04.06.2012 - 04.06.2012
Panama and Colombia, Central and South America, are separated by a swath of lawless jungle that many travelers call the Darien Gap, locals call it the Darien Jungle. Regardless of the name, it's known to be a major avenue for smuggling drugs up from South America, north on the road to the States. I've heard stories about bold travelers attempting to take collective transportation into the Darien only to get stopped by authorities and denied passage. It is, supposedly, just too dangerous. For Cheeks and I the Darien meant one thing: A break in the Pan-American Highway and the need to find another way around.
driving over the panama canal
Shipping Cheeks over to Colombia on a freight carrier was our next best option and so after a little shopping around we decided that Barwill Agency's reputation was the best thing we had going. We set up a meeting at their office in Panama City just over the Canal. Evelyn Bautista spoke some English and so between the two languages we were able to work out the confusing logistics. She was direct and matter of fact and she called me "Mr. James". She marked up a handy map showing me the locations for all the bureaucratic monotny I had to navigate the next day: "First you have the vehicle inspection here from 10 to 10:30, customs here from 3:00 to 4:00, back to the office here by 5:00 for the signing of the shipping manifest, ok now for the following day's appointments in Colon..."
I waited for the police inspection in a gravel parking lot outside a small rundown station. The neighborhood was in shambles. There was garbage, unfinished sidewalks, piles of dirt, junked cars half in the street. It was a part of town that the tourists were not supposed to know existed. There were two other vehicles in line, both of them campers headed to Colombia. I chatted with the Frenchman until the inspector came out. The length of the inspection depended on how long it would take you to sign your own name. Before leaving I was approached by who I would now recognize to be my German friend Michael, tall, light hair, deep voice, looks like he could be a German diplomat but he's in fact a surgen back in his country. His girlfriend Antonia stepped out. I had overheard her before talking to the inspector in spanish and I had myself convinced she was from Spain by her accent. To my ears, she spoke perfect spanish. They were shipping with Barwill but could not find someone to share the container so in turn they were carrying the burden of the full container price which was upwards of $1800.
navigating through port
So much unfolded between that chance meeting and us prying open the container in Cartagena, Colombia and turning the key, my key in old Cheeks and their's in their 98' Ford Diesel that they drove from Alaska. As it often goes, we formed a bond through our struggle. We challenged Barwill's credibility and what was right was done.
In Colon, Panama we shut the doors on our 40' container and watched the Barwill representative install the seal, not to be broken until we were present on the Colombian side. We took a train that ran alongside the Canal all the way back to Panama City. The Canal now belongs to Panama. As part of an original agreement, the US forfeited the canal's control and her revenue to the Panamanian government in 1999. Panama is currently in the process of expanding the width of the canal to accommodate the increasing width of today's cargo ships. I awoke the next morning in my little hotel room and flipped on the local news. There was a strike spanning the whole width of the highway from Panama City to Colon. The canal widening project was having its affects on the local area's water supply. If we had delivered our vehicles one day later (we had the option) Michael, Antonia and I might not have made it on the ship.
michael and antonia and their ford