Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Taking an Animal Out of Panama

Are you making a trip to the United States or some other country and planning to take your pet? Panama requires that you complete certain procedures and get a license (naturally). Your destination country may have its own requirements but here's what you have to do to satisfy Panama's bureaucratic muckety-mucks.

You need two documents from a veterinarian in Panama:

Vaccination card showing that all vaccinations (especially rabies) are up to date.
General certificate of health.These documents must be dated within ten days of your departure. In other words, if you get them one month before your departure they will not be valid.

Make a copy of each document, and take it to the government office called Ventanilla Unica. This office is in Edison Plaza at the corner of Via Brasil and the Tumba Muerto in Panama City. The office is on the Via Brasil side, a few doors down from Mango restaurant. The words "Ventanilla Unica" are written in large letters on the window. You must pay to park in this lot.

By the way, if you haven't had a chance to make copies of your documents you can do it at the pharmacy a few doors down from the Ventanilla Unica office.

Tell the clerk in the Ventanilla Unica office that you want a "licencia de exportacion." The clerk will give you a form to fill out and a payment slip for the $5 fee. You must take the payment slip to the Banco Nacional, also in Edison Plaza, at the corner, in the base of the tall conical building. The line in the bank is often quite long, unless you are a jubilado in which case there is a shorter line. Wait in line there and then present the slip and your $5 to the teller, who will give you the yellow copy. Take that back to the Ventanilla Unica clerk, along with all your documents including the form that he gave you to fill out. Hand the documents over to him and he will tell you to wait until he calls your name.

Have a seat and be prepared to wait. The clerk will eventually call you up and give you a yellow paper titled, "Licencia fito-zoosanitaria de exportacion." Check the information on the paper and make sure it is correct. If so, you are done. You now have a license to take your pet out of the country.

Of course you should also notify your airline and make all appropriate arrangements with them. Continental Airlines, Copa and TACA allow dogs and cats in the cabin as long as they weigh 15 pounds or less. They must be able to stand and turn around within the carrier.

P.S. The dog in the photos is Molly, a rottweiler from Wales that adopted these two lambs.

Update August 25, 2008: I have completed my trip to the United States with Lil Fishy, my cat. No one asked to see any of my paperwork whatsoever. Really. But of course you have to have it, just in case someone does ask for it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Poverty in Bocas del Toro

Schoolgirl from Bocas del Toro, Panama

I spotted this story in an old issue of The Bocas Breeze, and I found it to be rather touching:

A National Geographic Moment, or A Big Wake-Up Call
by someone who cares

Yesterday we decided to have a sleepover and each of our girls could invite one guest. The older one phoned her friend and it was a done deal.

My younger daughter asked me to walk to her friend’s house to ask her parents for permission. Her friend had been to our house many times and she seemed to be a bright and happy child. I suggested we take a taxi, and my daughter laughed, saying, “Mommy, we can’t take a taxi there.” And I soon found out why.

We walked, and we walked, and we walked. Down a dirt road, through the bush, along trails to another path. Along the way I told my daughter to please ask that her friend remember to bring her toothbrush. She said, “Mom, she doesn’t have a toothbrush. They’re poor.” Stupidly I said, “Then be sure she brings her pajamas.” At this point my daughter stopped me and said, “Mom, they don’t have pajamas. They sleep in their everyday clothes.” I thought my heart would fall out of my chest.

Arrangements have been made for our Saturday dentist, Dr. Wong (who I highly recommend), to donate 50 toothbrushes and toothpaste. I have extra fabric that I will sew into clothes. Please look through your closets to find shoes and clothing of any size, or buy a few personal care items. The Bocas Breeze newspaper has graciously agreed to accept these donations and I will deliver them to this village in need.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Good car for sale at a great price!

