How can shipping a vehicle across a short distance across an ocean be so difficult? Ports of the world are like one humongous puzzle where nobody talks to each other. Giant cranes suspended 40-foot containers above the ground, trucks belched out diesel fumes and speed between each other, offices are regulated by bureaucrats drowning in forms and paperwork and everyone is wearing “closed shoes, long pants and a hard hat.” Ships are anchored out at sea waiting to dock. Ships in port are being either loaded or unloaded. Does anyone know what is going on?
Where the hell, are our trucks?
Today Brianna a fellow, overlanders said in despair, “Shipping is worse than trigonometry!” I have to agree. We are told our trucks in the container are somewhere in the port. Can we get them? “No, not until Mr Customs approves.” I think he is on holiday or perhaps he died and nobody noticed yet. We need insurance but before that, we need to get a permit and before that, we need customs clearance. We also need a taxi to shuttle us between port offices and terminal and the city where we can buy insurance before heading back the port to see customs. We are told that perhaps we can hire a truck to take our container to field and unload the trucks there and perhaps the customs will approve us doing that. How might I ask do we unload two 3-ton trucks from another truck in a field? Should we start building a ramp? Perhaps we should rent a house in Cartagena I think we are going to be here forever, and forever wondering what became of our trucks so gently loaded into the containers in Panama City by the Squeeze Team. We will have been in Cartagena a week tomorrow and still no truck. We heard that this port was worse than Panama as if there is some kind of competition between port workers across the world. Colombia you win now give us our trucks!
Cartagena is has a delightful old city centre where we stroll the narrow streets. We seek shade in the tree lined plaza, admire the street art, and colourful buildings. It is hot here bloody hot and humid. Sweat pours off me all the time there is no relief not even at night. I lie in bed and listen to the fan whirling above my head hoping it does not fall down on me. Remind me again why I travel like this?
We are not staying in the old city tourist area that is way too expensive. We are across the road where the peddlers no longer hassle us as they do in the tourist quarters Here the pavements are cracked, we dodge doggie doo, open manholes and scruffy dogs scrounging through the garbage. Cats prowl along the rooftops, tailors mend jeans in doorways, and music beats out into the steamy night air. Food is sold on each corner from vendors carts and coffee is sold out of a thermos no Starbucks on this side of the track. All the youth hostels are located here and backpackers from across the world each with bulging backpacks both front and back, dreadlock hair, tattered jeans and tired, dirty a T-shirt wander the streets looking for a cheap place to sleep. Yellow taxi race along all honking their horns and yet there is a charm about this place. People are friendly and welcoming. Cartagena is really a lovely city despite its port
Within the wall of the old city, we visited the haunting Palace of Inquisition where over 800 people were once executed. Today all that remains are the horrific tools and instruments of torture and death. Ghosts of the past still haunt the corridors, it is eerily silent as tourists stare at the tools and perhaps imagine the cries of the past that must have filled these rooms. Heretic principle crimes were witchcraft, magic and blasphemy. There is a list of questions on the wall that the witches were asked. I shudder when I see the sharp clamps used to tear the witches’ breasts, neck spiked clamps, head crush clamps, torture tools, the guillotine, hangman’s noose, and table used to tear people apart. Mankind is at times insane.
I wait in the hotel room as Tom and Logan have gone yet again to the port in an attempt to get our trucks released. I wait and I wait.
Will they get the trucks today? Stranger things have happened, yet no one could have dreamed up what happened to us on Friday at the port. There are tales of a Chinese conspiracy, requests for bribes, required documents produced or missing, demands for more money and finally when we think our agent has the final required piece of paper she disappears. We wait knowing the port is closing within minutes, she said she would only be a minute, people start leaving, and an ambulance arrives and then departs. We wait; it is now beginning to get dark, offices are closing and our agent has disappeared with our final piece of paper. We ask around, does anyone know what happened to our agent. Finally, they break the news to us; she has been taken to hospital by ambulance! OMG where is our final piece of paper. She fell down the stairs and they think she might have broken her arm. We go home without our trucks. We hope she is okay and wonder if we will ever see her again or our trucks. Nothing could have prepared us for the shipping drama that has unfolded in Colombia. We thought the loading of the trucks by the Squeeze Team in Panama was interesting but that was only the beginning of what must surely be the most jinxed Panama Colombia shipping event.
