Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part Two

Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part Two Shot Two

August 6 – September 7, 2021

The guideline for a second Pfizer vaccination dose, as set by the manufacturer, was clearly three weeks. While the scientific community continued to analyze incoming data regarding mixing and matching of vaccines and the effectiveness of different time frames between shots, this had a lot to do with overall vaccine availability, or a lack thereof in almost every country outside of the U.S. or Europe.

We planned to return to the peaceful, chilled out beauty of San Blas to pass the three weeks between shots, and then come back to Portobelo to repeat the now familiar routine.

Logistically… not simple. It’s a damn boat. But a simple plan.

After nineteen days at San Blas, we picked up anchor. The plan was to get as far as Linton Bay on the first day, which would allow us an early enough arrival the following day at Portobelo to suss out things a day in advance again.

We made it to Portobelo without any problems.

Unfortunately, the vaccines did not.

For whatever reason, we learned at the clinic that the program had been discontinued in Portobelo. We would have to go to Colon.

Shit.

second attempt:

When it comes to tapping the virtual world for information, Kris is some kind of surreal internet bloodhound. I look to the web for answers and, more often than not, seem to locate either idiots with an opinion or assholes with a pitch. Kris has an uncanny way of mining relevant information much more efficiently… emphasis especially on the words relevant and efficiently.

She eventually uncovered a rumor that vaccines were available in Colon.

Back to the anchorage outside Shelter Bay Marina. The marina manager, Juan Jo, whom we had gotten to know quite well during Exit’s haul out, generously allowed us to dock our dinghy and use the marina facilities while we were still anchored outside.

A day or two later we utilized the marina’s free shuttle service into Colon. Ranger, the driver, assured us he knew where vaccinations were currently being offered and took us directly to the hospital where we found a long, long line of people. The line stretched from the entrance of a parking lot across the street from the hospital down the sidewalk, eventually disappearing around the corner. Inside the parking lot itself, which was surrounded by chain link fencing, a makeshift area of tables and sun covers had been set up.

Ranger told us to walk straight to the front of the line, and show the policeman both our U.S. passports and Panama vaccine cards… one of the rare cases when initiating a conversation with a cop seemed like a better idea than going to the back of the line.

The guy politely listened to us, and then called over someone we surmised was a hospital staff supervisor.

We handed her the official Panamanian vaccine cards we had received with our first Pfizer shots – printed card stock with handwritten entries for our first jab, which she casually looked at.

She then explained that second shots were available only after a minimum of thirty days following the first shot. Other locations may be different, but they could not give us the second shot there.

Shit.

We had heard of others receiving a second shot in Panama City after three weeks without a problem, so we concluded this must be a local decision, not a national policy.

third attempt:

Kris’ additional bloodhound research uncovered that vaccinations were currently being administered at the Colon airfield, which had never opened back up for air traffic after the initial COVID lockdowns. Drive through, get the jab, done.

It was about an hour from Shelter Bay Marina to the airport. Half the distance it would be all the way to Panama City, so it made more sense. Romero, an Uber driver who had been our go-to driver when provisioning requirements had taken us beyond the capabilities of the complimentary marina shuttle, picked us up around 9am. It was raining, which seemed to be a requirement for vaccine excursions.

We had no idea where we were going but our trusty and faithful driver Romero did.

We were confident. We were stoked. This was going to be the day.

As we approached the air strip we smiled. Banners confirmed that all of Kris’ research was spot on. This was the place. The long line of cars in front of us, as well as those pulling up behind us, added extra layers of confidence.

Ever so slowly, we moved forward. Waiting… waiting… waiting… move a little… more waiting. We couldn’t see the vaccination area yet. It was still around at least one more bend in the road.

Every now and then a car ahead of us jockeyed out of the line, turned around, and drove away in the opposite direction. We had been there nearly an hour; maybe other people had run out of time to wait…?

The every now and then slowly increased in frequency until it became a steady stream of cars mimicking the multi-point turnaround and departure. Eventually Romero stopped one of the cars. He was told they had run out of vaccines. Damn! We hadn’t gotten there early enough. It had started at seven a.m.

Dejected with the realization that we had come so close, we returned to Shelter Bay determined to try again the following day. Only this time we’d be getting up at 4:30am. Pickup time was five o’clock sharp, rain or shine.

fourth attempt:

We knew it was happening. We knew where to go. We knew what time. It was deja vu from the day before.

It was raining… of course. It had to be.

It was also still dark when we climbed into our dinghy and motored into the marina a little before 5am. Shutting off the outboard, we drifted silently for the final twenty yards to the dock, trying not to wake the occupants of the boats we were tying up next to.

