Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Repair a VW Polo with a Swiss Army Knife, a Cell Phone, a Coke Bottle, and a Citroen

(by Eric)

Joe, one of the Annie's Lodge office staff, told me he would call a mechanic.  First they said the guy was on his way.  Then Joe found me and said the mechanic doesn't have a car, we have to go to him.  So we got in the car and drove south from Zomba about three miles to the next little trading center where Joe said to pull off because the mechanic would meet us there.  Sure enough, after about 15 minutes Lester the mechanic and two of his "boys" (a general term for assistants of all ages here) came walking down the road.  They poked around under the hood for a little bit while I turned the car on and off, and then Lester said he thought the problem was the transmission fluid. But we would need to go back into town to find transmission fluid.  So they took off their shirts, which were dirty from having worked on another car, and turned them inside out to sit up so they wouldn't make the upholstery dirty when they piled into the car with us.  

So then we headed back to Zomba and made a tour of at least three gas stations before we found one that had automatic transmission fluid.  We finally found one that sold us a gallon of fluid for 18,000 MK - around $50.  So then we went to the mechanic's shop, which was 3 miles out the north side of Zomba.  When we got there they pulled the car in over their grease pit, a brick-lined hole in the ground under a small shade arbor covered with cardboard and loofah vines.  While it cooled I bought cold drinks for everyone because it was really hot that day.  Then they proceeded to get to work.  There was some excitement when they dropped the transmission drain plug into the bottom of their grease pit.  So they had to dig around in all the trash down there, using their cell phones as lights until they found it among all the snack wrappers.  I think one of the helpers might have gotten a little hot transmission fluid sprayed on him in the process, but they eventually got all the transmission fluid drained out.   

While they were doing this I admired the drinking cup which was sitting on the cup beside the grease pit: it was the outer casing of a (presumably used) oil filter with a loop welded on for a handle.  I really wished I'd had a camera along.    

It turned out that the transmission fluid was pretty low and badly in need of changing.  But then the problem was how to put the new fluid in the transmission, since the filler was located on top of the transmission which sites under the engine.  They started looking around on the ground and in the back seats of all the cars parked in their little lot; they said "We need a pipe."  Eventually they popped the hood on an old Citroen and started removing hose from the engine, but one end was stuck.  One of the "boys" went off and returned with a scalpel blade, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to work.  (No handle, no leverage.)  So I passed them my Swiss army knife, and the next thing you knew we had a length of black rubber hose.  They then produced a short piece of small-diameter plastic tubing which they cut in half, and they put one half in each end of the hose for a spout.  Finally, they took the used plastic Coke bottle from under our front seat, made a hole in the top, and attached one of the pieces of plastic tubing to the lid of the Coke bottle.  AFter cutting the bottom off the Coke bottle, they had the funnel they needed to fill the transmission.  With cell phone in had for a light, one of the helpers climbed down into the grease pit and navigated the bottom end of the hose into the transmission, while another hovered over the engine compartment holding the top end of the funnel, while the mechanic slowly poured the transmission fluid through the custom-made funnel until the transmission was filled.  A certain amount of transmission fluid was spilled in the process, although not as much as you might expect.  The mechanic started the car up and drove it forwards and back across his small lot a few times, and judged that the repair was complete.  For all this invention they charged me MK 10,000, about $25.  I'm a little skeptical about the diagnosis but the car has more or less behaved itself since then, and the transmission fluid may well have needed changing anyway.

(A note about how people living and working in places off the electrical grid can use cell phones.  Many businesses will charge phones for a small fee - we've seen a lot of barber shops advertising phone charging.  Sometimes you see someone on a bicycle hauling a car battery.  We understand that they're taking the battery to the nearest place it can be charged, and then they can take it back to the village and use it to charge phones.)

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