Lightning strikes: maybe once, maybe twice
The one thing that really scares us, and most cruisers, is lightning. There is little you can do to protect your boat from it. You can add a lightning attractor and give it a path to the water, but there’s still no guarantee that you’ll escape damage. Similarly, you can be hit and have little damage. The most common damage is frying the electronics. Our cruising friends on Second Wind got hit in Costa Rica, but their insurance company (same as ours) paid for everything, so at least we have some confidence if we do get hit.
Panama is outside of the hurricane belt, but it is subject to intense summer thunderstorms. The rainfall in the summer is around 15” per month. We saw two or three thunderstorms per week while we were in Shelter Bay. When the lightning gets close, we gather up all of the portable electronic devices and place them in the oven and microwave, which act as Faraday cages to protect them. We take the boat off of shore power, and cross our fingers. One night we had a major storm bear right down on us, coming from the forest to the north. We thought that lightning was striking the forest, but in the morning we found out that a large 75’ catamaran at the end of our dock had taken a hit. The lightning bounced off of the mast, and hit the boat next to it. That was probably fifty yards from us – we dodged a major bullet. The catamaran had two young crew that were watching it for the absent owners – their first boat. Everything electronic on the boat got fried. They couldn’t even start the engines. Fortunately for them, the damage was covered by insurance. By the end of the month, work was commencing. The mast had to be pulled, so the boat was towed over to a crane by a dinghy, no less, quite a sight.
The Laptop Blues
We have two laptop computers on board: a Lenovo Windows 7 machine, about four years old, and an HP Windows 8 machine, a little over a year old. I didn’t take well to Windows 8, so I mainly used the Windows 7 machine. However I was slowly transitioning to the HP, and by this time it was the primary device. One morning early in August, I turned on the machine, only to see a message that there was no bootable device. I used the Windows 7 machine to research the issue, and I learned that there was probably a hard drive error. Of course, I had never made a boot disk, which requires a 32GB flash drive. By some sequences of safe mode booting and a lot of trial, error, and patience, I managed to get it running, and immediately backed up the data. However, I didn’t have a large enough flash drive to create a boot disk. I had heard from a number of other cruisers about laptop problems – it must be the corrosive environment we live in that damages the hardware. Anyway, I wasn’t confident that the PC would survive much longer, so I thought about options for replacing it, including another trip to the free zone.
The Sea Life camera story takes a surprising positive turn
After we got back, I looked to see if I could buy a replacement camera without the housing, but no retailer sold just the camera. I sent an e-mail to Sea Life, explained what had happened, that I didn’t know when and where I had purchased it, and asked if I could buy a replacement camera. To my surprise, they responded that they would send me a new camera for free, as long as I paid the duty and returned the old camera to them. I had sent them the serial number, and they must have confirmed it was relatively new, and offered me some great customer service. That was indeed impressive, and within a week, I had a new camera.
How Not to Launch Your Boat
The day before my trip to Florida, we noticed that a large crane had appeared on the docks near the fuel barge. We went over to take a look, where we saw that a small fishing boat was half-sunk, and the crane was working to lift it out of the water. The engines were under water with the stern of the boat, and there was much discussion about how to lift it. Clearly, with the weight of the water, the crane couldn’t lift the boat, but that didn’t stop them from trying. After an hour or so, they brought out a large, ancient, rickety pump and finally removed some of the water, allowing the boat to be lifted onto a trailer on land. During the process, the bimini frame was bent quite a bit. The owner was there, and we asked what happened – it was the classic reason: he launched the boat with the drain plug out. D’oh!
August 11th – 13th: Back to Florida and driving in Panama City
Since we are traveling abroad, the IRS allows us to delay filing our tax returns until June 15th. I diligently did this on time. Late in July, through our mail forwarded, I found out that I had made a large error (in my favor, no less), and had greatly overpaid, since I had neglected to include the largest estimated payment we had made. So the good news was that we had a large refund due. The bad news is that they sent a live check by mail before I could request a direct deposit. The check was too large to deposit by Smartphone, which has limits. So, we had the choice of getting the check sent to Panama, endorsing it, and either sending it to the bank or to my brother in Oregon for deposit. We weren’t comfortable with the idea of a large amount endorsed check floating out there somewhere, so we decided that I would once again fly up to Florida to conduct business and shopping.
