Thursday, 9 October 2014

0115 - Car repairs, Canal, and Troopie goes sailing

Up, packed, and checked out of our hotel in Panama by 7.15 am, and off to the Toyota dealer to pick up Troopie.  We had received an email from them at 8.30 pm last night saying the car was finished and did we want to pick it up straight away or wait till the morning ?  We waited till morning, needless to say, but yet again very impressed with their service – I mean, how often does your car dealer email you at 8.30 pm at night to say your car is ready ? We had found a friendly taxi driver yesterday, Alberto, and after running us back from the car dealer to our hotel last night, he had agreed to come and pick us up and take us back this morning – And there he was, waiting outside for us !  Perfect.  Off to Ricardo Perez Toyota.

Got there just after 8 am, and there was Troopie all ready and clean from her wash yesterday.  The old parts removed were there for me to inspect, and the brake pads were pretty worn – I think in Aus I would have gone a bit longer on them, but in this situation, they needed changing.  And I had checked the water pump part number with Dean Futcher my 4WD expert in Aus overnight, and he confirmed that was the correct part number, so I will keep the old one just in case, and hope the new one solves any leak issues.  Fingers crossed.  Anyway, smiling Katherine was there to ensure everything was right and to arrange the payment of my bill (Big ouch, but necessary, I guess – Most of the bill was the pump and labour), and shortly afterwards we set off towards Colon at the northern (Caribbean) end of the canal to get Troopie on her way to Columbia.

After coming in towards town along the causeway in the rush hour traffic, and seeing the skyscrapers of the city glistening in the sunshine, and hundreds of pelicans sitting on the mud flats sunning themselves, we turned north and headed up across the width of the Panama isthmus to Colon, from where the ships to Columbia depart. The drive was pretty boring, but through country that must have been similar to the original country that they dug the canal through between 1900 and 1914.  Also a LOT of Pampas Grass everywhere – Hmmm !!

First stop in Colon was the Wilhelmsen office (the people who own the RoRo ships) – And finding that was interesting, to say the least.  They had given us the address, but a) Garmins recognise very few street names in this part of the world, and b) there are no street name signs around here, so finding anything is always a question of stopping and asking directions about every 100 yards.  Asking so frequently achieves 2 things – One, it allows you to ignore 50% of the people’s instructions, because they didn’t have a clue where you were looking for anyway, and two it means you are less likely to make a wrong turning, because if you do, getting back is often a long and involved process ! We finally found the right area (ports really are not easy to find your way around in, even in Aus !), and there are 5 identical buildings – We are looking for Building C.  Does anyone write A, B, C on the buildings ??  No, of course not.  So you just pick one and start from there – We found it on the 3rd attempt !!  (For anyone else’s reference, the co-ordinates are N 09.21.862  W079.52.886)  In we go, find the office, and the lady we need – Yet another Katherine ! (Easy for me to remember when all the people I am dealing with have the same name !!)   Fill out a couple of forms, and then we are told to go to Aduane – Customs.  But as it is now nearly 12, and Adouane closes for lunch, no point in going there now.  So downstairs for a takeway meal of Chicken and Rice with all the wharf workers out in the courtyard– And hope the food coming out of these little stalls doesn’t cause us any “grief” !!  Tasted quite good anyway.

Then off looking for Aduane.  The directions given by Katherine were NOT good, and we eventually found the gate (not a single sign, needless to say), find a place to park Troopie (right in front of a big “No Parking” sign on the side of the dual carriageway, like everyone else), and in we go.  I took photos afterwards because it is unbelievable and I had to document it for others who might be passing this way on a similar journey!   You park out on the road (dual carriageway with big trucks roaring along it), and go towards a closed wire gate. By asking questions you learn that you then turn right and weave through a seemingly impenetrable wall of trucks (some derelict) with about 6 inches between them, and there is a rather seedy looking building with about 4 or 5 doors – Which one holds the golden key ??  Very few signs on doors…..(Have I mentioned that already ?) After a couple of false tries, and a few questions addressed to helpful locals (most seem to be truck drivers coming to pick up their loads), we queue for an hour in steamy heat, with very little movement – I get the feeling few people really know what is going on, and there are a number who seem to be passing papers over people’s heads, combined with a few dollars, and then leaving shortly afterwards – While we hardly move forward.  Cooper by this time is approaching boiling point, both physically and mentally !!  Finally a truck driver who DOES know what is going on comes in, shouts at all the drivers in front of him to “move along” or something similar, and bingo 5 minutes later we are at a window.  Fantastic.  I reach down to waist level, bend over, and pass my papers through the small hole.

