Sunday, July 18, 2010

boats, planes, bribes and crimes

Hola amigos!!! I know I know, I am super slow at this blog thing. It takes a lot of effort for me to do this these days, I suppose it always feels like there is no way I can describe everything so I avoid it plus it requires internet access to really sit down and publish something. Here I am in Nicaragua writing this but I haven't posted anything since I was about to try to ship my car from Ecuador to Panama. That was a painful process that I want to forget but will finish this story for anyone who still reads this thing. So I guess first thing I will say is that I don't ever see myself shipping a car in latin america again, it is painfully corrupt and a test of patience like no other. When I arrived in Guayaquil after my flat tires and madness to get there, I began searching around the city for this office. I find it and go start to talk to them about shipping details. Like the emotional rollercoaster ride of the entire process they start off by saying I don't have time to get on the next ship that is leaving and they don't have another one for 4 weeks. Wouldn't be too much of a problem except I am trying to get back to Central America to meet up with some friends and family that are taking a vacation in Costa Rica. Sooo Dj & I are there debating whether we should just charge a super long drive to the caribean side of columbia and hope to find a boat there or what. You can't drive through straight to panama because of the Darien Gap which is said to have no road and lots of gorilla groups throughout the couple hundred mile jungle. Though I am tempted to see if you can drive through it seems like a bad idea so I am trying to follow thru with this car shipping thing. I don't think there is anyway possible to describe how frustrating it is to try to figure out how to get your car exported from a country on a boat & then imported into another. For whatever reason, it is a million times more difficult than just crossing a border by land. So basically the frustration begins when the shipping company never actually knows or tells you what you need to do. SO I spend all day everyday running around town to find a guy who will 'help' me expedite the process so that there is enough time to for me to get on this next boat. Apparently, with a little money paid to him, he has the ability to push my paperwork through to get everything ready for me to put my car in a container. So after a day of running around doing getting things ready, Dj & get ourselves a decent room and decide to head for gringo food. I guess when you're in guayaquil and dealing with port people, it's all really dirty, sketchy, seedy & corrupt that when the first day (which seemed successful) was over we just wanted to get a clean room and something more comfortable. So we found a pizza hut. Seemed like a great idea to me as I haven't had any foods from home in a while. We get pizza, it's really greasy and apparently my body isn't ready to have this much grease and later that night I begin with the vomiting. So the next day I have to tackle all the errands while being super sick, great. We get the last few things done that was on our list, feeling like this is a slam dunk, but we decide to run back by the shipping office to double check that everything is good. It all seems good and then I ask them about putting my car in the container and they throw a "oh the container is 40 km's outside of the port and you have to hire someone to move it, haven't you done that?"'s Friday at 3pm and the boat leaves the next day & I need to be packed up by saturday at 5pm. So I'm responding with, you never told me about this when you broke down all the costs and the list of things needed to be done. Kind of a major detail left out & of course it's 3pm on friday so how do you hire a truck to move a container at this hour of the week? I mean, this is latin america and they usually don't do anything fast. So I'm freaking out and then they start calling people and then telling me it's going to cost me 200 dollars. Again, I'm fighting angrily as they gave me a price breakdown and it didn't ahve any of this in it. I refuse to pay and tell them I'm just not going to go and all of a sudden it costs 25 dollars. And this is a perfect example of everything, they try to get more money out of me than it actually costs. Every person tries to tell me I owe them money, some of them I do owe money and others not. It's frustrating. SO I have this guy who is going to deliver the container at 8am on saturday morning to the port and I'm going to meet him there, put my car in the container and leave. Sounds easy enough right....wrong! The next morning we go to the port. Now I've 'hired' a friends cousin to come with me to help get through the potential road blocks and use his native spanish speaking skills to help ease me along. So we get to the port, which is basically the seediest poorest part of an already seedy port city. Everyone is staring at us (as always) but they look rough and we feel a bit uneasy. Now Dj & I have put together a backpack with the things we're going to bring and everything else will stay in the car. We get to the port and they say that only I'm allowed inside the port so my helper can't even come in to help and I leave him & dj with our bags outside the port while I go put the car in the container. If it were only that easy. I also had a lot of cash on me because a bunch of this had to paid in cash only (imagine that) and that money was left in my bag with Dj while I went in. After getting thru security and their finger print scanners, I'm in to go track down my container and load it. Things seem to be moving along and then I'm stuck waiting for a police officer to come inspect my truck. He's working on another container filled with boxes of fruit and I see him over there going thru every single thing and I know it's going to be tough on me. I've just packed up my truck nicely, organizing everything so I knew where it was and was ready to go. After a couple hours of waiting, he finally comes to inspect my truck. There are these other port workers there that