easily makes friends, deals with the tough issue, and generally is very good at finding the right arguments when problems arise (e.g. with officials). Based on all the good experiences in previous workshops over the past 7 years, there was no reason to believe things would be different here.

But there were. On many levels.

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Coen had lost sight of the project and I was panicking because I realized how much work was left to be done. He got bogged down in details. Whether necessary or out of a want to make the restoration top notch, I had no clue, lacking the technical logic. I had continued having faith that everything would be okay, even though all signs had been pointing in the other direction.

Coen had already suggested that I should talk to Don Edwin about the issues at hand, but I had not wanted to do that. I figured that having two captains on a ship wouldn’t work, leading too easily to communication issues. Besides, it would give easy ways out for Don Edwin by arguing, “But Coen said that,” or, “But Karin-Marijke said ….”

Esteban placed reinforcements under the cargo floor.

I think it’s fair to say that neither of us had had any clue beforehand how much work this restoration was. Not having done anything remotely similar in our lives had us swimming around blindfolded in a massive, murky ocean.

We had no clue where we were, where we heading, and what other obstacles we were going to face.

During this talk it became clear that it was simply not possible for Coen to:

  1. Be present all the time (otherwise no work was being done).
  2. Do his own share (which was part of the deal).
  3. Push Don Edwin to get people on the job and tell him to stop nagging about money (ergo: playing the bad guy).
  4. Keeping a good atmosphere.
  5. Buying spare parts.

In hindsight it is easy to see that, of course, that package was beyond anybody’s capabilities.

A New Division of Tasks

It was good to detail the different issues and once we had that figured out, we took a big decision. From now on I was going to be the captain and we’d take up the ‘bad cop – good cop’ roles.

I’d do the talking with Don Edwin so Coen could stay on good terms with the guys on the work floor. My plans for writing went into the trashcan and from then on I daily accompanied Coen to the workshop.

Read More: The Overhaul in Guyana

Slowly the work is progressing. The utmost concentration here.

Coen’s Work in and Outside the Workshop

Despite everything that wasn’t happening on the restoration, Coen loved working on the Land Cruiser. He spent 50-60 hours per week in the workshop. He worked on a lot of things he finally had time to figure out, like the enigma of those zillion electrical wires. Not that this was easy.

He had been thinking about replacing many of those wires but gave up on that idea when in La Paz he could find wires only in the color black, black, and black. That obviously was not going to work. He fixed the bad pieces as he could and we hoped for the best.

During those first weeks, he had gone to El Alto each Thursday and Sunday. This is Bolivia’s largest car market, where Coen searched for original or after-market parts. Bolivia was an FJ40 country but this wasn’t evident in the availability of spare parts.

When Coen returned from his shopping at El Alto, however, he would conclude no progress had been made, and there always was some sort of excuse. From now on, the shopping was going to be my job so Coen could stay in the workshop.

Cultural Differences - when is good good enough?
The right side comes along great. Welding is done here. So we’ll start sanding soon.

Cultural Differences in the Workshop

How critical do you have to be? How often do you (have to) express your dissatisfaction? It was a constant trade-off between keeping a good atmosphere well vs. getting actual work done. It was such a pity that it was either the one or the other, and that frustration never stopped nagging us.

I tried to figure out the logic in needing five weeks for welding the tub, wheel-arches and supports, and seven weeks for the rest of the Land Cruiser.

I couldn’t.

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Silicone tape

Battery booster

Tie raps

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New supply of oxygen.

Any form of efficiency was missing. Esteban worked until the oxygen supply was finished. There was no spare tank (could get stolen), which meant waiting another day for a new one. Tubes were porous and broke, and were fixed in an improvised manner. Everything in this workshop was held together with strings and strips of old bicycle tubes.

Electrical wiring went straight into the socket and was held in place with a piece of wood. Coen fit the wires with plugs before something disastrous happened. All metal was cut with scissors; Don Edwin refused to spend thirty dollars on a throatless shear.

