NOTE: all conversations were held in my unique version of Spanish.
The man sat slumped in a plastic chair under a pop-up canopy. A fold-out plastic table was next to him, and on that table was one of the largest bottles of hand sanitizer I had ever seen. He stared down at his phone.
I rolled down the passenger window of my Bongo and asked, “Excuse me, is there a parking lot where I can leave my car for a couple of days? I’m crossing over to Panama.”
He squinted as he looked up from his phone and almost made eye contact with me.
“Where are you going?”
“Panama. To Volcán. For two nights.”
The man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. I briefly saw movement in the open doorway of the Panamanian immigration building behind him.
I took a deep breath and repeated my destination. This only seemed to confuse him further.
Just thirty minutes before I’d found myself completely lost, driving up a dirt road that rattled dentures I don’t yet havei. I’d driven seven hours straight at that point from my home in Monteverde in my attempt to get to the Panamanian border. In that effort I’d made a rookie mistake. I’d trusted Google Maps to guide me to the Rio Sereno border crossing.
Things had gone well between Google and I until I drew close to the border and my cell phone’s signal, provided by the state-owned utility, disappeared. When Google Maps loses its connection, it often retains the route already laid out. Sometimes this latent information is good. Other times…
In this case, I decided to trust what Google remembered about the route, which is why I’d found myself in front of a small house, asking really important, smart questions.
“Where am I? Can you please tell me where the border is?”
The four men, three of which with their shirts pulled up over their bellies, stared at me and my brightly colored Kia Bongo. They were also curious about my right leg which, with the very sexy black compression stocking and knee brace, looks like an artificial limb. After the shock of the appearance of this peacock of a gringo wore off, one of the men pointed further down the landslide of the road at the direction I was already heading.
“The border is about twenty minutes that direction.”
“Thank you, friend. Do you know if I need to make any turns, or is it this same road?”
“It’s the same road,” he replied, then paused to look at one of his friends, who shrugged, and then added, “more or less.”
I thanked him, got back in my Bongo and waived goodbye to the men, who all waved back with looks that conveyed the notion that I might never be seen again. Their bellies bounced in my rear-view mirror as the rocks and ruts sent my Bongo in every direction at the same time. I should note that as a cultural matter, unless you’re at or around the beach, Tico men generally don’t take off their shirts and, instead, just pull them up over their stomachs to release excess heat. Tico men in my area also don’t wear shorts – only boys wear shorts – but I had violated this custom knowing that the majority of this trip I would be in my Bongo.
Eventually I did find the border, and the man with a giant bottle of hand sanitizer in front of the Panamanian immigration building. The last thirty minutes of my rudderless drive had worn me out more than the first seven hours. I just needed to know where I could park. This did not seem to be an insurmountable problem, though the only parking lot I could see belonged to the hardware store behind me. This appeared to be the back side of their operation and the lot featured a giant sign prohibiting parking by anyone other than paid customers.
I tried a different twist on my question. “Is it ok to park along the street? I’ll be back in two days. I just need a place to park.”
The man with the hand sanitizer inhaled as if in preparation for a great oratory, then replied, “Where are you going?”
At that point I too inhaled, then waved as I backed up to go down the hill to the front of the hardware store. Perhaps I could pay them to park in their lot.
I drove in the front parking lot, breaking up a small gathering of men. Two of the three wore shirts that matched the color scheme of the hardware store.
“Excuse me, I’m going to cross the border but need to find a place to park my truck for two days.”
One of the men pointed to one of the many empty spots in their lot.
“But I’m going to be gone for two days. Is that ok?”
He smiled and shrugged. That didn’t seem like the basis of a solid contract, and I didn’t even know if he actually worked for the hardware store, so I did park in one of the empty spots but went inside to talk to the manager and make sure it was actually ok. It was, and the very nice manager, refusing to take any money, told me to go back up and park in the back lot.
