24 - PANAMA
15/03/04 - 27/03/04
We arrived at the border town and couldn't quite work out where the border was. It was just kind of half way along the main street. We had to get our passports stamped so R joined the queue and got done really quickly. My turn and I got stuck behind a family who had a teenage boy with a dodgy passport. Took about half an hour. Meanwhile R was deep in conversation with Francesco a Coca Cola lorry driver. As we were leaving to find the Panamanian side a tramadore attached himself to us and Francesco warned us not to believe everything he told us. This put us a bit on edge but these guys are very persistent and impossible to lose. The town was a complete mess, it turns out it had been hit by an earth quake so all the offices were scattered around in temporary places.
We followed the guy down a little side street and found the immigration hut.
This was where we encountered Randy. He started talking to R in the queue and telling us not to trust the tramadore.
Man who built the canal
He had a long story of woe but we just didn't know if he was on the level. He said he'd been stuck there for four days. First time out of America, arrived at the border on a bus with his wife, who we never saw, at 11.30pm, very weird choice to make. Especially as I believe the border closes at 11. Says he got led around as we were and then everything stolen at knife point. Well it's quite possible. He then insisted on showing us where to go and what to do himself. Well how would he know what you need to do with a bike, he was on a bus!
So then we had them both in tow, the tramadore wasn't giving up. Again the customs place was hidden and temporary and they took us to some little area full of lorries where we couldn't actually see the office. They wanted us to leave the bike there. R refused as he wasn't going to leave me, the bike and all our stuff somewhere he couldn't see us when we were feeling so edgy.
Randy was genuinely shocked when he realized that maybe we didn't trust him. " You gotta trust me" he said. " I'm an American, not some Costa Rican, look I've got a Harley Davidson tattoo!" Surprisingly enough this didn't make us feel any better.
R wiggled the bike through the lorries and we found the customs office.
He and Randy disappeared inside and at this point the tramadore gave up.
There was a lot of tooing and frowing as usual and at some point Randy confessed that he was helping us because he wanted us to help him.......uh hu. He needed $40 to get back to San Jose on the bus, bit steep, where his brother was wiring him money. There was no Western Union any nearer, unlikely.
Crossing canal at Gamboa, north of city.
This was getting really uncomfortable. What do you do? We have several times given people money and the benefit of the doubt but never seen it back. If it was genuine Randy then I'm really sorry but you just didn't seem to add up.
He then told us of a time when he was in Las Vegas, waiting for champagne in his room, for a little too long he thought, phoned his Italian friends in Florida who phoned the hotel and put the frighteners on them. Well bollocks I'm afraid and was this supposed to reassure us?
We told him we didn't have $40, which was quite true and he wanted us to go to the ATM with him. Kept telling us he had all the money in the world in Florida, that he'd get it back to us, that he played Football. In the end we wished him well, gave him $10 to get rid of him, asked somebody else the way out to Panama and got out of there.
He had just made the whole process ten times more stressful than necessary and the way he was going would probably get a beating from the genuine tramadores for stealing their business. We have had no problems at all with tramadores and feel we would have been fine here. We rather resented the fact that this paranoid guy had hijacked us when we were really just fine. This was our worst border experience and it was all down to him, genuine or not.
We were glad to get away and on the road to David.
The following day we arrived in Panama City, over the Puente de Americas and the Panama Canal. It was quite weird, one of those places you've always heard of but never really expect to be. Especially not riding over it on a bike. Panama City is mad busy and we found it a really difficult place to get our bearings. Don't quite know why, but it didn't get any better.
We thought we would check out the airport, as we would be flying us and the bike out of here, so were heading north on a crowded flyover.
We were just trying to take everything in but there was a really annoying Taxi behind us that kept hooting at us. We couldn't work out what his problem was. R was looking in his mirror and I just wanted him to get out of there but he said to me to turn round, he thought someone wanted to talk to us.
I turned round as the Taxi pulled up next to us and there was this big bloke, half hanging out of the window and yelling "Hello English people" in the broadest Manchester accent I'd heard in ages.
"Dan Walsh I presume" I heard R say.