A critical document is the bill of lading; it is the legal document describing the contents and owners of the container. We were to pick up the original master bill of lading in Colombia. Without it, we have no claim to the container or its contents. Except in Colombia, there was no bill of lading. The original was with Evergreen Shipping Company in Panama and the reason Evergreen in Colombia could not get a copy was because someone in China had screwed up their system and the entire shipload of containers was stuck in no man’s land, ours included. At least we were not alone! This piece of paper needs a special seal as proof we had paid so until Evergreen in Colombia and customs see it they refused to release our container. We wait, we negotiate, and we wait. More phone calls, more trips to this official’s office and that official’s office. It is suggested we give someone a bottle of whisky, we refuse and we wait some more. They want more money, a damage deposit for the container, we refuse and wait some more. Finally after a day we are so close, our billing of lading is found and it is time to go to hand in our final piece of paper. We proceed to the office and the agent says she will only be a minute to hand in this precious piece of paper. She never reappears because she is wearing these ridiculously high heels and falls down the stairs. Saturday morning we head back to the port and are greeted by our agent now in pain and discomfort but she has brought along her husband and nephew who will do all the running around in their sensible shoes. Finally, after 6 hours, we have clearance to get our container and trucks but there are two new problems. There is no room at the port to unload our container and anyway it is not in this port it is at another port 20 minutes away. We also need Colombian vehicle insurance and by now, the insurance company is closed. We will have to wait for Monday; we hold our breath and wait.
Sunday we plunge into the mud volcano Volcán de Lodo el Totumo. We climb the stairs leading to the mud pool on the top and I gingerly step into the jelly like mud. It oozes through my fingers and toes and I love it. The pool is supposedly over 2000 meters deep but they reassure us we would not sink and in fact, it was quite difficult to move as it is like moving through thick whipped chocolate cream. It is unique. Afterwards everyone heads to the lake to wash the mud off. The local women help rinse you off. Everyone, some needing a bit of encouragement removes their muddy bathing suit and lets the mud be washed off.
Tom has learnt that if you meet anyone who looks or sounds important get their name and phone number especially if they speak English. It was on our first day in the port that he met Eric who everyone seemed to know and who appeared to have lot of authority. Tom asked him for his business card but he did not have one so hand wrote his name and phone number on a piece of paper. On Monday our 4th day of trying to retrieve the trucks Tom and Logan returned to the port and headed for the office to get another “final” paper. Logan and Tom requested some information from the lady behind the glass, with her arms folded across her chest, she shook her head and said, “No”. Tom reached into his wallet taking out that piece of paper with Eric’s name and number and smacked the paper up against the glass for her to read and pointing to it Tom gave her the look. She unfolded her arms and the request was granted.
Monday also had Tom sneaking into the container port after being refused entry. Officials said only one owner could enter. Logan had signed the paper so he was officially allowed into the port to witness the unloading of the trucks from the container. Logan was ushered through security after being handed an ID badge, hard hat, safety vest, also his shoes were inspected they had to be closed and his long pants approved. He and the port officials disappeared amongst the 1000’s of stacked containers. Tom does not take no for an answer easily. So he decided to sneak into the container port without official approval, wrong ID badge and no hard hat or safety vest. Ah yes but he did have sensible shoes and long pants as his only disguise. Within minutes Tom had managed to wiggle his way through security and was lost amongst the containers. At least he had not wasted his time hanging around the port since he had noted the gaps in security. He had no idea where Logan and the officials had disappeared to but then saw a truck carrying a container the same colour as ours and decided to give chase. It was not our container but it was heading to the unloading area and soon he spotted Logan. A very surprised Logan greeted Tom with a big smile and Tom began to film the ‘extraction of the trucks” from the container. This will be the sequel to the video of the loading of the container by the Squeeze Team in Panama.
