by Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon
We left Panama in 2009 and returned to the U.S., where our big “roadtrip” was our visit to Old Faithful. I’d never seen that geyser and it needs to be at the top of your list for continental U.S. tourism. We took our 3-year-old Guatemalan nieto (grandson), my now-widowed step-mother, and our faithful RV Miranda and made the journey to visit Yellowstone National Park.
Of course it was spectacular. I bought a map with stickers so I could track every one of the states we had visited in the U.S., because I believe travel and excitement begins at home.
This is not to say we were not eager to return to Central America and our “real” home, our boat. We’re close to South America, and many of the businesses in Panama end in “S.A.,” so I’d like to say we are living part-time in South America, but it wouldn’t be accurate. We are living part-time in Panama, Central America. I figured our Big Boat Trip for 2010 would be to Colombia, to the mysterious and beautiful Walled City of Cartagena. I also figured we are on our last legs, cruising-wise, because Joe turns 65 this year and I am . . . well, younger, but not by much.
And over lunch today in Panama City, Joe said, “You know, wouldn’t it be fun to kind of go around the world?”
KIND OF around the world? I smiled condescendingly. “There’s no such thing as ‘kind of around the world,’ ” I said. “You either circumnavigate or you don’t.”
“I know,” Joe replied. “But we’re right here at the Panama Canal, so getting through the Canal is no big deal, then the Galapagos, Marquesas . . . you know, Australia wouldn’t be that hard.”
“The Pacific Ocean is COLD,” I reminded him.
“The Waikiki Yacht Club was very affordable,” he reminded me.
Hmmm…. Let’s see, if paradise is Oahu, then he might be talking sense.
But forget that. All major passages begin with “what ifs” and “maybes.” I’m pretty sure we will make it to Cartagena this year. Let’s see what develops after that . . .
We arrived in Panama City January 8 after 19 hours of travel. I had booked Continental from Denver to Newark to save money, but later it seemed that perhaps it wasn’t enough money saved to warrant a five-hour flight through the same snow (15-knot winds out of the west) we’d left behind in Denver. However, the plane was new, the service was top-notch, and we enjoyed the flight despite ourselves.
As usual, the economy hotel I book in Panama City showed no signs of having its shuttle at the airport – this is nothing new – and our Panama cellphones no longer functioned, but with the help of friendly taxi drivers and their cellphones, we contacted the hotel and once again requested they please send the free shuttle. This is no small deal, because a taxi from the international airport into the downtown area of Panama City is minimum $25.00. We had luggage, and I do mean overloaded big-o bags full of boat stuff for the long haul, so a 20-minute wait for the hotel shuttle did not seem that bad. However, we didn’t hit the sheets until 1:00 a.m. January 9, so it made for a rough travel trip.
Saturday we finally roused ourselves enough to wander downtown and buy new chips for our cellphones. Before we left Panama, I couldn’t decide between a Che Guevara or Mickey Mouse totebag, both of which are symbolic of my belief structure, so I bought neither. But Mickey Mouse cost almost twice as much as Che Guevara.
This time, I bought 8 limes for twenty-five cents and a switchblade knife. I don’t know why the switchblade appealed to me, but I needed something to cut the limes with, and it was only $3.00. They also had a nice collection of tacky belts with fake bullets adorning them and those caught my eye, too. I think I am a cowgirl wannabe; one of my favorite songs is “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.”
Meanwhile, Joe still tries to pretend he isn’t with me when we go through Customs. He’s convinced my pepper sprays and weapons of minimal destruction are going to get us busted, no matter how many times I explain about what can go in “checked” bags and what can go in “carry-on” bags.
Speaking of which, my grandkids’ other grandma hauled a coconut from Mexico into the U.S. and when I told her that could carry a hefty fine, she said, “Well I didn’t think the kids had ever seen a real coconut!” She then told me she’d had to give up her ham sandwich at Customs and Immigration, and when she commented that they’d probably “eat the damn ham,” she was told she was liable to be imprisoned for that kind of remark. “I don’t know what they were talking about!” she exclaimed.