I found some reasonable connections that I could use frequent flyer miles for, so I booked flights on American Airlines leaving Panama City on Monday afternoon, connecting in Miami for the late flight to Jacksonville. The return connection from Jacksonville would have me arriving in Panama at night, so instead I booked a morning flight back from Orlando, which would get me into Panama by mid-afternoon. It costs $100 for a taxi to and from the airport, but car rentals in Colon are cheap, so we decided to rent a car. This would allow us to stop at Price Smart in Panama for some major provisioning.
The outbound flight was at 3:40PM, so we took the 8:00AM shuttle to Colon, and then caught a taxi for the ride to Hertz. The car was only $21.95 per day, but they require you to buy insurance that costs more than the car rate! Still, it was worth it to have the freedom for a few days. Mary came with us, as she wanted to get to Price Smart too. I asked about the cards for the toll road, and the clerk at Hertz said we can buy and charge them at the toll gates. We picked up the car and headed for the Autopista (Panama – Colon Expressway). There is a complex interchange with multiple roundabouts where the Autopista comes in to Colon.
Well, we missed our turn, as there was no sign telling us to go to the right. We back-tracked and finally got on to the Autopista. The highway is relatively modern, with no potholes and not much traffic. About halfway across, we got to the first toll booth. Sure enough, the attendant said that we couldn’t get the card, but she did take cash ($2.30). When we were close to the end of the Autopista, we came across a bunch of semi’s parked on the shoulder, but didn’t think much of it. Shortly after that, we came over a hill to see a pickup truck driving on the shoulder in our direction. Yes, backwards on the freeway. We also saw a bicycle on the other side – very strange. We passed by wrong-way, went over the next hill, to be stopped by a number of cars parked in both lanes. We figured there must be an accident. Soon, many other cars started to turn around and drive back on the shoulder. There are continuous concrete barriers in the center of the expressway, so you can’t just go to the other side. We also noticed that there was no traffic on the opposite side, so the accident must have blocked both sides somehow. So, when in Panama… we also turned around and drove the wrong way back.
By that time, no cars were coming at us – someone must have stopped traffic. Back where the trucks were parked, the barriers had been removed and we were able to cross to the other side. This being Panama, it was a free-for-all getting through the middle. Cars were flying up the right side of us and then cutting in front to get a precious one-car advantage. The art and etiquette of the merge has not bee discovered in Panama. We figured that we could take the next exit to the Transmistica, the original two-lane road connecting Colon to Panama. We got to the exit, but almost all traffic was turning left, away from Transmistica. We also saw a sign to Corredor Norte, which also said to the left. Since this was our route, we elected to go left. Well, the Corredor Norte turnoff was using the Autopista that we just left. We continued to follow the traffic through a heavily forested area. The trees were so thick, we couldn’t get a GPS lock on the phone. Eventually the trees cleared up, and we figured that we were on our way to the Centennial Bridge, just past the Pedro Miguel locks. From there, we could get to Panama and the Corredor Norte.
We eventually made it to Panama City, and we were able to get to the Corredor Norte near Albrook Mall. The last sign was broken on both sides, but we could make out enough of “Cor Nor” to go the correct way. We found our exit, and started down Via Brasil to Price Smart. The traffic is always terrible on this street, and that day was no exception. We finally got to Price Smart a few minutes before noon. We had left Colon at 9:45AM – what a trek!
We picked up our provisions, as did Mary. We were just able to them into our Nissan Versa (which is a “large” rental car in Panama). As it was already 1:00PM, and I was concerned about traffic to the airport, we decided not to get lunch, but to head straight to the airport. Instead of back-tracking to Corredor Norte, Mary had printed directions that suggested Corredor Sur would be a better route. Unfortunately, that route required us to get to Via Brasil by going the wrong way on a one-way street, so it took us some time to get to Corredor Sur. Eventually we got to the airport, and I said my good-byes and went inside. There weren’t many people checking in, but I was advised that the flight would be about a half an hour late. Based on my previous April experience in Miami customs, this was very alarming. My connecting time in Miami was two hours, and it previously took me an hour and a half to clear immigration, customs, and security. I had elected not to check my bag in order to shave off a few minutes.
