Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Good news/bad news: More car talk

The good news is that I now know where you can get a flat tire fixed, or purchase a replacement tire, in Guatemala City at 11:30 pm (there is a 24-hour pinchazo/venta de llantas at the Trebol). The other good news is that if you drive from GC to Antigua after midnight, the trip only takes about 30 minutes as there is no traffic. The bad news is that I had to learn this useful information because I came back from a trip out of the country at 10:30 p.m., to find that I had a flat tire and my spare was also flat.

I had been to Puerto Rico for a conference, and had left my pickup at a parking lot across the street from the airport. This was the place recommended by a shuttle driver who lives in Antigua; although I had only need of his services once, my friend Roselyn, the other Fulbright scholar at UVG, has used him a lot (she doesn't have a car here) and swears by him, so I figured he would know what would be a secure place to leave the car. I decided to bring my car to the airport for two reasons. First, I was teaching on the day of my departure, and there really is no good way to get to my university without a car, nor from the university to the airport. In order for the day's plans to run smoothly, I had to go straight from my class to the airport (as it turned out only 1 of my 3 students showed up that day, but I didn't know that when I purchased the ticket and decided to book a 1:50 p.m. flight so I could teach).  Secondly, I am having a bit of an issue in Antigua regarding parking my car and wasn't sure I could find a place where I could leave it for 5 days (without going into details, I thought I had access to the enclosed driveway in our little complex but the tenants in the big house now claim that the driveway is for their exclusive use, and while they let me keep my car there when I went to Seattle, I didn't want to ask them again 10 days later. They have a Land Rover and although there is space for two cars, one behind the other, they usually just park their car in the middle of the space so there is no room for another car anywhere).  So taking the car to the airport seemed most expedient.

The rear driver's side tire had gotten a flat a couple of weeks ago. When we were at the Programa Maya event on March 22, I think, someone asked to use my car to run an errand, and then told me there was a flat; he went off to get it fixed.  This past Monday, when I went to get my car to go to a meeting at Doña Reyna's house (people from the central office of Ixmukané were coming to distribute the proceeds from egg sales -- the women had had a "productive project" as it is called here with laying hens) the same tire was flat. I cautiously rolled my car through the streets, trying to find a pinchazo (a place that fixes flats). The one near the plaza was not going to open for a while but someone told me there was another one at the entrance to the town, on the Zacualpa side, so I headed there. I decided to purchase a used tire, and obviously in hindsight I didn't pick well. So, new tire installed, I go off to the meeting, then do the rest of what I have to do and end up in Antigua; the next day in and out of Guatemala City for stuff related to my conference, and then Wednesday to the airport and the parking lot recommended by Marcos.

So, return flight was uneventful (thankfully: and Copa serves alcohol and food so I was able to enjoy an itty-bitty glass of red wine; the sandwich was pretty awful, however. It was called chicken but it was a ground chicken meat -- one hopes -- patty, so I just nibbled on the bread; I had purchased a salad in the airport so I was okay). I got my bag, got waved through customs (if they had cared to inspect, they would have found that I had purchased nothing more exciting than a bottle of Barrilitos at the duty-free shop and some dulces típicos) and headed out to the parking lot.  It was dark, so I just got in the pickup and started to move it towards the attendant's booth ... and then heard that unmistakeable sound and felt that unmistakeable sensation of a flat tire. Damn! It was nearly 12. What to do? I don't know Guatemala City at all, really.

Luckily there were other people in the parking lot, a couple of guys. They came around, looked at my car, asked if I had a "repuesto" (spare) and I said I did. They suggested that I move into another spot so that the exit would be clear and they would help me. However, I didn't have a jack. They found another man, who was willing to lend a jack. A third man, who turned out to be an airline employee, came to help out. So the youngest of the three crawled under the truck to place the jack and pump it up. We got the tire off and lowered the spare, only to find that the spare was low in air.  I hadn't used the spare before, so hadn't had the need to check it.

What struck me was the generosity of these men, none of whom knew me: and yes, although I do have my guard up when I travel alone, as an unaccompanied female in a highly macho society with an awfully high incidence of sexual and gender violence, my assessment of these men was that there were genuinely offering to help, no strings attached. And a good thing. I do know how to change a tire, but a pick up is a bit more unwieldy than a compact car, and it was late at night and I had been traveling. Also, I was a stranger, and didn't have the vaguest idea of how to find a repair shop other than to ask people who would be more knowledgeable. We chatted about the car; they asked me several times if it was mine and I assured them it was. I don't think most Guatemalans expect to see a gringa behind the wheel of a Toyota pickup.

The new arrival asked me what I wanted to do: stay in a hotel and then deal with this in the morning? Or find a place that fixed tires. The former might have been the prudent thing to do but I really wanted to get out of GC and back to my own bed.  So, he said he knew a place, but the problem was, how would we get there? He offered to go with me, to take both tires, and then come back and install the tire. This was very generous of him.  He tried calling a friend who was a taxi driver but he (the friend) was just getting off his shift. He then tried to get the number of the yellow cab company. No success. We joked about taking the tires on his motorcycle. Meanwhile a few cabs came by en route to the airport, and eventually we just flagged down a cab, although the men were discussing whether the cabs on the street were reliable or too expensive.  The driver, whose wife and child were in the cab with him -- I used to see that a lot in Cuba, that drivers would have their women with them, maybe because the women wanted to police their men's late-night ramblings -- offered to take us to the pinchazo and back for Q60. At this hour I wasn't going to argue too much so we loaded the tires and ourselves in and set off to Trebol. 

