Sunday, June 8, 2008
Entering Panama at the Paso Canoas Border Station
Buses leave the Ciudad Neilly terminal for the border every half hour in the morning. The fare is only 300 colones (less than a dollar). At the station, two Costa Rican asked to see Tracy's passport and mine. They examined our passports then declared that we were in Costa Rica illegally. I told them we had come in on the Panaline bus, and I showed them the immigration stamp. They finally realized that the passport was legally stamped, but that the stamp was faint and hard to see. Perhaps next time I should make sure the immigration agent has a full inkpad. And I could bring him a morning coffee as well, and a few pastelitos de queso.
The bus dropped us off only a few meters from the Panama border post, exactly in the spot that you see below. On the Panama side of the border there is nothing but the border station, but the Costa Rican side hosts a thriving town called Paso Canoas (Canoe Passage - a very old name, I imagine). There must be an Arab community there, as I saw a large store called "Almacen Jerusalem" - Jerusalem Department Store - with a sign depicting an image of the Dome of the Rock mosque.
We walked back to Costa Rican immigration to get an exit stamp, a simple process. Then walked back up the street a hundred meters, through an area very busy with truck traffic, to the Panama border station. There is no fence or wall between the two countries. You simply walk up or down the street to cross from one nation into the other. You could easily cross without going through immigration, but of course you would then be illegal.
Actually I take exception with the idea that a human being can be "illegal" for simply moving about on this earth that God made. I find the entire concept of borders and immigration controls to be artificial and random. But that's another issue.
At the Panama border station I waited in line for almost an hour to get an entry visa. When I got to the window the agent told me I must get a five dollar tourist card, and I have to go to a different building to get it. He said he would hold my passport and I should go get the tourist card and come back to the front of the line. I wandered around until I found the window where you get the tourist card, and the woman said, "I need to see your passport." So I went back to the first building and convinced the man that I needed my passport back. Returned to the tourist card window, bought the card, back to the first guy, got the stamp. At this point no one had checked my bag yet. I asked the immigration agent, "Do I go through customs now?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "If you like."
The customs building is a circular room with tables all around. About thirty people were waiting to get their bags searched, and not a customs agent in sight. Tracy and I set our bags on the table and waited. We met a young American named Brian who was looking for a volunteer opportunity. I gave him Corrin Skubin's number, since she is working with the indigenous tribes to help them plant cocoa and coffee trees and develop export markets for the cocoa.
Our plan was to get through immigration, take a local bus to David, then catch a bus from there to Panama. As we were waiting a fellow in a TicaBus shirt came through and asked us where we were going. He told us there was a TicaBus express going through immigration and offered us seats for $17 each. That was a lucky break and we paid him. A few minutes later he had still not returned with the tickets. I began to think that maybe I should have paid on the bus. After all, anyone could put on a TicaBus shirt and pretend to be an agent. In Panama they call that juega vivo - literally something like "sharp game" but refers to a cultural attitude that is all about taking advantage, and if I can screw you over or trick you out of your money then it's your fault for being stupid. Goodbye pura vida, welcome to Panama. I went looking for the agent and did not find him.
Finally a customs agent showed up. We opened our bags and he went around the tables, only glancing at each bag, not even touching most of them. He looked at my bag and said, "Ok." No stamp, no tag, nothing. I could have skipped the whole thing and no one would have known the difference.
We went out to the TicaBus and I was relieved to find the agent who had taken our money. Not a juega vivo after all. We got on the bus, which was large and comfortable, with many empty seats.
The bus showed two movies in a row, the first a dark Italian comedy called "Life is Beautiful," then one of my favorite action movies, "The Transporter." I kept an eye on the countryside, which mostly consisted of grassy hills where cattle grazed. Very few trees.
The bus provided a boxed lunch consisting of a cheese and salami sandwich and some sort of pastry. I passed on it. The driver kept the pedal down, passing quickly through David - second largest city in Panama - then Santiago, and AguaDulce. Before I knew it we passed through Penonomé, where I sometimes go for Friday prayer, and then Antón. I moved to the front of the bus and when I saw the El Valle entrance I knocked loudly on the driver's cabin, and he let me out. The eight hour trip had passed quickly.
I caught a local bus up the mountain to El Valle. The bus was completely full, and the driver kept up an insane pace on the mountain road in a light rain. I held on with both hands to keep from being thrown right and left. Soon enough I found myself home, at 5:30 pm. The streets were full of water, the sky still light, and El Valle was as beautiful as ever. Gaital was covered in mist, and the frogs chorused loudly on the backroads as I walked home. Cleo had left the front lights on for me, and it felt good to be able to call this place home.