I cleared immigration and security, although I did have to explain to Migracion that I had arrived in Panama by boat. Once I got into the departure hall, I figured that there were no signs to gate 8A, where I would be departing. I walked for a little while, but still didn’t see a sign. I returned and asked a guard, “donde esta puerta ocho?” He rattled off some rapid Panamanian Spanish, but I could make out enough to know that I had to walk for a while and then turn left. I did this, and finally found the signs to gates 1 – 9. The only food outlet was a combination Domino’s, Chester’s (a local fried chicken place), and Cinnabun. I took the lesser of evils and got a pizza and a roll. Once at the gate, we were told by some airport personnel that we would have to go through another security check. The gate had an x-ray machine and a WTMD at it. I figured this must be some idiotic TSA nonsense required for USA-bound flights, but what can you do? It was full-on Kabuki Security Theater, what with removal of flip-flops and confiscation of water and soda that had just been purchased plane-side. I behaved myself for once, not wanting to be a troublemaker in a Latin country. The inbound plane arrived, thirty minutes late as advertised. There were no less than eight wheelchairs to be loaded, and at this time, a Biblical rainstorm erupted. Still, we did manage to take off at the new delayed departure time. I was hopeful that Miami would be as much of a zoo as it was during my previous trip.
Back to Florida
The flight was uneventful, and we arrived at 8:00PM, just twenty minutes late. Sitting in row nine, I was able to quickly get to immigration. There are kiosks at Miami where you scan your passport and answer a few basic questions that are on the immigration form. I don’t know what the criteria are for passing, but both times I have used it I got the free pass, meaning no stopping for the immigration officer. I hurried to bag claim, and to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. It only took about five minutes to get through the line. Security was also pretty quick. I cleared it at 8:30, an amazingly short time for Miami – things were looking up! I stopped at Nathans for a quick hot dog, and then went to the Admirals Club for some drinks and cookies. My flight to Jacksonville was on-time for a 9:50 departure, so I got to that gate at 9:45. Sadly, the agents announced that it would be a half an hour late. Immediately after the plane arrived and the passengers disembarked, they called us to board. I was first, and just after they scanned me in they asked me to wait at the jetway entrance. A few minutes later, the agent took us halfway down and stopped us again. Not all passengers had disembarked – this must have been the rookie team managing the flight! The agent came through tagging the larger carry-ons, and finally escorted us to the plane. There was still one wheelchair passenger, so we had to wait again. When the attendant started to wheel the passenger up the jetway, the boarding agent grabbed my bag and told the attendant not to forget it. Fortunately I was there to stop that procedure…
We arrived in Jacksonville at 11:30PM. My rental car was from Thrifty, and I normally head straight for the garage where the Blue Chip rentals are handled. Not this night – the garage office was closed, so I hiked back into the terminal. There was one agent handling both Dollar and Thrifty rentals, and three people were in line. The first renter apparently had never rented a car before. Every time he was asked to make a decision, he had to explore all possible options in excruciating detail. At any moment I expected this moron to ask if there was a charge for cleaning monkey turds out of the car. After twenty brutal minutes, he finally left. I prayed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that he would find four flat tires the next morning… The next renter was a very young guy who wanted to use his debit card. A $250 hold is placed when using a debit card and the kid didn’t have $250 in his account, nor did he have a credit card. He left to ponder his options, and the lady in front of me stepped up. She was with her mother, who was in a wheelchair. She was returning a car, but her mother was going to pay – I guess that the car wasn’t rented in her mother’s name. She was also turning the car in three days after the scheduled return date. She said that she had called to extend the rental, but the agent told her that there is a $15.95 per day late charge, in addition to the daily rate. She started to argue that she thought it was a one-time charge, but I clearly heard the agent tell Johnny Moron that the late charge was daily. She finally conceded, but then started to bitch about problems with the car, hoping to get a sympathy write-down. I finally got to the counter after waiting thirty-five minutes. I had reserved a Dodge Avenger, but there were only two cars left available: a Grand Caravan or a Chevy Sonic. I had never heard of a Sonic, but I didn’t want to be driving a minivan, so I went with the Chevy. It turns out that it was a Hertz car with the navigation installed, so it wasn’t a bad deal.
