|Billy Idol thinks it's a nice day for a new toilet.|
The recapture of our toilet parts is a thrilling tale of line-waiting and document flashing. A story so exciting that, for the first time here at Sailing Papillon, we have a guest post! And from The Captain himself, no less. Without further ado, enjoy Erik's gripping account of How I Rescued My Toilet from the Post Office.
Papillon has emerged victorious from our quest for the missing Lower Assembly Unit, aka pump thingy that makes the whole toilet work. After having tracked down the toilet to the post office in Colon, and having been told in no uncertain terms that she was not to go to that part of town at any time of day, Amy merrily assigned the task of recovery to me. Armed only with a mental map of the area provided by our trusty Panama cruising guide (the post office was shown next to a zone marked as “Slums – area to be avoided”), I borrowed a friend’s car and worked my way unscathed through the usual insanity of the Latin American driving experience. I found an empty curbside near where I estimated the office to be and began wandering around asking people for directions. Numerous iterations later, with much help from a couple of old ladies out shopping, I discovered the building. It was a dirty cream pile tucked behind row of semi-permanent shanties and vehicles cramming the street and selling everything from sewing services, to semi-dressed beef carcasses, to cups of freshly pressed fruit juice. This is indeed a rough part of town and gets rougher with every step closer to the port facility. Rusted rebars and bits of stucco jut crazily out of the remains of cement balconies, dubious water trickles out of every gutter and alleyway, and an ad-libbed rat’s nest of electrical wiring makes stretching your hand above head height a potentially fatal experiment.
I was at first puzzled when I found the main entrance to the post office building closed by a rusted metal shutter. Upon retracing my steps I found I had missed a crooked glass door (no handle) that was added as an afterthought to a gash in the side of the building. I surmise one of the beef-laden vans in the area crashed into the post office one day. Once the rubble and mangled bodies were cleared away, the new hole in the wall was seen as an inspired addition to the overall architecture and was adopted as the new main entrance.
Inside, all is Orwellian blue and beige. The space was once a bright, traditional, early 20th century administrative building filled with banks of die-cast post boxes overlooked by a row of service counters at the back. Decades of great-power-inspired socioeconomic development transformed this into a jury-rigged and overpainted mess: the service desks and post box banks are now topped by inexpertly welded steel mesh to prevent thievery, the floor is now a dull grey linoleum tile, all surfaces vertical and horizontal, apart from the beige steel mesh itself, are covered with a matte baby-blue paint scientifically designed to highlight grubby fingerprints and scuffs. The process to recover a package is delightfully byzantine; plan at least 2 hours for the adventure.
Step 1: go to General Inquiries desk (cage, actually), show ID and chat with friendly, exceedingly Rubenesque lady inmate. She will now slowly shuffle through various bits of paper. After a process of trial and error finding a rough match between what is on your ID and the illegible scrawl on the badly photocopied package forms, you and she will jointly agree that this is probably the right item. Proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: proceed to payment cage, show ID and attempt to greet sullen, weathered and stick-insect-like lady inmate named Diana. After fruitless attempt at civility, shove 25 cents through slot in cage along with form and idly observe Diana meticulously copy out every item on Form A onto a new Form B, then stamp Form B as proof of payment. Interrupt observation to shoot Matchbox car back and forth across lobby floor to little boy who is hanging around firing cars at gringos while waiting in line with his mom. Receive Forms A, B and another photocopied sheet explaining the rationale for the 25 cent fee from Diana. Proceed to Step 3 while musing on the cost structure of the process thus far; 25 cents clearly won’t cover it.
Step 3: proceed to jumbled mass of plywood and chain link fencing that spans the entire end of the lobby by the old main entrance. Ascertain that this is in fact the package receipt desk, whose construction renders the old main entrance unusable. Stand in line for 30 minutes behind family with six book-sized packages to pick up from the package handler, Mr. David, who resides in the left hand side of the cage. His counter is set about 3 feet back from, and 90 degrees to, the gap in the chain link through which you actually speak with the man – a more inconvenient arrangement for handing over packages and exchanging forms could scarcely be devised – certainly not OSHA-approved . Settle back and enjoy the ensuing show as the family engages in a heated discussion of customs fees, frantic form filling (Form C plus a list of recipient info incl., ID numbers) while Mr. David cycles through multiple trips to the back to find packages. Each package is sought individually in a room that must be at least a two minute walk away, for Mr. David disappears and reappears with this cadence throughout the entire transaction. Chat with effusive, blindingly gold-toothed neighbour in line who has just moved back after 17 years in Miami and is readapting with some difficulty to life in Colon (“just getting the hang of this whole Spanish gig again, man...”). Prepare to step forward to the desk, but stop as you realize it is far, far from your turn yet. The quiet, blue-shirted man in the Gilligan hat who you took to be the janitor hanging out in the right hand side of the cage turns out to be the senior customs officer, and is about to inspect all the packages that Mr. David just handed out of his little window. Observe idly as he also fills out all the recipient information on Form D, for dutiful signature by the family in front of you. Once the transaction has completed, finally step forward and proceed to Step 4.
Step 4: Spend 15 seconds talking to Mr. David and be informed that you need your boat documentation to pick up packages. You have of course left these in the car. Proceed outside to Step 5.
Step 5: Walk back to car, unlock it, hunt around and realize that you had the boat papers in your pocket the entire time. Proceed back to post office, note it is 11:52 and muse that you’re likely about to hit lunch hour by now.
Step 6: return to the line in front of the package receiving cage and make hopeful faces at the sullen passel of Argentines who were there behind you the entire time you stood waiting; will they let you back in out of sympathy and camaraderie as a fellow foreigner? Evidently they will not (happily, they also get the Round 1 smackdown/toss out later by Mr. David as you chuckle inwardly at cosmic balance). In the meantime, watch your friendly former neighbour stoically enduring a friendly shakedown from the customs man to adjust the declared value of the package of clothing and household items sent down from Miami. In time, step forward to re-greet Mr. David, who has fortunately not yet taken his lunch break. Pass over ID and push the former inner operations consultant down deep as you watch poor Mr. David disappear on another lap to the distant package warehouse. Fill out and sign multiple forms and mentally prepare for detailed and legalistic discussion with customs man about tax-exempt status of parts for yachts in transit. Hand over packages to customs man and proceed to Step 7.
Step 7: See customs man lick his lips in anticipation of shakedown on marine parts with declared value of $1350. Join him in his side of the cage as he whips out his box cutter and slits the first side of the package open. Pause. Starts slitting the second side while asking “So, these are boat parts, are they”. “Yes, indeed. They are parts for a broken toilet. What an awful mess that was!” The hand with the box cutter freezes midway through its second cut. Box cutter is laid down carefully. “You’re in transit, then? Ok, ok, I’m sure it’s all fine. Just sign here and you’re free to go”. Evidently, even hardened Panamanian customs officials shy away from the detailed perusal of the innards of other people’s toilets. Funny, that.