Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part One

Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part One Shot One

August 5, 2021

Why not just wait until you are back in the U.S. and get vaccinated there?


After more than fifteen months in Panama, it seemed that our patience might finally pay off. But it had not been a walk in the park…

COVID-19 vaccines, now easy to come by in the States, had only begun to trickle into Central America. Operation Warp Speed created a stockpile of vaccines for Americans who were largely moving at one quarter impulse power, at best. As a result, the rest of the planet, who desperately wanted and needed the shots, simply had to wait.

Sailing from Bocas Del Toro in April, we had all but given up on the premise that COVID vaccines would be available in Panama anytime soon. The health authorities in Bocas had begun making lists of names to be contacted when the vaccines became available but there was no idea when that would be.

Yet, at what seemed like an excruciatingly slow pace, we began to hear of people receiving their first shot at sporadic locations throughout Panama.  Schedules were tentative; supplies were sketchy; information was not only sparse but also slow getting around and oftentimes completely contradictory.  

In remote San Blas, rumors had circulated that vaccines would be offered at a local clinic in November, but that was forever and a day away. Not to mention the conflicting feelings we were experiencing regarding the idea of jumping in line for very limited numbers of vaccines being distributed for a very vulnerable and high risk group of indigenous people.

As it began to appear more and more that the inevitable outcome was going to be not being able to get vaccinated until we got back to the States, we read and watched endless news updates indicating an out of control situation, both regarding COVID outbreaks and people’s behavior.

For us, the idea of having to return to the U.S. unvaccinated in order to get vaccinated carried the equivalent logic of… the equivalent logic of… fuck, I don’t even know. Maybe walking into a burning building to get access to fire extinguishers? It’s hard to find an analogy that seemed as ludicrous.

We were going to return to the States to visit family and friends. Still, we had unequivocally decided that, if we could get both our vaccinations before departing Panama, we would be far, far better off than any alternative option, even if that meant delaying our departure, changing flights, or even cancelling shit.

And then came word of the Delta variant.

Kris went on a relentless quest for information.  She tapped into internet forums, government websites, CDC and WHO updates, as well as endless texting and messaging between various friends, acquaintances, and people in the know.  Not only vaccination options and possibilities, but also constant updates of always changing travel guidelines, restrictions, and requirements.

Without all of Kris’ information reconnaissance, we would have been hopelessly screwed.

A friend of ours, currently on his boat at Shelter Bay Marina, confirmed firsthand that he had received his first vaccine shot in Panama City.  No hassles; no issues.  

It was reported there were a number of locations offering vaccinations throughout August, but only on Thursdays and Fridays. This became even more confusing and uncertain when subsequent posts by a person who had gone to one of the locations, Portobelo, indicated no vaccinations were not available on the first Thursday, but then were on the following day.

Then we heard San Blas could start to see vaccines in September.  Even if that turned out true, we were hard pressed to get in line for a very limited number of available vaccinations ahead of a population which had already been ninety percent decimated by selfish gringos over the past five centuries. Nor could we simply keep waiting. We had already changed our flights back to the States numerous times. We needed something more concrete.

Finally, the misty haze of a possible plan began to materialize.

August 1 – Not sure if the 40 knot squall we sat through was an omen or not…

August 2 – We depart Green Island bound for Cayos Chichime sixteen nautical miles to the west, at the edge of San Blas to use as a final staging for the jump to civilization and hopefully a vaccine.

August 3 – We depart San Blas making for Portobelo.  Our goal was to get to Portobelo in time to do a reconnaissance into town and visit the clinic a day in advance, trying to confirm that there would actually be shots available.

Turtle Cay Marina. Forty five miles to the west of San Blas. Twenty miles closer than Portobelo. After six and a half hours of solid motoring into shitty waves and more than twenty knots of wind on the nose, we realized there was no way we’d make Portobelo before nightfall. The community near Turtle Cay Marina was one of those rumored to be administering Pfizer vaccines on Thursday and Friday; however, we had never been able to confirm this was actually happening. We anchored outside the marina in a miserable and unforgiving swell.

With conditions too sketchy to leave the boat at anchor and even shittier to remain aboard, we recognized the futility of the situation. It was a long shot that the vaccinations would actually materialize here. If they didn’t, we will have burned valuable time which, in the end, could also derail the more likely Portobelo option.