Despite being very tired, I had a very tough time sleeping. I figured that I got three hours, with the rest of the time spent tossing and turning. In the morning, I prepared my mail paperwork – a letter to the IRS protesting the late filing penalty (we had an automatic 60-day extension), paying for the property tax on Blender Boy to Sacramento County, telling Contra Costa County that they couldn’t tax us for Blender Boy in 2014, and telling Santa Clara County that they couldn’t tax us for Little Blend, since it was never in their county. Letters completed, I drove to Green Cove Springs to get our mail, packages, and IRS refund check. It took about forty-five minutes to get to Green Cove Springs, where I picked up mail, a new water pump, and some other odds and ends from Amazon. After this, I drove to Towne Square Mall in east Jacksonville, where I could get all of my business and shopping done for the day. The first stop was Fidelity Investments, to deposit the IRS check, set up a wire transfer to pay off the Tropical Blend loan, and attempt to roll over my 401(k) from my last employer. The check deposit was easy. For the wire transfer, I had to call Suntrust a couple of times to get the wiring instructions – not hard, but time consuming. Finally, we called Mass Mutual to start the roll-over procedure. I never liked Mass Mutual – I thought that their website was lousy, and their funds had high fees. After being on hold for fifteen minutes, we reached someone who couldn’t understand what I wanted to do, and finally transferred me to someone that could help. After another five minutes on hold, I explained what I needed to do. For some reason, the agent couldn’t find my account, but fortunately I had brought the details with me. After locating my account, she told me that they would send the check to my address. I told her that I was traveling abroad, and that this would be very difficult (I had visions of yet another trip to Florida!). She then said that it was possible to make an exception, but that she would have to clear it with security first. After another five minutes on hold, she said that they could send the check direct to Fidelity, but first I had to listen to a recorded message about 401(k) rollovers. All of this took about an hour, but mission accomplished.
Next on the list was West Marine. I needed a clamshell vent cover in order to route the Wi-Fi amplifier Enhernet cable through the hull, and by a miracle, they had one. I also got a call from Rosé and Pete, who were busy fixing a leaking porthole window. Pete said that we needed the two-step epoxy resin and hardener, which West Marine carries. I figured out what he was taking about, but the containers were much too large to add to my suitcase. The smallest epoxy resin container was 32oz, in a paint thinner can. I figured that we could pick this up when we got to Florida in January of 2015. I also picked up yet another spare water pump, since Rosé had told me that once again, the pump had failed. It was a generic West Marine pump, but I figured that it would do in a pinch.
Finished with West Marine, I stopped for lunch at Chipotle Grill, and then went to Costco. Our Windows 8 laptop had just failed in a fatal way, so we decided to get a new, state-of-the art PC. I was looking for a Toshiba, since I had good experience with that brand. I settled on a Windows 8.1 machine that had a 4k display, and it was $150 off. I also picked up the really Big Bag of M&M’s for Rose, since we had not seen the Big Bag since leaving the states last November. The Costco run was not without stupid complications. First I went into the store and realized that I had left my annual rebate coupon in the car. After I retrieved the coupon, I was back in the store when I decided that I should get a cart, just in case. Rose had suggested I look for bathing trunks, but they were out of them already – Christmas stuff was already coming in.
Once the Costco run was finished, I zoomed over to Tiger Direct, a Fry’s-style electronic outlet. I picked up a 50’ LAN cable, since the one on our amplifier already had corroded connectors, and I also picked up a 32MB flash drive to create the Windows 8.1 restore file. When you buy a PC these days, you don’t get any discs with it, so you have to make your own bootable files. After this stop, it was on to Target. I was looking for cat food, a shower caddy, and some chip clips. Similar to my previous trip to Florida, I was blown away by the volume and selection of products. I also picked up a couple pairs of board shorts for $12.50 each: not Madison prices, but not bad. The last stop at Towne Center was Publix, for some more cat food and some chili powder. I make my own enchilada sauce, and the chili powder I had brought with me wasn’t very good. It was dark, and more sweet than hot. This being Florida, I couldn’t find nice bags of New Mexico or California chili powder, but I did find a spice bottle that looked promising. I also got more Fancy Feast cat food, a baguette to munch on in the car, and some breakfast rolls for the next morning.
