7 Days ago
It’s the 2012 Maya End of the World Rally and we’re being led into Guanajuato by a Police escort as part of the official parade from which the rally will start. It has been hard work, stressful and expensive to get to this point. The past four weeks have seen the little Niva taken apart and put back together again with only hours to spare before the rallybegins. New ball joints, bushes and wheel bearings. Its been an expensive nightmare to get to this point but we’ve finally made it. We’re in the procession and everyone is on a high. The excitement and anticipation of the rally ahead is intoxicating. And then we hear a dull thump and the car lurches to the right. A few seconds later we hear a loud and rapid grinding sound coming from the front right wheel. After all the work and hope another faulty wheel bearing is in the process of bringing our rally to an end. After just half a mile. With our hazard lights flashing, the Niva grinds to a halt and we can only watch all the other competitors drive past us, all bar one. Nothing much is said. What can be said. Fortunately, the mechanics who we’ve come to trust are only a short distance away so we do a U-turn to head back down hill to the sound of metal tearing itself apart.
The mechanics see us pull into the garage and their faces fall in disappointment. Only a few hours before five of them were working feverishly on the car. Fitting parts, changing fluids, washing and polishing. They look just as disappointed as we are. However, within ten minutes, despite the red hot metal, they’re taking off the wheel to replace the faulty bearing.
Four hours later we were still there but the determination of our personal pit crew had us back on the road and in pursuit of the other competitors by late afternoon. Fortunately the first challenge of the rally was local to Guanajuato so we hadn’t lost any distance, only points. In the meantime we’d managed to find an Internet connection and sent Andy Pattrick a message. He’s our good friend and only other English competitor in the rally. We arranged to meet in the high desert above Guanajuato for the night before carrying on with the rally to the next challenge. Just as dark fell we found him waiting in the middle of nowhere for us as only a good friend would.
5 Days ago
Today, I’m sitting in the clearing of a forest surrounded by Monarch butterflies. It’s a stunning part of Mexico, three-thousand, three-hundred metres up in the mountains. Pine trees are all around and sunset orange Monarch butterflies dance in the air in every direction. Our tent sits beside a trickling mountain stream in a wide natural clearing which offers views along the valley for mile upon mile. Reaching the breeding grounds of the Monarch butterflies was one of the challenges of the rally. Everything here is beautiful. However, I’m not interested. I’m sick of our bad luck, the hand of fate and the injustice of everything. Coolant is dripping from the water pump in a steady stream and once again our rally seems to be over. The bearings and seal in the pump have gone this time. Will anything ever go our way? We know that whatever is ahead of us will involve limping to somewhere where we can source new parts and a wait of who-knows how long. Sometimes life on the road offers little enjoyment. Two days of trouble free running after five weeks of hard work to get the car ready seems very unjust. We love the Niva and its taken a hammering on its journey South from New York. We can’t blame it for having another fault but a little more than two days of problem free driving would have been nice. Andy is still with us and his company and second opinion help, but we need to think about our options.
3 Days ago
We waved Andy off this morning with mixed emotions. The three of us have spent three days and nights up in the mountains with the Monarch butterflies. Even without our mechanical problems we wouldn’t have continued with the Maya Rally. The organisation of the event did little to convince us that it was a worthwhile endeavour and our interest in the whole thing has died. Andy felt the same and three days in the mountains seemed like a far more attractive and relaxing option. However, our mechanical problems have dictated that we must go our separate ways. Andy is here celebrating his 40th birthday and we will not allow our problems to get in the way of that, even if he would. Andy is going to follow the dirt roads South through the high mountains on his 250cc dirt bike. He’ll have the time of his life and we’re pleased he’s off enjoying himself.
After much study of maps and weighing up of our options we plan to head towards Oaxaca to get the water pump fixed. With luck the bearings will hold up and with regular stops to top up the coolant and oil (which is also bleeding out), we’ll get there in two days.
