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Melissa & Dave - Adventures at Sea

I was gonna bake banana bread but the computers are in the oven

We got up early this morning and Melissa headed to Santiago on the bus.  She needed one more internet fix to deal with a broken pipe at one of the rental properties, a new lease agreement at another, and Dave’s son’s car tabs.  She figured it would be easy – just head back to the restaurant that we had WiFi at last night.  First stop was the bank to get cash.  At the first bank the ATM kept saying “invalid amount” no matter how much cash she asked for.  She began to wonder if the fraud alert had triggered again on the ATM card.  She walked back down the street to another ATM, which (whew!) worked.  Then she walked to the restaurant, which turned out to be closed.  So she walked back to a coffee shop we had seen the day before.  Bought some breakfast and cracked open the computer along with the Claro data stick we bought yesterday.  No dice.  The internet stick wasn’t working.  So she decides to walk back to the restaurant where she knows there is WiFi and sit in the hallway outside.  Alas, the restaurant WiFi looks like its alive but won’t actually connect.  So she walks back to the main Claro store (not the one we bought the stick from with the dweebs from yesterday, but the main store in town).  Now her feet are covered in blisters because of her new sandals.  Ok, so will something please go right today?

Technical Note: Use of pre-paid cell phone data here in Central America is very different than the US.  There is a concept of an account (dollars) that is tied to your phone (actually the SIM card inside the phone).  You can add dollars to your account at every store, gas station, and restaurant anywhere.  But then to tell the cell phone company how you want to use the dollars, you then send a text message on your phone with a particular code.  So code M90 might tell the cell phone company you want to purchase 90 minutes of talk time.  As it happens, Claro in Panama needs a text message code of P30 sent to their customer service center to activate a 3GB plan good for 30 days.

In the Claro store she fires up the computer, and still the cell phone data stick doesn’t work.  So she gets a number and waits her turn.  She shows the computer to the guy at the counter who speaks no English.  Fortunately it’s clear he understands the problem immediately.  He takes the USB stick out, removes the SIM and starts typing away on his computer.  He signals for his supervisor, who speaks excellent English.  The supervisor explains that there is no data plan associated with the SIM.  Melissa explains that we bought a 3GB plan yesterday for $15 at another Claro dealership.  Though the light dawns on her that we never did get a receipt.  They explain that there is no dollar deposit transaction associated with this SIM that could have even been used to enable a data plan.  Melissa thinks about going back to the store we were at yesterday and strangling someone.  She tells them that she is happy to pay another $15 if they can just make it work.  Time pressure is on, Dave said she needed to be back at the boat by 1pm and she’s got way too much work to screw around with this problem.  So she adds the $15 to the account, and when it’s time to activate the 3GB data plan, Melissa begs them to put the SIM back in the computer USB stick so she can send the SMS text message with the right activation code from the computer to activate the plan.  This is important because Melissa wants to make sure that we can add dollars to the pre-paid account and activate more data as we go along through Panama.  They explain that if she puts the USB stick back in the computer before activating the data plan with the SIM installed in an actual phone, the $15 will disappear immediately without a plan being activated.  Ok, so that’s got to be a software bug, right?  But now the light begins to dawn why yesterday’s fiasco at the small Claro dealership.  Dave and Mike were insistent it should work to send the text message via the computer (which it should – how would the back end servers know the difference between an SMS message from the computer vs a phone), but there’s some kind of a glitch in the back end software that won’t allow that to work...  Melissa clarifies, so you MUST do the activation using a phone?  But we don’t have a phone, we only have the data stick.  We go back and forth, and eventually they decide they are going to just give Melissa a free phone so she can do the data plan activation text messages with it.  Apologetically they tell her they will give her a phone, but it’s going to be an ugly one.  Melissa burst out laughing.  Ok, so you’re going to give us a free phone, just so we can put the SIM in and activate data, and you are apologizing because the phone is ugly?  So not on our list of concerns.

Melissa then asks how to tell how much data remains on the stick so she will know when to recharge the account and activate a new data plan.  This causes another flurry of activity, and now the supervisor’s supervisor comes over.  She also speaks perfect English.  She explains that the 3GB plan that Melissa wants to buy is only good for 30 days.  Yeah, so we get this.  Use it or lose it, right?  Nope, not the way it works they explain.  If you go over the 3GB of data within the 30 days, the data connection slows down, but you can’t buy more data and add it to the account.  Largest plan you can purchase is 3GB.  If Melissa were to purchase another plan now and activate it, it won’t turn on till next month when the current data plan expires.  So Melissa asks if she can just purchase 4 months’ worth of data and have the store activate them right now? Thereby eliminating the whole shenanigan with activation in the future.  Sure no problem they say.  So for another $45 the USB stick should stay alive continuously for 4 months.

This solves another problem – how Dave is going to monitor the boat remotely while we are away.  With the stick alive all the while we are gone, Dave can set the boat up with remote telemetry.  Ok, all good.  But why did that whole fiasco require 2 hours of her life after yesterday’s wasted hour in the Claro store?  Ah well, chalk it up to life abroad.  At this point Melissa sits down in the Claro store and does the 30 minutes of work that needed doing.  She figured if the stick was going to die, better she test it while still in the store anyway.

Then it was back to town with more groceries in the taxi.  Meanwhile, Dave and Mike were busily filling the boats with diesel for the trip to Panama City.  We probably had enough to make it without fueling up, but always better to have more fuel than you need.  But in this out of the way place, Dave was worried about the quality of the fuel.  Sure enough they ran all the fuel through Mike’s fuel filter and found a ton of water in the gas.  But clean going into the tanks, so all’s good.  Mike and Dave reported that it was quite the scene at the gas pump at the docks.  Lots of guys from the local town all standing around watching them fill Wanuskewin’s gerry cans and ferry them back and forth.  Apparently this is the most interesting thing going on in town today.

We went for a late lunch and we talked about the fact that the 2.5HP engine is running great.  Yeah, it must have overhead us.  Because we arrived back at the dingy to find it hydro locked, having dumped its whole tank of gas overboard.  Dave has a new theory though.  He thinks that when he closes the vent on the fuel tank in the high heat here, the heat then creates so much pressure in the fuel tank that it pushes the fuel back through the carburetor, creating hydro lock, and dumping all the fuel overboard.  Wanuskewin gives us (yet another) tow back to Apsaras.

Now it’s time to get underway back down the river.  This was a much less stressful trip as we could follow our inbound track back out, and because the tide was a couple of feet higher.  However, we did catch a late afternoon squall and Dave asked Melissa to put all the computers in the oven to protect them from lightning.  So much for that banana bread she was gonna bake!

It was still coming down when we got close to the anchorage.  Dave told Melissa she should go put on her foul weather gear to let down the anchor.  So she went and put on her bathing suit.  But even the squalls can be pretty when they come at sunset.

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