Another issue was that they couldn’t weld Mig / Mag (or Tig welding) but only knew the system of autogenous welding. Therefore the metal became extremely hot and because such large pieces of sheet metal were involved, enormous distortion occurred. It was going to be an enormous job to reassemble the Land Cruiser.

Cultural Differences - when is good good enough?
Because there is a very small local appliance industry I guess most things are imported from all over the world and you can have all sorts of plugs that don’t correspond with the socket. So to cut the plug and just stuff in the wires is a common thing to see around here.

A Man’s World

The men in the workshop said that I didn’t understand how these things work – which was absolutely true. According to them a woman shouldn’t be in a workshop; it’s a man’s world.

This sentiment was rubbed in each time I dropped by during that first couple of weeks to see how things were going, to do my share in archiving or to bring something to eat. However, the time of accepting this was over and my first job is to make a time schedule.

Cutting by hand. No guillotine nor any folding or bending machinery.

Our Biggest Mistake in the Land Cruiser Restoration

A massive, recurring disagreement and discussion was the coating of the bodywork with decent anti-rust protection. It turned out that such a product didn’t exist in La Paz, even though Don Edwin had said beforehand it did. Nor was there a system to remove the rust from the chassis by sandblasting or acid dipping.

Coen offered all kinds of super creative solutions (as he spotted a sandblasting gun in a shop downtown) but Don Edwin didn’t want to improvise in any way.

Extra reinforcements in strange shapes. That diagonal piece is to make sure that the mud protectors we bought in Buenos Aires will fit again.

The air on the Bolivian high plains is dry and cars don’t rust. If we learned one thing, it’s that La Paz is not the place to rebuild an overland vehicle with which you plan to drive through jungles and on beaches (take note, fellow overlanders!). But the Land Cruiser was in 1,000+ pieces and we were at the point of no return.

When Coen entered the garage one morning, Esteban was applying a thin layer of varnish to the tub straight onto the metal, the so-called anti-rust product. Coen exploded, demanding he removed it and applied something solid, as promised. Esteban was offended because Coen criticized his work and threatened to give up. Don Edwin was furious with Coen because he became involved. And on it went.

Cultural Differences - when is good good enough?
The beams under our feet were gone and so were the cushions that go between the floor and the frame.

It was impossible for these people to understand what kind of life we led and that we therefore set different requirements than other customers. We thought that we had explained all that in detail beforehand and that Don Edwin had agreed. Clearly not.

The amount of paint that should be applied to each part was a recurring topic of discussion and argument. We had to fight for each brush stroke of paint.

Neither Don Edwin or the mechanics understood our nagging about getting this proper anti-rust layer before any painting was done.

“My customers never complain,” Don Edwin argued.

“When your customer isn’t satisfied, he can come back,” Coen reasoned. “However, in a couple of months I will be in the Brazilian rainforest, where it is incredibly humid, speeding up the rust formation. By the same token, if the Land Cruiser gets other problems, I can’t return to you to complain about them but will have to fix them myself,” Coen explained time and time again when Don Edwin accused him of nagging.

Because of the great heat produced by oxygen welding, everything gets warped. But chain and choke become very handy in restraining the movement of the tub.

Day 64 – Cultural Differences in Communication

Replacing and painting woodwork on the inside of the Land Cruiser was my job. Don Edwin offered to take me to a carpenter. It was a good time to have a conversation. I explained that Coen was a demanding person and that he could express his dissatisfaction in an unkind way, but that at the same time I felt that he, Don Edwin, had made many promises he was not keeping.

I explained how he had promised to look for a frame, an old jeep for parts, and a carrier for the spare wheel, but that none of that happened. That Coen and I lost valuable time on buying parts and products because he never made sure that whatever was needed had been bought in time.

Woodwork to attach the insulation walls to.

All in all, our conversation was more like two monologues than a dialogue. The depth of the gap between our two worlds became clear when he expressed, “You have to let us work our way. You will soon have a great car that will last five years.”

It was clear that he meant that in a positive sense.

“What! 5 years!

