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Don’t Take a Van Without a Plan

This is what happens when you do

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Photo by Charlie Deets on Unsplash

It’s Friday evening and I feel an itch. Not a regular itch, but an itch for adventure. So I decide to do something fun for the weekend and visit the ‘Three Borders Triangle’, a point where three countries come together: the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

I get up early the next day and head to Belgium, where I first have to pick up some things for my dad. I’m driving a grey Volkswagen van with trailer, and when I arrive at the garage in Belgium I load up and hit the road again. At least I wish, because the van doesn’t start anymore. So far for an adventure..

Fortunately the owner of the garage has a starter battery which I can use to start the van. I leave the trailer at the garage and he gives the battery to me in case the van stalls again when I’m on the road.

Lithuanian truck drivers

And so it happens. After I make a small stop to pee I want to move on, but the van has other plans and stays where it is. The starter battery is empty after we used it at the garage so isn’t of much help.

I see two men talking to each other, next to a truck with license plate from Lithuania. I walk to them and ask with hand gestures if they can start the van. They can, but first I have to push it to the truck. I can’t do this on my own so they help me push and start the van with the use of their own jumper cables. Thank you!

Where is the Netherlands?

I suspect the battery is eating electricity which causes the battery to empty. So I remove the radio from the dashboard and drive on. When I arrive at the Three Borders Triangle I park the van next to the ‘Wilhelminatower’, which is situated on a hill close to the highest point of the Netherlands. When I climb the tower I hear three languages: Dutch, German and Flemish. And then I still miss French, which is spoken here as well. I love this place!

After I come down from the tower I head to Germany, to explore the city of Aachen and the surrounding countryside. And I must say, it looks beautiful over here. When the sun starts to set I realize it’s about time I head back to the bus though. I’m a bit lost so when I see someone walking I approach her and ask how to get to the Netherlands. Translated from improper German to proper English: “Where is the Netherlands?” “You just go straight ahead, there you’ll find the Three Borders Triangle.” “Is the Netherlands over there?” “Well, all three countries are over there, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.” “Oh yes, of course.. Thank you!”

When I arrive back at the tower I dress myself in fresh clothes and start the van. There we go!

Bad Luck

Nope, there we go not.

When I turn the key in the ignition, nothing happens. Please not again.. I turn the key again. No reaction. Dammit, not good. It’s starting to get dark and I’m still a good 200 km away from home.

I ask a few people if they have jumper cables, but nobody has them. There is a restaurant nearby so I go inside and ask the staff. Nobody has cables, but the woman in charge really tries her best to get me some, and even calls a few people. Nobody has them though, so calling roadside assistance seems to be like the best thing to do now.

Roadside Assistance to the rescue, pt. 1

The woman at the other end of the line asks a lot of questions, and I answer them politely. The van is registered in the system, but because my father is the owner and not me, they won’t help me. Bummer.. The woman offers me various memberships so she can send someone, but I refuse. Why would I buy one if I don’t even own a car?

I walk back to the woman of the restaurant and tell her the bad news. Coincidentally there is another employee standing next to her, and he calls some friends to see if they might have some cables. Nobody has them, so he tries to call roadside assistance himself and portrays himself as my father. They believe him and are already on the way. Great!

No rescue this time

I’m waiting in the van until they arrive, and enjoy my prepped-at-home-meal. Then I receive a phone call, from the same woman I spoke to earlier. She found out that it wasn’t my father who called and she canceled. End of story.

I ask in the restaurant if there is a mechanic somewhere but of course they are all closed on Saturday evening. Luckily there is a gas station nearby where I can buy jumper cables. I buy them from there and the woman behind the counter wishes me good luck.

When I get back I receive help from one of the guys from the restaurant. He drives his car to the van, I connect the cables and try to start. No sound. I’ll try again. Nope. Again. Nothing. What’s the matter??