Backing up the Bongo, I waved to the guys in the lot, who studied me in a friendly way, and drove past the Panamanian hand sanitizer guy as I parked in the dirt lot across the street. Moments later I was back in front of him, this time with my backpack and duffle bag. He did not seem to remember me, which was strange, but then it was so hot that I too was having trouble keeping my bearings.
I gave momentary thanks that I was not wearing a white t-shirt. If I had, I would have given everyone a horrific reinterpretation of Jacqueline Bisset’s dive scene in the movie The Deep. I wasn’t just sweating. I was leaking.
I produced my passport, my official Costa Rica vaccine document and the rest of my supporting documentation. He pointed to the hand sanitizer, and I obliged.
“I know I need to pay the tax to leave Costa Rica. Do you know where I can pay it?”
For the first time, he seemed to understand one of my questions. He pointed to a rather dilapidated metal building with no signage behind me. I put my documents in my backpack and trudged across the dirt road. I was soon in an annex of sorts within the metal building. There were a lot of doors, several with ramps leading up to them. There did not, however, seem to be any people. I wandered, calling out as I did.
A minute or so later a well-armed man in uniform emerged from one of the doors. He seemed shocked to see me but, then again, there weren’t many people moving about. Every encounter with another human might be a surprise.
“What are you doing here?”
“Um, sir, I’m trying to pay the exit tax.”
“Oh, ok. That’s over there.” He pointed through the metal building. I followed his gaze, thanked him, and walked that direction.
Shortly thereafter I was in front of a different metal building that was part of the same compound. This was, as it turns out, the Costa Rican immigration building. It was hard to tell because there were no signs, and no people. The same guard suddenly appeared in front of me and gestured towards a glass door.
I entered. Another armed gentleman inside asked me to produce the required bar code from Costa Rica on my phone (proving that I was vaccinated). I did. He then said I needed to pay the exit tax. I agreed and asked how much.
I was prepared for the tax to be in US dollars. Many official fees are in this part of the world, and Panama wanted nothing to do with Costa Rica’s Colon and more than Costa Rica wanted to accept the Balboa. I had plenty of US cash on hand and handed him a ten.
“No, not here.”
“Um, I’m sorry. Where do I pay?”
The officer looked back at his monitor, and said, “the Agro-chemico.”
“And that is…?”
“Next to the hardware store.”
“Ah, ok. Thank you.”
I started to leave, and he slapped the counter to get my attention. His face now quite serious, he commanded, “Get the receipt in paper. It has to be in paper.”
I hadn’t had a conversation that serious about a receipt in a while, and his demeanor freaked me out a little. I agreed that paper was the only way, walked out of the building, passed the Panamanian hand sanitizer guy, down the hill and around the workers still hanging out in the parking lot of the hardware store, and into the fertilizer store next store.
The nice man at the counter agreed that he was indeed the source of the receipt for the Costa Rican exit tax and asked me for nine dollars. I gave him the ten, and he a bit sheepishly gave me a Balboa as change. “You can spend it over there; I can’t give it away here.”
I smiled, wondering not for the first time about all the time, effort and money spent to enforce borders and currencies when people in many cases lived within a few feet of each other their entire lives – but on opposite sides of an arbitrary line.
“You’ll want to take a picture of this,” he said as he spun his monitor around, revealing a receipt.
“Um… the Costa Rica immigration guy said the receipt had to be in paper.”
The man at the counter rolled his eyes. “We don’t have any paper.”
Owed to my substantial dealings in Costa Rica where the ability to produce a paper receipt was, in many cases, the only way to get something done, I wasn’t sure I agreed with him.
“Um…there’s no way to get a paper receipt?”
He pointed to his keyboard and monitor. “This is all I have, and they know it.”
I took the picture, waved as I walked past the guys in the hardware parking lot, and walked back up the hill to the Panamanian hand sanitizer guy still parked in his plastic chair under his canopy. This time it seemed like he remembered me, maybe. I again produced all the same documents I had produced before. He immediately pulled out my official Costa Rican vaccination document and frowned.
