By Tom Eck
It was foolish to ignore the subtle but assertive grinding noise under the hood of my 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee, now pushing 185,000 miles. Especially when I knew I was facing a possible two-hour wait at the San Ysidro border crossing into the United States. But it was sheer folly to face that crossing with only two dollars in my wallet. Perhaps, the carefree style of living in the near perfect climate and idyllic coastal setting that is Baja California Norte had lulled me into a sense of manana so characteristic of many ex-pats who have left behind the hectic world north of the border.
Nevertheless, I drove to Tijuana from my home in Bajamar fat, dumb and reasonably happy. Normally, my wife, Margarita, accompanies me. As a Mexicana, she speaks fluent Spanish and has that friendly face that puts everyone at ease, making them want to reciprocate her affability. But this was a quick business trip and she stayed behind, leaving me to my own devices with my limited “survival Spanish”. Besides, I was flying from San Diego to Salt Lake City. How much Spanish did I need to know?
The border crossing was unusually heavy for a Thursday at 1:00 p.m. It was a pleasant day, however, so I turned off the air conditioner, rolled down my windows and sat back in my car to listen to 104.9, the classic music station based in Tijuana. The crawling cars, together with sounds of vendors plying their wares --from burritos to statues of the Madonna--fused with the music to create a dreamscape of humanity on a journey to nowhere.
I never cease to be amazed at the hordes of entrepreneurs, young and old, trying to survive on what they can sell to hungry, thirsty and frustrated motorists who inch through the parking lot that falsely advertises itself as a gateway into the United States. I suppose that the overzealous U.S. border guards, whose misguided sense of self importance as saviors of the U.S. populace, believe that they are helping. But I wonder if the toll in gasoline consumption, wear and tear on the waiting cars, and the frustration of both drivers and passengers is really outweighed by the rare capture of a supposed transgressor of the myriad of federal laws.
After about 45 minutes of crawling, a young girl approached the passenger side of my car holding a long black object.
“No, senorita. No quiero nada,”I said in the polite but firm voice I use on most vendors.
But she continued to approach, replying in perfect English, “Sir, this fell off your car.”
I looked closer and saw that it was a serpentine belt –the one that drives my air conditioner, water pump, power steering and alternator. I glanced at my gauges and saw that the car temperature was rapidly rising and my power steering was inoperative.
Quickly, and from nowhere, two vendors came running over.
“You must turn off your car,” urged the smaller one, no taller than 4’’10”.
“But I am in the center lane of a five-lane parking lot. What can I do?”
“We can help you out”, said the larger one, about 5 feet even, as he immediately stepped behind my car to divert the cars inching toward me.
Great, I thought. Cars will be honking, people cursing and I will be stuck here all night! Where am I going to find a tow truck and how will one even get here in this mess? What a nightmare!
Suddenly, my self-pity was interrupted by yet a third Mexican, also small, looking not unlike one of the Indian tribal people I had seen in documentaries of the Amazon natives, but, of course, with more clothing.
“If you get in your car, we can push you to the side under the bridge”, he said in English good enough for me to understand. I saw a spot about 150 yards away and nodded. Then first two began pushing the car uphill and backwards while the third deftly directed traffic around me. Not one driver honked or cursed.
Amazing, I thought, as the two gnomes continued to push, and I struggled to steer without the aid of power steering. Within five or six minutes, we were under a bridge on a street that had apparently been closed off. It was eerily isolated, but nonetheless a place where I could rest without blocking traffic. The men were panting heavily.
“How will I get a tow truck here?” I asked.
The smallest of the little men, none more than 25 years old, spoke up.
“I can fix this for you,” he said with a questionable air of confidence.
“How? This belt cannot be fixed. It has snapped, roto.”
“I can get you a new one. But I need five hundred pesos.”
Since I had just replaced the belt in Houston less than a year ago, I knew the amount seemed suspiciously low. Where and how could he get me the belt I needed?
“I don’t have five hundred pesos. Look in my wallet, Ihave only two dollars. You fix it and then we will go to an ATM and I will pay you.”
“No, I need the pesos to buy the bandolera. We can go to an ATM in the casino over there.”
I looked to where he was pointing. It was about a half mile away and I would have to leave my car with my luggage and lap top. It would be at the mercy of the honesty of the two others lurking around. Even though I would lock it, a good thief could break into it and strip in no time. The area was isolated enough so that no one would really pay attention, let alone care. Yet, what choice did I have?
“Como se llama?” I asked him, studying him intently. He did not wither under my stare.
