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Getting Your Car Fixed

Larry Landwehr

April and May were hot and dry. This year, like every year, the city government of Guadalajara decreed rolling water dryouts (my own term) because of the lack of rain. One day out of every two weeks or so, they shut off the water to a section of the city. Luckily this has very little effect on us because of the reservoir under our driveway and the tinaco on our roof.

Guadalajara gets it’s water from Lake Chapala, and the lake is getting smaller every year. There are lots of houses for sale in the town of Chapala because people are afraid that the lake is going to completely dry up. The problem is exacerbated because of politics and a lack of money. Towns upstream of Guadalajara on the river that feeds Lake Chapala take what they want ­ leaving little water to feed the lake. Then you have farmers using the water to irrigate plants. It wouldn’t be so bad if they used efficient methods like they do in Israel, but they don’t. And, to top off the list of Lake Chapala’s woes, the whole water system loses great amounts of water ­ estimates are that Mexico City loses 50% of its water due to leaks in a system that has parts dating back to the Aztecs.

The government thinks that the only solution is to privatize the water system. They propose that private companies invest in the infrastructure necessary to upgrade the system. Why private companies? Because the government doesn’t have the money. This is a legacy of the thieving politicians who constantly steal from the public treasury. Their thefts have cost Mexico a lot. I think one of the biggest costs is how it has affected Mexican thinking.

Mexicans do not, I think, believe in the common good. More accurately, I think they do not have any faith in it. That is why there is no investment in the county’s infrastructure beyond what is absolutely necessary for the country to creak along. Faith is necessary for a government to function. Faith is what the politicians stole. Faith is what the politicians have to give back. In Mexico, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Mary has been gone for a month now on business back in the States. I’ve had to deal with chores that she used to do like paying utility bills, shopping, and cooking (thank heaven for instant soup). One of the biggest vexations has been my car. A hose on the power steering unit cracked just before Mary left and that had to be fixed. Then a wheel bearing started acting up. Then a mount point for one of the front struts broke (damn topes) and the whole front end of the car drooped down. It took visits to two different garages to get all that fixed.

One of the visits was interesting because I had two new tires put on the car and they needed to be balanced. The two methods that I’ve seen used in the US both require that the tire be removed from the car to balance it. This garage had a gadget that consisted of an electric motor connected to an iron wheel that looked kind of like how a power takeoff on a tractor looks. My car was jacked up and this contraption was shoved against one of the tires. A flip of the switch, and the motor started spinning the iron wheel, which started the tire spinning.

Some kind of a balance gadget had been clipped to the tire previously and by fooling with it as the tire spun; the mechanic was able to figure out where weights should be attached to balance the tire. For the wheels powered by the drive train, the iron wheel gadget wasn’t even necessary. They just jacked up the car and revved up the engine. I thought, "Wow this gadget is great - cheap and easy to use".

There was only one small flaw in this system. The mechanic pointed up to the tin roof and pointed out about twenty holes in the roof. After putting a weight onto a wheel, the tire had to be re-spun to make sure the tire was balanced. The holes in the roof were from weights that had come loose and ripped right through the roof! Since only weights in a 90-degree arc would hit the roof, the total number of weights that had come loose would be four times the number of holes in the roof, so about eighty weights had flown through the air with the power of a bullet. No, in the litigious US, this system was not quite ready for prime time.

Shortly after getting the car back from the garages, it started overheating because the radiator cooling fans wouldn’t turn on. Then they mysteriously started working again, but a red light with the word 'Batt' came on. The brakes started getting very spongy and my new tires rubbed against the car when I turned too sharply. I knew when I was whipped, so I had one of my bilingual friends call a garage with experience in electrical problems and make an appointment.

Yesterday my bilingual Mexican friend and I went to keep the appointment. The trip turned into a seven-hour odyssey. It started pleasantly enough. We found the garage fairly easily, having to ask for directions only once. The mechanic told us that they would have the car diagnosed in an hour and a half, so my friend and I went to a nearby mall where my friend had his first-ever meal of Chinese food, which he liked. We wandered into a department store to kill time by looking at furniture. A ceiling light bulb exploded just as I walked underneath it. The clerks thought my ducking down was rather amusing.

We went back to the garage where the mechanic told us that the power steering unit was leaking fluid onto a bunch of wires and shorting them out. He also said that my radiator cap was defective and that all my transmission seals needed to be replaced. I replied that all of the seals had been replaced just a week previously. The guy still insisted that they needed to be replaced. He said all the work could be done for 1000 pesos, or about $100. He also said that they would inspect the car for more problems.

