After going out to breakfast with our tres amigos from Tres Amigos, it was finally time to take the Dolphin on her post-construction maiden voyage. The plan was to find a mechanic shop to perform an alignment in Mazatlan. Despite the suspension work already completed, the Dolphin was ‘dog tracking.' In other words, driving diagonally while moving straight. However, the Dolphin isn’t a typical vehicle, and not any shop can perform an alignment on her. Having dual rear wheels already means she’d need to go to go on a truck alignment machine, and being extremely narrow for a car with dual wheels meant she wasn’t going to fit onto just any alignment machine.
So Jacqui and I hit the smooth paved roads and glided our way into Mazatlan where everything was fixed and we're living happily ever after. Except for the 10 straight miles of dirt road that rattled and beat the Dolphin only slightly less than our nerves. Nothing like trial running a piece of machinery you're unsure of on Mexican roads. Then of course there's the fact that it's not actually fixed yet, but that's just an ominous foreshadowing of a story that's still unfolding as I write.
Our first stop, recommended by friends, seemed an obvious first choice. We pulled into a very clean, modern looking Michelin dealer where I butchered the Spanish word for alignment. They immediately instructed me to pull my car directly onto the lift. Keep in mind, mechanic shops in the States won't even allow you to walk in the working area due to all the insurance and liability issues. Regardless, we’re in Mexico, and I did what was bid of me. Watching the Dolphin ascending on the lift and seeing a semi being worked on in the adjacent stall, it felt like the air in the room whispered to me, 'you've come to the right place.'
Well, the air lied. The mechanic spent quite a few minutes scratching his head, and I spent several more explaining the work I’d already completed. I showed him pictures, and explained what I wanted done, but I was given the 'no go'. These mechanics were very familiar with changing tires and performing alignments for maintenance, but he was head-scratching clueless on what to do with our post accident Dolphin. On vehicles with solid rear axles such as our Dolphin, you don't normally need to perform any kind of alignment on the rear. The differential or axle assembly is simply bolted to the center of your springs at the factory, and the front wheels are adjusted to match as needed. Maybe moving a rear axle was something he'd never done, maybe he wasn't a very good mechanic, maybe he was telling me some completely other reason he couldn't do it. The language barrier between us only provided one answer, he wasn't going to complete this job. So after asking a recommendation of someone who could, we hit the road again.
Mechanic shop #2 was quite the opposite of the Michelin dealer. Dirty, greasy, used tires scattered and instead of lifts, holes in the ground. After parking over the pit, I crawled under the car to begin my routine of rough Spanish and pantomiming to articulate the history and needs of this vehicle. This mechanic then noticed something I hadn’t; the center bolt used to align the axle assembly was bent. He was confident he could fix our rig in an hour or two for 300 pesos (about $24USD). SOLD! There was only one thing to do, go to the nearby mercado, which was clearly never visited by tourists, to get some lunch.
An hour and 300 pesos later, we hit the road smiling. I immediately noticed, though better than before, the steering wheel was still off-center. So we set out in search of a shop with an actual alignment machine, figuring the Dolphin just needed some fine-tuning. Fortunately, we were in a part of town that had far more than a plethora of mechanic shops. Unfortunately, it would seem every odd number shop we visited was incapable of working on our rig. So after wasting time at another clean shop with lifts, we were recommended to another dirty shops with pits. Perhaps the truly competent mechanics of Mexico simply prefer working in a hole in the ground, or maybe it's only coincidence. Either way this shop contained the most knowledgeable mechanic we'd found so far.
This mechanic wasted no time disassembling, measuring, and adjusting away. I crawled into the pit several times to understand the progress that was being made, and try to learn a thing or two from a mechanic much more experienced than I. After a few minutes the mechanic delivered news I neither expected nor wanted to hear. There was no installing this axle straight...because it was bent.
This is one of those moments that I let out a large exhale immediately followed by silence. Simultaneously my eyelids become heavier, my eyes become incapable of looking any higher than my feet, and my thumb and middle fingers begin instinctually trying to knead the pressure out from my temples.
After rubbing my temples long enough to jump-start my brain, it became obvious how dramatically the tides had changed. Seconds earlier I had a type of knowledge and control over the situation. I needed only to find someone with the equipment to perform the repairs I wanted. Now I had no idea if the axle was repairable or, if it wasn't, where in Mexico I, with my limited geographical and linguistic knowledge, was going to find a new one.
I asked the mechanic what the shop could do. The only proposed solution was to remove the entire assembly and deliver it to a specialist the next day. They assured us it could be repaired in two days, but were unable to give us a cost since they were outsourcing this repair. Entering into an area of unfamiliar mechanical repair with unknown costs is not a great feeling. I'm suddenly forced to sympathize with the masses of normal people trying to find mechanics every day. I have to say, I'm not terribly enjoying my newfound understanding of my fellow humans.
Despite the fear of the unknown, there is some comedy to be found in this situation. Three times we’ve returned to Tres Amigos RV Park, and it would seem each time we do so more broken than the last. We pulled in excited and whole in our beautiful Dolphin the first time. We limped in our broken, door-less Dolphin held together by a rope the second. But tonight, we walked in with our belongings on our back, and a beer in our hands.
Perhaps the world is simply testing our dedication to this adventure.