As I See It: Stranded in Mexico, ‘help’ not lost in translation
One sunny Sunday morning, as we walked up to our car in the parking lot of Sam’s Club, Selina noticed that our right front tire was flat as a pancake. If you live long enough, you will get a flat tire, and you deal with the nuisance. But this flat tire was different, because the Sam’s Club parking lot I’m referring to is in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.
I’ll get back to the flat, but some of you may be surprised to learn that Mexico has a Sam’s Club. Actually, there are about 250 of them, part of the 2,300-store “Wal-Mex” empire in Mexico. Wal-Mart is Mexico’s largest retailer, with revenues in double-digit billions of dollars. Aside from the Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs, there are about 350 Wal-Mex-owned Bodega Aurrera grocery/variety discount stores. It was inevitable, I suppose, that the Wal-Mex wave would sweep over Puerto Peñasco sooner or later; in the north end of town, a Sam’s Club and a Bodega Aurrera now stand side by side.
Sam’s Club and Bodega Aurrera overlap somewhat in their offerings (groceries, beverages, household chemicals, clothes, electronics, etc.) but a visit to one usually leads you to drop in on the other. Sam’s carries stuff more familiar to Americans, and sells more in bulk than Bodega Aurrera. Both stores are popular with Mexicans, though as in the States, the traditional small retailers are feeling the big-box pressure.
Not that Wal-Mart is the only American business presence in Puerto Peñasco. It already had a Coca-Cola distribution facility, an Alamo Rent-a-Car, an AutoZone, an Ace Hardware, and a Jack in the Box (that said, memo to Taco Bell: forget about it. You’re way out of your league down here).
The international reach of American enterprise, you see, is why our flat tire was outside a Mexican Sam’s Club.
Even though we’re very familiar with Puerto Peñasco, I was momentarily gripped by foreigner helplessness in first-time situations. USAA Roadside Assistance could not bail me out. Someone back in Sam’s Club could probably help me get a repair truck to come, but that would mean falling into Mexican Time, a hole in the space-time continuum in which “I’ll be right over” could mean 15 minutes or four hours. Fortunately, the solution came to me as a simple matter of male genetic endowment: I would simply change the tire myself. It is now known that the Y chromosome carries a gene for tire-changing. Mine has been dormant since I last changed a tire on my Datsun in the 1970s, but it switched right on.
Tire-changing technology has remained unchanged since the Model T. You need a spare tire, a jack, a lug nut wrench and the strength to turn that wrench. I was in possession of at least three, and was pretty confident about the fourth.
A few well-placed stomps on the wrench handle loosened the lug nuts on the flat. I removed the full-size spare that hung on the back of our 2005 Honda CR-V. I positioned the jack, and cranked away. The right front of the car rose majestically, and I slid the flat off the wheel. Like butter!
It was then that I noticed a well-dressed Mexican man looking over my shoulder. In English, he offered to help. Help? With what? Sure, it was a dirty, hot job, but I was five minutes away from putting on the spare and saying adios to Sam’s Club. I thanked him and said I was fine.
If you’ve been waiting for problems to arise, your wait is over. As the Mexican man, now joined by his wife, watched, I rolled the spare into place and slipped it onto the wheel.
Or tried to. The jack was already cranked up to maximum height, but the spare was too big to line up with the wheel bolts. I immediately blamed my tools: Why would Honda put the wrong jack into this car?
The Mexican (Jorge Ayala, who, I learned later, is an engineer and director of a solar-powered desalination project that aims to provide water to Mexico and southern Arizona) seemed to be expecting this moment. “I think I can help you,” he said. I would not turn him down this time. As he kneeled to examine the situation, he said something to his wife (Adriana) in Spanish and she went off across the parking lot. I didn’t think much about that until she reappeared carrying a cinder block! And these people were dressed like they just came from church.
Jorge’s approach was elegant: with the flat tire and the cinder block, he created a platform to lower the car on to. Then, with a flat hunk of concrete we found (construction remnants are never far away in Mexico), we raised the jack so it could get the car high enough to mount the spare.
It worked! The spare was on. After I removed the jack, Jorge politely pointed out that I had not quite positioned the jack correctly, which was why I couldn’t raise the car high enough. So much for American Exceptionalism. Oh, and Jorge led us to a tire repair shop to get the flat fixed (40 pesos, $2.65).
The automotive resourcefulness of Mexicans is legendary, as is their kindness to stranded American motorists. So, how do you change a tire in Mexico? Just wait; help is on the way.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "As I See It" appears periodically. He can be reached at: email@example.com.