We made it!
We had a relatively smooth time getting here, and considering how many things COULD HAVE gone wrong – we were very lucky indeed. We left very early in the morning from a hotel in Minneapolis near the airport. Even the kids weren’t too upset about having to get up at 4 am as we were all pretty excited to get out of town after what seemed like years of preparation. The last month before leaving was exceedingly stressful. Selling the bulk of our belongings, finding good homes for other things, and boxing up the rest and moving it to my parents’ basement took longer than we anticipated. Actually, everything seemed to take longer than we anticipated. The final days of deciding what to pack in the suitcases and making sure they weren’t over the weight and size limits was frankly a major pain in the butt.
But we managed to finish, and off we went Friday morning at 4am!
Going through airport security with two sleepy kids, bunches of heavy backpacks, a stroller and a carseat strapped to a travel dolly was…challenging. We made it to the gate with a few minutes to spare, and my husband announced that he needed to make a quick pitstop. After a few minutes went by, the agents at the front desk made an announcement that anyone needing special assistance could board immediately. Chris was nowhere to be found. I looked at our giant pile of stuff and ungainly cart seat and sent him a text message that went unanswered. Another few minutes goes by, and the agent makes an announcement that the front rows could board. Approximately the entire population of Minneapolis makes a mad dash for the gate. I am still sitting alone with one kid who is half asleep, and one two year old who is stomping his feet and screaming at the top of his lungs that he wants to get on “his airplane”!!
I finally called Chris, who answered his phone from the line at the coffee shop halfway down the terminal. A few moments later I spot him running down the concourse holding two giant cups of coffee and a bag of stale muffins. We stashed the stuff in the corner and ran for the plane.
I had a terrible time trying to seatbelt the carseat into the plane. I actually cut my wrist open trying to squeeze my hand into the weency little tunnel in the back of the carseat that you are supposed to thread the belt through, but despite my valiant efforts I never could pull the seatbelt tight enough to really be “secure”. The rest of the day, which included three airplanes and four taxi/shuttle rides, the carseat worked hard to become the bane of my existence. If it wasn’t for having to schlep that thing onto security conveyor belts, try to wrangle it onto airplane seats, belt it into differently configured taxi seats, and bungee it onto the travel dolly we had brought while scores of passengers queued behind us looking annoyed, I almost would describe the day as “not too terrible”.
(Anyone who talked to me about this trip over the past six months could attest to my worries and obsession about what to do about the “carseat issue”. I am crazy about carseats. My kids never go anywhere without one, and I wasn’t going to let a minor thing like a trip through 5 countries get in the way of making sure they were following current recommendations about how to be secured in the safest manner possible. My friends scoffed, my husband rolled his eyes, but I was adamant that we at least keep the littlest one in a five point harness for the duration of the trip. I did finally relent and agree to use the Ride Safer Traffic Vest once he turned three this upcoming December (that’s a vest that acts as a booster seat – repositioning the seat belt around the kid. Check it out if your kid is over 30 pounds, 3 years old and you are someplace where you will be riding in taxis, etc, and don’t want to carry a carseat). But seriously, I spent more time researching how to best cart this carseat around for the first six months than I probably did planning the whole rest of the trip.)
Of course, throughout the day, I kept telling myself that even though it was monumentally inconvenient and annoying and sometimes physically TERRIBLE, at least we were making sure that the 2 1/2 year old was buckled safely (and of course the 8 year old being almost my height, was safely buckled into a regular seat belt).
So imagine my horror when we emerge blurry eyed and discombobulated from the Panama City airport at 9:30 at night after nearly 18 hours of cross country travel and connections and at least five screaming temper tantrums by the littlest one, to find our driver waiting impatiently for us (waving a sign and shouting my name across the airport), and driving a van that could best be described as a clunker. No actually, clunkers might be nicer. I frantically looked around for any sort of newer taxi van that we could trade for, but the people who made it out of the airport quicker than us (i.e.: everyone else on the plane) apparently got to them first. I sighed deeply and got in hoping to find a decent lap/shoulder belt, or at the very least, a lap belt with a spot behind the seat where I could secure the tether on the carseat.
Surprise! I couldn’t find any seat belts at all. Well, actually that’s not true – I found one half of a lap belt. I held it up inquiringly. “Where is the other half?” I asked in Spanish. “No hay” (there isn’t any) he driver responded. “Wait….where are the rest of the seat belts?” I asked, looking around at the rest of the naked seats. “No hay” he responded with a rather exasperated expression, as if seat belts were the last thing you would ever find in a car. “There are NO seat belts in Panama” he added for emphasis.
