July 31, 2012 - The ride to the border was mostly fast on good roads, and once there, we wasted no time and enlisted the assistance of a "helper" to speed us through the process.
The dire warnings of previous travelers, documented painstakingly on Drive Nacho Drive and Life Remotely, two websites run by travelers who were a few months ahead of us, proved invaluable. Mistakes on documentation, insurance forms and vehicle permits are rife and even after a few rounds of corrections, mine were still incorrect. I was assured at the border that the manual corrections, extra stamps and signatures would suffice.
Hours later we rolled into pitch-black Panama City, a place so developed we felt teleported back to cities the likes of San Francisco. The hostel where our fellow container dwellers resided was full, so we ended up in Hotel Latino. To say this place is a caricature of Central American life would be an understatement. We lugged our bags to our hotel rooms, dodging curious looks from bespectacled business people and prostitutes alike. Later we ran into a "shaman" who was staying in our hotel, wandering around bare feet but assuring us he was "enlightened" as well as able to program an Android device. Since he was Swiss, we presumed he was expelled from his home country with good reason.
The next day at 8:00 AM, we met Amy (Tea's daughter) and the other drivers and cars and rode in convoy to the police inspection, our first frustrating stop in the hurry up and wait game that was to be our lot the next few days.
Not only the riff-raff needs to have the correct VIN numbers on their various permits, even the the elite don't escape. Note the pre-Euro Italian license plate.
Of course the various stamps and corrections were rejected on my paperwork and together with Amy, I went off to customs to get things straightened out. What would be a simple five minute affair in any other country turned into an hour and half ordeal, despite Amy's excellent management of insolent and lazy officials to get things done. A guy waiting next to us was told his paperwork would take two days to process. He just remained seated, infusing guilt into the woman who brusquely rejected him, only to receive his paperwork a few minutes later. We later heard from our Argentinean container mates that even by South American standards, the Panamanian process was horribly inefficient.
The next day we were to meet at the "Super 99 Mercado", apparently the only one in town. We found three of them online the night before and of course the four parties didn't end up in the same spot at the agreed upon time. This was in Colon, the port from which we were sailing, described as "dangerous" by a native of Johannesburg. In the end, we found one another and we set off to customs with Luis, our handler in Colon.
We spent a few hours waiting here and there.
Finally, the drivers of the four vehicles were allowed into the port to load the cargo. But where was our container?
Success at last. After three days of running around to police checks, clearance to leave the country, customs checks and rechecks, we had a full container.
We grouped together behind the container and counted cash to hand over to Luis. Nobody ever mentioned first world concepts like "cargo insurance", "dangerous goods inspection" or the like and after seeing the container closed and sealed we bid farewell to our babies.