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Take Me to the River…

Trying to save the stuff from the roof of the sinking SUV. Leave no clean laundry or comrade's baggage behind! ๐Ÿ˜› - Thanks Alison for the photo!

Just when I find myself cursing that I haven’t had new blog fodder lately due to life being thrust into a relatively comfy zone of tranquilo-ness, I get thrown a nice little zinger to break the quiet streak, and not a moment too soon. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

Last week, I had a nice little convergence of diverse friends in Panama. My Guatemalan friend Mitzy (better known as GCMitzy, a fixture on the Andiamo blog over the years), was in town for a business exploration trip, some research work, and of course to kick ass in some local poker tournaments. Greg, an old friend from Florida, was back in town for his second visit to Andiamo in about six months. This time, he had his girlfriend Lori and Alan, a work colleague, come along for the jaunt.

I had a trip scheduled during the time they were visiting, so it worked out nicely. It was to be a nice trip with some good friends and familiar faces. Oddly enough, also booked on the trip were Frans and Kathy, a Canadian expat couple who live in Chitre. They were coming aboard for their second stint on Andiamo, along with Kathy’s sister and her husband.

It was sure to be a fun if not too-short 3-day trip. But first, we had to all get from Panama City over to San Blas to start the hi-jinks. This involved getting picked up by 4×4’s and driven out to the coast. Thanks to the fact that the road is now at the near-end of a re-construction project, traveling this route is MUCH easier. This versus its previous state as little more than a mud trail. There’s also a brand-spanking new bridge nearly completed that will make crossing the Rio Carti a piece of cake forevermore. It’s so close to completion, you can almost hear the onslaught of tour minibuses and shuttles screaming down the road to use it.

I planned for Greg’s and Frans’ groups to get picked up later than me in the city. I needed to head out there earlier to pick up groceries and help Dino get the boat ready before their arrival. Mitzy would come with me, and the rest would get picked up a couple hours later.

It was a sound plan, typical of what I do when I’m in the city until the morning of any trip. That is, until Mitzy and I didn’t get picked up at the prescribed time of 5 AM. The driver who was organizing pickups failed to look at my entire text message listing the passengers and their pickup points where I mentioned myself needing to be picked up. Due to this “oversight”, we ended up not getting picked up until almost 6:30.

Thanks to my usual luck of the draw, we got picked up by the driver that I most consider to be the “loose cannon” of the squadron of 4×4 drivers I typically use for transport to and from San Blas. For the purpose of this story, he shall be named “Pepo”. Now as I said, Pepo tended to be a bit less of an astute driver than some of the others. He was relatively new to the crew, so I figured I’d give him a chance to get his bearings and get comfortable with the road and develop his driving skills. That said, I find that more than a few times I have had to tell him to slow down a bit on the roadways, and the road-still-in-progress going to Carti.

He also tended to think he can, …ahem… “multi-task” while driving. On at least a couple occasions, he would try to send or read a text message, update his appointment book, call a number on one cel phone while reading the number off another cel phone, stuff like that, all while trying to navigate the winding, careening, hilly roads that comprise this rural part of Panama. While I’m sure there are a few drivers on the planet who are capable of doing all these things somewhat safely while driving, this was clearly not the case when it came to Pepo.

Anyway, Pepo was apparently already having a bad day when he picked us up. He had to come back to the city from a police checkpoint that halfway to San Blas due to the fact that his two dutch passengers, Juul and Madeleine, left their passports at their hostel. All tourists are required by law to have their passports on them at all times, so they were turned back by the police to get them.

Since we were essentially forgotten in the early morning to be picked up by the organizing driver, Pepo got us on his trip BACK to San Blas after retrieving the passports. We made a stop at the usual supermarket where all the drivers congregate in a makeshift office in the parking garage. There was Alison, a cool california transplant like me, waiting for a ride out. So now we were five. I had to get a bunch of groceries for the upcoming trip, So needless to say there would be lots of bags and supplies to load onto the SUV, along with the passengers.

Pepo started to make a fuss about the quantity of baggage and groceries. He didn’t know how he would get all the stuff and us into the car. Mitzy logically suggested that we put some of the bigger bags on the roof and put its roof rack to good use. Pepo dismissed the idea without giving a reason why. Both Mitzy and I pressed him to give a good reason why we couldn’t get a least a couple of the bigger baggage up on the roof. Surely he would have some bungee cords and a tarp in the car to secure them and keep them dry. After all he does this trip at least once a day, six days a week. So it’s only logical that he would be properly equipped.

Apparently, at least as far as Pepo was concerned, we were being unreasonable with this common sense expectation. It turned out that he had neither on hand. At which point we politely reminded them that we were in the parking garage of a major supermarket that surely carried bungee cords or some other type of useful tie apparatus for sale in their hardware department. Pepo did not seem to be interested in making the necessary investment for such equipment that even to the rank amateur would appear integral to his work.

I eventually offered to go down and buy the bungee cords so we can load the roof. About this time, Pepo had grown very impatient with Mitzy and things were getting tense between them. Mitzy never raised her voice to him, but clearly there was displeasure in the air due to his inability to act logically or with any courtesy. In the end, he and another driver found a web strap in his car that would do the trick. So Alison’s backpack, and my bag of fresh laundry would go on the roof. I brought up the question of the possible existence of a tarp to cover it all up in the event of rain, which is usually inevitable in the drive across the mountaintops. But that just seemed to be conveniently ignored. If there were rain coming, I’d have to bring it up again.

So after some ice-breaking Griswold and “I don’t want to go to Walley World anymore!” jokes among the five of us, we were finally Carti-bound. Pepo had his foot on the gas in a way I haven’t seen before. You’d think he was late for a highly sought-after tee time or the hottest date of his life. I mentioned to him a couple of times that he was going a little fast, to which he’d respond with “si, si…” but not slow down in any real way. The Griswold jokes start up again to diffuse the stress brought on Pepo’s crazed driving antics.

