12/23/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

It's Only Flat on the Bottom

When was the last time you had to change a flat tire? For me, it was over 40 years ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, tires weren't very good. They wore out after 25,000 miles, were easily punctured and would go flat almost immediately. I got pretty good at changing flats and could complete the task in 20 minutes or less. Now, our tires are really good, can last 60,000 miles and rarely go flat. I don't even know where the jack is in my car.

So, I was really surprised during a recent trip to Tanzania to watch two flats being changed. When we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport, we found that the Toyota Landcruiser taking us to Moshi had a flat on the right rear. A perfect job of changing the tire was spoiled by a few things. It was pitch dark, the lug nuts were too tight and there were a lot of sidewalk supervisors, including me. But within 30 minutes, it was done.

Two days later, my team and I were driving on one of the rare paved roads in a rural area, when our driver slowed down, got out, looked and said, "We have a puncture on the right rear tire." Because we were traveling up a long uphill grade, he drove slowly to a fairly flat area and pulled over onto the narrow shoulder. The car was still partly in the road and oncoming traffic needed to swerve around it. In Tanzania, the usual way to warn oncoming drivers of a breakdown is to put tree branches in the road. I was pleased to see that our driver had a red metal triangle but not so pleased when he set it in the road only 20 feet back from the car.

We got out and stood in the ditch by the side of the road. The driver took the spare off and laid it in the road next to the car. Four of the Tanzanians who were facilitating this trip climbed out of the ditch and onto the highway to watch as the driver crawled under the Toyota to place the jack next to the right rear wheel. Over the noise of oncoming cars and semi-trailer trucks, I shouted that it was dangerous for them to be standing there in the road. They waved and ignored me.

Meanwhile, our driver had raised the car on what looked like a very small jack. He struggled to loosen the lug nuts as I watched the car swaying on that inadequate jack. I thought I would provide my years of experience and give him suggestions ("Loosen the lug nuts before you jack the car up," for instance). But I decided that he had enough kibitzers. Jeff and I stood in the ditch as he got the lugs off, removed the flat and struggled to get the spare mounted. The Tanzanians swayed in sympathy to the swaying of the Toyota and the wind of passing vehicles inches away from them ruffled their clothes.

The driver got the lugs onto the spare and then jumped on them to (over)tighten them. "He'll have a really hard time getting them off next time," Jeff said. "I just hope that the car doesn't fall off the jack," I replied.

Both of us looked at each other as a semi-trailer truck passed by just inches away from our Tanzanian colleagues. They seemed unconcerned and focused on supporting the driver as he finally lowered the car, put away his tools and we continued our drive.

Tanzanians are smart people and they know the risks of standing on a busy highway. I think that their culture values support for people in this situation more than the risk of being struck by a vehicle. They understand the risk but choose to ignore it.

For me, the takeaway lesson is always check the condition of the right rear tire of any vehicle I will ride in.