Santa Catalina, Panama
We’re back. After a dizzying, joyful, exhausting, emotional, treat-filled, wine-fuelled five weeks back in the UK, we again said many goodbyes to family, friends and the cat, and returned to Panama City.
Panama has been great. We enjoyed spending a month here before we left for home – but now we’d like to leave, please. However, we can’t get out.
We should have sailed to Colombia at the weekend but are stranded here for at least an extra week by an unexpected bout of political protests, violence, strikes and blockades which began in the port city of Colón and then spread to other parts of the country. As we need to use the port to ship our vehicles out, there’s nothing for it but to wait it out.
It’s not the first time we’ve been stuck, so waiting is one thing we have become proficient at. And this time we have our fellow road-trippers, Zach and Jill to share the waiting with – not to mention sharing a few bottles of wine and rum, and some fine plates of campervan cooking.
If we drove to the end of the road in Panama, and really squinted, we could probably just about see Colombia. It’s tantalisingly close, but there’s just the matter of a swampy, dangerous, guerilla and disease-infested jungle separating us.
But despite there being a land border, there is no road through the Darien Gap, so the only way there is to ship the vehicle in a freight container and then make our own way by a separate boat, or plane. We’d planned months ago to share a 40ft container with Zach and Jill, thereby reducing our shipping costs.
One of the most frustrating things about being stranded is that we had been within a hair’s breadth of pulling off what felt to us like a logistical miracle. We’d managed to meet up in Panama City, both sort out mechanical issues with our vans, and then organise shipping for the vehicles and a four-day sailing trip to Colombia for ourselves – all within three working days.
And what a few days it was. We’d arrived back in Panama after a long journey from Edinburgh, and hit the ground running the next morning by tackling all the bureaucracy involved in getting our van out of storage and updating all the paperwork.
It was one of those frustrating days that involves a bottomless pit of patience and a permanently fixed grin. Not great when you’re jetlagged and discombobulated then? Not really.
It went a bit like this:
Us to storage company: ‘Can we have our van back please?’
Them: ‘Yes, but only once you have extended your vehicle permit’.
Taxi to customs office.
Us to customs official: ‘Can we extend our vehicle permit please?’
Ninety minutes of confusion and paper-shuffling later…
Customs official: ‘Nearly done. So all we need now is your renewed insurance policy.’
Taxi across city to insurance company.
Us to insurance company: “Can we renew our insurance policy please?’
Them: ‘Yes, but first we have to contact the office at the border where you first entered Panama.’
Ninety minutes of inexplicable faxing, phoning and typing later…
Them: ‘Here you go. You just have to go back down 21 floors to the payment office, pay, and then run back up here with the slip..’
Later.. Taxi back to customs office.
Us: ‘Now can we have our extended vehicle permit please?’
Customs official: ‘Okay, we just have to fill this out in triplicate, then you have to go to that window and pay for three photocopies, and then go to that window and pick up the copies, and….
Us: ‘Aargh, will someone just give us back our bloody van before everything shuts for the weekend!’
By a stroke of good fortune, we had bumped into Zach and Jill at customs, and they were able to help us with the final stages of retrieving the van from storage.
Firstly, we were just relieved the van was still where we’d left it. It started with a cough, a couple of misfires, and a flashing check engine light. Zach’s trusty scanner informed us we were not about to self-destruct and could move off and worry about it later. We all drove back, through horrendous traffic, to our city camp spot and collapsed into the chairs with a beer. Welcome back to the road.
After a weekend of driving around the city, getting our sorry brakes fixed, squeezing all the extra stuff we’d brought from the UK into the van, making our onward travel arrangements, celebrating Zach’s 30th birthday and stocking up on food and water, Jeremy and I headed off to a pre-arranged appointment with a mechanic in another city, to get a shopping list of work done on the van.
As we waited it out overnight in a hotel, we began to realise the situation in Colón was escalating. Protests over a new government law allowing the sale of land in the city’s duty-free zone had spilled over into gunfights, looting and strikes. The port was paralysed.
We had so many balls in the air we were starting to resemble a circus act. We’d provisionally booked a small boat to take us to Colombia, but a major storm was heading for the Caribbean and we didn’t know if it would go ahead. Then the riots in Colón had put the vehicle shipping schedule in jeopardy. On top of that, we had just a one-hour window to complete an essential pre-shipping police inspection of the vans, once our car was finished at the mechanic, but if it rained during that hour the police would refuse to do it and the whole house of cards would collapse. And all of that relied on our mechanic doing the job within the timescale he had promised..
He did, and we drove off back towards Panama City. Hurray! An hour into the journey, the check engine light came back on. We just looked at eachother, totally resigned to that damn light just being permanently illuminated.
Next morning we set off for the police inspection, due at 10am, despite the Colón situation not having improved. At 9.45am the rain came on. We sat forlornly in our cars, willing it to stop with a mental reverse-raindance. It worked, and the inspection was carried out. Hurray! All the paperwork was on schedule, but our shipping agent said they could not guarantee whether we’d be able to load the cars onto the container the next day, as planned. She told us to stand by our emails until the next morning.
We were all packed for our sailing trip and poised to get the vans to Colón if we got the go-ahead. We waited and waited, and then finally the email dropped into my inbox. Colón was a mess, said our agent. Our inbound container vessel had arrived, unloaded and left Panama again without any cargo. Our ship had sailed.
Customs offices, banks, shops, everything, had shut down. There was no way we could go, so we’d been re-booked for seven days hence and would have to sit it out until then, she said.
Deflated, we made a plan to head out of the city and wait on the coast. A good decision, as it turned out, because the next day Panama City erupted in violent protests too.
Today – after parliament agreed over the weekend to repeal the controversial law that caused all of this – things seem calmer.
We are waiting for news from the agent about whether we can get out this week. Meanwhile we’ve got the beach, two huge bottles of Panamanian rum, and good company.
If you have to wait, you may as well make it as painless as possible.
Days: 354 [days in the UK not being counted]
Things we now know to be true: Rum helps the days fly by.