It is not the intention to do such a restoration again in 5 years,” I exclaimed. “For us, quality means a service life of at least 10 years.”

No wonder our expectations lay so far apart.

Unfortunately, this insight didn’t improve matters, because you can’t just change a working mentality. During our talks I also, once more, realized how Don Edwin was an optimistic spirit full of grand ideas, but primarily thought in terms of the future.

Karin-Marijke found a good upholsterer and went with him to visit various leather shops to see what the market had in terms of quality and color. She bought a nice beige that matches the car color and I am hoping to make the seats duo colored with a darker mocca color so that would really make the seats distinct.

“We can put Trespa plates (a type of high-pressure laminate (HPL)) in the rear so you won’t have rust anymore,” he said out of the blue in the middle of the conversation we were having.

Fantastic promises but I already knew that Coen and I would continue to be the ones who succeeded in finding parts, solutions, and everything else.

There were so many things I wanted to say. I understood that he felt we should have faith, but I also understand that Coen didn’t have that (neither did I), the anti-rust layer being just one example. But for the sake of the working atmosphere, I stopped spewing my bile and said that we were satisfied with Esteban’s work, which was true.

The sidewall is warped pretty bad, and heavy tools must be used to get the whole back into shape. Alex is assisting.

A Compression Test at High Altitudes

Somewhere, in between all that other work, the men said that the engine needed to be tested, which I didn’t understand (or agree with). The engine worked perfectly. But hey, as a woman in this men’s world that opinion had no value whatsoever and so they were going to test the engine.

However, they didn’t follow the official timer system from Toyota because the engine had been taken out of the engine bay. As a result it was not connected to timers, relays and voltage regulator that normally ensures that the correct voltage is being used.

Engine Testing, Land Cruiser Restoration in La Paz (©Coen Wubbels)
Getting the engine unstuck from the gearbox was the biggest challenge. Moreover when the exhaust was still attached to the engine as we could not got two nuts of the pipe. While pulling and pushing we managed to ruin a pretty good engine mount [the fifth in three years] and were surprised when we needed to take the oil filter off because of the exhaust sitting in the way.

Ceasar, the so-called expert in this field in La Paz who had been hired for this job, decided to connect the 24-volt directly to the glow plugs.

No hay problema,” he said. Of course not.

Only weeks later we would discover that two original Toyota spark plugs had gotten burned as a result of this action. We replaced them with ‘original’ spark plugs from Bolivian soil – that means fake. A few months later that would have dramatic consequences. In the middle of a busy highway in Northeast Brazil one of them exploded, leaving us with a terrible loud machine-gun like engine while following the chairman of the Toyoteiros to a charity rally.

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The compression on the number two cylinder shows a little weak on the first try. On the second try it did a little better, but still under 20 which it said to be the limit.

The compression test gave a grave deviation from the standard value.

I didn’t believe the results; after all, the engine worked just. But hey, who am I, the woman here?

“Leave it alone,” I shouted once more – a lonely voice in the desert.

Fortunately, at least Coen wondered whether the deviation was due to the fact that the test was carried out at an altitude of 4,000 meters. He asked several mechanics and garage owners but all said this to be irrelevant.

Coen, however, remained unconvinced and asked his friend Google. Here Coen found his answer, “There is a 1% loss for every 100 meters of height.” This corresponded exactly to the deviation found during the measurement! Hurray.

Cultural Differences - when is good good enough?

Day 67 – Tension Increases

“I need more paint,” Esteban told me one morning the second I walked in. “But Don Edwin says he has no money.”

Don Edwin had just arrived and casually mentioned that I had to pay for paint and salaries. I pointed out that we had a contract with a fine clause. That I had no confidence that he was ever going to pay me that fine and for that reason I wasn’t going to pay the last 1000 dollars until all work had been finished.

“The boys don’t work for nothing, and neither do I,” he responded and walked away.

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I reassured Esteban that, of course, he was going to get his salary but explained that I also had to be able to put pressure on Don Edwin.

“What does that paint cost?” I asked Esteban.

