Monday, March 17, 2008

Sometimes irony has a way of well, flattening out the wrinkles in life! One of these just happened to me in the last day or so.

If you read carefully last year, you may recall that I was worried about my fuel pump giving out while down in Mexico. If you have traveled down there much, you will have heard stories about breakdowns where people had to wait weeks for parts to be shipped down, or have hopped on a bus or plane and gone to the US themselves to pick up the parts.

So last year, I was going to be very conservative and prepared because I had heard some weird noises from the direction of my fuel pump – which of course resides inside your fuel tank. So while in Palm Springs, California, I stopped at the local auto parts store and purchased myself some peace of mind by carrying a fuel pump with me while in Mexico.

Of course I didn’t need it and returned it to the store without any penalty when I returned to the States. Of course, that was a year ago and the pump has been happily pumping ever since. So this year, when I headed south of the line I said, “What the heck. What are the chances anything will happen in the next few weeks?”

Driving north from Mulege, it was windy, and I was sure those little pauses were just wind gusts! Until just about nightfall, when there was a complete power loss and I carefully manoeuvred to the shoulder to consider what might be the problem and what to do about it. The engine never died, but I turned it off and re-started it, and after a few minutes, it was ready to go again, and off we went into the deepening dusk, wondering what had happened. A little trail among some huge boulders, and I was parked in time to look up into the night sky and see my lucky stars.

In the morning, I had a long day planned, so I hit the road early, hoping that my previous day’s experience had been a bad dream or a one-time glitch. We cruised along nicely for 15-20 minutes at moderate speed before the jerking started again. But every time, after a bit of rest, it seemed willing to go again, but sometimes not that far, and never too fast!

And the 'check engine' light had a way of coming on sometimes, then going off again ...

There were a lot of decision points along the way. It was a Saturday morning, and we crept by a number of very small ‘towns’ that had ‘taller’s or ‘mecanico’s’. There was no cell service, not that that would have helped much, not knowing who to call. But you always feel better with a few bars on the phone anyway. Guererro Negro was the next major centre, but it was over 100 kms away.

But to make a long story longer, we eventually sputtered our way into the city and drove around hopefully, looking for a big shiny GM dealer, but no luck. So then it was try to find anyone who spoke English to ask them about a GM place. Nope. Nada.Not a chance. But everyone I spoke to was very helpful, dropping what they were doing to lead me either in their car or on foot to a ‘mecanico’ who could surely do the job, and who likely spoke English. Nada. Nope.

But after about 5 places were checked out I found myself in this dusty compound with a couple of ‘police’ tow trucks in the yard. Click on this photo for a larger view. The compound is in the middle of the photo - with about 40 old vehicles in a group!

But the big guy swinging wrenches in there could understand my sign language, and seemed keen to find what the problem was. I told him that it had only started after I had filled up with gas, and suspected either dirty gas or some water in the gas. While driving around town – and it is certainly making life easier when you can DRIVE around looking for a garage – I had purchased some gas treatment to soak up the water, but it did not seem to help. Anyway, this guy, whose name I did not get had me drive up on the big concrete ramps with the pit between them. He showed me the fuel filter that he proceeded to take off. It was plumb full of dirt and grey guck, so it was obvious what the problem had been – lack of fuel. I didn’t see any parts around, but he motioned for me to follow, and off we walked across the street and a block downtown. Here they had a good supply of parts and a new filter was soon purchased by me for 50 pesos or $4. He had lit a cigarette before beginning the re-install, and I had to stop him from going back under the vehicle with his lit smoke, where gas was still dripping from the open lines! He laughed at me and continued to complete the job with the burning cigarette dangling from his mouth! He charged me 100 pesos ($9) for the job, and I was glad to get away without the suspected fuel pump nightmare. We went for a test drive, and the truck happily accelerated and had a full complement of power. Being a weekend, and as is common in Mexico, often the ambulance will be sitting by the side of the road, cones all set up like a check stop, and the staff collect donations from driver's going by. The ambulance staff were too shy for a picture, but these two girls had their own collection going out at the immigration check just out of town. They couldn't explain what they were collecting for (grad?), but they consented to a photo!

I headed promptly out of town and visited the Pemex station and took on a full tank of gas for the isolated, no-gas zone ahead. Mexicans were beginning to travel for the Easter vacation, so there was a line-up for gas. Many of them were SUV’s with 5 or six occupants, and every one had a big rack on the roof with suitcases, coolers, kids bikes, and beach toys! In spite of an early start in the morning at 0630, now it was noon, and I had only made about 150km, but at least I was back on the road. Harley curled up on my lap, and we fought a stiff side wind – that started to impede progress. In fact, the engine light came on again (!!!!!!), and we lost all power, and had to coast again into a pull-off. Now this was not good. At all. What to do? Could I limp the 400km to the next major center, or would I have to go back and face the inevitable fuel pump nightmare? Or was there just more dirty gas that had plugged the new filter? Would I be stuck here for the weekend - or longer?