One of the nice things about using a translator is that while the other guy is speaking to your translator, you get a chance to closely observe his body language. I didn’t like what I was seeing. The guy came on just a little too aggressively. I figured that he had me pegged as a typical stupid gringo with more money than sense. There was no friendliness there, something which I have come to expect from Mexicans. I got the feeling that he had contempt for my friend and I, so I asked my friend in English if we should just leave. He replied that he was getting the same vibes as me and we agreed that we should leave. Surprisingly they let us leave without demanding any money.

We headed back across town to the small garage where the mechanics had originally worked on the power steering. After a short wait they inspected the car and advised us to go to a place where they washed motors. Their directions were good and we quickly found the place. There was an hour wait since we were in the middle of Mexico’s two-hour lunch break, so we walked to a pharmacy where we bought a couple of drinks. When we came back, I saw the car engine looked like new, but I also saw that all the oil, dirt, and grease was dripping down into a sewer grating ­ no environmental concerns here.

We headed back to the garage we had just come from. After a half hour wait, one of the mechanics had me turn the steering wheel while he watched the power steering unit. There was no leak. I pointed out to him that the red light was on, so he fetched a hygrometer, popped off the cell covers and showed us that the specific gravity was way down. He indicated that the battery was bad. I tried to tell him that the low readings might be caused by the battery being undercharged, but alas, it was beyond the powers of my friend’s translating abilities and I wasn’t very sure of my point, so I figuratively threw up my hands and gave the ok for a new battery.

After another half hour, the battery was finally installed (it was ridiculous how much stuff had to be removed to get the battery out). I started the car and pointed out that the light was still balefully glowing. Why I didn’t insist that the old battery be re-installed, I don’t know, but it had been a long day. When the mechanic suggested an oil change, I figured why the hell not ­ might as well get one useful thing accomplished.

After we got back to my friend’s house, he made an appointment with a car dealership for the next day. I figured that I could get all my car problems fixed in one place at a dealership instead of running from one mechanic to another. The appointment was for 1:00 pm.

The next morning I woke up at 12:20 pm (I like to stay up late and the electricity fails so often that I don’t bother using an alarm clock), dressed as rapidly as possible and headed over to the house of my translator. He wasn’t home, but my other friend Harry was there, so we set out for the dealership.

I had carefully studied the map the day before, but we couldn’t find the place. We went from one side of town to the other and back again looking for the dealership. We were way late, but fortunately we were in Mexico where that doesn’t matter very much.

Finally I studied the map again. One of the roads that we had passed was on the map. Our target was a short distance beyond that. So we headed back out of town. We got to our marker road and when we had traveled what I felt was the appropriate distance, I exited onto a side road. Once we were off the main road, we could see that the side road dead-ended in a short distance.

We couldn’t back up to get back on the main road, so I eyeballed the dirt shoulder that sloped up to the main road. Tire tracks indicated that other cars had taken that route, so I waited for a break in the heavy traffic, and when one came I floored the accelerator. We shot up the embankment rocking from side to side until we reached the pavement and joined the flow of traffic. I consider myself an honorary Mexican driver.

We pulled into a Pemex gas station (the only kind there is in Mexico) and asked a couple of guys in our broken Spanish if they knew the location of the road we were looking for. One of them said something about "abajo", but we couldn’t understand much more than that. Then he waved his arm in a circle and pointed off in a certain direction.

We thanked them, got back in the car, and got onto the road again. Part of the road forked off in a descending grade, so remembering the word "abajo" which means "lower" I took the fork. Following the road, we circled around like the guy had motioned. Suddenly Harry yelled out "Revolución!" which was the name of the road we were looking for. A quarter of a mile further on we spotted the name of the dealership. All right!

I pulled the car into the dealership where we tried to explain the numerous problems the car had. Finally one guy with very limited English was located and we explained things as best we could, using a mixture of Spanish and English. The guy went away, and after talking with his boss, returned to announce that his boss would not work on our car because they had too much other work.

Harry started going ballistic which is not good for someone with heart problems, but I told him to calm down, that there was obviously some kind of translation problem. Finally we came to realize that they thought we expected to have the car repaired immediately ­ an attitude that unfortunately is much too common in gringos.