The pinchazo was set in a sliver of an island in an intersection on a broad, and now almost empty, avenue. We pulled in and hopped out and took out the tires. The tire that had been on the car turned out to be unrepairable: once they had pried the rubber tire off, I could see a jagged strip on the inner edge.  That would mean buying another tire. I fumed internally; I had just purchased that tire a week earlier. I said I would take the tire back to bring to the man who sold it to me, even though I didn't think he'd give me a refund. The taxi driver actually joined in the discussion and helped me look at tires; he did a close inspection of the various tires that would fit my truck and showed me how to check. Once the three of us had agreed upon a tire, the driver and my new best friend (his name, I later learned, is Brandy, but I didn't even ask his name until much later in the adventure) argued with the owner of the pinchazo over the price (Guatemalans are much, much better at this than I am, so I left the men to their devices).  He was asking Q225 for the tire; we ended up agreeing on Q200 for the tire and fixing the spare (which just had a small leak, nothing serious). I then realized that I didn't have enough money for the tire and to pay for the parking lot, so I would need to stop at an ATM. There was one, I knew, on Boulevard Liberación at the Shell station right in front of the arcos, the aqueduct that crosses the airport access road.  However, Brandy said that he thought he could get us into the airport; the driver said he would need an extra Q20 if we had to go that way, since it would mean a longer drive.  About 10 minutes later we were able to juggle the three tires and ourselves back into the cab and headed back to the parking lot. 

The two other men who had been helping us earlier were still there; we installed the new tire, secured the space to the underside of the truck and then the lot attendant let me drive to the airport (there is no easy access to the terminal without going down a long, dark block and around a rotary and into the main entrance). It looked dead; the doors were all closed. Brandy said he would be able to get in; what he didn't know was whether I would be allowed in. Brandy knocked at the glass, talked to the guard, and then waved me in. We walked through the empty room, all the check-in desks empty, and around the cash exchange table to find two ATMS that I had never seen before (I've never walked around that side; the door leading to the gates is on the left hand side of the check-in area). I retrieved some cash and then we went back and I paid the parking lot fee.  I wanted to thank Brandy; offering him cash seemed tacky so I suggested that I would take him out for a drink. That meant another adventure -- driving around on Guatemala City late at night on Monday of Holy Week (now actually Tuesday, as it was just after midnight). We drove up 7a Avenida (Septima or Seventh) and everything was dark; we then went onto the other side of La Reforma and into the Zona Viva (the "Alive Zone" literally) and found one street with a few bars and a loud discotheque. The bartender said they were closing in half an hour, which was fine by me, so we ordered drinks and chatted. My savior, whose name I now learned, is a young man (I didn't ask his age; probably early to mid-20s) from the area around Escuintla. He has been working for American for 2 years; sometimes works in the airport, sometimes gets to go on flights as well. Probably a highly coveted job in Guatemala where few people have the opportunity to travel.  I asked what he wanted; he said he would have what I was drinking. The bar didn't have wine (not a big surprise) so I ordered an añejo and some bottled water (most bars don't just give you glasses of water, unlike in the U.S.). The añejos were expensive, about Q65 a glass, but given that this man, who had never seen me before, was willing to drive around GC at midnight to help me buy a tire and then install it, it seemed appropriate to splurge. He told me a little about his family (in response to my questions; he didn't just start blabbing): three brothers, two sisters. Most of the family is back home, near Escuintla; he and one brother are in GC. No, he wasn't going to go home for Easter; he didn't have the whole week off and traveling back and forth would be too time consuming.

The bar was across the street from a disco with loud blaring music, and we watched with some amusement as some very drunk women dressed in tight clothing and high heels, upon which they could barely balance, tried to convince the bouncer to let them in. Two other women, in tight short dresses and even higher heels, sauntered down the block and then back. We watched the drama of the drunk women and the bouncers for a while; we couldn't hear what they were saying but could read their body gestures. After about 10 minutes the women gave up and half-staggered back down the block.

At about 12:50 the bartenders started to pack up the chairs on the sidewalk (we were the only patrons, by the way) and close up shop.

I took Brandy back to the parking lot where he had left his motorcycle (I had to head back in that direction anyhow) and then headed for Antigua. I know it is generally not recommended to drive solo on highways in Guatemala at night, especially not this late (it was now 1 a.m.), but I didn't really have much choice. The roads were nearly empty; just enough other vehicles that I didn't feel completely alone. Antigua is the center of Holy Week festivities: all week long there are processions, and so even at 1:30 a.m. there were a fair number of police vehicles and foot patrols on the streets.  

So, let's hope this tire lasts for bit longer than its predecessor.

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