Finally the trucks were out the container and looked in great shape. A quick phone call to myself and Brianna was made who were left waiting with baited breath at the hotel for any news.
The port authorities then requested yet more money, this time for driving the trucks out of the container. Tom refused saying Logan had offered to drive the trucks out and they had refused to allow him so he was not paying. A call to Eric was made and he gave his approval to have the costs cancelled.
It was now 6pm on Monday and the port was closing. We had our truck permits but no insurance to drive them. We had to leave our trucks in the port and return on Tuesday after we had purchased insurance, then we could really finally have them. But it did not happen quite like that.
Tuesday morning with insurance and the truck release authorization papers in hand, Tom and Logan headed into the port. Brianna and I were left waiting at the gate. They never came back. There is a “problema” Tom and Logan were told by the official responsible for releasing the trucks. The date on the form was for yesterday, the trucks were to be released yesterday but not today. WTF! I could almost feel Tom’s frustration level rising across the port as he told me by phone. So it was back to some other office to get another release, this one surely the final piece of paper with the correct date. Before they would issue that one however they wanted more money this this time for an extra day storage. Tom started to feel the blood pressure rise but when they found out that it was only $4.76 each, they both broke out laughing and paid. The young spanish only speaking clerks must have thought those gringo’s are crazy! Several hours later they drove out of the port stopping briefly for Brianna and I to jump on board before the port authorities found another form for us to complete. We have escaped the Colombia Port Authorities successfully.
We bid farewell to Brianna and Logan as they are now heading to Ecuador to meet friends. Tom and I had planned to store our truck in Cartagena and fly to Italy and Canada to visit family. Unfortunately we were unable to store our truck in Cartagena and so decided to head for Medellin and try there.
Despite the bureaucracy of the Cartagena port authorities and the port workers working to rule, apparently this helps stamp out corruption, the Colombians we have met have been extremely helpful and wonderful to us.
The drive to Medellin was both spectacular and hair raising. We crossed over a beautiful mountain range. When the sun was shinning we were treated to some of the most spectacular scenery we have seen so far. The road climbed higher and higher, the road was narrow and full of trucks going in both directions. The fog closed in, visibility reduced to almost zero, it was every truck driver for himself. Even we were forced to pass over solid double lines, avoiding trucks struggling at 5km up the steep slopes. In some parts the road had been destroyed by rains, boulders from somewhere high had rolled down and potholes had enlarged. A large truck stalled because its extra heavy load had shifted and the road was now reduced to one narrow lane. For several kms. trucks were lined up waiting for the opportunity to pass this stalled truck. We switched off our engine and waited and I gave thanks that I did not have a full bladder but did wonder if we would be sleeping on the road that night. Finally at the highest point on the mountain pass we arrived in the dark and rain at a little truck stop. We pulled in and spent the night at the truck stop wearing our DOWN jackets as we were so cold and wet. We joined the truckers for some local food before heading to bed.
The following morning we were woken early by all the truck drivers starting their huge beasts. We were the last to leave at 6am and headed to Medellin. In the morning the mist had cleared, the rain had stopped and we were treated again to magnificent views. Colombia is stunning beautiful in this area. We arrived in the chaos of Medellin with no map but did have an address of a place to store the truck. Traffic was heavy so we flagged down a taxi gave him the address and told him we would follow him
Finally we were at the Kenworth Trucking company and meeting our new Colombian friend Rodrigo who had arranged storage for our truck. Rodrigo was amazing and helpful and soon had our truck safely stored, had us booked into a hotel and assisted us with arranging flight tickets to Milan.
We were exhausted and once in the hotel we collapsed into a large comfy bed with magnificent pillows, a clean beautiful shower and toilet and high above the noise of the traffic below. We soon drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep.
Sunday we will fly to Bogota to catch a plane to Madrid and then Milan. To hold our grandchildren in our arms again to hug our son David and Marzena is going to be so very special after nearly a year on the road. After Milan we will fly back to Canada before heading back to Colombia. To our friends and family back in Canada we will see you soon. Looking forward to seeing everyone again as we take a break from a year on the road, having traveled over 40,000km through 11 countries.