Leave the produce, ham sandwiches, etc. in their countries of origin when traveling anywhere. It’s just not worth the hassle. If your grandkids haven’t seen a real coconut, take a picture.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch… er, BOAT, we had contacted Shelter Bay Marina and told the man in charge of yardwork to begin prepping Rose of Sharon for a bottom job so she’d be ready for the paint we would purchase in Panama City. The price was $150 for the hull-sanding and scraping. The paint application would be $60 per gallon and Joe said we needed two gallons. That didn’t seem like enough paint to me. There would be a per-hour charge for the workers, too.
As you know, Joe and I butt heads often and usually he’s right but his batting average has declined along with his age. Point: I told him to bring an extra duffel bag to the airport in case we were overweight and needed to shuffle the stuff. He didn’t. We are now the proud owners of a small Continental Airlines duffle bag, cost: $30, which matches our huge Continental Airlines bag from another weight gaffe. Soon we’ll have the complete set of Continental Airlines luggage!
Then there was the portable marine generator. Take my husband. Please.
I told Joe I had to have a watermaker to continue living in the San Blas Islands, off the southeastern coast of Panama, where electricity and potable water are scare-to nonexistent. After last season’s wonderful experience marred only by The Water Chase, I was sure the watermaker was all we needed to exist. I’ve always said that all you need to live are peanut butter, water and books. That, and a handheld game or two and a few crossword puzzle books and a lot of $1.95/box wine . . . but I digress. I insisted he buy or build a watermaker for our boat. It’s all I need.
He bought the blueprints to build a watermaker, studied them carefully, and then the next thing I knew, he bought a watermaker. I did not know what he paid and I still don’t know what he paid and I don’t want to know what he paid. I just want the water.
However, the watermaker would not run under its own steam, he told me. We needed a portable generator. Now, I didn’t have much experience with portable generators, but I knew they kept you from sitting like a lame duck in the water when nothing else (your starter, generator, etc.) on the boat worked. We’d borrowed S/V Namaste’s (Corpus Christi) generator and it worked like a charm. It was cranky, a lot like Sandy, its owner, but also extremely knowledgeable and efficient – again, like Sandy, its owner.
I then asked about the cost, because I wasn’t clear on portable generators. “I got a really good deal,” Joe told me. “It’s about seven-hundred dollars.”
You know the old saying. BOAT is the acronym for Break Out Another Thousand. Anything under a thousand dollars is gravy, right?
As is often the case, you get what you pay for. Sometimes you don’t even come close to getting what you paid for, and that’s what happened to us. My first clue something was amiss was when Joe volunteered the information there was a problem with the generator he’d ordered. It had arrived at the shipping company in Miami that was supposed to be responsible for shipping it to the country of Panama, but there was a minor glitch.
“They think it’s some kind of explosive jet fuel device,” he told me.
I raised my eyebrows. “And they think that because . . .”
“I’m not sure,” said Joe. “They only speak Spanish but they emailed me in English and said it was a Hazardous Material.”
I walked away, a good thing to do when you don’t want to get involved, but a week later I asked Joe how the Generator Thing was coming along.
“Well, I emailed the link to the website and I emailed a photo of the generator so they could see what it IS – a generator, not an incendiary device – but they say there is so much fuel in the box around the generator that it is still too hazardous to ship. So I told them to send it back to the supplier, but they said UPS wouldn’t take it because it was a Hazardous Material.”
I interrupted. “Let me understand,” I said. “UPS shipped it despite it being a ‘Hazardous Material’ but now they won’t return it?”
“Right,” Joe continued. “UPS did not know at that time that it was leaking fuel and therefore ‘Hazardous,’ but now that it is officially ‘Hazardous,’ they won’t touch it.”
“Where’d the fuel come from?” I asked.
“Well, that’s the thing,” Joe continued. The company that bought the generator bought it from China. They had received a lot of complaints from customers that the generators wouldn’t start, so they began testing the generators to ensure they worked. It was mostly that the customers weren’t very good at mechanics, but the bottom line is, this company ‘tests’ every generator before they ship it. A good thing, except they didn’t run the fuel out, and – ”
“And it leaked all over the generator and the box, right?” I finished.
“Right,” said Joe. “I asked them if someone couldn’t just go out into the parking lot, start the generator and let the fuel run out but they said no,” he continued.
