In the Market for Lemons: Buying My Mexican Car

I try, I really do, to do without.

When we moved into our house in Mexico, I endured a full two weeks of cold showers before I climbed up to my roof with a lighter and a Leatherman knife and went to work on the hot water heater myself. Then I endured three months of tepid showers heated partially by the sun that happened to hit the heater, and partially by the heater’s pilot light.

I was a vegetarian—except when the temptation was too great—for what might otherwise have been my fashionably disordered eating years. Now that I’m pregnant and into babies, except when I’m at the beach and the smell of salt wears me down, I don’t eat seafood.

As for shopping, I have earned two graduate degrees and lived in five countries since I bought my last swimsuit. Half of my wardrobe dates back to my college years and the other half is either handed down from my little sister or a gift from my mother-in-law.

But however dismissive I can be of the things I don’t actively crave, like any American girl with a bit of open road in my blood, I’m awfully attached to my freedom of movement.

We didn’t, however, drive to Mexico when we moved here. We talked about it—not about taking our too-shiny, wedding-white Subaru wagon, but maybe buying a beater—but in the end, how could we? The way people talked about the border, even where we lived just four hours north of the locura that is Ciudad Juarez, it would have been unreasonable to drive across with our towheaded two-year-old and a baby-on-the-way. Our university had issued a hodgepodge of travel warnings and restrictions, and even the really ballsy (i.e. not parents) travelers that we knew told us that if you drive across, fill your gas tank, cross, and don’t slow down for at least a hundred miles.

If we really need one, we decided, we’d have to buy it there.

For better or worse, I have some experience buying cars in other countries. When I taught in El Salvador during my early twenties, I bought an old green Volvo station wagon from a family leaving the U.S. Embassy (my passion for station wagons is borderless). It took me six infuriating months to get a license plate that wasn’t a number written on a Raisin Bran box, but I succeeded and learned a lot about dealing with Latin American traffic police in the meantime. El Salvador was a totally different country once I had my own transportation, and the whole Central American isthmus felt as small as it looks on a map.

We also have plenty of experience with public transportation. In Ecuador, where my husband and I moved to from El Salvador, we didn’t need a car. With a few memorable exceptions, there always just happened to be a bus leaving for wherever we wanted to go at precisely the moment we wanted to go there for about a dollar an hour. This was so much the case that we made a rule for ourselves not to board buses that were pulling away (it was too likely there were no good seats and anyway another would be along soon).

Mexico’s public transportation isn’t bad. Here in Morelia, the streets are all but clogged with taxis, plus there are “combis,” which are little vans that run on particular (and byzantine) routes. The interstate buses can even be luxurious. But the taxis have no seatbelts, in spite of Mexican laws requiring them, and the combis, while cheap and charming—everyone greets you when you get on—can be a bit like an exhaust-filled amusement park ride.

But seatbelts and air quality aren’t the only concerns we have. In 2006, the summer before we got married, my husband and I had had a great time hitchhiking along the Jalisco coast. But those were different times, for us and for Mexico. Recently we took a taxi to where the cheap regional buses leave Morelia for Pátzcuaro and at the bus stop we were accosted by the cab drivers offering to take the group of us—four adults and the toddler—for less than the cost of the bus. We weren’t tempted (five in a tiny Mexican taxi, plus driver, isn’t exactly first class travel), but just in case the driver of the cab we’d just vacated waved me back.

“You should take the bus,” the driver said in clear English (which he hadn’t spoken while we’d been on board, although I thought I’d caught him snort at a joke I’d made). “It’s more secure.”

Would we use a car enough to make it worthwhile? Would we be able to sell it again? Would it get stolen? Would it really be any safer to drive ourselves than to let taxi drivers who really understood Mexican road culture? Could we drive it back to the States?

