A day in Colon for paperwork

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Mon 20 Feb 2012 19:48
A trip into Cristobal Colon situated at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal was required to obtain our Cruising Permit and Immigration Visas. Colon will never feature in any top 10 best tourist cities or probably top 100 come to that. It's a dirty, smelly, crime-ridden mess of a town and there are parts that are best left unvisited.  So we stole ourselves for what would be a difficult day and climbed onboard one of the 'Chicken' buses in Portobello at 0830 last Thursday. We were fortunate to meet up with another cruising couple on the same mission that helped make the day more tolerable - so thank you to Mike and Shannon of 'Silver Heels' for helping us to maintain our sanity.
'Chicken' buses are best experienced from the outside. It's safer. They are gaily painted in vivid colours and as they are privately owned just about anything goes according to the owners taste. In many cases the artwork is extremely accomplished and certainly a change from the bright yellow livery dating back to their previous life as USA school buses. 
Riding these ancient vehicles presents the passenger with a number of challenges. First, they were designed for children, so leg room isn't the first consideration with the builder. Second, the seats themselves stop just short of resembling granite slabs. Third, once the door is closed and you are trapped onboard and underway the driver will suddenly crank up the volume on the stereo to an ear shattering level. Then, for good measure, tweak it up a few more decibels to ensure that everybody can appreciate the Latino salsa music. There is no escape as there are speakers vibrating in their mountings throughout the length of the bus. Most of them are 'blown' thus the sound is distorted to make the assault on your ears even worse. The music needs to be loud perhaps to overcome the noise level of an elderly V8 diesel engine belching smoke and noise from the exhaust, usually via two shiny chrome stack pipes at the rear. In most cases the pipes under the bus have long since rusted so the unburnt gases exit aft of the engine wherever there is a hole. We gave up any form of conversation after fifteen minutes for fear of arriving in Colon hoarse.
Nice and empty                                                                                                                                                                         Room for plenty more yet
                                                                         Panama shoreline near Portobello.............
These buses keep to some sort of timetable. The driver will keep his foot to the floor and keep it there for as long as possible throughout the journey helped by enthusiastic use of the horn when fast progress is threatened. Braking heavily on the approach to bus stops make it much easier for those at the back to get to the front quickly avoiding time wastage. When just one person alights the driver is determined to keep the vehicle moving if at all possible. There is no passenger limit nor one advertised anywhere onboard. When no more can physically fit on the bus then it's full.
......gives way to inland communities
Arriving in Colon we had to find the building situated somewhere in the commercial docks that issues the Cruising Permits. This entailed a nerve-wracking hike through a car park outside the container depot where we had to negotiate row upon row of huge trucks manoeuvring or parked up with engines running, all emitting a toxic cocktail of black smoke and hot oil fumes along with the smell of simmering tyres in the tropical heat. The buildings in the port compound were architecturally quite outstanding when compared to the mess of the town situated outside the perimeter gates. It was just a shame that a number of them were bricked up and out of use.
Colon container port with ..                                                                               ... old colonial buildings ...                                  ....and  Panama Canal shipping in the background
Inside the building (the guard at the doorway desperately tried to sell us cartons of 200 cigarettes) we finally located the office of the A.M.P.  Inside we were transported back to a previous era of carbon paper and 'Brother' typewriters. It took an hour for us to obtain the documents and the equivalent time for them to extract $200 from us. Despite the time spent there our Cruising Permit was littered with spelling errors but as long as the dates were correct it meant that Ajaya could stay in Panama for one year and we were happy. Business was conducted in a light-hearted manner
which made it almost, although not quite, a pleasant experience. 
The next stop was the immigration office on 11th Street in downtown Colon. Outside we flagged down probably the only taxi driver that didn't know exactly where the Immigration office was situated although he did find the street itself. We finally stopped at an office doorway that had an immigration vehicle parked outside so in we went. Our next brush with Panamanian bureaucracy was about to begin.
                                                                                                Colon - not an attractive place to spend time in
We had been advised to ask for Ruth - but Ruth wasn't there. But Minerva was, and she didn't take prisoners. To our disappointment, despite taking all the relevant copies of boat papers and crew lists with us, we found that we were short of various pieces of paper including two additional passport pictures each and a signed disclaimer stating that Phil as Captain would take absolutely all blame for any negligence or damage however caused whilst in Panama. A really nice document to have clipped to your immigration file!
This office unlike the previous actually had some modern equipment including a photocopier. It was not for the use of us mere visitors.  We were sent to a Chinese stationary shop conveniently situated across the road where we had to sit in front of an ancient Polaroid camera for some instant pictures. Then obtain the required copies as directed by Minerva, all carried out with typical Chinese efficiency.  Then back across the road to the Immigration office where we found Minerva was at lunch. It was obviously that time of day as one of the more 'portly' members of staff was seen staggering back presumably from the fast food shop with polystyrene boxes of fattening fayre stacked one on top of the other. We then sat waiting for Minerva's return whilst Miss 'fast food' sat troughing her way through the contents of her containers in the back of the office.
Meanwhile, Minerva eventually returned looking no happier than she did before lunch. The 'Admiral' duly placed our paperwork onto the counter. The two men in our group were by now running scared of her.  However, the 'Admiral' had made a wrong move as it wasn't our turn! Minerva wanted to look at our friend's paperwork first so the 'Admiral' was told to sit back down. Minerva went through every piece of paper two or three times looking for errors and quantities of copies. Eventually she pronounced all was in order, but not before we had to write down our parents names and give a thumb print on the immigration document! Typically the cleaning alcohol had by now been removed from the counter where it had been that morning and we were given a small piece of paper to clean the ink from our thumbs. We then had to wait another half hour for the 'boss' to arrive back in the office to stamp and sign the documents (although we suspected he'd been there the whole time). Finally we were cleared to go and Minerva even managed a smile when she was presented with one of Ajaya's boat cards.  We rushed out of the office to get back to the bus station to get out of Colon as quickly as possible - forgoing any form of refreshment in our haste.
Having walked through the shabby end of town where small children ran with us shouting 'Gringos Gringos' we found our way back to the terminus and climbed onto the Portobello bound bus.  We then sat in the blazing heat whilst a succession of sellers climbed onboard one after the other to sell their various wares to the captive passengers.
                                                                                                      Another seller climbs onboard the bus - our pals with hastily grabbed ice cream
This proved an interesting experience as whilst most were selling useful items such as sweets, CD's, matches, cotton buds, hair nets etc., our mouths drooped when the last seller, an old man, appeared brandishing a shiny hacksaw, which he then paraded up and down the aisle shouting something in Spanish. It was difficult, given the mainly female balance of passengers, to work out who would actually want to buy a hacksaw except to possibly cut your way out of the wreckage of a bus crash. With no takers for his tool he gave up. Thankfully before anybody else could get on to sell some obscure item like a lathe or printing press the bus reversed out of the station and we headed out of Colon at a frightening speed. The artwork inside the bus depicted, amongst various other scenes, small demented children with cut throat razors sticking out of their heads and huge breasted dominatrix in shiny body attire. We did wondered if this bus was actually going to Portobello via Hell. We were so relieved to be able to get off (alive) at the busy town of Sebanitas with its large Rey supermarket and Mobile Phone shop. Finally we could get our 3G Wifi stick and a ton of shopping which was then inexpertly stuffed into the boot of a taxi back to Portobello. A very trying day finally came to an end. We really enjoyed our sundowners back onboard.