So, on to Portobelo first thing in the morning. The safer bet.

It had been a long, long time since we had suffered through as uncomfortable a swell as that night. Damn western wind. But we felt that were in too tight to try any fancy swell bridles or stern anchoring for the short duration. All part of the cover charge for the party.

We were gone at first light.

In Portobelo, Google Maps on Kris’ iPhone lead us directly to the clinic, more or less. A policeman standing guard at the door attracted the attention of one of the doctors exiting the clinic who informed us that Pfizer vaccines were, in fact, being administered the following day here at the clinic… sweet! Show time: seven a.m.; best to be here at six.

As the sun set, we could see ominous black clouds approaching. That night, we were absolutely smashed by a howling storm that brought both buckets of rain and surreal amounts of lightning.

At 6am the following morning, as we climbed into the dinghy still bleary eyed from the sleep deprivation which often accompanies sitting at anchor overnight through a storm, thankfully all that remained of Mother Nature’s spectacle was a dreary grey sky and slow, intermittent drizzle.

We arrived at the clinic a good half hour ahead of the seven o’clock startup we had been informed of the day before, joining a group of about thirty locals standing casually on either side of street, presumably also there for COVID vaccinations.

Eventually, a staff member came outside leading a small entourage of people and began a long, long explanation which included who, what, where, how, and when… we assumed. It was entirely in Spanish, and she spoke freakishly fast. We digested about ten percent of what was said. I concluded we were either getting shot number one this morning or they were about to turn the gringos away.

When our names were called from a list we had been added to upon our arrival, we approached a folding table occupied by a woman in white wearing a blue hospital mask. She was filling out paperwork. This is where things always get dicey.

A foreign land. Very limited language. Trying to keep it simple, but having to go through the complicated motions of government and/or medical forms. Name, nationality, and passport info… easy. The word “sailboat” in any language exponentially complicates the ‘where do you live’ question.

On top of that, add the uncertainties of the whole COVID vaccine situation from the perspective of logistical procedures, local and world supplies, multiple vaccines, national political and health policies, international political and health policies, time frame between shots, records and registration, our status as foreigners… this was messy already.

The entire daunting vaccination process, which had seemed to be picking up momentum, suddenly came to a screeching halt.

We had feared that we could be turned away as foreigners or even non-residents of the immediate area. Despite having heard stories from friends who are not American citizens getting vaccination shots while traveling in the States, we realized our situation in a Central American country was a much different situation.

Americans?

The obvious question, why aren’t you just getting the vaccine at home?

This was either just going to work, or it wasn’t.

The coin was still rolling on the table. It could fall either way.

The women asking the questions in Spanish called out to a second person, a supervisor we assumed. We politely and pleadingly tried to reiterate that we were not residents of Panama but, rather, visitors living aboard our sailboat who had found ourselves trapped in Panama after arriving literally the day COVID lockdowns were implemented. Eighteen months later, we were still trying to get vaccinated like everyone else and get on with our lives… but all in Spanish… yah, sure.

An excruciating tension filled the air, and time almost seemed to stop. You could almost see the wheels spinning inside her head as she tried to process what we were desperately attempting to explain in a vaguely recognizable and mangled version of her Mother-tongue. Finally, she turned to the woman filling out the paperwork… and gave a nod.

Hallelujah! It was like a sandbag was instantly lifted off my chest. Whatever reservations, administrative protocols, politics, and/or linguistic confusion had been stirred into the mix of uncertainty, the ultimate decision by the one gatekeeper who controlled our immediate destiny was apparently, and thankfully, guided by humanitarian considerations — get as many people jabbed as is humanly possible.

It could have gone either way. We were lucky.

Thirty minutes later we were nearly levitating back to our dinghy. The tiny bandage on our upper arm and small card in our possession, filled out by hand with the day’s date and a Pfizer vaccine lot number, were the only proof of the incredible success we had.

Nevertheless, we knew. Shot one was done.

Little did we know, that would be the easy bit.

While we were in Portobelo we visited the church Iglesia San Felipa which is home to the venerated wooden statue Cristo Negro (Black Christ), as well as the ruins of Fuerte Santiago, which dates back to Portobelo’s days as the greatest Spanish port city in Latin America.

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