At this point I was still friendly.
“Well, what are your options?” I asked, emphasizing the word “your.” I was still alienating myself from this situation.
“I may have to go to Miami . . .” he mused.
Now, we were in Denver and I had just returned from a fun-filled jaunt to San Diego to visit a friend but it was at a Southwest Airlines Special Rate and there was NO WAY he was going to blow our Continental Frequent Flier or Southwest miles on this fiasco. Travel is supposed to be for pleasure, not business, especially when you are retired!
Once I engaged in the battle, there was no stopping me. I insisted he file an official dispute with the credit card company, only to discover he had paid for the purchase though PayPal.
“Why did you use PayPal?” I asked, genuinely interested.
“Well, I thought PayPal offered some level of protection,” he replied. “Plus, they have all my information, so I don’t have to type in all that stuff. It just hits the credit card.”
As it turned out, PayPal rejected the dispute. Twice. First, they said they had no recourse for dispute if it wasn’t an eBay purchase. When further pushed, they said they didn’t guarantee shipping situations but would cover your dispute only if the item purchased was not received “as represented.” Which pretty-much means if your item received is perfect, but floating in a vat of Jell-o or gasoline or mud or corrosive debris, you don’t have a dispute with PayPal.
“Did you contact the seller?” I asked.
“Yes,” Joe replied. “They explained to me about how they test the generators – a good thing – but said maybe they didn’t run out enough of the gasoline.”
“A very bad thing,” I mused. “So, they shipped a hazardous material?”
Joe frowned. “I don’t know. They say that no matter what the shipper or UPS says, the generator is good.”
“I just shipped three boxes to our daughter today.” I continued. “They asked me if my boxes contained perishable, breakable or HAZARDOUS material and I said no because they didn’t. A thing full of gasoline is HAZARDOUS.”
Joe was silent, so I spun around and began searching for contacts in Miami. First, I sent an e-mail to everyone we knew, asking if they knew anyone in Miami. Turns out, one friend has a sister near Miami and that was it.
Then I began Googling generator contractors in Miami. I figured the only person who could help us was someone who knew something about portable marine generators. It was a few days before Christmas, after 5:00 p.m. in Miami, but I hit paydirt: I called a tollfree number for A&A Power Generators of Miami, Florida and someone answered the phone. It was Alfredo Gilbert. He was familiar with the area, familiar with the shipping company, spoke Spanish, and willing to go look at the generator to see what the heck the shipping company was talking about. We were thrilled.
We got through Christmas with our family (a blessing, not a trial), Alfredo ploughed through Christmas with his family (more blessings), but as soon as he was back at work, we were too. It was December 28 before Mr. Gilbert was able to check out the generator. The news was not good. He said the generator was covered in a layer of gasoline, the styrofoam packing had eroded and dissolved around the generator, the box was a mess, and he seriously doubted that the generator’s electronic interior was intact from the amount of fuel which had leaked into the inside.
Over the weekend following New Year’s, I sent an email to our credit card company (Visa) detailing the purchase, the emails and communications, the findings of our independent contractor (Mr. Gilbert), and my summarization that the company (from which we purchased) knowingly shipped Hazardous Material via UPS to another shipping company, unaware that it would be scrutinized for international shipping.
I felt badly because at the root of the problem, the generator company was doing the best it could to provide due diligence but the bottom line was, we had a gasoline-soaked generator that wasn’t leaving Miami.
One of our options was to authorize Mr. Gilbert to get the generator, run out the fuel, clean it up, re-pack it and return it to the shippers for shipment to us, in Panama. This was going to cost at least $100 for his time and effort. I called the generator company. They were sympathetic, but never offered to pick up any of the costs involved. I told them the purchase was in dispute. I told them the generator my husband wanted was their generator but we did not feel the end-of-the-line shipping situation was our problem. Again, they never offered to assist us.
Bottom line: we won the battle but lost the war. We got our money back but didn’t have a generator. And, sadly, Alfredo Gilbert’s company did not sell a generator that would meet our needs. We were back to square one and it was time to leave the States.
“Isn’t there anyone in Panama City who sells the kind of generator you need?” I asked Joe, after the smoke cleared from the Generator Thing.