As my readers know, I am returning to the USA for family reasons. I am selling my car for only $5,000. This is a great deal! It's a four-door 2003 Nissan Sentra B-15. An excellent street & city car with a great engine, good acceleration, strong AC, and in all-around good condition. Only a few minor cosmetic problems. If you live in a rural location with an unpaved road I don't recommend this car, but if you are in Panama city or on a paved road then it's a good opportunity to get a nice car at a good price. If I were staying longer in Panama I'd ask for more, but I'm leaving very soon and want to get this done before I go.

You can contact me through the email form on this blog or call my cell at 6707-8250 anytime. My name is Wael.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Salma at the Beach in Alameda, California

My daughter Salma recently attended a birthday party at the beach in Alameda, California. This is not an ocean beach but a bay beach. Here are some photos:

Salma's not in this last photo, but I think it's cool the way downtown San Francisco appears so close, as if it's just across a narrow strip of water, not on the other side of a broad bay.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Cops

Yesterday I headed into Panama to once again attempt to get my car up to date. I needed to renew my auto insurance policy, get the car inspected, and then renew my license plate. All are expired. They must be done in that order, as each step is a requirement for the next step.

Past Gorgona, coming over a rise, I saw a traffic cop parked on the side of the road (that's not him in the photo above - it's just a random shot of a couple of Panama Tourist Police). I immediately reduced my speed but I was too late. He had already hit me with the radar gun. He waved me over (that's how they do it here) and I pulled over a short distance beyond him. I've heard of some people ignoring the wave, driving past and successfully evading any consequences, but I also remember one person who did that and then was pulled over by another car that was waiting for him up the road. When I was younger and stupider I might have tried it, but not anymore.

The officer looked at my U.S. passport and California driver's license, told me I was doing 110 kph in an 80 kph zone, and wrote a ticket for $70. Then he let me go. He didn't seem to notice that my plate was expired, nor did he say anything about my visa status. I made a short trip to Costa Rica recently and returned to Panama on June 2, so I have only been here 2 months. The tourist visa is 90 days and I am allowed to drive with my U.S. license during that time, so I am within the law on that.

I will have to go to the municipal office that handles traffic tickets and wait in line for the better part of a day to pay the ticket.

Continuing on my way, I noticed that the traffic cops seemed to be out in force. This is "spring break" in Panama, a two week school vacation, so maybe the traffic cops are targeting young, reckless drivers, I don't know. I also saw many accidents, and the InterAmerican highway was undergoing major roadwork in several places. I quickly realized that it was a bad day to be on the road.

Entering into Panama, I made my way to Avenida Balboa where I found myself stuck in a traffic jam due to a bad accident on the road. I was inching along in traffic when suddenly I was struck hard from behind. I got out of the car. The trunk lid had popped open. I shut it and it seemed fine. I studied the rear of my car but amazingly could see no damage. The driver behind me had not emerged. His windows were tinted and I could not see inside. I continued to check my car carefully and finally the driver got out. I didn't understand everything he said but I gathered that he was apologizing. Since there was no apparent damage to my car and I did not want to spend the next two hours filing reports, I told him to forget about it.

I went to the insurance office on Calle 50 and found that they had moved. Fortunately the new location was easy to find. It took only about an hour to renew my insurance for another year. I chose basic liability coverage only as I plan to sell the car soon.

I needed to stop at a Western Union office so I made my way to the main office at Plaza Concordia on Via EspaƱa. By the time I was done it was too late to do anything else that day so I decided to go home. I knew that the route that I usually take to Avenida de los Martires (the road that leads to the bridge) was under construction, so I tried a new route and got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam where I was boxed in by diablos rojos and moved slower than the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks. I spent an hour and a half in that, listening to the radio and watching the pedestrians, and then realized that I was lost.

When I finally got back to a road that I recognized I found myself once again in very bad traffic. Thoroughly disgusted at this point, I said to myself, "Forget it," and decided to go to Albrook Mall where I could eat something and wait for traffic to die down. I headed that way, talking to a friend on my cell phone as I drove. Yes I know it's illegal in Panama. So of course as I'm about to pull into Albrook Mall I pass a traffic cop and he waves me over.