With our truck safely in storage in Medellin we were ready to fly to see family and friends. We left Colombia flying out of Bogota but not before spending some wonderful time with Rodrigo and Elizabeth. We met them in Medellin where Rodrigo helped us arrange our trip to see our family and friends. They showed us the countryside around Medellin, treating us to special Colombian food, showing us the magnificent flowers grown in the area and of course the landscape. We have been astonished at just how beautiful Colombia is, from the moment we stepped off the plane in Cartagena, our drive to Medellin across the mountains and Medellin itself.
We are looking forward to exploring more of the yet still undiscovered tourist gem.
Milan and Family
Ever wondered what to do in Milan? You have got to watch your step and the side walk for those poopie monsters! Oh yea the Italians love their dogs and their doggies love the sidewalks. Hellooooo doggie doo, little piles of welcome for me to step into! Good thing I don’t wear expensive Italian shoes.
And would you believe it I am visiting my grandchildren at the exact time Jakob is being pottie trained. Hellooooooo accident doo. He is so proud of all his achievements, this little guy is going to go far in life, nothing will hold him back and his grandpa and grandma are just as proud. Our grand daughter is still trying to sort out which of us is grandpa and which one grandma. To help her in her confusion she now simply calls out “boy grandma,” “girl grandpa” or perhaps “girl grandma” and “boy grandpa.” A sure sign of a potential genius I would never have thought of that. Of course they were delighted to see us and having spent many hours in front of a computer chatting to us over skype they obviously thought we arrived by stepping out of the computer. Yep they will happily tell you, “My grandpa and grandma live a computer” So much for the modern child with traveling grandparents from across the world.
Watching Samantha 3 years and Jakob 23 months, play and squeal with delight is such a treat after being away for so long. It is also a reminder how quickly time passes, how children grow up and how quickly they change. We love being with David and Marzena, and being part of their lives in Italy. They will be moving on one day so don’t know if next time we see them will be in Milan or not.
We left Italy on Monday and headed for Calgary, Canada where we will renew our passports. What an great feeling to have filled up 48 pages of a passport, and we look forward to a passport that does not attract the attention of officials.
We arrived in Calgary and it is so wonderful to have fun with our friends again. There is lots of laughter, catching up with everyones news, sharing our plans and dreams for future and relaxing. Surprised that the one thing I am enjoying most is having a access to a washing machine and of course soaking in a bathtub.
We are flying back to Colombia next week and are looking forward to being back on the road.
We stepped off the plane in Bogota and immediately we knew we had left the North American continent, it just felt different. The arrival hall crammed with no room to manoeuvre, swept up with the crowd we moved slowly forward to the customs officer. With a broad smile, he welcomed us into Colombia. As we exited the airport, the waiting family and friends of passengers stretched as far as my eyes could see, well over a 1000 people all anxiously waiting for arrivals.
We arrived at the hostel late in the night. As we stepped out the cab, a small light cast eerie shadows down the deserted street. We were alone. We stood there wondering if we had the right address, we rang the buzzer and it seemed like an eternity before the door opened.
Bogota is the capital and the largest city in Colombia, third highest city in the world 2,625 meters (8612 ft). The following morning, in a light rain we headed out and walked to the Plaza de Bolivar the heart of the original city.
A large statue of Simon Bolivar located in the centre now covered with graffiti stands as testament to the man, who played a key role in the Latin America’s struggle of independence from Spain.
Today the plaza is filled, with vendors selling pigeon food, children feeding the pigeons and flocks of pigeons swooping down on unsuspecting people. We were tired and struggling with the altitude so headed back to the hostel for an afternoon nap.
The next morning, greeted by the sun we took the opportunity to head for Cerro de Monserrate. We walked up to the cable car and were surprised at the amount of police presence, but it was a delightful walk.
The cable car took us to the top of the mountain 3160m (10,400’) which overlooks the city on one side and the valley and forested mountains on the other. Bogota below stretches out to the horizon and as far as the eyes can see. It is a huge city.