We explained that we were quite willing to leave the car for as long as necessary. They checked, and found that they did not have a new alternator in stock. They offered to order one from the US, but Harry wasn’t having any of that.

"That could take weeks," he said. I knew he was right.

The ever-helpful Mexicans then offered to call other dealerships to see if they could find someone who had the alternator in stock. After a few calls they found someone and wrote down what seemed to me to be some pretty vague directions on how to get there. After shaking hands (something that Mexicans do a lot of, but they shake in a very limp fashion), and smiles all around, Harry and I got back in the car and traveled back across town.

When we got near to where the dealership was supposed to be, I pulled off onto a frontage road and stopped at a car parts shop to ask for directions. I figured that with the shop being in a related business, the chances were high that I could get good directions.

Nobody responded positively to my "¿ Hablas Ingles?", so I pointed to the name of the company and asked them where it was. They said something about "on the left" and something about a glorieta. Feeling that we were on the verge of success I sauntered back to the car and we drove further along.

At the next intersection, ignoring the word 'glorieta', I turned left. We immediately became engulfed in some sort of a vegetable market. After driving a good half-mile, I stopped alongside a pedestrian that Harry quizzed for directions, but with no luck. At a stop sign Harry questioned a guy on a bicycle who said the dealership was back on the road we had left, so we turned around.

The traffic was pretty intense in the market area and at one point a truck ahead of us suddenly pulled toward the side of the road and abruptly stopped. I quickly jerked the car to the left, but the tail end of the truck came so close to Harry’s window that he reflexively ducked away from it.

A short distance ahead we had to wait at a red light. There was a truck to our left blocking our view. The light turned green and the truck started moving. I started to accelerate when suddenly the truck stopped. Sensing something wrong, I did too, when suddenly a bus came barreling through the intersection running through a very red light. If I hadn’t stopped, I probably would have been killed by the much heavier bus crashing into my side of the car. I cursed the bus driver, but it was in vain. Harry absolutely refuses to drive in Guadalajara.

We got back on the right road, and sure enough, we soon came to a glorieta. To the left was the sign of the dealership ­ duh.

We pulled into the dealership. I asked the attendant if he spoke English, but he said no. I did my best to explain our car troubles, when suddenly the attendant started using some English. Mexicans appreciate it when you at least try to learn their language ­ not like some gringos in the US who have no sympathy when someone has problems with English.

The attendant checked, and yes, they did have an alternator in stock. This guy with his cell phone, his computer terminal, and his English was a joy to work with. In a few minutes we were shaking hands and preparing to leave the car behind (the dealership’s name is NAOSA and it’s located at the intersection of Mariano Otero and Lazaro Cardenas ­ near the new millennium arches).

I caught us a taxi (which you do by holding your arm up with your index finger extended). The taxi driver didn’t know where our destination was and tried to flag down another taxi for us, but that one already had a passenger. Finally he decided to chance it by having us give him directions. So we drove the streets of Guadalajara with Harry and I both giving him directions ­ driving by committee as it were.

When we neared the area where Harry lived he had the taxi driver deviate from the normal route and we got lost. Having someone who never drives in Guadalajara giving directions was not a good idea. Finally Harry told the taxi driver to take a right turn onto a street that happened to be one-way. Unfortunately it was one-way going the wrong way. Harry muttered, "pardon", as the taxi driver quickly pulled over to the side of the road.

Harry announced that we were within two blocks of where he lived, so he got out to walk home. I shook hands with him and thanked him. Only a true friend would take several hours out of his day to help someone else in a stressful task and never utter the smallest grumble.

I directed the taxi driver to near where Mary and I live. We were only five blocks from Mariano Otero, which is a main street in Guadalajara, and I was able to give him simple directions on how to get back to where he had picked up Harry and me. I did not tip him because I have been told by Mexicans not to do it. They don’t want taxi drivers to come to expect it.

To be continued:

Update: The attendant at the dealership had told me that he would call on Saturday and he did. He said the car would be ready on Monday. He called 5:00 pm on Monday and said the car was ready.

I had a hard time believing how the car looked when I got it. The car had been washed. The interior had been vacuumed. All plastic surfaces in the car had been polished. The freakin’ tires had been polished. All loose objects in the car had been placed in a plastic bag and everything was there. Such over-the-top service! The entire bill was around $380 and $250 of that was for a new alternator. Try getting a deal like that in the United States.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2000 by Larry Landwehr © 2008
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