Tuesday, January 10, 2012

To every thing there is a season, or, stuck here down in Antigua with the Quiché blues again

Another title for this entry might be "Zen and the art of automobile maintenance"

So, the car, which had been running more or less smoothly up until a week or two ago, has had a series of problems, some minor, some not so. Which has meant that I have spent more time than I would like to recount on the side of the road with the hood up trying to figure out what is going on, finding a garage in a place where I don't usually get my car serviced, and dealing with auto service places. And waiting. A lot of waiting. Waiting two hours in Totonicapán for part of the radiator to be repaired (Friday of last week). Waiting outside San Pedro Jocopilas (also Friday). I did take my car in to my local mechanic, Willy, whose shop is across the street, on Saturday, and asked him to look it over before venturing to Guatemala on Sunday to take Babette to the airport. He checked over the repairs that had been done, pronounced them sound. The hydraulic pump had been sounding strained and steering had been hard because of that, and we had talked about ordering a replacement, but when he looked at it, he said it just needed some oil and produced a quart, filled it up and gave me the remainder (well, I purchased the quart). Car was fine, in a manner of speaking, for the trip to Guate and the airport. I spent part of Sunday unexpectedly celebrating a friend's birthday (unexpected because I hadn't known it was his birthday), and he commented that the car motor seemed to be running a bit fast (especially it neutral, it sounded as though it were racing).  We opened the hood and saw that one of the tubes of the radiator had come loose. With a swiss army knife borrowed from a security guard nearby, he adjusted the clamp. Which held until I had gotten down to Roosevelt (we did the little adjustment in the Zona 1, and then I jumped onto the Periférico which connects back to Roosevelt, which turns into the main highway). I give these highway indications for anyone who might be reading this blog who knows Guatemala at all -- if you know Guatemala then "el Periférico" and "Calzada Roosevelt" are pretty clear geographical markers. If you don't, well, they are among the major roads around Guatemala City. Roosevelt is a big, busy road (4 lanes in each direction) lined with malls and auto supply places and Burger King and Wal-Mart and McDonald's, and it is the main road out of the city going west. It basically turns into the Panamerican Highway.

So I got as far as the exit ramp from the Periféerico onto Roosevelt. And the car was not happy so I stopped it.  Popped the hood, the gasket had slipped again, someone came by (I've been very, very lucky) and we repaired it again.  This time made it as far as the streets of Antigua, about 3 blocks from the guest house, and again the car was not happy, and again someone helped me get it so it would make it to the house. All of I spent the first bit of yesterday at the service station (taller de autos) getting the errant tube properly attached. And then took off for Guatemala.

More car trouble on the highway on the way home: got as far as el mirador (the lookout) at kilometer 24, and then the car just stopped. I managed to get it onto the shoulder and thought about what to do. I immediately assumed the radiator again. Someone else was having car trouble; he pulled up behind me. He got out and popped his hood and got a gallon jug out and added water to his radiator. I walked over to talk to him (yes, I probably should not go talking to strange men on the highway in the dark but it seemed no less safe than just staying in my car with no water, no nothing, a cell phone that was rapidly running out of batteries).  He came over and took a look at my car, and offered me a little bit of water. We poured it in the coolant tank, and then unscrewed the radiator cap. Liquid spurted out, and then we peered in with  the help of a flashlight, but it was hard to see.

We had no water; I had a little bit left in a bottle from which I had been drinking, but not very much. Feeling somewhat foolish I poured in about 4 ounces of water and then we thought about what to do.

We could also call this blog "just plain dumb luck" or "relying upon the kindness of strangers" - because as violent as this country is, I have had very, very good luck when it comes to getting help. People whom I have never met stop on the highway and help me out; this has not been the only time. So there are some extraordinarily evil people in Guatemala -- some of whom are about to assume governmental positions -- and then there are a lot of very decent, kind, and considerate people who will go to extremes, it appears, to help persons completely unknown to them, who will (sometimes literally) give you their last tortilla or last drop of water.

Unlike in the U.S., police cars drive by stranded motorists on the highway and do not automatically stop to see what is going on but just flash by. So with some difficulty (cars whizzing by in both directions at breakneck speeds) I managed to flag down a police vehicle on the other side of the road, and with even more difficulty (and a lot of trepidation) ran across the road (this is NOT a fun thing to do as one has to be very careful about timing as cars speed up rather than slow down going up the hill and around curves) so I could talk to the officer. He did not have water but explained to us where we could get some, so we grabbed our bottles (he had a gallon jug and I had two 2-liter bottles) and I grabbed my backpack with my computer and camera and set off. There did not seem to a be a good choice here regarding my valuables: I didn't like the idea of walking around in the dark carrying everything I had that was valuable (wallet, Macbook, camera, external hard drive), but it seemed equally risky to leave the backpack in the car (even though no one had yet stopped to offer help).  So we walked about half a kilometer or more, but the house where the policeman had told us we might knock had a secure gate with no bell. We saw a light in the house but no one replied to our knocks on the gate (with our keys). We had seen some trucks stopped on the other side of the road, so we carefully judged where we could cross, waited and then ran -- remember that we had to cross 3 or 4 lanes in each direction.  The drivers were sleeping or resting, way up in their cabs and it wasn't easy to attract their attention, but we found two drivers, each of whom gave us about a gallon of water, and then made our way back to our vehicles which we had left with the flashers on. We poured some water into my radiator but it only took about half a gallon. I tried to start it; no luck. The battery seemed to not "ignite" properly (sorry, I'm losing the English equivalents here, as all my conversations about cars and car troubles have been in Spanish).  So he suggested to take the battery of out of his car and see if we could get my car started on his battery (and then replace the battery in his car). We couldn't get my battery out, but we unhooked the cables and did what we could to connect his battery. The car wouldn't start at all.