are waiting to help tie down my truck in the container. He tells them that they have to take everything out of my truck, EVERYTHING. This might not sound bad but this truck is my mobile home and I have a lot of stuff. They just start tossing all of my things everywhere on the ground and have to get every single penny or paper or thing out. This is all my camping gear, surf gear, camera gear, clothes, misc items and more misc items. It's more than you (or I) could imagine. So it's finally all laid out and the policia with his dog, ties his dog up and then takes this tennis ball and starts teasing the dog with the ball and then putting the ball all over my things. Finally after he's touched all of my things with the ball he releases the dog and it goes crazy smashing all of my things. I mean, like hyper crazy jumping all over all of my things (*some fragile). It seems pretty ridiculous and certainly doesn't seem like a real drug search. The dog thrashes my books (I have quite a few these days), jumps on my surf boards, camera bag, etc. I'm fuming, it's also like 95 degrees and sunny. So after demolishing my things, it's onto the empty car. He does the same thing with the dog, ties it up and then goes all in my car showing the dog the ball & touching everywhere including the engine, seats, everywhere. Then again, release and the dog goes nuts jumping all over my engine, seats, etc. Driving me nuts and seems pointless (like everything in this process). I thought the pain was over but then this police takes his knife out and behinds to try to rip apart my car from the inside and bangs the outside with the knife all over leaving lovely scratches and breaking plastic parts inside. After it's all over, he tells me to repack which I do while seething some choice words in english that he couldn't understand...probably for the better. So it seems it's all over but now I need an inspection by customs. I wait, then wait more and finally track this guy down who comes with my paperwork and looks at the car and just walks away without saying much. Then I'm stuck waiting, and waiting and waiting until finally I track this customs guy down and find out that he's not going to clear my car for export. My paperwork, which customs at the port made when I entered, was wrong. Basically when I entered they had a computer based system with pre-populated fields so select your vehicle and my vehicle didn't exist in their system. You couldn't type it in manually so in the end when I entered the guy selected the next closest car model. It was a chevy truck but single cab instead of double. All of the rest was correct, my VIN number, plates etc. But this guy insists that he can't let this truck leave until I get the guy who made it to correct it or sign off on it. It seemed near impossible to try to explain to this guy the drop down box issue on the computer even though he should have used this system because it was aduanas (him) who made it for me originally. Anyway after a day of fighting and actually calling another customs guy and getting a letter saying he made it, it was just about dark 10 hours later and I was finally free to put my car in the container. So the guys who were sleeping waiting to pack my car finally jumped around, everyone was sure my truck wasn't going to fit in this container. Some certain too long and others too tall. They said it to me all day but I was pretty sure it was going to be alright, though I shared a bigger container on the way down so I couldn't be certain. I knew the height was going to be alright but not the length. I get the truck in, seriously an inch away from being too long. I squeeze out of the window and crawl over the truck to get out of the containers. The guys tie it down, we close it, start to take pictures but of course the guys camera wasn't working. So we had to wait again for another solution, got it and the pics were taken by customs and I was all set. I went to leave the port, which wasn't so easy either as my thumb print was working and the electronic door wouldn't open for me. All along I thought I had a horrible day and that Dj had just been chilling waiting for 10 hours and I was doing all this crazy stuff on the inside. Then I get out, Dj & jorge (hired friend) were in a ladies little place drinking beers with an anxious look on their faces. The first thing Dj says is, you have no idea what has been going out here and what a crazy day we've had. I'm thinking, tell me about it. Then he tells me that while he was waiting on the street, right in front of the security gate to enter the port, a guy gets robbed. Now Dj is standing there with both of bags, basically 1 thousand dollars cash, both of our computers, cameras, ipods.... a jackpot for anyone. So this guy pulls up on a motorcycle right on the other side of the road from Dj and pulls a gun out on another guy. The guy doesn't give him anything and the other guy puts the gun to his head. He gave him whatever was in his pocket, cell phone money. Dj and jorge see this, jaw dropping, and walk over to this little tienda on the street. They ask if they can put their bags there and the owner says "I'd rather not get involved". And then Dj knows this is serious. Lucky for him he had Jorge because Dj spoke very little spanish. So they end up finding a lady, Negrita, who let them come inside her little restaurant house & tells them nobody would mess with them there. But Dj spent five hours waiting for me, with no way to communicate anything either way and we thought we might have been done at 10am so we had all of our stuff so we could pack the truck and leave the city for a few days to relax. SO no common hotel or somewhere to meet, he had to wait. And then it was starting to get dark and I finally walk out. I link up with them at Negrita's & they bring me up to speed on the happenings including that there is one taxi guy saying he'll take us but he's a questionable character who negrita says we probably shouldn't trust. So we have no ride. Finally one of the guys from the port pulls out in his car and I flag him down for a lift, he agrees and we jump in and we're off. We almost knee jerk