Right away I knew I was in trouble. This cop said to me, "It's prohibited to talk on a cell phone while you drive! Show me your license." He looked at my passport and driver's license and then said, "When did you enter Panama? Show me the stamp." I showed him the immigration stamp that said June 2, 2008. He studied it and said, "You have overstayed your visa. The limit is 90 days." After this pronouncement he folded his arms on his chest and looked up at the sky.

"I have been here just a little over two months," I told him. June and July, and the beginning of August.

The cop squinted at me. "You entered at the beginning of June. So that's June, July and now August. More than three months! Furthermore, your plate is expired and you were talking on your phone. I am calling a tow truck. This car will be impounded."

Wonderful. I didn't try to argue with him on the visa issue. He had me dead to rights on the plate and the cell phone anyway. I began to pack my stuff into my backpack, thinking I would go home on a bus and come back the next day to sort the problem out. I know that some people might try offering a bribe in this situation, but I did not do that for a few reasons:
  1. I don't believe in encouraging corruption. If a police officer is honest and doing his job, then I would not dream of attempting to corrupt him. My religion of Islam teaches that it is wrong to demand a bribe or to offer one. Both are equally corrupt.
  2. If the cop is honest then my offer of a bribe could get me into deeper trouble.
  3. This just perpetuates the perception of the rich gringo as an easy target and can buy his way out of anything.
The cop spoke into his radio, calling for a tow truck. Then he turned to me. "It's going to cost you $80 to get your car out of the impound lot, plus $50 for the cell phone ticket, plus the ticket for your expired plate, plus your expired visa. Altogether about $400."

I don't have that kind of money to spend, but what could I say? I just shook my head and began taking my important documents out of the glove box and putting them in my backpack.

Suddenly the cop said to me, "So, what are we going to do about this?"

Aha. In an instant the situation changed. I understood exactly what he meant, which was, "Make me an offer." Maybe it's hypocritical of me, maybe it makes me guilty, but if a corrupt cop is offering me the option of either suffering some pretty serious financial/legal consequences or getting away with a small dent in my wallet, I choose the latter.

Playing along, I said, "What are my options?"

"Your options," the cop replied, "Are to pay $400 in fines and lose your car for a few days, or if you help me then I can help you."

"How can I help you?" I asked.

"You tell me," he said. "How much can you help me with?"

"Thirty dollars?" I offered.

He raised his chin and looked down at me over his nose. "Only thirty dollars? The tow truck is on its way. It will cost you hundreds of dollars."

"Ok, how about forty dollars?" I said. This was a new one for me. Negotiating a bribe just like I would haggle on a purchase at the market. In a way I felt comfortable, back in familiar territory. It was just a matter of finding a price we could both live with.

"Is that the best you can do?" the cop said. "Maybe you can do a little better."

"Fifty dollars," I said. "That's all I can manage." At that point I took out my wallet and began to remove the money. I held the wallet low, so passers by could not see, but the cop said, "Not here, follow me."

The officer got back in his car and drove several hundred meters to a quiet spot beneath some trees. I followed him. He walked back to my car and said, "Put the money in your passport." I did so. The cop took the passport to his car, removed the money and returned. He gave me the passport and said, "Don't talk on your cell phone while you drive." Then he drove away. Looking back, I suspect that he only pretended to call the tow truck. He probably did not key the radio when he put on that show.

These guys earn maybe $300 per month and nowadays it's impossible to feed a family on that, so "rich gringos" like me are a tempting target. I'm not justifying the corruption, but I do understand it. Anytime you have a society with vast disparities in wealth you're going to have corruption, and a disenfranchised group like foreign expatriates is especially vulnerable. I have a great admiration for those honest police officers who resist temptation.

I finally made it to Albrook Mall, ran into a friend from El Valle and talked, ate at Crepes and Waffles, then on the way home visited with Tracy and Ela in La Chorrera, and a made a final stop at El Rey grocery store in Coronado. I got home at midnight.

If you're driving in Panama, be careful out there. It's wild and woolly these days.