The guy who is helping me out lets me know he has to go back soon, because he is working his shift. I call my dad and he tells me to hit the gas pedal as well. And it works! We both give a sigh of relief, me because I can go home and him because he can go back to the restaurant. When he’s gone I realize I lost my phone, but after a quick prayer I find it laying in the grass. Must have slipped from my hands in the commotion. Let’s go home then!

Dangerous driving

Or not.

The van drives, but the headlights don’t work. Not good, because the way down the hill is completely dark and full of sharp turns. Luckily there is a car driving behind me and I can use his lights to navigate. When I arrive in the village I can see where I’m going, which is good. Unfortunately I can’t indicate to which direction because none of the signals work. The gas station is on the other side of the road, so I use my arm to show that I’m crossing it. After I park the van at the station the engine turns of again.

I fill the tank with gasoline, just to be sure, and head inside. There I’m greeted by the same cashier who wished me luck earlier. “How did it go?” “Well, I managed to start the van and drive down the hill, but now it broke down again..” Because this time I have my own cables I just need someone else’s car to start mine, and I receive help very quickly. We are unable to start the van again though, so we push it to the back of the station and leave it there, for now.

Roadside Assistance to the rescue, pt. 2

Now I’m being forced to buy a membership from roadside assistance, because there is no other option left. The girl who helps me seems to recognize my case, judging her voice, but she is friendly and handles everything correctly. This time, someone is really underway to help me!

The cashier closes the station at 21:00 and I wait outside with a German guy called Peter. He is a German pensioner who moved to Holland ten years ago, but still doesn’t speak a word of Dutch. It seems he likes to hang around at the station and we wait together until the mechanic from roadside assistance arrives.

When the mechanic arrives he quickly finds out the dynamo isn’t working. When this doesn’t work the batteries don’t get charged, which explains why the lights of the van stopped working. He gives me two batteries for the way back and fully charges the battery in the van as well. While it’s being charged the amount of voltage and ampere is shown on the screen. I ask him what it means and he compares it to a water tap. The pressure on the tap is called voltage (volt) and the amount of water is the ampere. Increase the pressure and you’ll increase the volume passing through the tap. So, increase the voltage and you’ll also increase the ampere.

The instructions for the road are: don’t turn of the van, use minimal amounts of lights, no radio and no heater. Clear. I don’t mention the trailer is still in Belgium, and I have to pick it up before I go home.

More dangerous driving

On the way to Belgium I realize I’m not going the same way as I went this morning. Then it was mostly highway and now I’m driving on small roads, passing multiple villages. This all takes a lot longer and I’m driving real fast in order to make it back before midnight. I’m a bit stressed because I still have a long way to go and the man from the garage is expecting me. Luckily after driving for what seems like ages I find the highway. I know the way now and relax a bit.

At the last crossroads before I reach my destination I have to make a left. The light turns green and I start driving. At the same time the cars at the other side start driving as well. They honk their horns and I realize I have made a mistake. It must have been another light that turned green, and not mine. It was probably stress that caused me to misinterpret the light, but it was a dangerous situation nonetheless. Next time I should drive more carefully!

Home Sweet Home

Just before midnight I arrive at the garage. I couple the trailer to the van and give back the battery that the owner gave me 16 hours ago. Two hours more and I will be back home. This time I feel more at ease and I drive more slowly. When I reach home I fall asleep quickly and I dream. I dream about the woman from roadside assistance who didn’t send help to me, about the awkward conversation with the German girl, about all the times the van didn’t start, driving without headlights and through a red light, and all the frustration and stress that I experienced that day.

I also dream about the friendly garage owner who lend me his battery, about the Lithuanian truck drivers who started the van again, about the people from the restaurant who went out of their way to help me, about the friendly cashier and Peter the German pensioner, who kept me company while I waited, and about the guy from roadside assistance who, at last, made sure I could sleep in my own bed that night. Bad things happen, good things as well.

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