Standing in the cramped bathroom of the Subway sandwich shop, I counted the money: $2,100. I uncrinkled the oil-stained cookie bag that I’d snagged from someone’s tray as I had walked toward the bathroom, and slid the one inch thick stack of twenty dollar bills inside. I folded the oily bag around the stack of money, slid it into my pocket and then stared at my tired, unshaven face in the dirty mirror. I hadn’t done anything this shady since I lent that beleaguered Nigerian Prince my whole life’s savings. But we needed to get across the Darien Gap – the 80 mile long swath of impenetrable, guerilla-ridden jungle separating Panama from Colombia – and it had come to this. The Subway cookie bag was our ticket to freedom.
The only way to cross the Gap with a car is to place the vehicle in a shipping container and retrieve it on the other side. We were teased with the promise of a new ferry service that would connect the two sides, but on the day that we went to the ferry office in Panama City to reserve our spot, they told us that it had been delayed by another month. The next morning we began the dehumanizing process of getting Nacho on a ship.
In the morning our shipping agent emailed us, describing how to find the nondescript building in a Panama City ghetto where our car was to be inspected. The first step to safely crossing the world’s most deadly stretch of jungle was to drive into an equally deadly ghetto and have a guy look at our engine. The directions weren’t confidence inspiring:
“Go toward Sante Fe hospital and continue as if looking for Albrook…Stay in the left lane when you turn to Santa Fe…and when you see the bridge don’t take it…on the left where there are buildings – ugly buildings hahaha…there in the open ground – where there is construction for roads…this is vehicle control…there will be various automobiles. Climb the ladder to the metal door, announce yourself and open your hood to cool. Important…announce yourself because these are special cowboys…”
Detecting our navigational ineptitude, the agent ultimately met us on the banks of the Panama Canal and led us into the heart of the ghetto herself. After a hair-raising drive through Panama City traffic and an hour sitting in the dirt parking lot surrounded by slums, we were informed that no inspectors had come to work that day.
“Tomorrow they will work,” our agent promised. We would have to venture into the belly of the beast one more time.
The next morning we sat around the ghetto parking lot wiping the egg from our faces after the inspectors failed to materialize again.
“They are in a seminar,” our agent told us, “they will be back at noon”.
“Great, so we’ll just wait until noon and they can inspect our engines when they get here,” I said.
“Not possible. They only inspect engines between 10 and 11. Noon is not between 10 and 11.” We had to remember that this was Latin America, where things don’t always happen in a logical fashion. Inspecting our engines at noon would cut into lunch, and if lunch were pushed back, it would cut into the 2-hour afternoon naptime. That would inevitably cause issues with the period of late afternoon lazing around. Don’t rock the boat. Monday was only 3 days away.
Before we left the ghetto, I decided to give away a pair of Sheena’s old running shoes. I saw a crazy man in a wheelchair without any shoes in front of one of the slum buildings, so I called to him to see if he wanted them.
“Man, I’ll take the shoes, but I can’t wear ‘em.”
I didn’t want them to be sold, or else traded for crack, so I decided to give him 50 cents instead. I couldn’t just leave him hanging, so I ducked through the chain link fence and handed him two quarters. He dropped them into his lap and then snapped his head back quickly, staring straight into my soul with his crazy Jack Black eyes. He started making shapes with his mouth, flexing every muscle in his stringy face. I thought he might be having a heart attack. Suddenly he started scratching at his chest and somehow managed to wrestle his shirt off. He reminded me of a swamp rat. He still hadn’t muttered a word since taking my quarters. Before I had time to retreat, he started waving his arms around slowly while shifting his eyes from side to side. His arms snapped into a karate chop to one side, then the other. Several tai-chi moves culminated in a series of fast karate chops at an invisible enemy.
His eyes again locked on mine and it looked like he was in deep thought. Although his hands were still stiff and weapon-like, he had forgotten about the karate. Slowly his head tilted back, he closed his eyes, and opened his mouth wide like a wounded spider monkey. He winced hard as he mouthed silent screams into the air while clubbing at his bare chest. His head straightened and he looked at me again.
“Muy impresionante,” I said. What the hell else was I supposed to say? I took a few timid steps backwards and then hurriedly ducked back through the chain link fence to the relative safety of our ghetto parking lot.
The process of getting Nacho onto a ship became a series of long waits punctuated by hurried, stressful visits to various customs offices, government buildings, and port officials. During the periods of waiting, we did our best to fill our time exploring Panama City. Our guide to the city was Ciro, whose exceptionally pleasant mother operated Jamraka, our homestay on the edge of the city. With Ciro we explored the inner workings of Casco Viejo, the colonial portion of the city. We dined at street carts serving up plates of rice and barbecued pork, explored the district’s bars, and spent one evening on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city with a film crew celebrating its completion of a Panamanian beer commercial.
Over the weekend, after two unsuccessful attempts at finding the inspectors at work, we opted to tempt fate by taking Nacho on a road trip to the abandoned fort at San Lorenzo, and to the small Caribbean town of Portobelo. Bearing in mind that Nacho had just suffered a long string of breakdowns, we threw caution to the wind and loaded the van with our road tripping crew; Ciro, our new friends Margaret and Madison, Sheena and me; and hit the road.
