We decided to start our last day out the best way possible, with a bowl of Tortilla Soup from Rosa’s. But first I stopped for gas and tipped the guy 20 pesos for debugging the windshield quite effectively. The soup was great and we finally ran into the owner Martín. It’s always fun to try and carry on conversation with him in Spanish, he very kindly speaks slowly. I had him and one of the waitresses frozen in cocked head expectation as I tried to tell him that the restaurant had to be open when we return in October.
After stopping for one last Magnum ice cream bar (I went with white chocolate raspberry, MLW with dark chocolate vanilla) we bid adieu to San Carlos and got on MX15 heading north. A bit more traffic than normal as we’d once again managed to plan our departure on a US school district holiday (President’s Day) which meant that a lot of families were doing the same thing we were doing. I figured it meant fun at the border; with “fun” being defined as a two hour wait.
An exploded truck tire provided some undercarriage entertainment for the first quarter mile, bouncing off the bottom of the truck and making all kinds of noise. I began to wonder though in the second quarter mile when it didn’t stop. In fact it didn’t stop for the first 5 miles until I found the culprit – a Mexican dump truck loaded to the gills with hot asphalt that was spilling over the top. Once past him, it stopped.
We were cruising along merrily, trying to figure out the kilometer scheme when the car started to feel a bit mushy. Not like there was something wrong necessarily but just soft in how it was reacting to the bumps and dips. Not an uncommon feeling on Mexican roads as they are often paved in a way that makes the car get into weird bouncing harmonics. Just when I was beginning to think about it, a noise rose up, similar I imagine to a jet plane landing on our roof. MLW looked out the window and reported smoke – the right rear tire and failed and was in the process of shredding itself. I slowed down and looked for a way off the road, something that is often tough along this stretch where the “shoulder” is a one foot drop off into the desert. Luckily though a turn-around came up in the center median and I pulled in.
I realize now that I should have taken a photo because it was a sight – burning shredded rubber and wires. I went in the back and opened the jack compartment and had to wade through 10 years of bungee cords and tie downs that I’d shoved in there. Retrieving the jack and tool box I set to work, first loosening the lug nuts that were thankfully not too tight. The jack was another story – it wouldn’t budge in either direction. Scissor jacks are often a pain in the neck, but this one had a serious attitude. I had MLW stand on it so I could get it started but it wouldn’t move. I finally sat down on the spare and tried to get it going, achieving only a bit of movement. Finally it started to go, and the worm gear came right out in my hand. The difficulty wasn’t due to it being stuck per se, it was because I was shearing off the little metal crimps designed to keep the worm gear in place - wonderful, the middle of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert with a flat tire and no jack.
Just as I was about to sink into catatonic despair, a car pulled up from the opposite direction – Federales. Now there was a time in the past when this might not have been the best thing to happen. I probably would have preferred to have one of the “Green Angels,” Mexico’s roving band of car repairmen. But this is what we had so we make the best of it.
After explaining the broken jack in my even more broken Spanish (you never really learn the vocabulary for things like this in Spanish class) one of the officers retrieved an hydraulic jack from the trunk of his cruiser. There ensued a long debate about where to place it and as it turned out the edge of the frame where he put it was precisely the wrong place. The car got about a foot off the ground when it slipped. I thought his jack was broken too but it was okay.
We finally settled on a spot under the differential and crawled under and placed it. He didn’t like it so he got down on the ground over my protestations about his clean uniform and put it where he wanted it. We got the car up in the air, the bad tire off and I was once again asked to get out of the way when it came time to place the new one. It’s not like I don’t know how to change a tire, but I clearly didn’t know how to do it to his standards. We got that one on, lowered the car and I set about tightening the bolts only again to receive a lesson in the proper technique. As he finished them he asked me what my job was. I said, “Electronics Engineer” and he replied, “That explains it.”
After cleaning up with police provided baby wipes they asked for my license and phone number and explained that someone might call to ask about their help. The officer that had done most of the work then proceeded to deliver a most earnest lecture about continuing to Hermosillo and buying a new tire and jack. We thanked them both and went on our way pondering whether it made sense to do what he said or to just try and make it back to the US. They had told us about a tire store on the periferico, the bypass route so we went that way against our original plan, decided that if we found it, we’d stop.
Of course there was no obvious tire store where they’d told us it would be, but we passed a couple on the way there and decided it would be worth it to explore our options a bit more. Heading back into town we passed a Toyo store and I slammed on the brakes and made a hard right turn. After writing down the tire information I went inside and said I need one of these and can it be fast. The guy was very glad to see us, checked the computer, produced the tire and sent his guy out right then to work on it.
I had a nice conversation with the clerk about speaking Spanish and Chinese and how we’d been rescued by the Federales. We talked about the weather and San Carlos and he suggested that we try Bahia Kino, the closer retort town to Hermosillo. And then Bank of America refused my attempt to use my credit card which he explained. Gladly, my other bank didn’t feel the same way. Our transaction complete, he handed me a receipt and I turned around to a long line of men, smiling from listening to our fascinating conversation. We went outside waited a couple of minutes while the mechanic finished up, even taking the time to put the spare back in properly and to return the tools their box. I told him it was unnecessary to put the cover back on the spare and handed him a 20 for his attention. Checking the clock, I calculated the whole process had taken 20 minutes.
By now we were so far off plan that I decided to go 2 blocks back to Autozone where we picked up a jack for $90. Fully restocked we got back on the road about 2 hours behind our original plan – 1.5 hours out in the desert and 30 minutes cleaning up the mess in town.
We decided to try a new route I’d found on Google Earth that turned out to be ½ traffic disaster and ½ wide open brand new empty highway. It wasn’t worth it. The rest of the day was spent congratulating ourselves on our handling of the cool adventure. There was one last thing to do though, return our visas.
We’ve never done it before and only found out about it following a lecture back in December when an agent trainee found my old one in my passport. The lecture I’d received that day was not earnest like that of the Federale. It was officious and severe and when we left we laughed and said “right, like we’re ever going to do that!” But on this day, one in which we had done everything in some way other than intended, we decided to stop. And we did, parking across the highway from the Immigration Office and dodging 4 lanes of cars to cross.
An agent was standing at the door texting and I showed him what I had and asked in Spanish if they had to be returned. He said “yes” and held the door for us. I walked up to the agent sitting behind the computer, a young attractive woman, and repeated my question. She took them from me and looked at them like she’d never seen one before. In an irony of ironies, the guy who had lectured us came out from the back and asked her something. She said “seis” which I assume to mean we were in country for 6 days and he nodded and took the forms. She said, “That’s all.” No receipt, no stamp, no nothing, exactly as we’d expected - another unenforceable Mexican immigration policy based solely on whether the participants want to participate. As we walked out the door, I watched the guy take them to the back room half expecting him to throw them in the trash
All that was left was the border and entering the long approach road I was not encouraged. You can usually judge how bad it will be by the number of cars that are with you. And there were a lot. We came around the corner and found about the usual scrum – a mild surprise. I lined us up in one of the middle lanes, preparing to berate myself for making the wrong choice but we kept crawling forward. It took us exactly 15 minutes, about the second best time ever. A small gift for an otherwise off the wall day.