So, besides that moment when the littlest one tried to run backwards through the security checkpoint at Miami International Airport (and almost made it), and that time when my oldest skipped happily past the immigration line (all the way) in Panama City almost causing an international incident, this was the most panicked I had been throughout the whole day.
My husband looked at me and muttered, “It’s either this or walk”. So, that’s how I found myself allowing my child, for whom I had lugged a ridiculously heavy and awkward carseat across the continent, into a clunker car with absolutely no safety belt of any kind.
It gets better. Down we proceed on the highway towards our hotel. As we pull into a toll lane just outside the airport area, our driver slows to a halt. Cars are zooming around us to find a quicker lane. Cautious driving is apparently not in style here. Just then, the clunker van dies. The driver swears to Dios and his mother, etc, and bangs expressively on the steering wheel. He curses loudly. Then he tries to restart the van to no avail.
He jumps out and lifts up the front seat (this is a VW van and the engine is under the front seat), bumping my now sleeping daughter in the head. Smoke billows alarmingly from the engine. I reach frantically for the side door and try to pull it open – it is locked. I panic and yell at my husband who is in the front seat, “Get out and open the door!”. He does, and then we both pause, because what is better? Jumping with the kids into oncoming traffic or sitting in a van that may be about to burst into flame? Just then the toll attendant from our lane saunters out of his booth and tells the driver to back it up. Seriously? My husband reluctantly gets back in, the driver lowers the seat over the engine (which seems to have cooled for the moment), and we begin a rather treacherous move backwards into traffic. Horns honk. Drivers yell out windows. We back up about 150 feet while the driver continued to try and pop the clutch, causing the van to lurch every few feet. Cars continue to zoom around us. Minutes feel like hours.
After we (thankfully) make it to a (sort of) safe spot and pull about 5 five off to the side, we pile out the side door and move quickly to a curb next to the fence separating our huge highway from the five lane one where cars are headed at about 60 mph in the opposite direction. It’s now about 10 pm, and we are standing on the side of the road with two kids and a lot of concern. About 30 minutes later after messing about under the seats and yelling more profanities, our driver informs us that he has called for a “new car”. Our daughter moans and complains and tells us that this “Isn’t how I pictured starting our adventure” (queue the dramatic music). Our son, being tightly held by my husband as traffic roars past, points at the bus and shouts “That bus is BROKEN!”. Indeed.
Another hour passes. Friends of the driver in taxis, tow trucks, and even some sort of emergency roadside assistance van (this isn’t a roadside emergency?) come by to stand around encouragingly while our driver continues to bang on things under the front seat and shout obscenities. He seems to be friends with most of the drivers on the road at this time of night, but none of them have anything to offer except moral support. We fret but don’t want to interfere with any sort of repairs (that aren’t happening).
Finally, at 11 pm, our new taxi comes roaring up, flying across five lanes of traffic (three of them going the opposite direction). This new taxi is small – ridiculously small for five people (including the driver), four giant suitcases, a bunch of miscellaneous bags, a stroller, and an apparently useless carseat. As it pulls up, the four of us lunge at it like fans at a rock concert. We are saved! We pile in and I belt the kids in 1970s style – two to a lap belt in the back with bags and myself wedged around them. There is not a latch system or a shoulder belt anywhere to be found.
It is now midnight and we are unceremoniously deposited at our B&B. The owner comes out and tells us that he has been worried sick about us – he thought that maybe we had been in an accident or something. No! We were just stranded in the middle of a highway with two kids for over an hour – no biggie!
The next morning, we put our son into the Ride Safer Traffic Vest, and proceed out to the nearest busy road to try and hail an appropriate cab to Casco Viejo, Old Town Panama City. The carseat is left sitting in the corner of our hotel room. We can’t imagine how we will lug it around old town while sightseeing, and frankly can’t bear to deal with it another minute. We turn down five taxis that don’t have proper seat belts that would accommodate the vest, and when a newer model finally comes along, we precariously stand in traffic trying to buckle our son safely into his seat while taxis and buses roar past us honking and shouting. Even for Panama, this seems to be dangerous. Our driver gives a giant sigh of relief when we finally are all buckled in safely, and mutters “tan peligroso”. Yes, it is really dangerous trying to buckle your kids up correctly in Panama.
And the adventure continues….