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Stopping for a Couple of Belts on Return Trip

On Monday morning we had breakfast in our Baja house, packed our 14-year-old van and headed home.

It wasn’t until we slowed down for the third and last freeway toll gate, a mile south of the Playa, Tijuana’s seashore suburb, that disaster struck.

As the motor sound died down I heard an ominous humming. It was the sound made by a bronze bell after it has been struck. The sound of an overheated engine.

“We’re in trouble,” I told my wife.

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I pulled off to one side and parked near the rest rooms. I turned off the engine and got out to open the hood. I couldn’t do it.

A man was painting trash cans on a sidewalk beside a green lawn. He put down his brush and walked over to the van.

He tried to open the hood. He walked to a shack beyond the rest rooms and came back with a screwdriver. He probed with the screwdriver and the hood came open. The engine was still humming.

The man said, “Agua caliente.”

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He got a bucket and filled it with water and splashed it over the engine. Clouds of hissing steam arose. He shook his head.

A man who had been mopping the rest rooms put his mop down and came over. Mexicans love an ailing car.

They splashed the engine again and tried pouring water into the radiator. It gushed back out.

Then a young man drove up in a battered old Buick Regal. A pretty young woman sat beside him. He got out of his car and stuck his head in my engine, with the other two.

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He motioned me to look in the engine. He pointed at a part. “Water pump,” he said. He showed me that it had no belt.

I was devastated. Our situation was calamitous. We would have to call a tow truck and have the van taken to a garage in Tijuana. Fitting a new belt would no doubt take a day.

We would have to get a hotel room. We would have to find a place to room the dog. We would be late home to our jobs. It would cost $300 at least.

The man did not speak English. He was a muscular, handsome man with an Aztec face and luxuriant black hair that fell to his shoulders in curls. He wore a black knit turtleneck sweater with three-quarter sleeves.

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He indicated that I was to get in his car and go with him. “Playa,” he said, “mecanico.”

I assumed he meant to take me into the Playa and get a mechanic to come back with us. I had no alternative. I went. My wife waited in the van with the dog.

We drove first to a garage. The young man borrowed some tools. Then we drove to an auto parts shop. He told me to go in with him. He explained our problem to the clerk. They talked. He turned to me.

“What year?” he said.

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I told him I thought the van was a 1974. The clerk went through his catalogues. Finally he went to a wall where belts were hanging and removed two with a long pole. I paid $2 for each of them, and we drove back to the van.

The young man got out and went to work with one of the belts. The other two men helped. The young man worked from the top of the engine, then got underneath the van and worked from there. Evidently it was difficult, frustrating work.

Half an hour later he asked me to start the car. I did. He smiled.

“OK,” he said. I looked in the engine. The water pump was turning.

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“How much do I owe you?” I asked him.

He shrugged. I had a $20 bill in my hand. “Is $20 enough?” I asked.

He smiled. “OK,” he said.

I gave him the 20. I had previously offered the other two men $5 each. They had declined.

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The van drove beautifully. It did not overheat, even in the creep-and-crawl at the border. I began to regret that I had given the young man only $20. I had been thinking of what his work was worth to him, not what it was worth to me.

I didn’t even know his name.


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