The last stop of the day was at a UPS store to mail the defective Sea Life camera back to the return center. Again, I can’t speak highly enough of the customer service from Sea Life, sending me a replacement camera to Panama when I had no purchase date or receipt, simply asking me to return the defective camera to them. It was a little after 5:00PM, and my day was done. I set course for Orlando, and headed south on I-95. There are two kinds of drivers in Florida: the old and slow and the not-so-old and insane. I was cruising at 75MPH, and I was either passing oldsters that were doing 55, or being passed by cars going 90+MPH. After passing Daytona Beach, I turned southwest in I-4, which was undergoing major construction, but that had no effect on the insane drivers, who were still going 90MPH+ on the narrow lanes.
Florida is infamous for its toll roads, and Orlando is the poster child for these bloodsuckers. I had put away a bunch of change for them, so I was well prepared. Other than taking goat trails, there is no easy way to get to the Orlando Airport other than by toll roads. I finally arrived at my destination, the Orlando Airport Hilton Garden Inn, at close to 8:00PM. I grabbed as much stuff as I could and checked in. I arrived at my room to find something was amiss. The door was propped open using the security latch, and the office chair was rolled up just behind the door. I eased my way in, wondering if there was someone else in the room. Once inside, I took a look around, and my spider sense revealed why the door was propped open: there was no handle on it! How I failed to observe this from the outside is a testament to how tired I was… I returned to the front desk, explained why that room wouldn’t work for me, and got a new assignment. After my experience with the non-opening locks at the Jacksonville HGI last April, I am starting to think that the Florida HGI’s are haunted or cursed…
It took two more loads to bring everything up to the room, and then I struck off to return the car. The first stop was a gas station to fill the rental. I never opt for the “full tank” option. They use twenty gallon tanks for their calculations, when most cars hold twelve to fourteen gallons. Buying the tank up front is a loser move, kind of like checking in at the economy counter at the airport: invariably, they get behind the first time flyer that is asking all sorts of questions about bringing their monkey on board:
“What did your monkey have for breakfast this morning?”
“Does he throw feces overhead, sidearm, or underhand?”
And that all-time classic, “does your minkey bite?”
Anyway, there was a gas station just past the hotel turn-off, with no cars at it… for a reason. There were no price signs, the station was fully automated, and the price was $5.95 per gallon. The going rate around ion Orlando was $3.20 or so per gallon. I figured this was some enterprising idea about soaking business rental car returns. I went across the street (not easy in Orlando, you have to venture past yonder in order to turn around) to a similar station, which also had the insane price of $5.95 per gallon. I could just make out a station a block or so away, with a price that appeared to the $3 something – turns out that it was $3.15 per gallon – a genuine no-brainer.
I filled up the car, and drove to the rental return at the airport. There was only one car ahead of me, but the driver was busy arguing that he had opted for the loser move of pre-paying for a tank of fuel, but the attendant wasn’t buying it. I had to wait about ten minutes for that argument to get resolved, and then waited for the shuttle back to the hotel, which actually appeared fairly quickly. I was back in the room at about 9:15, so I decided to fire up the new PC. Given the prehistoric bandwidth at the Shelter Bay Marina, I wanted to download any necessary files onto the new machine. And then I made my own loser move – I decided to buy Office 2013 online. Needless to say, the download failed. I wasted an hour or so trying to solve it, and then I surrendered and set about packing up the stuff. Everything fit “just so” in the suitcase and backpack I had with me. Had I purchased the West System epoxy repair kit, I would not have had room. Exhausted, I hit the sack around 10:30PM.