The church on the summit is peaceful with Gregorian chants filling the air.
We wandered down a path past beautiful gardens, and with only the green mountains seen in the distance, it was as if we were a 1000km from a city.
We decided to visit the Museo Historico Policia rather than the typical city museums to learn about some of the country’s struggles. A young Colombian English speaking police officer accompanied us as a guide. He took us first to see a dummy of Cocaine Kingpin Pablo Escobar wearing the clothing at the time of his death. Pablo Escobar was shot dead at the age of 44 year leaving behind a personal fortune of over $25 Billion. Known as the world’s most successful and richest criminal, in 1989 Forbes magazine declared him the 7th wealthiest man in the world. A tale of a young boy refused entry to school because he had no shoes he turned to crime and the course of Colombia’s history changed forever.
Our guide proudly showed us the Canadian Mounted Police uniform and told us about a similar force in Colombia. We sipped hot Colombian coffee as we listened to his tales. It was fascinating tour into a world unknown to us.
We found Bogota a city of colourful graffiti and wall art which some of the photos below show.
We are now in Medellin and are preparing to get back on the road.
We were excited to be flying back into Medellin, but as we drove from the airport to Medellin city in a cab, we knew something was different. We looked at each other and agreed something had to have happened since we were last in Medellin since the roadways were now full of military personnel and police.
We soon heard the unsettling news; there had been a FARC attack north of Medellin on the PanAm highway. In fact, the highway between Cartagena and Medellin was closed while a search for the perpetrators of this horrific crime was conducted. This was the very road we drove to Medellin when we were unable to store our truck in Cartagena. We were so disappointed at that time, now however we could not have felt more relieved, at least we had passed the high-risk area. However the locals of Medellin were rattled and we sought their advice about proceeding south on the PanAm highway, which would take us across and through some troubled spots. We reviewed the Canadian Embassy advisory and it warned against any travel through these areas. It seemed that there was an increase in FARC activity since we were last here just a month ago.
It is always a judgement call when faced with having to travel routes that are considered risky. We have had to make this type of decision before in Angola with landmines: in the Congo following riots and in Nigeria with kidnappings of foreigners. These are never easy decisions. We always follow the advice of locals so we decided to proceed, driving only during daylight, starting early on the road and getting off early. If we do not see any oncoming vehicles for 15 minutes, we will pull over and ask if it is safe to proceed as there maybe a roadblock ahead. No off road camping, we stay in hotels and the best are the ones that the truckers stay.
We left Medellin and headed south. The road was indeed full of traffic especially trucks heading in both directions. There were multiply military and police checkpoints most waved us through. When we were stopped, they were incredible friendly and wished us a safe journey telling us it was safe to proceed. We were amazed at how beautiful Colombia is. Colombia is one of the most stunning places we have visited on this journey. We passed through mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls, we saw local farmers working in the fields high up on the hills, and large fluffy clouds hung over the mountains. Little villages seemed to cling to the edge of cliffs. I decided all Colombians must have a good head for heights.
Our first night on the road we watched a traffic hold up that went on for hours and stretched for miles. There had been a bus crash just a few kilometres from our hotel. It happened during day light and traffic was still not moving when we went to bed at 9:30pm, another good reason not to travel at night.
After 3 days of driving, we arrived near the Ecuador border. We pulled into an Esso station still in Colombia. We asked about rooms, yes they had them. How long would we need a room he inquired? When we told him until the following morning around 8am, he shook his head and said that would be much too expensive for us. We said we would pay and even asked for his “grande” room, which set us back a full $10.00! Juan an Ecuadorian trucker joined us for supper; we shared beers and stories and afterwards headed for bed. We both slept well.
The following morning before we left Colombia, we made a detour to see the Santuario las Lajas, and although shrouded in fog it was spectacular sight. It is a basilica church built between 1916 and 1949 with donations from local believers.
We arrived at the border and with no fuss; we were stamped out of Colombia. We arrived to busloads of passengers, it was fun chaos even the border officials could not contain their laughter. Nobody was upset, and it was a good introduction to Ecuador.