Normally an uneventful routine, approaching the border I had no indication of the problems I was about to encounter as I attempted to enter Panama from Costa Rica. In most cases, those who arrive in a country fly in and have a round trip ticket, thus few problems crossing borders. It is a general requirement and a government policy to see proof of departure; it is rarely enforced, but convenient when the authorities want to turn people away.
Traveling over land without a definite schedule, I was without any type of confirmation that one day, I would be leaving Panama. The man behind the small-bared window asked for my passport, proof of funds (at least $500, two credit cards handled this one), and my onward ticket. Whoops! No ticket. No ticket, no entry. Of course, he spoke no English and the process came to a standstill. A nearby tout overheard the conversation and offered to help -- for a small fee, of course. After a brief conversation, he told me to insert $10 cash into my passport to serve as my ticket. Back to the window we went, him in tow with me to translate, only to be turned down again: a bribe wouldn't even work. Time for Plan B.
With my hired helper, we went in search of a bus ticket. A company conveniently located close to the immigration office would only sell me a Panama City-to-San Jose Costa Rica ticket for $25, way to pricey just to enter Panama.
Five minutes later and four blocks away, I stepped up to a counter that offered to sell me a ticket for $9. I now have a new souvenir: a bus ticket good for 3 months that will take me from David, Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica. With the bus ticket inserted into my passport, absent the $10, along with the $5 tourist entry card that I was required to get from a hidden unmarked office, I handed my passport over once again. This time I was given a green light, with a smile. After 3 hours of walking around in circles, I was finally on my way.
Panama has a deep-rooted history with the United States. One that stretches back to the time when thousands of gold-crazed fortune hunters crossed over in a mad dash on their way to California. During this period, their hunger for Gold would turn the Panamanian Railroad into one of the most profitable companies in the world. Then came the canal, a 50-mile ditch across the isthmus, an undertaking that at the time was beyond remarkable in scope and audacity. By the time they finished the canal, 25,000 people had died, (mostly under the French period from Yellow Fever and a pack of other diseases) and enough material was moved to build a wall on the equator around the world, 9 feet high and 6 foot thick.
I took a trip along the entire length of the canal. It wasn't much different then taking a boat ride down the Missouri, except for the huge sea-faring ships that would snuggle up next to you in the locks or the crocodiles you would see sunning themselves along the shore. But nonetheless, it is impossible not to be impressed with the canal.
Finally, there is the whole saga with Noriega, once on the CIA payroll, then on the drug cartels'. Most of the destruction of "Just Cause” (the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and ousting of Noriega) has been rebuilt or is in the process. The only clear sign of his past presence was his empty mansion. I climbed up to the fence to take a peak. It was eerie, like a ghost house with its empty animal cages and unkempt grounds.
Visiting with a few local people gave me some sense of the changes occurring in Panama. A business owner by the name of Suresh, 45, told me stories of government corruption and cartel influence. To work with the cartel is a lifetime contract, depending on how short or long your life is. Panama's nickname is “the laundry mat;” apparently a large volume of drug money gets washed through Panama's system.
He talked about when the Americans administered the canal; "the quality of life was better for everyone then." The big political push for sovereignty was a mistake he said; “you can't eat sovereignty.” He guessed that 60% of the people in the country would like to see the Americans come back.
His message to the U.S.; "We miss the Americans, and the quality of life you bring wherever you are." He knows they won't be coming back, but hopes for a joint force to address the growing drug traffic scene in his country.
Next, good-bye Central America, hello South America!