The waiting game

As our time in Panama approached a month, we were faced with the expiry of our vehicle permit. Visas for people are 90 days, whereas the car is done on a monthly basis. We decided to go a few days early and see if we could pause the permit, as it seemed pointless paying for another month’s worth of insurance for a vehicle that wasn’t on the road. We waited a while to be told that this wasn’t possible and that we needed to return on Monday with new insurance to renew our documents, at least it’s only $25. 

When Monday came it was a simple ten minute job to buy some more insurance. The renewal of the TIP on the other hand took over an hour and a half. When he finally presented us with a single  A4 sheet of paper, it took me all of ten seconds to realise that the number plate was wrong. It was a long wait for a pointless and incorrect document. As we would be needing another one before we left the country I didn’t bother to point out the mistakes, but we would need to make sure that it was correct next time to avoid port delays when shipping to Colombia. 

With another month, we continued work back at the garage. Lee focused on treating the underside of the van as best we could to avoid the rust issues getting any worse. As if they weren’t bad enough already. 

We would be needing some serous welding in Colombia. We would have considered doing it here, if trying to find a welder wasn’t incredibly hard. We had some welding that could only be done with the engine removed and we were keen to get this sorted well before the new one arrived. After asking four different welders, we finally had one agree to come and sort the problem. It wasn’t cheap for $150 and was a bit of hassle as they wanted to remove the fuel tank, but I can at least say that they did a good job of it. Whenever the engine eventually arrived, that was one problem ticked off the list. 

While this wasn’t the most boring of our breakdowns, it was still getting a little monotonous. We were slowly running out of jobs to complete on the camper and David is not an exciting town. It was therefore exciting to realise that there was a large fair in town that weekend. Over 30,000 people visited this huge event which features an odd array of stalls.

We weren’t really sure what to expect as we queued up outside. The queue was pretty huge and despite moving fairly quickly it took nearly an hour to get in. You could buy a cow, a brand new car or some local Panamanian arts and crafts, before heading over to watch the rodeo or going to the outside rum bar/club.

As we weren’t in need of livestock or heavy duty machinery, we headed to the food court and got ourselves some diner out. It was odd after years of restriction to be sitting in a busy foodcourt with so many other people and it was definitely a welcome distraction from our current boredom.

After a sizeable patron burger, we went for a wander around, ending up watching the rodeo. 

By this time the bar was getting into full swing, with a huge queue stretching down the road. It was clearly going to go on until the early hours of the morning. We were content to buy some churros and wander home though, where it was still possible to hear the DJ booth back in the hostel kitchen. 

As the days continued to pass, we were informed that due to COVID there were port delays. How there can still be delays attributed to this two years later, I don’t know, but it meant that when we were told the engine would arrive Friday it most certainly did not. There was still a few things to be sorted in the meantime. Our bell housing parts had arrived from England and that meant we needed to find a ‘torno’, the workshops here that deal with metalwork. Having gone for the best reviewed one we went to explain what we needed. Richard had sent us a new slightly oversized tube and we needed the hole in our bell housing resizing from 33.8mm to 33.9mm. Not much margin for error there. After a lot of explaining, we were fairly confident that they understood what we needed. As the tube would be glued in place, it was important that the gaps were not too big.

We slowed worked our way through the remainder of our list; the central locking was fixed, a new door buzzer fitted and new fans mounted on the radiator. We added 110v hook up to our electrical system as well as tweaking some wiring in the the back to try and avoid the everyday cable spaghetti that occurred when you wanted to charge a laptop or make a coffee. Then we replaced the throttle cable for a proper one, not something bolted together from the hardware store, Ruby was going to be like driving a completely different vehicle, and we couldn’t wait to try it. For months, driving had not been a very enjoyable experience. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen a hill coming and just prayed we would get up it. I can’t remember how many times I’ve said the words, “Let’s just get there and I’ll try to look at it”. I wanted to get back to how it was before our engine first broke in Baja, where I enjoyed the scenery around as we drove, rather than staring at the oil light or the temperature gauge. 

In accordance with ‘being proactive’, we decided to change the clutch cable which was look a bit worse for wear. Unfortunately for us, this then revealed a problem with the rubber tube section that mounts on the side of the gearbox. It had split and rusted and while the old cable came out and the new one wouldn’t go in. We completely destroyed the tube trying to remove it and now that the freight forwarder had actually given us a date for the engine, we needed a new one quickly. As ever, it wasn’t easy. There’s one guy in Panama who sells parts for VW’s and he didn’t have it. There’s plenty in The States but that was going to be a long wait. We turned to our contacts in Costa Rica and eventually after some hunting, found two different garages with one. Now we just needed to get it here and pay for it. While we still weren’t that far from San Jose and the same bank branch exists in both countries, it was still an International payment. We were warned of a big charge and that we would have to use someones else’s bank account. They wouldn’t accept PayPal or Western Union. It was rather frustrating to know the part was sitting right there and we just couldn’t pay for it. In the end, a fellow VW lover who we had yet to meet but had been sending us messages since we got to Panama, had the solution. He suggested we get a bus to the border, sneak into Costa Rica and pay at the Costa Rican bank. Then it would no longer be an international payment and quite straightforward. After that we would wait a few days and then go back to the border to collect it from the bus station. It was hassle, but it was still the best solution. 

It’s pretty straightforward to get to the border from David, a single hour long bus journey that costs $2.10 each and even has air conditioning. Once there we strolled into Costa Rica and paid, it took us a whole morning to do it but at least now we knew the final piece of the puzzle was on its way. Not only was that sorted, but the engine too had actually arrived in Panama City and would be with us very soon. 

There was only one issue left and it was completely our fault. The bell housing had been collected a few days ago and to my relief the workshop had done a great job of machine the bore to the correct specifications. Now I just need to glue the tube in place with the specific Loctite that Richard had sent us. That would have been pretty straightforward, if I hadn’t managed to lose it. So we were back to the same old dilemma. Buy the correct one, only available in America, or use a close substitute now. After much deliberation and research, we found one in David that was a very near substitute. Time will tell if that was the right decision and it was an expensive mistake as a little 50ml bottle costs $40. However, to wait for it’s arrival from America at $25 a day is more expensive. An additional wait also meant that the engine would be here but nothing could be reassembled, not something I’m sure we could have dealt with after a wait this long. So I went ahead and glued the tube back in, reassembled the oil scroll and stuck the bell housing back on. Our engine was due to arrive in two days, and we would be ready. 

Lee was so happy that he went ahead and made his famous scotch eggs under the watchful eyes of the ever vicious coati. The cats reigned supreme in the air conditioning. Lizzie would have happily been a house cat for life, but despite the company it was clear to see that Aimee was slowly going crazy and couldn’t wait to leave. She certainly wasn’t the only one.

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