“Wrong office”.     WHAT DO YOU MEAN ?  I have been here an hour !!!!!  Anyway, long story short an official guy comes out from behind the one-way window and in perfect English apologises for not advising me earlier…….and takes me outside and up to another door.

I will mention here that ALL the windows between the public and the staff sitting behind them are totally one way – So heavily tinted you can’t see if anyone is behind them or not.  There is then a small hole in the glass at about waist level through which you pass papers, and through which, after bending down to about 3 ft, you try to speak through and hear what the person behind the window is telling you !  Needless to say there is no one behind half the windows, so you wander around, bobbing up and down, trying to find a window with a person behind it, then trying to hear (and in my case understand) what they are saying !!  Chaotic. Absolutely chaotic. 

Anyway, after one hour waiting in the wrong office with all the truckies, this man takes us up to the last door in the row – And it is totally covered in pink crepe paper, crepe bows, and large photos of women’s breasts – All about Breast Cancer Awareness, I believe, which is a fine thing – But the Customs sign on the door is totally covered !!!  How the hell is anyone supposed to know that this is a customs office ????  Anyway, once inside (and until I opened it I did wonder what I was going to find inside !!), there was an office, and in 5 minutes someone was dealing with me, and I had the correct papers !!  And for those on the same trail, the coordinates for the customs gate entry are N 09.20.821   W 079.52.719.

But by now it was too late to proceed to the next stage, so we took off into Colon to find a hotel for the night so we could continue with our adventure tomorrow morning !!  Janet had jotted down the addresses of a couple of hopefuls, so we set off into downtown Colon, travelling down the main street. And it got seedier, and seedier, and seedier.  And more and more run down.  Lots of Chicken buses, and all seem to have paintings of Jesus on the back door – Some better than others, some
quite graphic !  Past a road side fruit market, and some terrible buildings that are seemingly fully occupied, until we come to a T junction, where out hotel is supposed to be.  But nothing there but a corrugated iron fence, with a statue of Jesus behind it with his arms raised !  No hotel here then.  We wander around a little, finding empty and very dirty waterfront lots, and then seem to get into an even seedier part of town – Although the man hole covers were still mostly in place, so it can’t be TOO bad an area !!  One building seemed totally derelict – But there were 3 new satellite dishes on the walls, so someone must live there.  Back on the main street, we even passed “Ferreteria Jaimie” – Is this where our friend Jamie buys his ferrets ? Also saw a number of Indian women, presumably from the remote Darien Gap jungle area between Panama City and Columbia – They wear very colourful clothes and have bangles and wrapping up their calves.  Fascinating. 

By now Janet and I were agreed that the more reasonably priced Colon hotels were just not going to be suitable – So we went to the Sheraton and splashed out !!  We have saved some money with the car now going RoRo instead of in a container, so a little luxury is in order !  So got a room there, amazed at the size of the rooms etc, and I went to work on the car while it was still daylight.  As the car is now going RoRo, this means that the car is open, the shipping people have the keys, and people actually drive it onto the ship, and off again at destination.  So anything left in the car is at risk of disappearing.  This is how we shipped from Australia to  the US in March, so I was prepared.  I built a wire mesh screen that I bolt in place behind the front seats, thus isolating the front cabin from the rest of the car. I then lock the back door with a different key, padlock the spare wheels closed over the back doors, have the pop top padlocked shut, and have the side windows covered in security mesh.  So people can climb in the front doors and drive the car, but there is no way they can get in the back to get any of our personal gear – Not without a lot of work, anyway.  We have carried this metal grill around for 6 months in case it was required, and it took me 3 or so hours to completely empty the front cabin of stuff (radio, anything on the dashboard, in door pockets, under or behind the seats) and then install the grill and bolt it in place, and then repack everything into the back of the car.  And of course the fridge has to be empty and turned off or the battery would go flat !  Finally got it all finished just as it got dark, then had a HOT shower, and we went down and had a few beers and a lovely supper before turning in, everything we need out of the car, and just a few last bits and pieces of paperwork to deal with in the morning.  Now we have a sailing date for the car, and an ETA Cartagena, we can make arrangements for ourselves – So we book a hotel in Cartagena, air tickets to Cartagena, and a hotel for tomorrow night close to Panama airport, as our flight to Cartagena leaves at 5.45 am (yuck !!).  To bed, exhausted.