“Vamanos, Miguel,” I said, and we began a brisk walk towards the casino. We passed a hundred vendors, some with carts, some in makeshift tent booths, some just walking. The smell of the cooking food was incredible. A potpourri of meats and spices wafted through the air with just enough intensity to overwhelm the exhaust fumes of that day’s portion of the 47 million souls who cross into San Ysidro each year. I promised myself that on another day I would stop and partake of the wonderful fare concocted under almost primitive conditions.
When we arrived at the casino, I approached the ATM. It was out of money. Miguel asked several others where another ATM was, but the answer was the same. “El Banco.”
“We must take a taxi,” Miguel said, “There is no bank we can walk to.”
“I have no money; will the taxi driver wait?”
“I will take care of it,” he said as he whistled for a nearby waiting cab.
The oldest, most dilapidated cab in the line lurched forward. The driver appeared to be in no better condition than the cab –and a day older than God. I hoped we would not have to drive him to the hospital. Miguel handed him five dollars and told him to go the nearest bank.
The midday traffic downtown traffic was not unlike what I had experienced in New York. Twenty minutes later we arrived at Banamex about only a mile from where we had started.
All this time, I continued to wonder what was going on with my car. I was beyond worrying. More curiosity--as if I were just being swept up in the day’s events-- a mere bystander in this pandemonium of humanity that was the Tijuana border.
Once inside, I approached an ATM and inserted my card. Card cannot be read, the screen boldly displayed in both English and Spanish. I tried again. Same result. A third time. Same result. I could see the waiting taxi driver and Miguel looking at me with suspicion. I didn’t even want to think what would happen if I couldn’t get the money. The fourth time was the charm.
Maybe that’s the magic number in Mexico. Maybe even for marriages. Out came the precious effectivo—one thousand pesos –-enough to see if I was going to be a victim or an astounded gringo. In less than two hours, I would find out….
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With the pesos in my hand, I returned to the taxi. The decrepit driver deftly maneuvered his dilapidated taxi though the Tijuana streets, only occasionally hitting the potholes pocking our route. The multitude of dents on the car, held together by rust and faded paint, warned both drivers and pedestrians alike that this taxi was not a stranger to asserting itself in the never-ending battle to make it from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This time it took only ten minutes to arrive back at the taxi station near the border.
As we exited the car, the driver blurted out, “No tip?”
I started to reach into my wallet to give him one of my two last U.S. dollars, but Miguel said something in Spanish to him. He quickly withdrew his outstretched hand and drove off.
“I told him he had the tip from me. Five dollars was enough.”
I smiled and thanked him. I hoped I wasn’t being set up.
As we walked back through the maze of vendors, the curiosity about my car morphed into anxiety. I had been gone over a half an hour. If it weren’t stolen or broken into, maybe it had been towed. I tried to ignore the uneasiness, telling myself that there was nothing more I could have done under the circumstances. My pep talk didn’t help. We picked our way through five lines of motorists crawling towards the U.S. border stations, Miguel more skillfully than I.
At first, I was amazed that these motorists gave so much deference to the pedestrian, but then I realized that they weren’t really going anywhere fast, so a slight pause as they crept along was not a big deal. The border crossing forces patience upon everyone without exemption.
As I slipped though the last line of cars and climbed onto a grassy barrier, there it was--my Jeep still parked in the shade of the overcrossing--with the other two Mexican vendors standing near it. Nothing had been touched.
“We watch your car,” said the shorter of the two who told me his name was Pepe.
“Thank you, Pepe,” I said, knowing that I would have to pay him something later. But well worth it.
I opened the hood of the Jeep. It was now cool enough to begin work.
“I need 500 pesos to buy the bandelero,” Miguel reminded me.
“How are you going to get it-- and where?” I asked.
“I take my bicycle into town.”
Skeptical, but having no other alternative at this point, I handed him the money.
“I will be back in treintaminutos, “he said, as he rode off suspiciously quickly with the broken belt in his hand.
“Is he going to come back?” I asked Pepe, resigned to having lost the money.
“Si, he is mi familia. He will be back and he will fix the car.”
I wasn’t reassured.
Seconds later, fourth man approached and began to look under the hood. I said nothing to him, since my stalled car had drawn the attention of many vendors who came and stared at the engine, then walked away, as if to say, “You are in a heap of trouble.” But this stranger stayed a little longer and then put his fingers on a pulley. Then he motioned to me.
“Senor, come here.”
I walked to the car.
“Mira,” he said, as he tried to turn the pulley. I could see that it had frozen from wear. That was the grinding sound I had heard, but ignored. The frozen pulley was the reason the new belt had snapped.