My flight out of Orlando was at 10:05AM. This being Wednesday, and being able to use the First Class check-in counter, I guessed that I could arrive there 90 minutes before flight time. When I entered the check-in area, it was a complete zoo, but the FC line only had one small group at it. As I walked up, a very large group got just in front of me. They were a group of Brazilians, who by the looks of them, had been in Orlando to visit the Mouse. They split into two groups of six or seven, with a lot of kids included. The Japanese people that had been in the front of the line motioned for them to go ahead. There were two agents handling FC check-in, but one of them seemed to be totally absorbed with ticketing changes for a threesome that was sitting on the luggage scale. I’m not sure why the Japanese group waved the Brazilians forward, but they, and their entire glorious luggage, proceeded to check in. Despite not having any obvious issues, it took about ten minutes to complete check in of the first group. I was getting nervous now, not knowing how much a zoo the TSA Kabuki Security line might be. I asked the patron of the second group what time his flight was. He told me 10:45, and before I could say that I had a 10:05 flight, he waved me through, restoring my faith in humanity. After a quick check-in, I zoomed off to Securityland. The ID check was fast, and then I got the good fortune to be routed into the “TSA-pre” line. A moat dragon entered the number of passengers in a party, pressed a button on the handy-dandy iPad, and it rendered an arrow either to the regular massive hassle lane, or a free pass to the Pre lane. In the Pre lane, you don’t have to take off your shoes (every time I fly, I am grateful that the shoe bomber wasn’t the underwear bomber) or remove your laptop, and no backscatter nude-o-scope. Apparently, that iPad is able to discriminate (at random) between passengers that have threatening shoes and laptops, and those of us that are obviously free of any threats.
I made it through the Pre lane very quickly, and hopped on the shuttle to the remote terminal. Once there, I walked out to my gate. The incoming aircraft had not yet arrived, and I still had twenty minutes until scheduled boarding time. I passed a Suntrust ATM, and suddenly remembered that I wanted to get some cash from a B of A machine, where I wouldn’t have to pay any fees. Both of the ATM’s in the satellite terminal were Suntrust, so I checked a terminal map that showed more ATM’s where you board the shuttle. I figured I would easily have enough time to go back and check, and boarded the shuttle, not REALLY noticing the sign that said something about no re-entry… OOPS! Once at the other end, I discovered that the shuttle exit was outside of security, forcing me to once again dare the slimy reaches of the TSA. Of course, this time the moat dragon was commanded to route me to the suspicious threat lane. Shortly after that, once of the x-ray lanes my line was spilling into was closed, causing a bad back-up. The moat dragon suddenly started wholesale routing of otherwise threatening passengers into the Pre lane, while those of us designated as suspicious threats could only look on with envy.
Fortunately, I did make it through on time, getting to the gate just prior to boarding. The flight proceeded without further incident, arriving at Miami on time. I had enough time to visit the lounge, down some rum drinks, and eat a “lunch” of chocolate chip cookies and apples. There were two guys sitting close to me, loudly debating the finer points of their business. It reminded me just how glad I am to be out of the corporate world. I no longer have to care about sales, customers, or office politics. I can no longer be blamed for the whims of customers, and I’m not subject to the economic cycles. Retired and cruising is the way to go!
The Panamaniam Aduana form says that you have a $2000 exemption, so I was on easy street for getting back into the country. Tocumen Airport is unusual, since arriving passengers mix freely with departing passengers. Every other international airport I have been to isolates incoming passengers. Just like on my previous visit, I quickly noticed that there were no signs directing arriving passengers to Migracion, so I just followed the herd. I had chosen row 9, so I was in the front group, which was good, as the Migracion line moved very slowly. I spent forty minutes in line, and I don’t think there were more than forty passengers ahead of me. I was asked if I had originally arrived by boat, which was the only question for me. I passed through to bag claim, and it was obvious that all of the bags from our flight had arrived. There were a few of them still going around on the belt, and a large row of them placed on the floor. I scanned through the ones on the floor, but didn’t see my black (why are 95% of all bags black) suitcase with the signature Hawaiian shirt ID tag on it. I watched the belt for a while, but my bag was nowhere to be found. I searched the floor bags again, but nada. I was just about to find the AA lost bags staff, when I noticed a familiar looking bag lying face down on the floor, hiding the signature Hawaiian shirt ID tag. D’oh!