When we get off the Interamericana on to the road to Carti, Pepo apparently didn’t think he needed to drive any differently than he had been on the flat paved highway that the Interamericana is mostly comprised of. While the Carti road has been VASTLY improved over the past several months, it is still a work in progress. There are still lots of spots that require extreme care and caution. Pepo seemed to think he had it all under control. However, after a couple more nudges from me that he had to slow down, he finally started to get the hint, though hardly.

After paying our road taxes to the Kuna about two thirds of the way in, Pepo decides it was time to make up for lost time. After some manic driving I can only kindly call “creative”, we get to the banks of the Rio Carti. It takes probably half the time it usually takes. The bridge spanning the Carti River getting built just to the south of us looks encouragingly close to completion. From the looks of it, only a few more girders need to be riveted on, pour the concrete, and it’s essentially a wrap. But today, we would need to cross the river just like every time before. Over the water, across a patch of the river’s shallow gravel bed.

Pepo didn’t even brake or slow down when he proceeded across the river. Less than one third of the way across, I noticed he was a little farther to the right than we usually were when crossing. Just as I started to say to him that he was a little too far to the right of the shallow patch, I felt my side of the front of the car come off the shallow ledge of the riverbed and dive into the water. The passenger fender well was now completely underwater, and I can feel the car sliding down into the deeper water.

Pepo tried to act like he was in control, and that he’d be able to drive out back into the shallow water. After a futile attempt, he tried again, only to feel the whole car tip over even more. By this time, water was coming into the vehicle pretty fast and furious. Juul and Madeleine decided that they wanted out of the car. Now. Pepo tried again to act like he was in control, as if he had undergone some kind of crisis training for this very scenario. The girls didn’t buy it, along with Mitzy, who was all the way in the backseat. They got out via the rear driver side door, taking whatever they can with them. I was now almost waist high in water in my seat, desperately trying to keep my daypack dry. I tried to slide out of the car via the driver’s side. But of course Pepo decided he wanted to stand in the door jamb, still trying to maintain some kind of semblance of control of the situation. After repeating three times in spanish that I was trying to get out, I finally had to yell sternly, “Pepo! Vete! Ya tengo que salir!” He finally got the hint and moved out of my way.

I passed my bag over to one of the girls and asked them to get it over on land. Then I proceeded to try to get the bags off the roof before they got wet. I stood up on top of the driver side rear tire, and proceeded to try to untie the web strap holding the bags onto the rack. As my luck would have it, the knot was on the OTHER side of the rack, out of my reach. I got a bit frustrated, especially since I can feel the car tipping more and more into the deep water. The tire I was standing on, would float up off the riverbed, held in suspension, then gently come back down. The car was now full of water and teetering dangerously into the deeper water. It was about then that I realized that all the groceries were in the back hatch area, and were now mostly under water.

Just in time, another 4×4 was coming from the other way and stopped to help. One of them had a good towing strap. Pepo secured it on the bumper and then to the hitch of the other car. He got in, and started the engine (I was extremely surprised that it started up, considering that the engine was now almost completely underwater). The assisting vehicle drove hard into the shallow area, while Pepo hit the gas on his car, turning the wheels hard left onto the incline to shallow water. I stood on the foot rail of the driver’s side to give some weight ballast to the car as they tried to pull it up. The car tried to find traction in the silty gravel bed. After about 30 seconds, the assisting car made some headway and the front of Pepo’s car popped out of the murky depths. Seconds later, it was back in the shallow area, with water draining out of it in all directions.

We mildly celebrated, as the car drained out, Pepo still tried to act all in control, not realizing just how lucky he was that his car was even able to start in its submerged state. He then went on to tell me how the problem was that the river had “changed” over the past few days because of the bridge construction. I rolled my eyes while he said this, saying with probably too much cynicism for him to grasp, something like… “yes, it was the river’s fault. Damn river… “.

He went on to reaffirm his non-culpability at least three more times the rest of the trip. We were all back in the car, mostly soggy, just glad that the trip was almost over.

We finally arrived to the boat dock where we catch the lanchas out to where Andiamo is anchored. We couldn’t get out of that soggy SUV fast enough. The groceries ended up being drenched for the most part, and some of it ended up getting destroyed, but it could have been worse I suppose. We all found it a bit funny and strange that at no time did Pepo ever apologize for the poor driving, or anything for that matter.

After goodbyes, email exchanges, and promises to share photos, Alison, Juul and Madeleine went on to the island lodge that they would be staying at. Mitzy and I started loading up the lancha with the bags, supplies, and the soggy groceries. About the same time, Greg’s and Frans’ vehicles arrived. So much for us getting there early. ๐Ÿ˜›

Needless to say, Pepo has been unceremoniously blacklisted from Andiamo’s squadron of drivers. And while I’m sincerely bittersweet about all the new traffic and development that the new road and soon-to-be-completed bridge will bring to these parts, the way I feel right now, it can’t get done soon enough. :/

4 Comments

  1. Lynn Leonard says:

    That is funny! Glad everyone is okay!

  2. Te Thebeau says:

    Too funny… from the sidelines anyhow. Hope you’re well Mr.

  3. FabiVane Restrepo says:

    WAO ..some story Tony !!,glad that all OK an back to Tranquilandia , anymore pics of that day?

  4. Jimmy says:

    Classic Panama adventure! Hard for people outside the tropics to understand how a good rain and a river crossing can change your entire trip. We went to San Blas last weekend… mind blowing destination: http://www.kaluyala.com/community/adventures-in-the-tropics/team-etsy-explores-the-beauty-of-san-blas/