Thursday  9th Oct.  Wake up early, quick breakfast, and then meet up with Manuel, our driver who is going to follow us to the port today, then once we have dropped off Troopie, take us back to Panama, via a bit of sightseeing on the Canal.  First it is back to Aduane – This time an office just next to Building C of Wilhelmson.  But once again we had been given wrong instructions by Katherine, and after much bending over to peer through small waist high windows again, and a lot of help from a very helpful gentleman called Javier, we finally find the correct window and an hour later we pay our $64 due for some Port fees, get a stamp, and head off to deliver the car to the Ro Ro gate.  Once again, not so simple – First off al they don’t want the car !!  Luckily, Javier has by this time reached the same gate, and he translates for us, and they finally let me in and usher me through a mesh opening.  There Troopie is slowly studied, then photographed, then I have to open everything up, more photos, then the dog squad arrive and a big German Shepherd looking dog (with VERY muddy feet I might add) is induced by his handler to jump into both the drivers and passenger seats (on my beautiful sheepskins !!), and then leap in the back and prance around all over my mattresses and other personal effects in the back, leaving a trail of muddy paw prints wherever he went !!   Found nothing of interest though,  and I was then allowed to close and lock everything up again, and Troopie was driven away !!

We then jumped into Manuel’s up-market taxi, and took off south towards the Miraflores Locks, where we had been the other day but got there after closing, so had seen nothing.  We had thought we could drive down beside the canal, but it turns out that the Miraflores locks are the only ones that cater to the public- The locks at the other (northern) end are not open to the public, and there is no public road beside the canal for
most of its length. Anyway, had a pleasant couple of hours in the visitor’s centre, watched a movie and saw the museum of how they built the canal, and then a ship was coming through the locks, so we got to see how they do it.  2014 marks the 100 year anniversary since the canal opened in 1914, so there is a fair bit if hype about it. They are also building a new set of locks that are much bigger than the current ones, and will allow even bigger ships to pass through the canal.  These are currently being  built off to the side of the current canal, on the other side of a hill, and I’m not sure quite when they will be opened, but in the next year or two I think.  All very interesting.

Then Manuel dropped us off at our Panama airport hotel where we will have an early night as we have to get up at about 2 am to get to the airport in time for our early flight to Cartagena.

A last “twist in the tale” – The car leaves Panama on Friday 10th, and arrives Cartagena on Saturday 11th.  So I ask the shipping people how we get our car out on a Saturday.  Cannot – Docks in Cartagena don’t work weekends.  OK,
please call agent in Cartagena and ask when we can get the car.  When Katherine comes back, she says “Tuesday” !!   WHAT ??  Yes, Unfortunately Monday is a holiday this week in Cartagena, so nothing will happen till Tuesday at the earliest, and then of course they will be very busy !!   So we have now had to book a hotel for 5 nights in Cartagena, and will get 4 days to play the tourist around Cartagena.  Not totally bad, because Cartagena is supposed to be really interesting – But it blows the budget out a bit having to stay in all these hotels !  But who would have thought  - Only a one day sailing to Cartagena, but you need 1-2 days before to do paperwork, and then another 4 days waiting in Cartagena to be able to collect the car and get back on the road !   Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Pics here :-


  1. Amazing service from the garage. Don't get that in Aussie???
    Things can only get better.

  2. I had great difficulty in sending money to the Customs Dog Handler to ensure he walked his Alsatian through some muddy puddles before checking Troopie. Seems like he delivered!!!! Shame about the sheepskins.....would have LOVED to see your face! Great blogging Giles. J&S