So it was back to the dusty car compound to consult my non-english speaking mechanic!

I had him pull off the filter again for a look, but it was clean as new this time L.

He pointed to the fuel tank and said “Bomba” (pump). I asked if there was any way in (heck) that there would be such a pump available in Guererro Negro on a Saturday afternoon – especially as I knew that there were two possible versions for my truck, and that it took a very specialized tool to get the lines off? He indicated ‘no problemo’, but I was not so sure. I had smugly kept a printout from the GM dealer last year when I bought the fuel pump, which showed the exact part number and had a schematic diagram of the installation. I also pointed out to him that at my earlier visit, my fuel tank had been only part full, but now it was topped right up. I looked around the dusty junk in the compound and doubted that he had any way to drain the tank or support it’s removal. He assured me that once again, it was ‘no problema’! Off we trudged, to the now-familiar auto parts store down the street. The owner, who was elbow deep in oil from a VW engine that was in pieces on the ground, went into the office and dragged out his parts book. After the usual questions about make, model, year, engine, etc., he went to his well-stocked shelves and pulled out a shiny new fuel pump that he said would fill the bill! Wow! So far so good. Price? His clerk (wife) punched the number into a COMPUTER, with even a flat screen, and came up with the princely sum of 4500 pesos. Ouch! But he would not even let his fellow friend and mecanico leave the office without the cash, and I had only 500 pesos to my name. So we walked back to the ‘garage’, and I drove off the ramps again and to the far end of town where the (only?) bank and ATM was – which I had spotted on my earlier search for the elusive dealer. There was a 10 person lineup at the one ATM that was working, but it gladly gave me enough pesos to complete the deal. So I drove back to the parts store, plunked the cash on the counter and left with the shiny new bomba. No bill, no receipt, …nothing. But the guy did assure me that there was a 3 year (month?) warranty on the pump. Back to the ‘garage’, and back up on the big concrete ramps. My mecanico rummaged around and found an assortment of big gas cans and some garden hose, and before long he had the fuel draining, tho not before spitting out a mouthful of gas. During the earlier fuel filter replacement, I was not sure that he even had a socket set in his repertoire of tools, kept in a little closet by the work bench, but with the first of a few surprises, he pulled out an air wrench and then I noticed the big fancy air compressor hiding in the corner.

Eventually, he got the tank out onto the dirty bench, but took great care to use his air hose to blow off all the dirt and debris. He got the old pump out, but I still wondered about those weird connectors and the ‘special’ tool. Well, he went to his rickety old wooden tool shed and came back with the exact, shiny little tool, still in it’s original store packaging! The connector came off fine, but he had to do most of the job with a new cigarette just inches from all the gas.

The old and new fuel pumps compared well ....

I put the lid on a 5 gallon can of gas below him – just to limit the size and intensity of the blast and inferno. But he must have watched that episode of ‘Myth Busters’, where they showed that you could not light liquid gasoline with a lit cigarette!

The pump was installed just fine and the tank was worked back into place and he proceeded to try to get all my gas into the tank, made more difficult with the camper making access to the gas hose more difficult. This involved two funnels, and him standing precariously balanced on another can of gas, putting some of the gas in the tank and some on his clothes, the ground, the side of the truck. I volunteered that we could work out a deal where he could keep my gas in payment for the work, but that was a no go! Eventually, I convinced him that the balancing act would be easier if we backed the truck off his ‘hoist’ and added the gas at ground level. We got it all back in, and the truck started and seemed to run fine ……..? How much was this going to cost? I think his price was high, but he asked for 450 pesos ($40). Once again, no bill, no signatures, just good work done, and no infernos, and no messing with mere details like disconnecting the battery like the instructions asked! Or having a fire extinguisher at the ready! It was now 5PM on Saturday, and I was at last able to head out on the road again – hoping for the best. I don’t know his name, he doesn’t know mine, there was certainly no name or sign on his workplace, not even the usual signs painted on the wall. The price for the pump was certainly higher than the one I had carried with me last year from Palm Springs, but the installation costs must have been about 4 to 5 times cheaper (and faster?) than getting it done somewhere other than Mexico. And there was much to my surprise and relief, no wait for parts to be shipped from somewhere else. And I was also pleasantly surprised to find that in my case at least, my fuel pump managed to keep me mobile for a long time after it wanted to quit, and I was able to search for parts, mechanics, garages, and banks, without ever being stranded or stuck. I didn’t have to make an appointment or wait anywhere for service (except maybe the atm line!). Compare this to the service in Pismo Beach, California, where I had to spend about 5 days waiting for parts and service, and they still sent me away with no power or heat one night.

So, at the cost of only one partial day of uncertainty and delay, and at a much reduced rate from what it would have cost me in the US, I was back on the road in fine shape and a few hours of daylight left to find a camp spot.

Now if only I had enough fuel left to make it through the gas-free zone ………?

(Stay tuned)

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