Ever wonder what it would be like for your car to break down in a foreign country?
Leave it to the Wallaces. Brian and I each have a long family history of travel mishaps. When that kind of luck was bound together in holy matrimony in 2002, a new level of travel ridiculousness was born.
On Saturday morning, our plan was to head out of our gloriously relaxing beach vacation spot promptly at 9am alongside Brian’s sister, Jenny. We would have a 6 ½ hour drive up the mountain back to Quito, Ecuador, our home city. Granted, 3 out of the 6 passengers were experiencing the “Ecuadorian cleanse” (pronounced die-uh-ree-uh), but we had a few tricks up our sleeves to help them make the trip home.
Problem #1) The Car was Dead. We gave jump-starting the car a valiant effort. It would start and then putter out. By the time we gave up, the car wouldn’t even give us false hope. Understand that our car knowledge is about as deep as one can grasp by watching MacGyver in childhood on TV.
Problem #2) The Language Barrier. Yes, we did go to language school to learn Spanish. Yes, we do speak Spanish often for our jobs. But, place us on the coast with the coastal accent and our Spanish comprehension rate plummets by at least 30%. Oh yeah, add to that Spanish car vocabulary and bring that bad boy down another 15%.
Problem #3) Poverty Breeds Opportunism. Now, I want to be sure to state that I have had AMAZING people come aid me in this country out of the pure kindness of their hearts. However, I have also learned the very hard way that there are lots of “helpers” that want to help themselves to your pocket book and sometimes far worse. “Thank you” is best said with cash. A car loaded down from the luggage rack through every nook and cranny inside of it, along with 3 adults and 3 children with signs on their foreheads that read, “Rich Americans Stranded! Take advantage of us!” was not helpful.
Combine Problems 1, 2 &3 and we were now at the complete mercy of whomever was willing to help us at whatever price was asked. I was a STRESSBALL trying to have an easy breezy, yet sharp-as-a-tack face on. So, yeah, we were pretty much up a creek and we had the honor of deciding which way to start swimming with lots of conflicting suggestions from hotel staff regarding who would or would not permanently damage our diesel, automatic car. Remember, of course, we only partially understood our options.
We first chose Door #3, which was to pay a taxi to bring the mechanic from a village only 8 minutes away to come at least let us know what we were dealing with.
Problem #4) “Yes, I’ll call you as soon as I get close” could mean several things. One of those options is “I don’t really feel like it today,” which one only figures out when the person doesn’t show up. I swear to you, this is a cultural norm. On to Door #2…
The lovely plan behind Door #2 was presented by The Stranger who showed up randomly and was all of a sudden under our car. He offered to pull us on a tether behind his tourism van to a bigger city a few hours away where “he knew an excellent mechanic” for the low, low cost of $100. After confirming that the staff knew this mysterious stranger; we snapped a pic of his license plate, tethered the car, threw my family in the van, broke 5 employees backs as they re-positioned our car, and OFF WE WENT!!! (2 hours and 15 minutes off schedule).
Problem #5) Complications. The road was curvy. The tether was short. Brian had no automatic steering or brakes. Our car is super heavy. It started to rain. The going was very VERY slow. It was extremely dangerous driving for Brian as he was pulled by the van.
Problem #6) A Potential Serial Killer. An hour into pulling our car, The Stranger told me that we weren’t going to go to the next big city. In fact, he would just take us to his house and the mechanic could meet us there. I then overheard the mechanic couldn’t come, but some other guy would most assuredly meet us there. This was after I watched a local lean out of the bus with a big grin and make the money symbol with his hand to our driver while passing us. Um…I watched my fair share of horror movies growing up and I like to think I learned SOMETHING!!!! No way in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks were we going to go to this guy’s house. A quick phone call to my husband in the other car and we concocted a plan to abort the current mission without somehow offending The Stranger and causing us to be killed right then and there. I could write an entire movie from the script going through my head during the next 30 minutes!
My husband handled this delicate situation amazingly with his fancy broken Spanish! Smooooooooth. He explained that we would pay the big bucks and spring for a flatbed tow truck because “this wasn’t really working out and the city would be better for our family if the car had big problems”. Of course, The Stranger had to arrange it so I was still suspicious and now writing on Facebook in order for there to be a trace of my last whereabouts. And I was also feeling the need for my FB tribe to be praying for us. We pulled over next to 3 rabid dogs and waited.
Problem #7) “Really close” means something different in Ecuador. The expected 30 minute to 1 hour wait was actually 3 hours of waiting with 3 small children on the side of the road in the rain in the middle of Nowhere, Ecuador with The Stranger. Noel learned what “dogs mating” means. I decided to talk to The Stranger about my love for Jesus and His promise for justice in a broken and hardened world. Two-fold agenda there: Share the life-altering and powerful love of God annnnnnnnd inspire him not to hurt us.
