Sign at the Panama Border
The Caribe shuttle van arrives at Chimuri at 6:20 am, surprisingly on time. Island time, I discover, is 20 minutes later than the appointed time. The van is already loaded with sleepy tourists, so I hop in the front seat next to the driver. My co-pilot position affords me a birds’ eye view of the drive to neighboring Panama.
Banana trees and ramshackle houses line the curvy and mountainous route from Costa Rica to Panama. I’m surprised how quickly we arrive at the border, dubious as it appears. Government agents and police stand outside a bridge crossing a wide, brown river. The inclement weather is not helping the dreary surroundings. We are instructed to get out of the van and walk a down a steep, muddy hill to dilapidated building where an agent collects eight U.S.dollars for the privilege of leaving Costa Rica, I suppose. In the dingy Soda next door, I pay another 300 colones to use the facilities in one of the nastiest bathrooms I have ever been desperate enough to patronize, (only rivaled in lack of sanitation by a public facility in Peru). A small price to pay for the privilege of travel.
After paying the border crossing fee, we line up at a government immigration office where we present our passport and evidence of the recent extortion payment. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a ladies bathroom in the clean government facility. It’s free and it’s sanitary.
We collect our bags and follow a new guide, walking in the mist across the bridge connecting the two countries. In the band of us, I am the one that just doesn’t belong. The pierced, tattooed backpackers are younger by many years- decades actually. I kid myself that I am as camouflaged with this crowd as the LL Bean bag I carry for the weekend getaway. It makes me hipper, or so I think, and I make sure to hide the monogram, so I am not spotted as the princess that I am. My Tory Burch tote bag, as understated as I think it is, labels me, shouting to any would be thieves: rob her, she’s got to have valuables in the designer bags she brings to the jungle. Hey JMM , you’re not camouflaging anything. Hand over your fancy bags. Dumbshit Gringo.
A thief might twice if he ever saw me brandish a cast iron skillet!
JMM Crossing into Panama
Once in Panama, we go through a similar fleecing for money, passport stamping and more scrutiny by mirthless government officials. Pictures and fingerprints are taken this time and proof of a return ticket to the U.S. is required. As if I want to stay here indefinitely!
A different van and driver waits for us in Panama, as only people on foot can make the crossing. There is another hour of driving through the persistent rain, made a bit merrier by the reggae blaring through the van’s speakers. “Don’t worry bout a ting… cuz every little ting gonna be all right…”
Eventually, we are deposited at a dump of a Panamanian dock. Plastic bottles and ramshackled homes litter the inlet. When you see how most of the world lives, you can’t help but count your blessings.
The polluted waterways and oceans I see used as sewer and trash dumps, gets my Irish up. People, this planet is our home, let’s keep it clean and tidy, shall we?
Others are waiting at the dock and soon sixteen of us are ushered into a bright blue and yellow boat barely floating above the waterline. We are packed in the boat like Cuban refugees. Once we hit open water, surprisingly rough for the Caribbean, the captain revs up the engine, lifting the bow of the boat out of the sea. We bounce and splash and fight the waves and soon I join the others, stealthy slipping a life jacket around my neck. Everyone laughs nervously each time the small boat goes airborne over the onslaught of large waves. The sea splashes into the boat, and I am wet once again. I am getting used to bugs, geckos and a perpetual state of soggy. Protective plastic sides are lowered from the boat’s overhead awning, creating a terrarium of trapped body heat.
Trapped in a Terrarium
As we approach the dock, I can see my hotel alongside all the others colorful buildings perched on wooden pilings directly above the sea. I am happy to disembark the small boat, grateful that it didn’t capsize into the sea.
When we arrive in Bocas town on Isla Colon (named after Christopher Columbus), it is not the sunny island pictured in all the tourist guides. It is blanketed in thick rain clouds and fine midst covers me as I walk to the hotel.
Enrique greets me at the front desk of Tropical Suites Hotel. The room won’t be ready for a few hours he reports. The forecast is ominous for my weekend stay and I ask if I can shorten my stay if the weather outlook remains poor. Enrique smiles tells me it will change, as he rings up a hefty bill for the wet three days ahead. At least he has a sunny outlook. He recommends that I pass the time shopping or eating at a cafe across the street until the room is ready.
At Cafe de Mare, a good-looking young waiter with dark waves of shoulder length hair brings me a breakfast menu. He’s on island time and reappears around lunchtime. I order an omelet and “artisan coconut toast.” While I wait, wafts of weed emanate from the kitchen.
After what seems an eternity, the food comes and it is unremarkable. Poor William, my waiter, is so high that he asks me what I had when I request my check. He’s dead-stoned serious. There’s six other people in the entire cafe. Why do you think they call it dope?
When I return to the hotel, water-logged from walking around town in the constant midst, I sit in a small lounge area overlooking the sea. A couple leftover from the night before are trashed. There are two bottles of open wine. One is drained, the other almost. The girl sitting on the man’s lap slurs that she can’t handle any more. It’s not quite noon. Why do you think they call it wasted?
Enrique informs me that my room is ready and leads me up to a flight of stairs. When he unlocks the door and exposes the ocean view room with king size bed, whirlpool tub and large, flat screen T.V., I swear I tear up. There’s even an electric hairdryer and coffee maker! Heck, there is dependable electricity! It no longer matters to me if it pours my entire weekend stay. I want to dive into the bed and swim around on the cool, cotton sheets. The pleasant hum of the air conditioner replaces the din of the dogs and roosters. There is not a creeping, crawling companion in site.
Not the Ritz, but It’s Heaven!
Hot damn! It feels home to this bug smashing, friend making, country hopping, monogram toting, fire walking, English-speaking Gringo that I am!
And as I unpack my not-so-camouflaged bag, the sun appears!