react to this horrible day and get a super duper expensive hotel room but finally we come to our senses and leave this fancy one we were dropped at and go find something moderate but nice to clean all the dirt & corruption off of us. So now we that we have put the car on a ship and it should be going to panama, we have to figure out how we're going to get there to meet it. A friend told us about an agency that charters flights to panama and while in Guayaquil we hunt down this office and work on the tickets. It works out to be cheap, a weird travel hour but there are free seats in a few days to get us there the day the truck should arrive. Meanwhile, during the illness in guayaquil, the running around town, the port and all of that I managed to get new tires, a new battery, an oil change & found out the brake pads brought to me from the states weren't the correct fit. Quite a whirlwind of events and finally felt like we were golden on the Ecuador side now. As always, the drama wasn't over. We spend a few chills days at the beach, enjoying La Leona vibes in Ayampe (that's another entire blog, later maybe), and then we're back to Guayaquil, by bus this time, ready to catch our Saturday night flight. I've been emailed saying my ship has arrived & the truck will be ready for pickup on Monday. All good. Well I'm traveling light, just a backpack, and as always I have 2 wallets on me. One in my pocket with a small amount of money and another with the rest of my money. I guess this is the driver in me, always keep next to nothing in my pocket for my run-ins with the police. Anyways, at the last minute I decided to check in my backpack instead of carry on and forget about my other wallet with my credit cards, money, bank card etc. SO I realize it when it's too late and am worried and frustrated with how dumb that was. But it shouldn't be a problem & I'm now just traveling light with a shoulder bag with my computer in it. We've long checked in and decide to relax and get some food and not pass thru security or migration until a bit closer to the flight. Well relax a little too long but we're alright for time if we go now. We head into immigration and while in line to get out of the country I look for my stamp and see that it says a date that has already passed. I thought I got 90 days when I entered because I got that before and because my truck got 90 days this time again. I had always been looking at that paper work, which I had with me. Well my co travelers are already out of the country and it's my turn and the immigration is saying that I have to pay a "multa" or fine because I've over stayed my time. The thing is, they say I'm not allowed to exit right now. I have to pay this in the bank and it's saturday night meaning the bank isn't open until Sunday! I'm freaking, I have no money or credit cards and I only have 7 dollars on me. I can't even afford to stay anywhere and have no access to money. You read the earlier story, Guayaquil isn't really a city you want to be walking around in with computer, iphone all night. Plus my car is showing up and I've paid cash only for this chartered flight which means I can't get my money back or get on another one. Basically I'm about to be in a really bad spot. And they've already exited the country so they can't come back in, they're only route is to fly to Panama on this flight. I'm showing them my car paper work, pleading my story, telling them I have to leave right now. So I suggest I can pay right here. This fee is a big one but I do know the amount is the amount you have to pay at the bank so I know I'm stuck paying this time. The guy goes and talks to the other 4 guys on shift and after a while he comes back and says I can pay it. Problem is I have no money. I have to signal to Dj to come back and give me 200 dollars which he does. The immigration official tells me I can't pay him there though, because there are cameras all over the place. So he tells me to go to the bathroom, put the money on the page of my stamp and come back. I leave him and head to the bathroom however I realized I had to cross another guy, who just looked at our passports before immigration line, to get to the bathroom. I stuff the money in, 200 dollars in 20 dollar bills which is thick, and I try to get back through this guy without him seeing it. He wants to see my passport again so I hold it and show him but he takes it and clearly sees the money. He's asking me what this is and I play dumb "oh it's my money" and he tells me to take it. This is all in spanish of course. So he then says, I just saw you walk out of here and go to the bathroom and then come back. What are you trying to do? ANd then I start playing the "no entiendo" game meaning I don't understand. He closes my passport & lets me go and as I'm walking into the room behind him he turns back around and says something and I rush away. I get back in immigration line, give the guy the passport, he takes the money and leaves me for a while. All along the flight is about to leave, the others don't know if I'm going to make the flight and what they're going to do if I do. Immigration is back, say I can't return to Ecuador for 9 months and have created me a fake bank receipt and stamp me out. I'm running down the hall, not even sure how to react to the long string of emotions I have been going through over all this process and can't believe I'm actually going to make it. I come down from the adrenaline and can hardly sit still on the plane trying to digest all that just happened. Then I realize I'm only half way there, I have to go to Panama and get myself in & then work with customs and police to get my car in the country. The flight makes it and so does my bag with it's money and cards thankfully. Off to sleep before preparing for the other side of this nightmare process. I guess in the end each day and moment seemed to be a test of my patience and to really see how I handle myself in all these unpredictable crazy situations. I know I'm way behind on the blogging, I've traveled through panama back to my island, had family and friends come down, pass through costa rica & into Nicaragua.