“This must be fixed.”
I knew he was right. If the new belt were installed, the frozen pulley would overheat the belt causing it to break in mere minutes. It would do no good the install the belt without a new pulley. I silently cursed in five languages.
“I can fix it,” he said.
“I will need to buy a new one. It will cost 300 pesos.”
Great, I thought, another 300 pesos-- probably gone forever. I looked at him. He was a bit older than the others, probably thirty, skin darkened by hours in the sun plying his wares to the captive audience of border crossers. Much taller and bulkier. Is this guy also a mechanic or just a conman? Still, he had found the defective pulley, when my high paid mechanic from Houston had not.
“Como se llama, senor?” I asked.
“Eduardo, where can you find a pulley for this car?”
“I know where to get it. I will bring the recibo.”
“Well, I know it has to be fixed,” I muttered.
He opened a tool case of used, but well preserved, Craftsmen socket wrenches and, after considerable effort, to my amazement, managed to extract the pulley without having to remove the radiator.
I handed him the money. He confirmed the make and model of the car and rode off on his bicycle with the pulley in his hand.
“I will be back in diez minutos”, he yelled as he rode off.
I was beginning to wonder whether the word “bobo” was emblazoned on my forehead. I looked in my sideview mirror. No, nothing on my forehead that I could see. Maybe the others had better vision. I glanced at Pepe who was still there, dutifully waiting.
“Is Eduardo going to come back? I asked.
“Si, senor”, he assured me, “He is mi primo.”
I hope they’re not all in this together. It was a sobering, yet not an unreasonable assessment of what had befallen me.
Forty minutes passed and no sign of either Miguel or Eduardo. I looked at Pepe. He seemed unconcerned. Eduardo had left his tools, which I knew were more valuable than the 300 pesos I had given him. That gave me some degree of comfort. Yet, I would be no match for the several men standing around if they decided to retrieve Eduardo’s tools—especially when my car was not running.
Each minute I waited grew longer. Suddenly, from nowhere, it seemed, Miguel rode up on his bike with a serpentine belt in his hand. One down and one to go. I hoped that my look of relief was, if noticed, not insulting. He showed me the new belt and handed me the receipt and my change.
Miguel opened Eduardo’s tool case and loosened a belt guide. When Pepe and I told him about the pulley, he stopped working and patiently waited for Eduardo. Several others gathered around the car and all began a spirited but friendly conversation, sprinkled with laughter, devoid of any tension. No one, except me, seemed concerned about anything. If this car weren’t fixed today I would miss my early morning flight tomorrow and face another series of issues, including the draconian airfare charges imposed upon passengers who have the audacity to miss flights.
Then, I saw Eduardo snaking through the traffic on his bike. In his left hand was a small box, presumably housing the precious pulley. He brought box to me, presented the receipt and change, telling me that he had to go to three places. Then, without further comment to anyone, he began to install the new pulley.
Within minutes he finished, and beckoned Miguel to complete the installation of the belt. Not wishing to appear as an overbearing customer breathing down the neck of those helping, I talked to Pepe, all the while glancing at Miguel working. He looked like a pro and quickly completed his task. He then asked me to start the car to check what he had done.
My Jeep started up without any evidence of the problems of two hours past. He asked me to turn it off, tweaked a few pulleys and said, “Listo, senor. We are finished.” I checked the belt for myself and could see that it had been masterfully installed. Just the right tension. But just in case, I restarted the engine and let it run. No more grinding sound. The temperature gauge was back to normal, but I knew I would need to replace the coolant my radiator had lost when it had boiled over from overheating.
As if he had read my mind, Pepe announced that he would get me some water. In less than two minutes he returned with plastic gallon jug filled with cloudy water. It was more than needed.
I continued to let the car run a sour little group discussed compensation for those who had helped –Pepe, Miguel, Eduardo and Raul-- who never said much-- but had helped push the car out of the busy traffic. I never did again see the girl who had brought me the belt. Ironically, or perhaps by design, the balance of my 1000 pesos, which included the change that both Eduardo and Miguel had returned to me, was enough to satisfy the men.
I thanked them, drove away and maneuvered my Jeep into the border crossing lanes, thankful that I had broken down in Mexico and not a few miles north on I-5 where both the cost of the repair, frustration and delay would have been at least three times as much.
Sure, the Mexchanics made a few bucks. Very few. But they were there when I needed help and didn’t take advantage of me. Perhaps I was lucky. But based upon my experience here in Mexico, they were no different from the vast majority of the Mexicans I have met —friendly, hard-working, and honest---just trying to get by the best they can.