He didn’t know, so I asked him what his requirement was. “Three kilowatts,” he replied, and not having a clue what a kilowatt is except something that can cost up to fifty cents for one in Guatemala, I began searching for a marine generator 3 kw in Panama, which led me to a lot of Panama City, Florida, dealers.
But there was one dealer in the country of Panama.
Once we arrived and got over our jet lag, I called the one company I’d found in Panama City that carried marine generators; Westerbeke. “Westerbeke is a good company,” said Joe. I had tried to nail them down as to the cost, “mas o menos,” but never got an answer, and their English was about as good as my Spanish, so it warranted a taxi ride to visit with them.
Seven thousand dollars for the generator. Let me repeat that in case you skimmed over the fine print. SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS.
“You can almost get a new CAR in Panama for less than that!” I exclaimed. Joe thought perhaps he should modify his specifications, so he mentioned a variation of what he could perhaps use, generator-wise. Ten-thousand dollars. I asked for their business card because Mar y Tierra seemed like a good company to know about. Then we humbly eased out the door and slid into our taxi.
“See? I told you $700 was a good price for a generator,” Joe said.
“Was it a good price for a box of melted styrofoam and gasoline on a dock in Miami?” I responded. “Because that’s what you got for seven-hundred dollars.”
“I’ll see if I can fix the boat generator,” he replied.
“This is the same generator that caught on fire in Florida in 2004 when we wanted to watch a Christmas movie?” I asked.
“It didn’t catch on fire,” said Joe. “It just wouldn’t stop running.”
“You swallowed a lot of diesel fuel fumes that night,” I recalled. “Then, it didn’t work for a long time.”
“I fixed it,” he said, defensively.
“Right,” I replied. And for one brief moment in time, when you were so frustrated you had a ‘What the hell’ moment, you ran the air conditioner and we watched a movie for two hours in 2009,” I added. “Then it didn’t work anymore after that.”
“I can fix it,” he said, firmly.
“I’ll see what I can find out there, generator-wise,” I mused.
Two days following our return to Panama, we met with our new attorney and put into place our application for Pensionado Visas, which would offer us substantial discounts on almost every purchase in Panama, plus we wouldn’t have to leave the country every 90 days. Or ever, not that we were even considering that. Yet.
While in the U.S., we’d gone to the Galveston County Sheriff’s office and gotten two statements saying we’d never been convicted of nor arrested for anything. We had to have a statement of income, to prove we are self-sufficient retirees. We needed a copy of our marriage license, but the attorney seemed concerned that we did not have the original. “I could have brought the original, but you said a copy would be okay,” I protested.
“Right,” she amended. “A copy is fine.”
Then she said we needed to go to the American Consulate and get a stamped declaration of income. “Well, this is from the Social Security Administration,” Joe said. “That’s very authoritative.”
“I know,” she replied, “But we have to have a stamped affidavit verifying income from the U.S. Consulate anyway. And photographs,” she added.
Joe and I walked to a nearby shop and our passport-sized photos were ready in minutes. Then, the attorney drove us to the Immigration office, where we were “put into the system.”
The next day, we visited the U.S. Consulate, where we obtained the affidavit verifying we had a source of income, based on the Social Security Administration’s letter stating we have an income. We also needed a document from Shelter Bay Marina, declaring we were “living” there.
A point of confusion was that we also needed a document from a Panamanian Embassy in the U.S. I’d called our Panama attorney before we left to verify what we needed and suggested we meet to start the paperwork before we returned to the U.S., but apparently, once you start the process you are discouraged from leaving Panama until the process is complete. “Go home, and we’ll meet when you return,” she’d said.
Now we were in Panama and we needed yet another document from the U.S. Joe was visibly frustrated. One of our daughters could have obtained the document, but they have busy work and family lives and do enough of our banking and medicine-shuffling for us as it is. We opted to have the attorney handle it at an additional cost of $100.
I am very pro-diversity and not too clear on what is right or wrong when it comes to immigration laws in the U.S. But quite frankly, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an “illegal immigrant” in the country of Panama. If you aren’t there with permission and within the law, then you aren’t there. They ship you out or charge a hefty fine. I appreciate that there are not truckloads of U.S. citizens trying to sneak into Central America for the honor of picking tomatoes for pennies per day, but perhaps we could learn a thing or two from Panama.