“What is this?”
The card, which opens up to show a history of all vaccinations, says “official Costa Rica vaccination history” across the front with the related state-sponsored imagery. It seemed like something that someone working at the Panamanian border crossing would have seen before. I was wrong.
He was unmoved, so I produced my official record of vaccinations from Canada, which were also recorded on the Costa Rica card. He glanced at my US passport, and then again at my Canadian vaccinations, and then at my expired Costa Rica identification and the paperwork which states I have filed to again become a resident and am now in the process of “tramite.”
With the definite feeling that this was going the wrong way, I volunteered, “I’m a resident of Costa Rica but am originally from the US. We left for two years while I was recuperating from cancer.”
Pulling out Big C usually inspires enough sympathy for someone not familiar with my blog (everyone) to squash further questions as to why someone from the US who was living in Costa Rica would choose to recuperate in Canada. I don’t know if that was the case this time, or if it was his desire to get back on his cell phone, which he kept sneaking looks at, but he grunted and pointed at the building behind him.
I gathered my papers, thanked him, and walked into the Panamanian immigration building. The desks of the two immigration officers were one step inside the door. The closest officer, without making eye contact, extended his hand. I handed him my passport. He flipped it open, studying the various entry and exit dates before again extending his hand. I gave him my Costa Rica vaccine card, my proof that I was in tramite, and told him that I had the QR codes for both Costa Rica and Panama as well as proof that I had paid the Costa Rica exit fee on my phone. I queued up the first of those images and waited to hand the phone to him.
He tossed the vaccine card back my direction.
“Where is your copy?”
“I’m sorry, my copy of what?”
“Your copy of your passport and your vaccine card.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, you need photocopies?”
My family and I had just returned from a trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama in October. No one at that crossing had asked us for copies.
He glared at me, and suddenly I wasn’t so keen on needing eye contact.
“Yes, of course, photocopies.”
He tossed my passport back towards me as well and started scrolling on his phone. His colleague, who had never looked up from his own phone, suppressed a giggle.
“I apologize. That’s my fault. Can you please tell me where I can get photocopies?”
The officer dealing with me muttered something that I didn’t understand. I asked him to please repeat it and his colleague said something equally hard to understand that included the phrase “next to the Agro-Chemico.”
So, with only a little ado, I gathered my documents, and my bags, marched past hand sanitizer guy, went down the hill to greet the guys in the parking lot and waived to the guy at the counter in the Agro-chemico. Sure enough, there were two ladies within the shop next door. Each was typing away on a laptop. I got two copies of each document – both sides – and then, again, went back up the hill to the Panamanian immigration building.
This time the hand sanitizer guy ignored me completely. I entered and placed all the documents down on the desk. For good measure, I added the pages of the receipt for an upcoming flight where I would be leaving Costa Rica.
The officer quickly rifled through the copies and stared at the flight information. He asked for my phone and then checked the QR codes and my receipt from Costa Rica. Sweat running down my face, I tried to be optimistic. I had still not seen the actual border (when asked, the guys in front of the hardware store just pointed in a vague way down the street in front of them) but I hoped to be there soon. I had someone there waiting for me to drive me to Volcán and I hadn’t been able to contact them since I lost my cell signal.
“And proof that you have paid the exit fee for Panama?”
The question startled me for a minute, and then I remembered reading that while there was no official exit fee to leave Panama it was not that uncommon to be hit up for one. That was part of the reason I had a collection of US bills with me.
“The exit fee for Panama? No, Sir, I thought I would pay that in Panama before I returned to Costa Rica, but I’m glad to pay it here. How much is it?”
The two officers shared a look of disgust.
“No, you don’t pay it here. You have to pay it before you come here.”
“Um, ok, can I pay it at the Agro-chemico?”
“No. There is nowhere to pay it here. To pay it you either go to a Ticabus station, or you can go to Coopevaca (yes, in my head it sounded like a cow cooperative).”