He had to leave; I overheard him talking to his wife on the phone as we were trudging around getting water that he was getting water for his car. Probably best not to tell her he was spending half an hour wandering around in the dark helping a strange female.  So, I understood that he needed to leave -- and also, there was nothing else he or I could do.

In desperation, I had called my friend Marcos - another one of these incredibly generous people I have been privileged to meet. Marcos runs a shuttle service in Antigua (and if you ever travel to Guatemala, please ask me for his number). I have only used his shuttle personally twice (as I have my own car and usually drive myself to the airport and park the car there). But he has been extremely helpful on all car-related matters. He helped me go car shopping in Chimaltenango (I did pay him for gas and time) when my car was stolen. He told me where I could park my car near the airport (and I have used that lot ever since). I try to repay him by recommending his shuttle service and when I have had visitors, I have arranged for his service to pick them up at the airport. He is unfailingly warm and responsive every time I call him, whether to arrange a pick up at the airport or to ask for a referral for a mechanic in Antigua, which I did yesterday morning. So, stranded on the highway about 15 kilometers from Antigua, I called  him to see if he knew someone who could help out. He had a friend who lived a few kilometers from where I was stranded, but it turned out his friend didn't respond.

However, a tow-truck drove by and stopped. The driver was with his wife and son, and they had just been to church, and were on their way home, and he offered to take me to Antigua. He also took a look and saw that one of the belts (I think it was the alternator belt) had snapped. So we hooked up the car, I squeezed into the cab of his, alongside his wife, leaving his son in my car, and set off. Marcos suggested leaving the car at the taller where I had been in the morning (it is attached to a gas station that is open nearly 24 hours, so there would be someone with whom I could talk), and that is what we did.

So, back this morning to the taller. Turns out that it is not just the belt but one wheel on the hydraulic pump that is not turning properly. All of the parts are in Guatemala, so the taller will send for them and do the repair late today, which means the car should be ready tomorrow.

So here I am in Antigua, a beautiful place to be stranded, but stranded nonetheless. There is little that I can do to tie up loose ends in terms of research. I am trying to take care of some details having to do with my life back in the U.S., a life I hae left hanging, in many ways for a year.  Figuring out my car insurance and registration back in the U.S.  Making sure my cats are being fed. Thinking about my syllabus for the classes I have to start teaching. Making sure books have been ordered for said classes. That sort of thing....

And meanwhile, I will run out to the market to find a few gifts for some of the wonderful people, both here and in the U.S., who have helped make this possible.


  1. Back in 2002 when I was working at an NGO in Guatemala my chapin co-worker and I stopped at the Biotopo del Quetzal outside of Coban. Just as we walked out the gate we saw our bus to Guatemala City zoom by. We knew that the next bus for the capital wouldn't come by for another hour. So we stuck out our thumbs (my co-worker joked that he knew about hitchicking from american movies). But we didn't have much confidence that anyone would stop because at that time there were a lot of asaltos along that stretch of highway.

    Incredibly, a guy in a nice car did stop and let us in. As he drove he mentioned that he had been assaulted several times and talked about his work as a salesman that often traveled between the Capital and Puerto Barrios, and how he had been targeted because people knew he could sometimes be carrying a lot of cash. It occurred to me that he could be carrying a lot of cash RIGHT NOW.

    That guy had every reason to drive on by when he saw us. Why did he choose to stop (and then drive out of his way to drop us off at the Terminal once we got back to the capital)?

    I'm still not sure. Maybe it's because Guatemalans enjoy companionship and being around other people, so he was more inclined to pick us up.

    Maybe it's out of a feeling of "what goes around comes around" and extending a hand because they have been in similar situations and received help in return?

    One of the things that my Guatemalan husband dislikes about American culture is the "everyone fends for themselves" mentality. He will sometimes get insulted if he extends an offer (for help, or for dinner) and is told "no thanks". Maybe not insulted, exactly, but annoyed at how some Americans tend to isolate themselves.

  2. I have never ventured to hitchhike in Guatemala (but I nearly always travel alone). I do think that Guatemalans are more sociable -- and I have been humbled by the generosity of at least a dozen good samaritans who have stopped to help me with one of many automotive misadventures. I do my part to return the karmic favors: endlessly giving rides to friends, schlepping stuff since I have a pick up...