After driving across the width of the isthmus from Panama City to Colón, we turned westward and followed a string of dilapidated roads through an abandoned military base and into the dense jungle. We crossed the Panama Canal below the enormous gates of the Gatún Lock while four foot long fish jumped like dolphins in the turbulent water, once again proving that the Caribbean is well endowed with fish compared to its scant Pacific counterpart. Winding through the jungle on the approach to San Lorenzo we followed an anteater before it ducked into the undergrowth. We ended the perfect day by eating seafood while overlooking the bay at Portobelo.
While our time in Panama City was spent waiting for inspectors to do their jobs, in Colon it was our shipping agent who no longer felt like working. “Be at the Super 99 at 8:30 sharp so Boris can meet you and take you to the port.” Our instructions were clear, so we awoke bright and early for the hour drive.
When we arrived at the Super 99 in Colon’s seedy center, right on time, Boris was nowhere in sight. After 30 minutes we called him.
“I will be there at 11:00,” he said. At this I reminded him that he was supposed to meet us at 8:30, and that we preferred not to sit in the parking lot for two and a half hours. “Yes, but the port doesn’t open until 11:00,” he said.
“Boris, we still have to go to customs before we can go to the port,” I reminded him. “Okay, okay, I will come at 10:00.” This Boris was not making a good impression on me, nor the rest of my shipping partners; Mark, the Canadian who I was to share a container with; Bart, the Dutch legume salesman; and Alejandro, the Mexican lady’s man who was making the trip to Argentina in a clapped out minivan, and was paying for his trip by selling postcards along the way (“In Nicaragua nobody would buy my postcards, so I make a fire show in the street.”)
By 10:15 there was no sign of Boris. I called him and got his voicemail. For the next several hours I continued to call him, but he never answered. Finally, at 1:00, he picked up his phone. “Oh hi, are you at the port or at customs?” he asked. “Boris!” I yelled, “We’re still in the damn parking lot, REMEMBER!? We’ve been here for five hours!” At this he acted surprised and promised to have one of his guys pick us up. Ten minutes later a man showed up on a motorcycle to lead us to the customs office.
The unwritten laws of inefficiency in Latin America would dictate that our simple tasks at the customs office would not go smoothly. First, it was discovered that Alejandro had accidentally overstayed his visa. Next, Mark was accused of forging the stamp on his car importation permit. Each was demanded to pay $250. Of course they refused, and an hour long debate ensued. Arms flew into the air, sad faces were shown, pleas were made, several calls were made, and ultimately Alejandro’s bribe was reduced to $10. They also agreed that, in fact, Mark hadn’t forged his import stamp. At 4:30 we emerged from the customs office, ready to drive our cars into their containers.
“It’s 4:30, you’re too late. You must load the containers tomorrow” our moto guide told us. At this we became furious. Our shipping agent, through laziness, had forced us to miss our time for loading the containers, and we would have to grab a hotel in Colón. An angry phone call to Boris ensued, but he played innocent. Mark, Bart and I split a hotel while Alejandro raced the minivan back to Panama City to party the night away.
The next day unfolded in much the same way as the first; we waited for an hour for our motorcycle escort to show up, after which time he escorted us a few hundred yards before waving us on without him. At the port we waited for another hour for another motorcycle man to show up, and then once he showed up we waited longer while he talked to people. Finally in the afternoon we loaded our containers and locked them up for the short trip to Cartagena.
After waiting for an hour while yet another moto man brought us a handwritten receipt for our container fees, we took a taxi back to the seedy parking lot in Colón’s center followed by our moto guide. After going to the ATM it was time to pay our dues. We walked into the Subway restaurant and bought some drinks. I snagged an oily cookie bag off of someone’s tray and walked into the bathroom.
When I emerged I looked at Luis, our motorcycle guide, and gave him a nod. He followed me out the front door and we stood on the curb, looking out into the parking lot.
“Do you have the money?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s in my pocket.”
“Do not let anyone see it. They will rob me if they know I carry money.” Truth be told, this was one of the nastiest cities I’d ever been in. I didn’t blame the guy for his caution.
“Did you count it?” he asked.
“Yes, I counted it. Do you want to count it?” It was feeling more and more like a dirty drug deal.
“No, I won’t count it. I trust you.” We stared at the parking lot. Timidly, I pulled the oily bag from my pocket and slyly handed it to Luis. He didn’t look at me. He slowly strode to his bike, pulled his helmet on, gave me a quick nod, and sped away down the dilapidated street, weaving through traffic.
The taxi ride from the Subway to the bus station was like a trip into the ravaged center of Mogadishu or Kabul. Choose your favorite bombed out third world capital. Cracked buildings were held together by plaster, clothing hung from every window, trash piles littered every open space, and people hobbled around like injured hobos.
“This is the RED zone, man! You don’t WALK here! You get yo self ROBBED…or SHOT!” Our elderly taxi driver was from Panama, but had spent his life in Texas and his accent was proof of it. He continued to murmur his warnings as we weaved past the bombed out building carcasses. “ROBBED!…or SHOT!…the RED zone…”
All of a sudden there was a gap in the bombed out buildings and there stood the Colón bus station. Our taxi driver steered over to a group of police officers and cracked his window.
“These guys need to get on the BUS! They’re FOREIGNERS!” At this we got out of the taxi and were shrouded by the police officers. One of them signaled to us to cross the street, and he flanked us on one side as we crossed, rapidly moving his head around in all directions to keep watch. As we got to the other side of the two lane street, he ushered us onto a waiting bus and slammed the door behind us. He had literally escorted us 15 feet. We sunk into the seats for the long haul back to Panama City.
Central America, it’s been fun.