Many airports x-ray all bags before you can leave customs. I’m not sure what they are looking for, but this is the drill. My favorite location for this was Roatan, where the operator of the machine often is distracted and not looking at all. Panama turned out to be the same – no one was paying much attention to the x-ray images. Perhaps there is a room deep in the bowels of the airport where Panamanian men in crisp blue suits are watching the bags with steely eyes, just waiting to find someone sneaking in water pumps and M & M’s!
Rosé was there to greet me, but she said that the arrivals board still didn’t indicate that my flight had landed – welcome back to Panama. We left the airport and made our first (of many) driving mistake. There is a roundabout just outside of the airport. I knew that we wanted to take a major road out of that roundabout, and the first turn was indeed a major road. I don’t recall any signs once you entered the roundabout, so off we went. After a few minutes, Rosé said that she didn’t remember that road when she left after dropping me off. I turned on the phone GPS to get a look at the map. I had spent most of the flight and the wait for Migracion playing Dots on the phone, so the battery level was quite low. GPS is a real battery vampire, but we had to know where we were at. We figured out the wrong turn that we had taken, and found a road that would get us back to Domingo Diaz, the main pseudo-expressway to the airport. We also wanted to stop at a Melo’s to see if we could find some of the good cat litter, and then we wanted to get to Paitilla to find the Riba Smith grocery store. We found a Melo, and scored nine bags of the litter. We continued down our route, which was a minor road, but with four lanes. We ran across some heavy traffic, and crawled along at less than 5MPH for about a kilometer. It turns out that some girls wearing Hooter’s styled outfits had placed cones in the road, and were handing out fliers to drivers. Only in Central America can anyone place cones in the road for commercial purposes… We never recognized Domingo Diaz, but we eventually ran in to Corredor Sur, the toll road on the southern edge of Panama City. We knew this would get us to Reba Smith.
Driving in Panama City is a full-contact sport. The primary goal while driving is not to get to a destination, but to be 100% sure that the car behind you can’t get to their destination, or at the least, get somewhere one car length ahead of you. As in all of Latin America, the art of the merge is a lost art, but Panamanians have taken this to a new level. If you are decent enough to allow someone to merge, you will helplessly watch a train of twenty cars take advantage of your weakness. This is particularly true of large commercial vehicles. They know that no private car will dare to challenge them so they just bull their way through you and the five-hundred other delirious cars in their way, with great glee. We witnessed this at one of the toll gates on Corredor Sur. Each toll road in Panama has its own toll cards. We had one for Sur, but we weren’t sure how much credit we had, so we used the “Tarjeta Recarga” lane, where you can use your card, get more credit for your card, or simply pay cash. These lines move slowly, and the lane next to us was closed, which offered way too much temptation for opportunistic Panamanian drivers. The cut-ins were coming fast and furious, and as I had not yet acquired the nerves of steel and brass balls necessary to survive the Panama City Driving Blender, I gave way to some of these, evoking horns of fury behind me.
We eventually got to the exit for Via Israel, which leads to the Multiplaza Mall, where Riba Smith’s is located. The store was the nicest store we had seen in all of Latin America. It was very clean, the carts operated with ease, and there was a wide selection of reasonably priced items. The produce section was marvelous, as was the meat counter. I was able to find ricotta cheese for making lasagna – I had not seen this since the Soriano in Manzanillo, Mexico. We also found a wide selection of shrimp, which we hadn’t seen anywhere in Panama. Despite the fact that we didn’t have our insulated bag for cold goods, we purchased a number of these items, figuring that we would be back to Tropical Blend within an hour.
That was a foolish premise. We back-tracked on Via Israel, located the entrance to Corredor Sur, and sped up the ramp. Since there was only one entrance, and it wasn’t marked as either east or west, we figured that we would get that option on the ramp (we needed to go west). Wrong. We were now eastbound on a toll way with a massive amount of rush hour traffic. There were stalls in numerous locations. We were behind a Diablo Rojo bus that simply stopped in traffic to discharge passengers. We saw impatient (are there any other kind?) drivers use the shoulder to pass as many cars as possible. The road here was a causeway with ho hope of exiting or turning around. After a few miles, we finally happened upon an exit. We took it, figuring that we could pass over or under Corredor Sur to get westbound. After a couple of blocks, we were able to make a U-turn, only to discover that we were once again on the entrance ramp to eastbound Corredor Sur – after paying yet another toll. A couple of intense rush-hour traffic later, we saw another exit that looked more promising, since we could actually see an overpass here. This one actually worked, and after paying one more toll, we were westbound, where traffic was light.