The tow truck driver finally arrived, he embraced The Stranger, and the next leg of the journey began. The Stranger agreed to continue shuttling my family to the next big city while the tow truck followed unnervingly far behind us. So far behind us we couldn’t even see our car very often. We drove by The Stranger’s house and honked as we passed by. Close call. The Stranger put on some Jesus music for me. I think he caught on…
Problem #8) Mechanics Don’t Work on Saturdays. At this point, we were on target to pull in the city (and by “city”, I mean small, tourist town), at 5pm on a Saturday (8 hours off schedule). I gave us a 5% chance of even being seen, let alone having the correct parts for the car. We were hastily sketching out Plans B, C, and D. In all likelihood, Brian would need to stay with the car through Monday while his sister, the kids, and I took a bus back to Quito the next day. Let me tell you how fun that prospect is sometime. (Hint: overcrowded, no air-conditioning, no bathroom, professional thieves).
And this, my friends, was when miracles began to unfold.
Miracle #1) The Mechanic Stayed Open for Us. We were taken to a diesel mechanic who found out quickly that the problem was the big, bad, scary word we were hoping to avoid, our alternator. Ugh. I considered how painful it would be to saw off my left arm for whatever price would be quoted on top of paying for the honor or staying open for Americans on a Saturday night. At this point we also said “Adios!” to the tow truck and $250 bucks for his services.
Suddenly, The Stranger drove off with just us women and kids! Noting my calm demeanor through the entire day when it came to The Stranger, you can imagine how the script picked up right where it left off in my head as we shot off at full speed. I quickly called my husband who was discussing All The Car Things in the shop and he told me we were headed to another place around the corner that specialized in electrical car repairs. He would meet us there. Oh, well, thanks for the heads up, Brian. I was already planning how to sacrifice myself while Jenny fled with the children!
Miracle #2) The Second Mechanic Stayed Open for Us. And better yet, he could have the car fixed in 2 hours (read that as 3 ½). We had him talk to our mechanic in Quito just to try to provide some accountability with pricing, if you catch my drift. It was now 6pm and we were hungry. With hunger came the acceptance that we should just start throwing money at people. Just WHATEVER MAN. End the pain! Fix the car and just take our wallet! (9 hours behind schedule and did I mention I had a baby?)
We took The Stranger to dinner while the electrical mechanic worked on rebuilding our alternator. With food providing nutrients to my brain came the realization that The Stranger was really a nice guy. He worked hard to find a solution for us when pulling the car with the tether wasn’t working out. He stuck by us to be sure the car would get fixed without a complaint. He hooked us up with people that really knew what they were doing. I liked John. I finally learned his name! We sent him home with an extra meal for his wife who was waiting on him. And I was sure to say lots of kind things about him after he left to make up for labeling him as a serial killer.
And the mechanic? Oh. My. Word. His sweet family stayed outside in the shop with us and talked to us, held Clay, and made us feel utterly welcome as their hard-working man slaved for over 3 hours at a rapid-fire rate trying to get us repaired in the same day. My husband almost choked on the final charge. I could see his mental wheels spinning to be sure he was translating correctly. We were hoping for somewhere around $450. Nope… $85. My sis-in-law couldn’t even believe it. We gave him $100 out of sheer relief! (The Throw-Money-At-People philosophy was still in effect).
At 9:30pm we decided the last thing we wanted to do was find a hotel, unpack the entire car, and start all over the next day. We chose to drive the 5 1/2 hours home. We could be in bed by 3:00am ish.
Miracle #3) Our Kids were Outstanding. I have to give these 3 a shout-out. We were 12 ½ hours into travel and they had been saints. They were quiet, played nicely together during the waiting stretches, obeyed us beautifully, and the baby handed out plenty of smiles. If you know my kids, you know this was indeed a miracle and a direct answer to prayer.
Problem #9) Rain, Fog, and Winding Roads. Hmmmmm….didn’t see that one coming. We were moving as slow as molasses. At times, the road was not even visible, which was unsettling with the winding roads. We had highly intelligent discussions over how much money the country of Ecuador must have had to spend on the sheer number of curve arrows needed to mark every single turn on the mountain. But, God bless those signs along with the tiny road reflectors on the sides of the road. They were our saving grace!
We were really regretting not staying in a hotel as we stared at the current choices before us: plummeting to our death, hitting another car head-on in the fog, or pulling over to stay in a hotel in Scary Rural, Ecuador to have all of our luggage and, potentially, the entire car/people in it hijacked. We pressed on.
Problem #10) No Gas. We were so slow, we blew through our gas and Scary Rural, Ecuador isn’t into the nightshift at the gas pumps. We were only 45 minutes outside our final destination of Quito, Brian was amped up on caffeine, the fog had cleared, and yet the red “E” light was on. We needed gas. Could it get worse? We knew of an outdoors ministry in the area and decided that parking outside its gates was our safest option (we clearly made that up) until the gas stations opened with the daylight. Then the phones said the last “goodbye” to their charges. You can imagine just how much sleep we got. Annnnnd, the baby reached his limit and started wailing.
Miracle #4) The Giggles are a Gift from God. I don’t know what happened at 5am, but this situation suddenly became hysterical. I mean, we got the giggles so badly trying to decide which part of the trip sucked the worst. I stuck with The Stranger trying to take us to his house to kill us, but Brian and Jenny insisted it could not possibly get worse than trying to have all 6 of us sleep in the car outside the gates of an outdoor ministry, wrapped in whatever was laying around the car to stay warm, huddled together with the echo of a crying baby reverberating in our ears. They had a point…
We made it, though! The gas station opened by 5:30am and we were in our beds by 6:30am. Only 21 ½ hours of travel. We survived!
And…what a story!