I was excited to be leaving Panama City today and getting back to Boquete. I packed up my backpack and checked out of the apartment, once again. As I had prearranged, I met Sabas, the van driver, at 8:45am to make the trip back over to the used car dealer. Sergio, my car “broker” and guide who had been missing in action the last two days, had said he would meet me at the dealer. To my great surprise, he actually did. He and I went into the office to talk to Susana about having them pay for the repairs to my just-purchased car, under their warranty.
Our efforts to convince them were not successful. It turns out that the sales contract, which says I have a 6 month warranty on the engine and transmission, stipulates that the repairs need to be performed by the dealer’s designated mechanic in order to be covered. My “broker”, Sergio, had not read the one-page contract and had not explained the details to me. The contract is in Spanish, of course.
Having struck out on getting reimbursed for the repairs, I decided it was just time to get the car and get on the road. I was way overdue. Sergio took me over to the mechanic. I paid the bill (about $250) and prepared for my road trip. It was late morning. Since I didn’t know my way out of Panama City, I was going to follow Sergio until we got out to the Pan American Highway. I would stay on this highway all the way to David, where I would turn onto the highway that leads to Boquete (only 30 minutes farther).
As I described in an earlier post, driving in Panama City is a whole different ballgame for a guy who has spent the last 7 years driving the mellow, uncrowded roads of Maui, Hawaii. Sergio has lived here all his life and is certainly accustomed to the organized chaos involved in navigating your way across town. I put on my game face and was determined to stick to his bumper – honking and weaving my way through the streets. We reached a point just outside town where we parted company. From here, I just had to keep following the highway. The Bridge of the Americas (which spans the Pacific end of the Panama Canal) would be a short ways ahead and that landmark, to me, meant I was now out of the City and on the road. I was cruising along and feeling good.
I made it probably 5 miles out of the city (not even to the Bridge) when my car broke down – engine noises, oil light on, etc. I called Sergio, he came out to where I was pulled off the road and called a tow truck. A couple hours later, the truck showed up. I told Sergio I wanted the car towed to the dealer’s mechanic this time. He talked to the tow truck driver, then said he had to leave. He assured me the driver knew where to take the car. Turns out, he didn’t. We wandered around in the tow truck and the driver made several calls to Sergio, finally landing at the right shop. I found it hard to believe this was the dealer’s designated mechanic. It was basically just a large shed, up behind some other buildings, next to an open area with a lot of cars sitting around in various stages of dismantlement. It looked like it would be the place damaged cars come to die. The Boss (at least I think he was the Boss) declared the car “dead” and said the dealer told him to send me back to their office. I got a ride from one of the guys hanging out at the shop, back across town to the dealership.
When I arrived, I saw the sales guy, Johnny, and another man, who was Middle Eastern, wearing a traditional white, one-piece, robe (see picture). He had a full, black beard and, to be quite honest, reminded me of Osama bin Laden at first glance. Although Johnny didn’t speak English, the Middle Eastern man did. He introduced himself as the owner of the dealership. I have to admit, at this point my mind jumped to a stereotype of Middle Eastern people and I thought I was never going to get anywhere with this guy. I was going to be stuck with the Kia and the major engine problem.
The owner motioned me toward a bench on the front “porch” of the dealership and said, “Sit down and relax.” I sat down but I was not really relaxed. I was ready to do verbal battle over the bum car I had been sold. The owner sat down directly across from me and said, “So, why are we here?” I was sure he already knew, but I explained that the car they sold me broke down as soon as I drove it out of town. HIS mechanic had now declared the car “muerto” [dead]. “And what do you want?” was the owner’s next question. I looked straight at him and said “I want a different car.” Expecting him to tell me all the reasons that was not possible, I was surprised when he said, “What car do you want?” I was unprepared for that and just replied, “I don’t know what other cars you have.” He motioned to the car lot and said, “Go and take a look.”
One car that caught my eye immediately was a Honda CRV that was right up front. I asked about that car and took a look at it, inside and out. I wandered around the lot and looked at several other small SUVs that I thought would be in the same price ballpark as the Kia. I felt the Honda was the best candidate. They gave me the keys and let me take it for a test drive. After a little more discussion, I told the owner that the Honda was acceptable. It turned out the Honda had a little higher sticker price than the Kia, but the owner said he would make an even trade for the Kia. He told me to go in and talk to Susana and she would prepare the paperwork.
My lesson: Because of his appearance and my own stereotype, I prejudged the owner. He turned out to be very gracious and accommodating – wanting to make the situation right. He swapped out the Kia for a little more expensive vehicle and said they would also pay for the paperwork involved ($140). I felt guilty that I hadn’t given him an opportunity to address my situation before I jumped to conclusions about him. My bad.
I had invested about $500 in the Kia (tune-up and repairs) and filled up the tank with gas. That money was gone. I had to focus on the fact that I felt I now had a better quality and more reliable car in the Honda. The more I reflected on it, the more I realized that, however frustrating and inconvenient it had been to break down on the highway, it was a blessing that it happened so close to the city. If the breakdown had occurred hours later (or days or weeks later), I could have been out in the middle of nowhere or back in Boquete and been in a much worse situation.
It was mid afternoon on a Friday. We had to figure out insurance, etc. in order for me to not have to stay in PC until Tuesday – that’s when Susana said they would have the final paperwork. We got creative and got it worked out. I drove the car off the lot. Obviously, I wouldn’t be leaving today, so I called Scotty once again and got my “usual” room back.
I took the Honda to the same mechanic that worked on the Kia. I had him check it out and do the same kind of tune-up he did for the Kia. He said this vehicle was much better and that it was in great condition. He worked until about 6pm to get it ready, while I waited. The mechanic drove me back to my apartment in the Honda. One of his friends came along as well – why not? It was a bit unnerving having him drive my newly-purchased vehicle “like a Panamanian” through the city traffic. I didn’t realize I could hold my breath that long…
I would be spending night #5 in one of Scotty’s studio units. The good news, as Scotty pointed out, is that I now qualified for a lower nightly rate. It goes down on the 5th night - from $60 to $50. A small consolation but I'll take it.
I felt much better about the Honda CRV and was incredibly relieved to be rid of the Kia. With the Honda tuned-up, gassed up, and sitting downstairs, I dared to once again get excited about being able to get on the road and get back to Boquete. I would figure out how to get out of the City and across The Bridge – then I could relax and enjoy the drive.
Posted by Mark.