The bus station seemed like the safer bet. There were bus stations all over the place.
“Oh, so where is the closest Ticabus?”
He turned in disbelief to the other officer, who shook his head. “There is no Ticabus station anywhere near here. There is no bus service here.”
It seemed odd that there would be no bus service at a border crossing but judging by my experience thus far I was the only person who had ever attempted to cross the border in this town. Moreover, the only people I’d seen outside were the guys in the hardware parking lot and hand sanitizer guy.
“Ok, I understand. And the Coope place…?”
“Is back in Sabalito.” He pointed across the street in the direction of the Costa Rica building. “Fifteen minutes that way.”
My stomach dropped. I was going to have to drive another thirty minutes (at least, probably more as I had no map function and would get lost) to find some place I’d never heard of to pay a tax that didn’t actually exist.
I started to ask him to please spell out the name and he pushed my things back to me and pointed to the doorway. I gathered them and picked up my bags. On my way out I asked hand-sanitizer guy if he knew what the place was in Sabalito that had something to do with a cooperative. He did not, but, truthfully, was distracted by whatever was happening on his phone. As I stood there the somewhat angry immigration officer pushed past me, and hand sanitizer guy asked him about the co-op place. There was a reply that I didn’t understand, and, with that, the immigration officer went on his way and hand sanitizer guy officially rededicated himself to his phone. I offered thanks I didn’t feel and lugged my things to my truck.
The guys in the parking lot below looked at me curiously as I backed out of the upper lot and tried to figure out how to get to Sabalito. About 20 minutes and only one wrong turn later, I was on the main drag of this town that wasn’t a lot bigger than the sleepy border crossing village. With cars and pedestrians darting in and out, I drove slowly, looking for something that had the word “coope” in it. I soon passed a store front that featured a sign saying Coopeavianca. There was no vaca, or cow involved. My only experience with Avianca was the airline of the same name. Who knows?
I kept driving, looking for a parking spot or a place to turn around, and found myself in the parking lot of Banco Nacional. We have an account with Banco Nacional, and I knew that payments for a variety of things could be made there so, as insurance, I went inside and asked. After a thorough ocular pat-down (shout out to It’s Always Sunny) I was steered to the manager, who told me that there was no exit tax from Panama. She said she didn’t know what the immigration guy was talking about, but that Coopeavianca would indeed be the place to go.
I went to Coopeavianca and was thoroughly inspected by their guard. It felt like he danced with the idea of asking me to take off my artificial leg but, in the end, the guard and the employee assured me that: 1) there was no tax to leave Panama and, 2) there was nothing they could sell me and no receipt they could give me that would do anything.
What little enthusiasm I had left drained from me as I returned to my truck and a blizzard of texts and lengthy voice messages from the guy waiting for me on the Panamanian side of the border as well as the hotel. Trying to keep it together, I let all involved know a short version of the story and acknowledged, and apologized for, the fact that I was about 90 minutes late in my planned border crossing. As I sat, sweating, in my Bongo, I got messages back from the driver saying he’d keep waiting for me. I got another text from the hotel where they assured me that I could pay the Panama exit tax at the border itself (on the Costa Rica side) or at any Banco Nacional or Coopeavianca.
I replied to all involved and told them that my only option was to go back to the Panamanian immigration building and try one last time. I would either soon emerge on the Panamanian side of the border, or I’d go home. I didn’t see another option. Either way I’d call them whenever I again had a signal.
My cell signal departed 100 meters down the road and, two wrong turns and twenty-five minutes later, I was back in front of hand sanitizer guy. This time he actually seemed to be rooting for me.
“Nope. No one will sell me something that says I paid a tax to leave Panama, including Coopeavianca.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yes, yes, it is. I’m going to try anyway.”
He shrugged and went back to his phone. I entered the office to find that my main nemesis had never returned. I was dealing only with officer #2. I explained the situation. He expressed no visible reaction.