We arrived at the airport just like the day before, only four hours earlier. This time there were only twenty or so cars ahead of us. We were already close enough to see the vaccination staging area. Though I was still half asleep, the math was pretty easy. They had to have brought more than a hundred doses of the vaccine. Hell… there couldn’t be that many people in front of us if every car was filled to capacity. We would definitely make it under the wire today.

Inching slowly forward, we watched two staff standing at the front of the line of cars. They were alternating from car to car, screening the passengers.

Four cars in front of us… three cars… then two… finally the car in front of was talking to one of the screening women. Then we rolled down our windows and the other staff spoke briefly with Romero.

We handed her our Panamanian vaccination cards.

She looked at them far too long. Then she started looking up at her eyebrows, lips slowly moving, while raising her fingers one at a time… counting to herself.

She fired off a high velocity round of words in Spanish I could only catch tidbits of. Fortunately, Romero was not only a great driver, but had a great Google translator app. Unfortunately, today Romero was also the bearer of much more definitive bad news.

Though Pfizer recommended three weeks between the first and second vaccine shots, reality forced Panama to consider different options. Obviously, a shortage of vaccines available to the country was forcing difficult decisions to be made – adhere to Pfizer’s “three weeks between shots” recommendation or get more people with at least one jab and delay the second shots.

Panama’s health minister had implemented a national policy to wait one calendar month between shots. The woman indicated that Panama’s digital vaccination registration system wouldn’t even allow health care workers access into the system to register a person for a second shot until at least that much time had passed.

Our first jab happened twenty one days ago.

It hadn’t been lost on us that, back in March 2020, we were extremely lucky to have been permitted to remain in Panama once the COVID-19 lockdowns cascaded. Many countries had banned and/or kicked out foreigners. Fast forward to August 2021, we were again lucky Panama was even willing to share their very limited number of vaccines with us.

It is what it is.

We resigned ourselves to the fact that, once again, we could do little more than roll with the punches. Instead of sitting at anchor depressed, watching cargo ships pass between the breakwater and the Panama Canal, or paying for a slip at Shelter Bay Marina, we opted to return to the enchanting Rio Chagres to try to make the most of the calendar countdown.

fifth attempt:

It had not been three weeks since our first jab. It had not been four weeks. It had been one calendar month… exactly. We were in Panama. We followed Panama’s policy.

Now we were back in business.

We knew the procedure. We knew where to go. We knew what time to be there. We knew this time we would not be turned away for being too early. Deja vu. Like fucking Groundhog Day.

It was raining… of course. It had to be.

We had faced countless frustrations, but had persisted.

Four-thirty wake up again. Five o’clock pickup by Romero. Six o’clock arrival at the airport.

Still dark. Like last time.

We appeared to be one of the first cars there. Impressive.

Except… there were no banners to be seen.

Another curious detail that immediately stood out… there didn’t appear to be any medical personnel visible.

We slowly pulled up to the main building. There was a single security guard standing inside the glass door. As we stopped alongside the curb, he stepped out, casually holding an assault rifle.

The conversation, very brief in rapid Spanish, between the guard and Romero was translated. The first part confirmed what was already pretty obvious… there were no vaccinations happening here today. The second part renewed our hopes… according to the guy with the gun, a tiny school somewhere in the middle of Colon was supposed to be where vaccinations were taking place. Yes, he thought it was happening now.

sixth, seventh, and eighth ATtempt:

Outside the school, it sure as hell didn’t look to have the hustle and bustle of a pop-up vaccination site. It didn’t even look to have the hustle and bustle of a school. It looked all closed up. It was all closed up. Fuck. We pulled away.

Back to the hospital with the chain link fence outside… the one that surrounded the parking lot with the makeshift clinic… the one that we had first gone to when we returned to Shelter Bay. Only one person in the parking lot now. The guy who worked there parking cars. Fuck. We pulled away.

We stopped at one more clinic entrance to ask about any available vaccination information. Nothing. This was getting no where.

Back to the marina. Failure.

ninth attempt:

We were close to giving up… again.

The options were dwindling for further delays of any flight back to the States. We had shuffled flights already but that could only happen so many times. Maybe running the gauntlet to get the easy jab once back in Washington was the best bet…

Most indications to us were that the Panamanian government was now largely analyzing what had worked and not worked during its first vaccine rollout to reassess how and where to continue. Announcements regarding future vaccine schedules were expected shortly…

Not promising.

In our eyes, we had only one option left.

An even longer drive by car.

Panama City seemed to be the only place with any vaccination activity still happening. Ironically enough, it was not at a hospital but, rather, a shopping mall.

Okay. It’s really all been too strange for that to truly seem odd but… kinda strange.

Anyway…

Kris tenaciously Googled the specifics of the location.

A number of text exchanges verified that, not only was our invaluable driver Romero willing to transport us the extra distance, he was also available the following day.

