Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Laughing on the Outside, but Crying on the Inside: Tico Car Mechanics

Posted by Jim

We've already re-christened our car. Its new nickname is "Leaks."

Ever since we brought it home, I've noticed the sickeningly sweet smell of engine coolant emanating from somewhere under the hood. Normally, I can't smell a mad skunk from 3 feet away, but somehow I can detect burning coolant within a 3-mile radius. For weeks, I searched the engine compartment for the leak, but until last week its location eluded me. Unfortunately, once I did find the leak, it progressed at an alarming rate. One of the tanks on the radiator was developing an enormous crack that promised to fail catastrophically at the moment that Natalie was in labor and needed to get to a hospital, stat. Without the tools to replace the radiator, it was time to try my luck with a Costa Rican auto mechanic.
Someone recommended a guy in the next town over who spoke a little English, so I figured I'd bring the car to his shop before our radiator exploded (we still had 4 days til the baby was due, after all!) I told him that I wanted a new radiator, but he insisted that he could replace the leaky tank for less than half of the cost. I paused. I’d come in determined to buy a new radiator, but the man’s earnest plea to save my money won over my cash-strapped wallet. I agreed. He promised the radiator would be fixed the next day, so we shook on it and I took a taxi home.

[Natalie's note: "I can fix that" and "it'll be done tomorrow" are generally regarded as pleasantries, not promises, in Costa Rica. In other words, people would rather appear polite and helpful than tell you, "you're screwed."]

The next day, the mechanic called me just as promised. “Buenas. Comó  está? The radiator is fixed, but the head gasket is bad.” Ok, good, wait, what?! The situation had escalated from a minor part replacement to major engine work. He said, "I saw air bubbles in the radiator when the engine was running. It means your head gasket is no good." I told him,"Don't do anything. The engine is still under warranty from the dealer. I'm coming to get it right now!"

When I arrived at the shop and looked at the radiator tank, I felt a little sick. I was expecting a cheap plastic part, but what I saw was even more underwhelming. An optimistic person would call the work "custom" or even "hand crafted." I called it “craptacular.” It appeared that they had scrounged up random pieces of sheet metal (missing street signs?), bent them into the rough shape of a radiator tank, and brazed them together. The "new" tank, and everything around it, was dripping with copious amounts of black spray paint to give it that "factory-fresh" look. It was ugly and shoddy, but I convinced myself that if it didn't leak, then I didn't care. 

The mechanic wanted to show me the air bubbles he'd seen in the radiator from the bad head gasket, so he fired the engine up and… nothing. No bubbles. We let the engine run and warm up, but still no bubbles. Finally he said, "Oh, I guess it was just air stuck in the cooling system and not the head gasket after all." If you're not familiar with the implications of misdiagnosing someone's head gasket, imagine a a doctor telling a patient that he has cancer and then saying, “Nevermind, it was just gas.” I was simultaneously annoyed and relieved by the flippant misdiagnosis. Confident the problem was "solved," he put the radiator cap back on and sealed up the system.

We were standing in front of the car watching the engine run (as men do), when suddenly a geyser shot forth from the craptacular radiator tank sending a 4-foot stream of coolant into the air. As it rained down upon us, the mechanic’s young daughter ran over and started splashing around like she was playing in a lawn sprinkler. The situation was so absurd that I started laughing. Not a real laugh (and certainly not a happy laugh), but that awkward kind of laugh that ends in sobbing. The guy said, "I can fix that. I'll call you tomorrow." 


  1. OMG... That would be hilarious if I didn't know the person having to deal with it. Hope all is well with car now.

  2. It's O.K. to laugh. It's always funny when it happens to someone else. And no, the car is still rebelling. Perhaps that will be the next blog post.