The Sordid Tale of the Timing Belt

RAV4 in the wild(The elusive RAV4 in its natural habitat. Only a few hundred are left roaming the plains of Eastern Africa; the rest have been domesticated or killed for their lean meat and the delicious timing belts, which are ripped from the still living beast and used as an aphrodisiac in sacred fertility rituals).

Did you know how important a timing belt is to the general health and well-being of a motor vehicle? I confess, I never knew much about what it did for a living in there  — I mean, really? A timing belt? Like, the car might show up a few minutes late without it? Big deal. I really always considered it to be one of those lame gimmicks your mechanic could pull out of his bag of tricks if he felt your invoice didn’t quite live up to his expectations: “You know, you’re coming up on 94,000 miles, so you should probably consider replacing your timing belt. Dude, it ain’t cheap, but it’s worth doing…” What, I’m going to argue with a guy who is using a four pound spanner to casually stir his coffee? Besides, there’s always that ominous feeling that if you don’t agree to whatever astoundingly expensive procedure he is recommending, your car will spontaneously combust to punish your arrogant neglect.

So, to sum it up: timing belts and yours truly — not an effin’ clue. Ah, but I am much, much wiser now. Because it is now painfully clear to me how astoundingly useless a car becomes when the timing belt breaks. Even more astounding is how awkward it is to have that happen in the middle of rush hour in a busy African city where AAA’s coverage is, shall we say, a wee bit spotty.

No fireworks, no drama — our ancient RAV4 just up and died as I headed off to pick the kids up at school the other day. After bribing a couple of moto drivers to help me shove the offending object off the main road, it dawned on me that I really had not a clue what to do about a situation like this in Rwanda. After some frantic dialing of the few people I know here who have cars, I managed to get a hold of a mechanic. Or, rather, one of the drivers for the Clinton Health Access Initiative (the guys doing all the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting for the Ministry of Health on the project that Lisa is involved with) got a hold of a mechanic for me, put him in the back seat of his car, and then drove up to take a look at my impressive new paperweight. That’s how it works here: you don’t get your car towed to where the mechanic is, you bring him to where sick car happens to have keeled over.

Unlike, say, a flat tire, which even a total hack like me can figure out, a torn timing belt doesn’t stand out as duh, obvious, hidden as it is deep in the bowels of the beast. Initially, I thought the whole thing was down to a dead battery or a dodgy alternator or distributor cap. Judging by the state of our engine compartment, covered in a thick layer of Africa’s signature red dust, it was also quite possible that some vital organ had simply rotted away. But after one try at starting the car and hearing what apparently is a telltale rasping sound, Mr. Mechanic came up with his diagnosis; a few deft turns of a spanner later he had removed enough doodads and random obstacles to confirm it: belt very torn indeed. And as the sun rapidly set in the west, the next step was to figure out how to replace it before the urban vultures started picking over the carcass of our car.

Here’s the great thing: every other car on the road in Rwanda is a RAV4. That’s why everyone gets them: they’re a known entity, so spare parts can be found and the mechanics know their way around their innards. They are also fairly decent cars, judging by the fact that our ’98 with 288Ks of dirt roads on it is still running fairly well (except when it’s not — your mileage may vary, but my argument still sort of stands). So, Mr. Mechanic was confident he could get a hold of a new belt, and to my great surprise, he insisted he’d just come back and install it the next day. Yes, right there, still on the side of the road.

And sure enough, yesterday morning he reappeared with his apprentice, four spanners, a screwdriver, and a spanking new timing belt, and proceeded to confidently tear apart the engine room of our car.

Rather than rubberneck the whole sordid affair and get in the way of the expert, I went instead to get the money to eventually pay the good man for his troubles. The fact that he’d been able to get the rather pricey timing belt on credit was quite unusual; normally, you have to give your “technician” — plumber, electrician, whatever — cash up front so he can go buy his supplies, sometimes even the tools, for the job at hand. When I returned to the scene of the crime a couple of hours later, the new belt was in place. A quick firing of the half-naked engine confirmed that a) the belt worked, b) the belt had indeed been the only problem, and c) thankfully, the engine had not been damaged by running, however briefly, without the belt, which apparently happens a lot (see: valves bent and bashed out of shape; see also: expensive as hell).

The final twist was having to drive the mechanic and his sidekick back to their garage across town; in part because they didn’t have their own transport, in part so I could meet and settle up with their boss, Mr. Allan. His absolutely chaotic yard was crammed full of more-or-less totaled vehicles and an army of guys in blue overalls who appeared to be providing euthanasia to the few cars with any life left in them. If it wasn’t for the miraculous resurrection I’d just witnessed with my own car, I’d easily have written the whole operation off as an absolute amateurish disaster to be avoided at all costs. I exchanged phone numbers with Mr. Allan, shook his hand in gratitude, commended his mechanic as an artisan and a saviour, and last but not least handed over a wad of bills.

Total price for parts and labor: $100. Lesson learned: priceless. Never EVER dis a mechanic, particularly when he starts talking about the need to replace your timing belt, especially if you’re in a place like Rwanda, where the timing belt currently serving you may be older than your firstborn child. In fact, I may start wearing a timing belt around my waist at all times as a fashion accessory — just in case…