As we returned to Shelter Bay Marina, whatever frustrations we had from the past few days began to melt away. In our taxi, we crossed the Panama Canal at the Gatun Lock and the water in the channel was unnaturally turbulent. But I could taste the Atlantic Ocean salt on my lips and the huge tankers-in-transit in the channel looked like old friends. The brisk breeze was welcoming, warm.
One of Shelter Bay’s managers, Dave, had moved our boat from storage to the work yard. We had some workers put a tall ladder in place and they assisted us with our four 50-lb. bags and two 40-lb. bags. The exterior of the boat was filthy and dirty; a couple of the lines were coated in green fuzz.
Instead of a humidifier, we’d mounted a small window air conditioner in the companionway entrance. When I saw the rusted sides of the air conditioner unit, I figured the down-below situation might be bad. But the interior was actually cleaner than it had been when we returned to Guatemala (three times) and Bocas Del Toro, Panama (once). It was dusty and musty, but not moldy. Hurrah!
I’d have to pee in a bucket, not a lot of fun, but better than Joe’s job – he’d have to haul the pee-bucket down the ladder and dispose of it. We were happy to be back in our boat, even if we had to live “on the hard.”
We were already back at Shelter Bay Marina when we learned our watermaker made the passage from the U.S. to Panama City, and once there, it cleared Customs faster than we imagined. Customs said the taxes were $200.00 for a commercial purchase. Or a commercial vessel. We never understood it. After much argument, Customs finally conceded that we did not need to pay the taxes because we are a boat-in-transit in the country of Panama but would have to pay $23.00 – I can’t remember why – and an additional $10 per day for “storage” since it was Friday before they decided we did not have to pay the taxes and they are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Additionally, on Monday, a woman from Customs would have to travel to our boat to ensure the watermaker was physically placed on our boat.
Meanwhile, we could not find our favorite brand of bottom paint, Petite Trinidad. This stuff is great. While other boats’ bottoms are bare-bottomed after 2-3 years, our Petite Trinidad-painted bottom held up nicely over 4 years and could have gone one more. We were only getting the bottom job because we had to haul the boat out for other repairs, so it made sense.
I had called several marine paint dealers in Panama and none of them said they’d heard of Petite Trinidad. Joe looked up the going rate for a gallon of the paint and it was about $250/gallon. A Comex store near our hotel said they could get it for $140/gallon! “What a great deal!” Joe enthused. “But I had to take red,” he added.
“Red’s fine, red’s fun,” I said. “I’m glad you got our bottom paint.”
When the paint arrived, it wasn’t Petite Trinidad. The paint cans had generic-looking labels that said “Comex.” The color wasn’t even red; more like maroon. We took it anyway, and it took 1.5 gallons to do half the boat. We spent another half-day calling Comex paint stores, only to be told that nobody had any Comex red antifouling paint. One guy said it had been discontinued, and when I told him we’d just bought it Tuesday, he said, “Not from this store.”
“They ordered it!” I protested. “It was delivered and we picked it up Tuesday.”
“Not from this store,” he repeated.
Joe said the Comex stores have computers, just like the computers our chain stores in the U.S. have, where they can locate an item by store. But our information was not enough to warrant the search, perhaps. Or, because it was Friday, nobody wanted to make even a minimum effort at customer service. Or maybe the paint no longer existed as of Tuesday. Or maybe my Spanglish confused the people; that happens a lot.
Believe me when I say we were fine with all of it; you have to be. Joe’s favorite saying for Central America, whether you are dealing with restaurants or supplies or hardware is, “Order what you want, take what they give you and pay what they say.” You really don’t have any other option and if you think you do, you will quickly discover what the word “runaround” means.
Latin American people are secure in the way things work in Central America and don’t need fussy gringos to tell them how to do it “right.” Dave Berry once said, “Look closely at Central America and try to imagine what would happen if this vital region were to fall into Communist hands. What would happen is a lot of Communists would be stung repeatedly by vicious tropical insects the size of mature hamsters.”
It’s a great place to cruise, but nobody said it would be easy.