They then had a strange mobile conversation the outcome of which was to meet for a drink later.
And that's how we met lovely, mad Dan. A more bizarre and chanceful meeting I cannot imagine but now, well it only seems right.
St. Patrick's Night
Dan is top British bike journalist, he writes primarily for "Bike" magazine. R kind of knew his name and knew he had been traveling in Africa a couple of years ago, but it was Rich in Pana who had really brought him to our attention. He is a big fan and had lent us some of his articles to read. This is how R knew what he looked like.
R had then realized he'd seen his name on the bike web site that we use and that he was somewhere in Central America. He seemed to be way ahead of us though.
But here he was in Panama and after getting completely lost, going through a red light, getting stopped by the police (got away with it again) and only finding a hotel by way of a lovely woman leading us to one in her car, we met him for a drink.
Before we went out R said to me "I think this'll be a proper drink you know". Next thing I know It's four in the morning and we're wandering along the sea front of Panama City, the birds are singing and we've drunk more beer than we have in the last two months. And it's St Patrick's day.
Most of the day disappears but we did manage to find the BMW garage and book the bike in for a service.
We'd arranged to meet Dan back in Players Bar for the U2 tribute band and a Guinness or two. He too is second generation Irish and fiercely proud of it.
Later, much later, Dan took over the computer music system and we had our Irish music knowledge enhanced with songs R's Dad would never teach us.
There were several renditions of " The Fields of Athenry" with extra words I will never lose and compulsory standing for the Irish National Anthem.
Well it was five that morning when we left. This became regular behavior over the next week, not every night though. Player's is a great bar, but we three were always on our own for the last few hours, only tolerated because Kathy, the Japanese owner and barmaid had the hots for Dan!
One day we got it together to visit the Canal and the Old Town. We followed Dan and he & R zipped through Panama City traffic like the pair of old dispatch pros they are.
We sat in the swishy restaurant, ate bad food and watched the most immense ships I've ever seen just fit through the Miraflores Locks. It's quite surreal.
The old town of Panama City is a really cool place, beautiful buildings and an incredible situation on a little peninsula. It's such a strange mix as it houses some of the poorest people in terrible accommodation but also the Presidential Palace. It's pretty dodgy in places, but lots of tourist police hanging out making sure you turn around at the appropriate places. They literally say "don't go any further, you will have everything stolen".
Senor Luis Torrero of BMW in Panama City is just lovely. He was genuinely delighted to see us and so interested in our trip, he took a photo of us for their website. R wasn't quite happy with the idle after the service and also had forgotten to ask him to change the shaft drive oil. But it was no problem he readjusted it and didn't charge us for the oil change. He's the man to see.
We then had to arrange to get the bike & us to South America.
We knew the company to use from the website and luckily Dan's friend Trys had done exactly the same thing just a week or two before. Trys sent the most perfect directions to get us to the cargo terminal so we headed up there to pack off the bikes.
How could you mix them up?
It was all pretty straight forward. A bit of hanging around for paperwork, bit of time disconnecting battery and draining tank, a bit of backwards and forwards to customs (photocopies needed) and that was it. The bikes would go that evening to Bogotá, where Dan's would stay and ours would fly on to Quito in a couple of days. R then became paranoid that we would end up with Dan's bike in Quito and he'd get our precious in Bog. Dan found this hilariously funny as he hates his bike and we love ours so much!
We then had to get back to town. We'd managed to cadge lifts to and from customs so far which was cool and thought we'd get a cab from there. However the guy who'd brought us back the second time said he'd wait and take us. His name was Daniel and he was very jolly. There wasn't room for all of us in the cab so Dan had to sit in the back of the pick up with a load of cardboard boxes. He pulled a few faces about this but it made us laugh, he was fine, he's tough. So we had a mad half hour Spanish chat, learnt all about his wife in America and ended up doing a little tour of the city to see where he lived and where he played football at the weekend.
That evening we decided we would go to Colombia after all. It hadn't occurred to us to not just follow the bike. But the chance to see Cartagena could not be missed, it's just one of those places. So the next day we booked the flights and the following morning we met Dan at the airport and headed for South America at last!
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