Darien Gap Crossing (Almost)

Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
Trip End Jul 21, 2012

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Flag of Panama  ,
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Today is the big day. Everything is arranged for our car to be shipped from Colón (a large port on the Caribbean Sea, 1 hour away from Panama City) to Cartagena, Colombia. To reduce the cost we found 'shipping partners': Robin and Miet, a great couple from Belgium, are going to put their camper van in the same container so we can split the costs.

At 6am I get up and find a way to print the one document that I forgot: the packing list describing all our possessions in the car (such as my guitar). At 7.15am I am behind the wheel on my way to Colón, followed by Robin and Miet, while Mai stays at the flat with the dogs. The drive is easy pretty easy although we hit morning traffic entering the Colón area. We make it to the meeting point (the parking lot of the ‘Super 99’) 20 minutes before our 9am appointment with our shipping agent, Señor Boris.

At 9.30am we are still waiting. I borrow a taxi driver’s mobile phone and call Señor Boris. He says someone will pick us up right away. 15 minutes later a guy on a motorbike shows up, mumbles the name "Boris" from inside his helmet, and asks us to follow him. He leads us to the entrance of the customs area, tells us to park outside, shows us the customs office and says we need to wait outside in front of it: Señor Boris will meet us in 5 minutes.

One more hours passes.

Robin and I decide to get the customs process started by ourselves: we have all the papers and we speak reasonable Spanish. We step into the office. Within twenty minutes, the customs lady has our papers lined-up to be processed but there are several other shipments ahead of ours. I step outside of the office and borrow a truck driver’s cell phone to call Señor Boris again: I am now totally pissed by his absence and I intend to let him know. His assistant picks up and says he is on another line, asks me to hold. I give her an earful in Spanish about being left hanging for more than an hour and a half, and say that I don’t care how busy he is: I want to see him right away. She puts me through to the man. He explains that he was on the phone because our boat is damaged and delayed by several days, so the port authority doesn’t want us to drop our cars off today. He is investigating several alternate options and he’ll come pick us up right away (I’ve heard this before). I get back into the customs office and deliver the bad news to Robin.

A few minutes, the messenger man arrives on his motorbike, enters the office and asks the customs lady if she already processed our papers. She says she was “just starting it”. He instructs her to drop everything, grabs our papers and tells us to follow him: Señor Boris is waiting for us in his car. The messenger then takes us to a Toyota SUV and we hop inside. The scene is reminiscent of gangster movies: the innocent good guys are asked to step into the back of a limousine where the big boss awaits them with bourbon and a cigar. The man turns around, greets us with a smile and extends a hand decorated with a fat silver ring to shake ours. No bourbon or cigar.

After a short drive we enter the godfather’s office: a small room without any windows. Depressing artificial light. After a few words of introduction Señor Boris repeats the story of the damaged and delayed boat, and explains that he was only informed this morning and apologizes for making us wait: he was on the phone trying to get more information and to find a solution. He says we have 3 options: pay $50 daily port storage fees until the boat comes; come back t drop the cars off in 2 days to avoid the fees; switch to another shipping line (with a different procedure and different costs). When I explain that my flight leaves the next day he offers to store my car at his house and drop it off on my behalf. I ask what kind of paper he proposes to sign so that he takes all responsibility for my car… and this option quickly disappears as Señor Boris imagines how much trouble would befall on him should anything happen to the car in the next few days. He then realizes that my passport is needed for customs and port procedures so this wouldn’t work. He picks up the phone and calls the owner of the damaged boat to enquire about the real situation. I hear him in Spanish fiercely pleading our cause and defending our interests. By the time he hangs up our options narrow down to only one: the ship owner, a friend of his, says that no one really knows when the boat will arrive because the extent of the damage is uncertain. He recommends getting our container on another ship. The only other vessel departing soon is with another maritime line (Evergreen) and the type of contract is completely different: instead of entrusting them with our cars for end-to-end shipping, we would rent our own container and entrust it to them for shipping only. This seems like a subtle difference but it’s not. On the positive side we’ll be present for sealing and unsealing of the container so there is zero chance of theft or vandalism on the cars or their content (a good thing since both vehicles contain a lot of luggage and gear). On the negative side if the container is mistreated during transport and the cars are damaged inside the container, the maritime line is not liable: their only responsibility is to deliver the container. Gulp. I wish someone would offer me a glass of bourbon.

Since this is our only viable option (the only alternative being to postpone the shipping indefinitely until the damaged boat eventually shows up) we decide to go for it. It’s already past 1pm, too late to get a container ready and loaded today: we’ll have to come back tomorrow. Robin and Miet drive to Portobello, the nearby coastal town where they were supposed to sleep tonight (without their car): it is the departure port of their sailboat to Cartagena. Meanwhile I hop in the Montero and head back to Panamá City where Mai awaits in our rental apartment, probably wondering what’s taking me so long.

The drive to the capital is easy until I reach the city limits and the first intersection that forces me to decide between two neighborhoods equally unknown. I soon find myself in a giant set of intertwined roads that remind me of Los Angeles. I try them one by one, and every single time my compass tells me I am not going in the right direction. In about 30 minutes I’ve exhausted all options and the gas tank is running low. I stop at the nearest gas station. As I fill-up the tank, a taxi pulls in for a refill. I offer to pay him for the ride if he leads me to the Casco Viejo. He nods. I am saved!

Twenty minutes later I find myself in front of Casa Sucre. With zero parking spot in sight, and a trunk loaded with 5 suitcases containing a good chunk of our earthly possessions, I am warned by two cops that if I double-park here (even for 5 minutes to unload the car) they will ticket me. I circle around the blocks for about 20 minutes and stop again to ask the cops for help and advice. They take pity and show me a spot where they will let me unload the car. Another 20 minutes later the luggage is in the apartment and the car parked a few blocks away.

I hug Mai and crash on the couch.

Despite the hassle and exhaustion, I am grateful that we do have an option to ship the car tomorrow, and even more grateful that the boat got damaged before we put our container on it.
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