“100 bolivianos for 2 pots.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. After more than ten weeks of work (and having paid 1500 dollars) only the tub was finished and a start had been made with the chassis. Around me stood side panels with hand-sized holes, a completely rusted gutter and bonnet, millions of other parts that needed to be worked on and in two weeks the contract would expire.

This man had got to be kidding (but wasn’t). With all the tension and time pressure there was, Don Edwin could not advance 100 bolivianos (12 US dollars)?!

Cultural Differences - when is good good enough?
A thick orange protective layer of paint is awaiting its rubbery spay protection. We are trying different stuffs to see how it holds.

Customers, not Friends

We were not living in two different cultures. Call it two unique universes. Our way of working together had all the appearances of a board game of Stratego, which brought none of us any joy. I decided to let the matter of the paint rest and talked with Esteban and Simon.

What parts were finished, what needed to be done and when. It was part of my daily rounds. I enjoyed their company and we got along quite well. I knew they had to follow Don Edwin’s orders and didn’t always agree with his ideas either.

Car Repairs in La Paz, Bolivia (©Coen Wubbels)
Simon is applying the asphaltic protection layer on the bottom of the tub.

Simultaneously I felt we would never be friends. They were the workers, we the customers. This was particularly hard on Coen. After dozens of workshops in some thirty countries where he always made friends with mechanics, this was the first place where he couldn’t cross that invisible but very present barrier.

As Coen explained, “They will never share, which is what is so strange and unusual for me. In Asia the mechanics often asked me to join them for lunch. In Brazil and Paraguay I drank ‘mate’ (herb tea) or coffee with them or I had to stay for a BBQ. Here, on the other hand, I’ve never been asked to join them.”

I could see he was hurt. There was no team spirit in this workshop.

The time to try to solve problems in a friendly manner and to maintain a good working atmosphere was over. During a sleepless night I listed all issues that needed to be tackled and braced myself for a serious conversation with Don Edwin.

Here’s Part 3

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Fuel Up

Thank you to those who bought us a couple of liters of diesel to support our journey and/or website.

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2 thoughts on “The Land Cruiser Restoration in Bolivia (2) – Cultural Differences, Car Welding and Engine Testing”

  1. The underlaying frustration, day in day out, in your report reminds me of our truck change over in Germany. You see, it can happen in so-called civilised countries too! Even without language barriers.
    Our job should have been much more straightforward. But the disorganised junior boss made every step a really drawn out painful process.
    At one stage we were told off for “costing them money” because our truck was blocking one pit. That was the same week the truck had gone in on Monday for a fluid changes (engine, gearbox, and rear diff). The same day all fluids were drained, the gearbox and the differential refilled. Then nothing happened the rest of the week because they claimed to have more important work. Not a single drop of oil had gone back into the engine…
    On Thursday the same week the pre-booked crane arrived to take the camper box off our old truck. We had to put it temporarily into blocks (and pay later as second time for the crane, roughly €350 each time). During this process the “well organised” junior boss had the audacity to ask me, fully seriously, why we didn’t put the camper box straight onto the new truck! Well, because that truck couldn’t be moved because it had no oil in the engine (dickhead!).
    And so it went on every week – for 10 frustrating weeks!

    • Thank you for sharing your story. Bad stuff can happen everywhere. 10 weeks is a long time! I agree with you and therefore mentioned at the beginning of part 1 that this is not the default working system in either Bolivia or South America. We have many good experiences in workshops. And I think one of the things that made it so frustrating here that we never got to understand why happened what happened, like Coen not really being accepted by the mechanics (nor I, for that matter). Don Edwin isn’t stupid; he was running a succesful tire-alignment shop in the front. How that was possible considering how he worked with us, is beyond me. And, as said in this story, there are always 2 parties. We had no clue what we were doing either and, as said here, simply shouldn’t have done the overhaul in La Paz to begin with because of that non-rust issue.
      Oh well, we all learn and move on. But some experiences in life do have a deep impact and this is one of them.


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