For over three months we have casually debated these questions. And we have studied the variety of cars for sale around town. We learned that Nissans and Volkswagens are the most prevalent makes and we began to recognize the Mexican models. Prices, we noted without surprise, were pretty high for old cars. And, since Mexican roads and driving styles are not gentle, the quality was pretty low. Many cars for sale listed both a price and a possible trade: “Cambio Por Chevy.”

And then, walking through the old city center one Saturday evening, we saw our car parked right in front of the cathedral. It was a red-brown, nine-year-old VW Pointer station wagon, the model that replaced the Beetle as VW’s proletariat car. The paint was peeling and there was a hole in the roof and the windshield was cracked. We peeked inside: it was a standard with all of its seatbelts and room for two carseats.

“It’s nice,” my husband said. “But I didn’t bring a pen.”

We looked at the phone number painted in white on the rear window. I grinned. It was nearly identical to my parents’ number.

“No problem,” I said. “Even I can remember this one.”

But I didn’t have to. A couple hours later, when we were on our way home, we passed the brown wagon again. A moment later, something made me glance back. It was our second stroke of luck: a family was climbing into the car. We backtracked, said hello, and got a closer look.

A few days later, the owner brought it over for us to take a test drive. And a few days after that, my husband took it to a mechanic for an assessment.

This is when I got excited. I studied the map of Mexico in my husband’s office, looking for the first time at places that weren’t Guadalajara or Guanajuato. Maybe we could visit our American friends in their Oaxacan beach house for Thanksgiving, I thought, tracing out a route. And when the butterflies come to Michoacán, we could just pack up the newborn we’ll have by then to go see them without hiring a driver and a car and so on. And then there was the prospect of making a trip back to the U.S.: with a car, we could actually take more than photographs of the beautiful, lead-free pottery behind my husband’s research home with us. Leaking my optimism, I talked to my mother-in-law about bringing our infant carseat from the States when our baby is born. I had been baffled by the riddle of how we’d get around with two unrestrained little people in my care. Even my secret, predawn pregnancy fears of giving birth in the back of a Mexican taxicab began to subside.

I might pride myself on doing without, but if I didn’t have to…

The mechanic reported back that the car needed a few new belts, a catalytic converter, and rear brakes. Not too bad.

We made an offer that exceeded the price suggested by the books the mechanic had but took into account the repairs the car would need. The owner stood his ground on his price and refused to make repairs. Everyone went home.

Then things began to unravel. The money wasn’t anything to get worked up over; there were only about $200 between us and the seller. But talking in pesos—they’re about 12:1 with the U.S. dollar—blew the numbers out of scale and we waffled. Finally, to steel ourselves, we spent an entire Friday touring used car lots. We test drove similar cars: Pointers that cost less but lacked the power to go uphill in any gear above second; Jettas that cost more but listed to one side. Once we had purged our indecision with the juice of such lemons, my husband called the seller. Who didn’t answer. Who didn’t return our calls that day or the next.

On the third day, he picked up. A few minutes later I was on the phone with my bank.

Sitting together in the waiting room of the transportation ministry to transfer the car’s title, my husband learned that the seller had waffled too. Maybe it was because the visit to the mechanic had convinced him the car was in better shape than he’d thought, or maybe it was because having an American family interested in his car raised it in his esteem. In any case, thinking that he’d keep it, he’d actually taken the car in for repairs after all. He had even bought a used catalytic converter.

“It’s funny,” he’d remarked to my husband. “Most people around here want to go to the U.S. to buy a car, but you’ve come to Mexico to buy one.”

By that afternoon, that brown station wagon was parked out front of our home. And as soon as our son went down for his nap, my husband and I rushed out to try out our various theories for how to accomplish the complicated turn from our narrow one-way street into our house’s even narrower garage.

We opened the wrought iron doors. I prepared to navigate while my husband—who had made the phone calls and negotiated the deal and therefore gets to go first for a little while—climbed into the driver’s seat.

He turned the key in the ignition. The engine chugged and died. Turned, died. And then flat-lined.

My husband and I looked at one another through the window of our new-old Mexican car.

All we could do was laugh.

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