An actual phone call to a clinic just outside the shopping mall provided the best confirmation we could hope for. No, the person speaking on the phone was not physically at the site; however, it was their staff which had been giving the shots in the mall. Yes, it was happening. Yes, it was Pfizer. Yes, second shots were available. Yes, it was available to anyone. Yes, it would still be happening tomorrow. Yes, they were pretty sure it would be raining. We knew this was it.

Another pre-dawn start.

All the way to Panama City. Almost two hours. Without doubt, Romero was having a good month. We joked that he was Panama’s most knowledgeable Uber driving COVID-19 vaccine specialist. 

As we pulled into the shopping mall parking lot things looked pretty bleak. The lot was nearly empty of cars. But most businesses must still be hours away from opening, so there was hope. After parking, we approached the mall entry doors, walking passed a single file row of plastic chairs conspicuously spaced six feet apart from each other. 

Every chair was empty.

Errrrrrrr.

We walked through the large glass doors that separated the parking lot from the shopping mall, and entered a rather empty atrium.

Errrrrrrr.

I was beginning to wince as Romero, who strode boldly in front of us, approached a security guard inside. Romero spoke rapidly. Instead of shaking his head, the guard nodded.

What?

Huh?

The vaccinations were indeed taking place. We simply needed to return to the line of chairs we had just walked by and await his return.

Great googly moogly! It was happening!

We returned to the parkade and excitedly took our places in chairs number one and number two, conspicuously spaced six feet apart alongside the cement wall. A few minutes later someone else came and sat down behind me in chair number three.

I couldn’t see the smile behind the mask, but the wrinkles around his eyes gave it away. I wondered how far he had traveled… how many attempts it had taken… had he commuted by boat… by bus… by car… by foot…like us? The guy said “hola.” 

I never asked further. Didn’t want to ruin the moment. He probably literally just stepped away from the Starbucks counter next door during his work break. The good news was that he was there also — rarely when a local was in line with us were we doing something really stupid.

After only a couple of minutes, we were signaled by the security guy to come back inside. He led us to a person in a medical smock standing in front of a doorway.

We handed her our passports and vaccine cards.

Then… she asked if we were residents.

Suddenly, nothing could be heard above the screeching sounds of steel wheels braking on the tracks as the vaccination train seemed poised to inevitably fly off the rails and over the cliff. We had heard a few rumors that only residents may be eligible for vaccines.

Accordingly, we answered we were living aboard our sailboat at the nearby marina.

Silence.

She seemed satisfied and subsequently led us into what looked more like a conference room than a clinic. A few rows of chairs, conspicuously spaced six feet apart, were occupied by other people. 

At the far side of the room hung a banner that read ‘BIENVENIDOS CENTRO DE VACUNACION COVID19’; behind the counter was a person writing down information; standing off to the side in blue hospital scrubs was another woman who looked to be preparing syringes; in the back corner of the room stood a very official looking crash cart. Everything seemed reassuring… maybe less the crash cart.

Once again, we were only seated for a short time before being called to the front counter. I handed over my vaccination document and held my breath. The moment of truth…

A quick glance was all it took…

“Vacunacion numero dos?” The woman shifted her gaze from the vaccine card to me.

In answer, I may have posed the word yes as a question… “Si?”

The pause was excruciating.

Her nod was subtle, but it held enough juice that, for just a moment, I was flying… Elon fucking Musk riding atop a Space X giant penis rocket through the sky… Houston, we are a go!

I had to quickly return to Earth when my name was called for the actual shot. The woman in blue scrubs, eye to eye with me while I was seated, gave me the jab. My manta got a freebie.

For ten minutes afterwards we sat in quiet bliss, confirming we wouldn’t be needing the electric paddles, heart monitor, or any other toys on the crash cart while another masked person sitting next to the front desk uploaded all of our information into Panama’s official vaccination database. 

By the time we stood up to depart, we could already see our updated vaccination status online and had loaded a scannable QR code onto Kris’ iPhone.

And just like that… it was done.

The final document looked ridiculously anticlimactic. 

Altered so that some unscrupulous prick doesn’t try to use for a forgery vaccination card…

The ride back to Shelter Bay marina was surprisingly quiet.  Romero genuinely seemed as excited as we were.  His family was due for their second shot in two weeks.  He would have no problem sorting this out.

It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes after we returned to Exit, still processing the fact that we had finally achieved the both mundane and monumental success of receiving our second COVID-19 vaccine, that huge and dark and ominous clouds started materializing above us.

Never fails…

it’s Panama.

The forecast is always the same…

threats of unpredictable drama with intermittent rainbows.

Sometimes it’s all about turning your head 180 degrees and looking from the other direction…

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