Border Crossin´...always a good story!
Trip Start Aug 10, 2011
4Trip End Dec 05, 2011
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The entire bus ride, Alanna was chatted up by a Panamanian naed Antonio with dread locks and a purple sparkly bandana to match his purple striped button down shirt. He looked like a Rasta Jack Sparrow, only much cleaner and with all his purly white teeth. He talked a million miles a minute in a relatively coherant mix of English, Spanish and Creole about every subject from his working in Europe (with pictures to prove) to his thoughts on homosexuality. He doesn´t have a problem seeing two men together, but something about two women doesn´t seem right. My guess is because that would be two less women for him.
When the bus pulled off the ¨highway¨ into the dirt red border town of a few dusty streets lined with shops selling rubber boots, umbrellas and clothes that could have been worn in Selena, Antonio was on a mission to get us through the border, even though we were fully capable on our own. But first he ushered us down few gravel roads in search of a toilet. Despite our pleas that we could wait (since all we really needed was a tree to use our P-Style behind), he in turn pleaded with the locals until we were directed to a little soda (small cafe) where we paid 100 colones each (25 cents) to use the servicios. I needed to get rid of my colones anyway.
Antonio seemed to know everyone, he apparently crosses the border often, or at least his extroverted energy and willingness to strike up a conversation with anyone made it seem so. He shook hands and hi-fived and even exchanged phone numbers with someone that he chatted up while crossing the river between Costa Rica and Panama on the old train bridge.
We quickly got our stamp to exit Costa Rica and walked along the rotted wooden bridge with rusted train tracks. We passed farmers with bags of vegetables over the shoulder and machetes slung in their belts, school kids in blue uniforms carrying tattered school bags and a handful of backpackers. Two girls actually had a local carry both of their giant packs across the border, one bag on back like a tortoise shell and one in front like a pregnant woman carrying twins a couple weeks passed her due date.
On the Panamanian side, Antonio direced us to a window with a small opening just big enough for a hand and a passport with a skinny many wearing bent glasses and a surly attitude sitting on the other side. It seems that being surly is a requirement for obtaining a position as a border official. He examined my passport then demanded, ¨plane ticket.¨ To enter Panama you must also have proof tat you are going to leave. So I handed him the fake, cut and pasted copy of a flight itinerary showing that we were leaving Panama City on November 30th. He scrutinized the piece of paper with even more conviction than my passport, which made me a little nervous. Luckily, his office was so dark and the window so dusty he probably couldn´t see my anziety played out in shuffling feet and fidgeting fingers. He looked at the backside of the paper, shrugged his shoulders and said okay then handed me back my intinerary.
We were still holding our customs forms, and Antonio, now seemingly anxious himself, asked why we still had them. Amidst the confusion of semis kicking up walls of dust ad diesel fumes, Panamanian touters sking where we are going and pointing to various minivans, sweat dripping into my eyes and hunger pains in my gut, I said, ¨I don´t know. He didn´t ask for it.¨ antonio yelled inside another office, this one with a proper door, and then told us to go inside.
Two men sat at two separate but closely arranged desks, awaiting to interrogate us in the dark. Perhaps the electricity was out or they were just conserving energy. We stood there waiting, both men ignoring us for a few minutes. Finally te man at the left desk, wearing a grey U.S. Army shirt, a black ball cap with white block lettering like a Panamanian form of the C.I.A. and a badge hanging on a chain around his neck, snapped in irritation as if we should know what to do despite there not being a single sign, ¨Go there first,¨ pointig at the chubby sweatin man at the desk on the rigt. ´Then you will fill out the paper, tell me how much money you have, dollars, colones, euros, write it all down, then I will search your bags.¨
I looked at Alanna and whispered, ¨I guess we should declare our fruits and vegetables.¨ We both scratched out the X over the NO box and put an X over the YES box. She was carrying two bananas and I had two roots of wild ginger and some sweet potatoes from the farm.
In all the overland borders I have crossed, I had never had to declare the exact amount of cash I was carrying, and the form said to do so only if you were carrying an excess of $10,000. I double checked the discrepancy. Even more irritated than before he snapped, ¨This is my job to know what money you are bringing into my country. If you get stopped down the road and robbed, I need to know how much was taken and if you have cameras and Ipods!¨ After I got my visa sticker and paid the chubby sweaty man 3 balboas (U.S. dollars are the currency in Panama, they´re just called balboas), I handed my passport to the intense badge man.
Badge man demanded, ¨Give me your bag, I´m going to search it.¨ He started with my little backpack, I put it on th table and he began to open it, waiting for my reaction it seemed, perhaps searching my face for anxiety about hidden drugs. I was only worried that he would take my prized sweet potatoes that we had worked so hard to harvest. But he didn´t even look at the side of the form asking if we had any fruits or vegetables from farms outside of Panama and he only squeezed my bag from the outside, feeling for weapons I presumed. He motioned that he was finished and I placed my pack on the table. He paused a moment and said, ¨I´m not going to open this bag and take everything out. I am going to trust that you are not bringing and drugs or weapons into my country.´ I nodded in agreemet. Then he looked once more at my customs form and noticed that I had made an error in the amount of cash I was carrying and had to scratch out some numbers to rewrite the correct total. Instead of 8,000 colones I only had 4,000 ($8) and instead of $140 I had $150 in cash, small miscalculation. His I´m-being-a-cool-border-official demeanor quickly canged into ¨I´m a facist asshole.¨
´See here, you make a mistake. Maybe you are lying to me, take out all your money. I need to see all of it. Both of you!¨
My shaking hands struggled with the zipper of my wallet and I dumped all my cash out on the table, showing that I honestly made less than a $20 mistake in my calculation. When he saw that Alanna and I had less than $300 in cash between us, he said, ¨Ok, we´re finished. Put your money away, take your passport. Quickly!¨
And he never said welcome to Panama :)
p.s. I´m not editing this because I´m tried of staring at a computer...sorry if there are errors