I asked him if there was anyone at his home office, he could call that might be able to help. He checked his watch, smiled, and said, “Sorry, no, it’s 4:01 here so they’re closed.” I recalled that Panama was an hour later for reasons having nothing to do with geography.
“Is there anything else I can do?”
He picked up his phone and dialed a number, letting it ring ten times before hanging up and trying again. This went on, and on until someone finally answered. It soon became clear that he was talking to my nemesis, immigration officer #1, who had himself called it a day. A lot of things were said between them. None of what I could understand was complimentary to yours truly.
Finally, he hung up and walked over to a laminated, but faded poster mounted on the wall. With no small amount of anger, he began reading from the top. Point one says… Point two says…
I had no idea where this was going. He arrived at Point seven, which said not much more than, “if there are fees to be charged, they will be collected.” He then leered at me and then sat back down to pick up his phone and stare at it.
At the end of my rope, I dropped the sirs and thank you’s and said, “I am happy to pay a fee. I have tried to do everything you’ve asked me to do. My family and I just crossed the border in October and had no trouble. I don’t think it’s fair that you’re asking me to pay a fee to leave Panama, which doesn’t exist anywhere in writing, but can’t tell me where I can pay it.”
Without looking up he simply pointed to the open door.
“You haven’t even been able to tell me how much the fee is. How much is the fee?”
His finger remained pointed at the door.
Anger washed over me. I fully recognize that as a chubby white guy from the US I have been dealt a better hand than many, if not most. No one owes me anything. Then again, I was only in this situation because Costa Rica refused to simply let us renew our residency when we returned last summer.
Instead, we were forced to start all the way over as if we’d never been to Costa Rica before. Due to a quirk in the Costa Rica system, which is their right to have, as applicants for formal residency (again) we do not have to leave every 90 days like tourists (many of whom have stayed in Costa Rica for years and game the immigration system by simply leaving four times a year). My family and I can stay for the up to two years it’s going to take Costa Rica’s immigration department to again process our residency BUT, if my wife and I wanted to drive and rely on our US licenses, we still had to leave every 90 days to get a stamp in our passport.
All of these thoughts percolated as I stared at his finger. I noticed he had his ID in a plastic sleeve hanging from lanyard that went around his neck.
“I’ll go, but I’m going to take a quick picture of your ID if that’s ok.”
His finger dropped and he immediately covered his ID with his hand. “No, that’s private.”
“Seems like your boss wants it to be public if they make you wear it around your neck and,” staring at the copies of my information still on their desk, “you’ve got all of my information, so it only seems fair.”
I briefly pondered whether or not my arrest would finally get me across the border or if all I was working on was a permanent ban by Panama. I left. I waived a final goodbye to the nice guys in the hardware store parking lot and drove about 20 minutes in the general direction of home, trying to think through my next steps. I’d left my house at 6:00 a.m. It was now closing in on 5:00 p.m.
My phone chirped back to life with more texts from all the people I wasn’t going to see in Panama. I let them know that I wasn’t going to make it but would make good on what I owed.
I pulled over and started typing in “Monteverde” in Waze (now done with Google) so I could go home. Just before I hit enter, my sweaty finger stopped. I was going to have surgery on my leg in a few days in San Jose. Driving 7.5 hours back to Monteverde just meant I’d be back on the road in a couple of days driving down to San Jose but then, I couldn’t do that legally because my 90-day visa stamp would have expired.
I really only had one option: head to another, much larger, dirtier, congested Panamanian border crossing at Paso Canoas. I typed in the location, put my Bongo back into gear, and started another, thankfully shorter, drive.
I would, eventually, get my stamp, though it didn’t happen that night. I would also discover that the health officials in my zone had fat-fingered the entry of my vaccination dates in my official record. This meant that the border officials couldn’t input the data from my card to produce yet another Covid related document with another QR code that they’re calling a “cuero.” I was only familiar with that word as the Spanish equivalent of “leather.” I now have an entirely new definition for it: a pound of flesh.