We needed to get to the northern toll way (Corredor Norte) in order to access the Colon expressway. Looking at the map, there was a major-looking road (with no name, of course) at the end of Corredor Sur that would get us to Corredor Norte. When the toll way ends, you get the choice of going into the downtown neighborhood, or continuing along a pseudo-expressway that has very few lights. That seemed to be the correct idea, and we figured there would be signs indicating the turnoff to get to the Colon expressway. Wrong. There were no signs, and we ventured on aimlessly. Eventually we got to the causeway that goes around Casco Viejo, and figured that we could take this to get to Amador (near the Balboa Yacht Club), and from there, we knew that we could find Corredor Norte.
Did I say that there aren’t many signs on the highways in Panama, and the few that exist are more confusing than useful? Well, given the facts on the ground, we ended up on the entrance to the Bridge of the Americas, definitely someplace we did not want to be. The traffic here is so slow that vendors are walking between cars selling drinks, nuts, and fruit. Fortunately, at the last minute, I saw a sign for an exit off to the left that would get us to Amador. By some miracle, we were in the left lane. Without further incident or wrong turn, we were able to exit to Amador, find our way to Corredor Norte, take the correct exit to the Colon Autopiste, and get back to Shelter Bay.
Last Days in Shelter Bay
Our time at Shelter Bay was coming to an end. Rose’s sister Susie from Colorado was coming for a visit, and after some time in Colon, she would join us to cruise to Bocas del Toro. Being from 9000 feet up in Colorado, she had a difficult time coping with the heat and humidity, but she soldiered on. She definitely enjoyed the pool and the air conditioning. We took her to visit the fort at San Lorenzo, and we toured the Gatun Locks. The operation of the locks looked a lot different from above, as opposed to being inside the walls.
We also took Susie to Casco Viejo, the original area of Panama City that has been beautifully restored. At the park just outside the zone, we saw a very, well, interesting sign that asked people to pick up after their dog. Note the flames coming off of the steaming pile – you’ve gotta love Panama!
August 29th, 2014: Shelter Bay Marina – Bocas del Toro (Red Frog Marina)
We decided to leave on Friday morning for Bocas del Toro. We decided to make a couple of stops on the way so Susie could get a taste of the cruising lifestyle. We left at first light at 6:00AM. Just ten minutes out, and still in Limon Bay, I noticed that our house batteries were not charging. Tropical Blend has two alternators – a 90A engine alternator that charges just the engine starting battery, and a 140A alternator that charges the house bank and powers the inverter while cruising. I checked around a bit, and couldn’t find anything obvious, so I figured the 140A alternator had failed. We could have continued the voyage using the generator while underway to charge the batteries, but I thought that it would be easy to get the alternator repaired in Colon, so we decided to turn back. Once at the dock, I got some help from a mechanic who lives in the marina, and we determined that the alternator had failed. We removed it and took it to the yard to see about a rebuild. They don’t do this themselves, and they use a shop in Panama City. I was really surprised that they didn’t use a shop in Colón, but what can you do? They then told me that the shop was closed on Friday Afternoons, so the repairs would have to wait until Monday. D’oh! Since we now had to spend the weekend in the marina, Rosé and Susie decided to spend Saturday night in Panama City at the Hard Rock Hotel, this being Rosé’s birthday. They found out that they could catch a free ride on Saturday afternoon on the employee shuttle. They had a great time in the city, and returned Sunday afternoon on an air conditioned bus. By Tuesday morning, the alternator had been rebuilt, we installed it, and were finally ready to go. Before we left, Susie needed to book a ticket on Air Panama from Bocas to Panama City. We tried to do it online, but the bandwidth was so bad, we couldn’t get the booking to finish. Susie called them, but they didn’t have an English-speaking agent. I suggested that she go to the marina office, and they were able to help her, but the entire process took close to two hours. Nothing gets done in a hurry in Panama.