The thermostat needle is in the red and we’ve pulled off the road with steam bellowing out from under the bonnet. We’re in the middle of nowhere again and the water pump has died to the sound of a screaming bearing. We’ve done fifteen kilometres (9 miles). We sit beside the road for an hour before seeing if we can limp any further. Ten minutes later and we’ve made it to a State-owned Pemex petrol station but the needle is already back in the red and there’s no way we can go any further. The Pemex station is on the edge of a small village and we ask around for a mechanic. This is not where we wanted to be. There are more donkeys than cars here, but an older man comes over to offer assistance. It’s hard to understand him but the upshot is that he knows of a mechanic and he drives off in rusted VW beetle. Thirty minutes later he returns but hasn’t been able to find the mechanic. Three hours later and we’re still at the petrol station but eventually someone comes over on a BMX bike with a King Charles spaniel variant in hot pursuit. It turns out he’s the mechanic. His home and garage are only around the corner so we kick the engine over and drive up the hill as slowly as we can while he peddles as fast as he can.
The mechanic has taken the water pump apart and only confirmed what we already know, the inside of the pump is a mess. But with parts it’s salvageable, if the parts can be found. Lada Nivas are as rare as honest politicians in Mexico (or anywhere else) and unless we’re in luck and the parts that we need are universal we’re going to have a problem. However, for now, without camping options or hotels anywhere near, we are camping in the mechanic’s brother’s partly built house. It’s a concrete shell but it also happens to be in the same yard as the garage. It will do us ok for the moment and the mechanic and his family have been nothing but wonderful. They are good people and we’re lucky to have found them.
2 Days ago
Zitacuaro is a bustling city built for function and little else. There are no beautiful plazas, parks or splendid churches. It exists to meet the needs of people who need stuff. I’m one of them and I’m standing in the fifth shop that sells water pumps for cars. I never knew there were so many variations on the pump of a car cooling system. There are hundred of them. Its mind boggling. What is even more mind boggling is that the specific shape of the pump for a Lada Niva is not covered by any of the numerous variations available. Having run out of shops for ‘bomba de agua’ it’s on to a fabricators. If I can’t buy one I’ll have it made. Mexicans are nothing if not resourceful. There is very little that isn’t possible with time and cash. The fabricator weights up the challenge with my broken pump in his hands. After some time he eventually gives me the nod and tells me to return in three hours.
Three hours later I have a shiny new pump in my hands, still warm and covered in wet paint. But he guarantees that it’ll work and for less than £30.00 I find that I’m smiling for the first time in days. Smiling genuinely as opposed the half-hearted smiles I’ve become used to giving people when something is on my mind.
Hopping into the first taxi I can flag down I return to my friendly mechanic still smiling and he can see my relief. Everyone is pleased for us and either in celebration or to give the mechanic space to work, his family pile us and John into a pick-up and we go off for a picnic by a local lake. In a time of adversity we’ve been fortunate enough to collide with a lovely family. They’re caring, honourable and a little crazy, in that particular Mexican kind of way. There are so many family members here that they seem to tumble from every pore of the three houses that fringe the garage. We had a great time but it was ironic that we had to call our mechanic out when the pick-up refused to start on the return back.
We spent a couple of evenings with our new friends, laughing, talking and comparing our different lives. In many ways they weren’t that different – aspirations, hopes, dreams etcetera but as we talked by the light of the kitchen fire pit under a corrugated iron roof, we couldn’t escape the fact that these people had very little in the world but they had given us everything they could offer. When our car broke down yet again we thought everything was going wrong. As it happened, it was a necessary evil that allowed us to meet some lovely people and be reminded of the kindness of strangers.
We have just over two-hundred miles under our belt today and the temperature gauge is reading just under 90 degrees – exactly where it should be. The wheels are quiet and the differential is doing its job without fuss. Every hour I’ve checked the oil and water levels and they’re still fine each time I look. Everything is as it should be. Except my composure. The last few weeks have taken their toll and until a good few days of trouble free driving have gone by I don’t think I’ll relax. Every squeak has my heart beat racing. The Maya Rally feels like a world away and just a distant waste of time. All I’m concerned about now is finding somewhere for Christmas where I can relax with a margarita. But one thing is for sure. Wherever I find that margarita, I’ll be toasting the numerous people who have helped to keep us going when it all felt so desperate. Mexicans, and everyone else alike – thank you.