Vehicle troubles are daunting in a foreign country

Posted April 23, 2009, at 7:37 p.m.

“Turn the key again,” Ryan told me.

“I am turning the key. Nothing’s happening.”

“Do the wipers work?” Elissa asked from the back seat.

“Yeah, and the lights. The battery’s fine,” I said.

“Let’s get out and push it a couple of feet — maybe that’ll do the trick.” I waited in the driver’s seat. Nothing happened.

“You sure you’re turning the key right?”

“How many ways are there to turn a key?” I hollered back, exasperated.

“The starter must be shot,” Elissa said.

“You two go find a mechanic,” I said. “I’ll stay here and try to talk the city out of towing us.”

The sometimes-faithful Mazda Bongo van that was our New Zealand base camp seemed unwilling to continue. We were stuck in Queenstown. I sighed. “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today,” I muttered. Famous last words.

I have a long and sordid history with car troubles. My first car accident happened less than three months after I got my driver’s license. It was December and snowing hard, yet I chose to take the long way home anyway to — if you’ll believe this — look at Christmas lights. The real “display” came when I careened off an icy corner into a telephone pole, causing a localized power outage.

One would think that, if nothing else, the frequency with which I have visited (and even worked in) garages since then would endow me with a little more than your basic common car sense, but, unfortunately, this is not the case. I can do all of your standard maintenance on a 953B CAT loader but haven’t progressed beyond tire changing and oil checking on my battered Toyota. I still fight the urge to solve perturbing noises that may or may not be valve rattle by simply turning up the radio. Can’t hear it? It must be fixed.

Add the reality that short, young-faced women are sometimes taken less than seriously with cars, and you have the recipe for a predicament. Once I asked a rental car salesman about the squeaky brakes on the car I was testing out. “Oh, that sound just means that they’re working,” he told me with a smile. Right. I asked to try a different car.

I was imagining the conversation with the New Zealand law in my head — “I’d love to move my car, sir, only, you see, it won’t move” — when a mechanic pulled up. Salvation wears coveralls.

The mechanic promptly reinforced my belief that most things can be fixed by kicking them. After shaking hands all around, he disappeared underneath the van, produced a brief flurry of metallic whacking sounds, and crawled back out. “Try it again,” he said as he brushed himself off. Sure enough, I turned the key and the engine coughed to life with its familiar rumble.

“It’s the starter,” he said. “You’ll have to get it properly fixed at some point.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, you can do what I just did, you can whack this thing over here — see where I’m pointing? — that’ll do it for a little while. After that, you can park on hills — roll-start it and pop it into second gear.”

I had a brief vision of us roll-starting the van all the way back to Christchurch. I had an even briefer vision of explaining this function of the van to a potential buyer. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” I muttered.

“We can replace the starter for you,” the mechanic said, “but the soonest we could get you in is tomorrow morning.” He paused, thinking, then spoke slowly. “I could do it for you today, after hours, off the books. Charge you less.”

“Where will you get the parts?”

“I will get them,” was all he would say, with an enigmatic certainty that brooked no argument but which provided little reassurance of legitimacy.

We laughed nervously, exchanging perplexed and mistrustful looks. Was he being nice, or was this a truly dubious offer? How is car business handled in New Zealand, anyway? It sounded, quite frankly, a little shady, and not knowing the local customs of car maintenance did not help us.

We decided instead to get the car fixed at a garage the next day. The van started up happily, chugging innocently as though it had never misbehaved. As we left Queenstown behind us, happy to head back to the trails, I crossed my fingers and hoped that our “house” would make it just a little longer.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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