Although there is some dispute as the the finer details of this particular process, as it now stands, if one, one like me for example who does not have residency, is living in Costa Rica, it can only be done on a tourist visa; essentially a 90 day pass. In order for one to "refresh" that visa, one must leave the country for (and this is where the dispute comes in) for either 72 hours, or, as some would have it, no time at all; just a quick in and out.
In order to keep my slate clean and so as to not jeopardize my situation in their lovely country, I have been a strict observer of the 72 hours out of the country every 90 days during my time here in Costa Rica. Whether this makes me any better or worse of a "perpetual tourist" in the eyes of Imagracion, I have yet to discover. And since I do indeed wish to stay here, doing what I do, I have my fingers crossed that I am doing this in the honorable and correct fashion.
It turned out that after a somewhat drab and dreadful June at La Cusinga, that we would be besieged for much of July and it was suggested to me that I make my 72 hour foray a bit earlier than the 90 days, which was fine with me. I engaged Nathalie at the Jungle Pet Lodge to take watch over Booker the Dog, I made reservations for a cabana at Isla Verde in Boquete, Panama, I packed a bag and I was ready to exit the country.
It always seems as if it should be an easy proposition, this crossing of the border, but one never knows what surprises, mysteries and downright puzzling things await.
I got up at 5:45, took Booker for our long and hilly morning walk (I'm on a big hill climbing campaign these days; cardio-vascular and all that), finished packing, consumed smoothie and tea, and he and I rambled off to the Jungle Pet Lodge. He was excited the whole time up there, but when he saw that he was going to have to share Ms. Nathalie's attentions with a 14 year old shepard/mastiff mix and a St. Bernard (yes, a St. Bernard, here in Costa Rica) he became decidedly less enthusiastic to the point of pulling back on the leash when she took him, which he has never done before.
I continued rambling on and made the border by aboutor so and then the fun started. I usually park my car on one of the congested streets and some encrusted drunk or another comes over, throws cardboard over my windshield and I tell him I'll be back in three days and I will compensate him richly ($3-5) upon my return, for watching my car. But today, the streets were packed with all kinds of parking hustlers and when I parked my car, a guy with missing teeth and a blood-spattered shirt told me it would cost $100 for him to watch my car. I informed him that I parked there in January and again in April for a far lesser sum and told him we would discuss it when I got back.
There was virtually no one at the Costa Rica side of the border, but when I dragged myself and my bags through the puddles, mud and various forms of human degeneration to the other side of the terminal, the scene at the Panama side was like a panel from a painting by Bosch. The lines (were there lines?) were mobbed and there must have been 150 people competing for two exit windows. There were people pushing, posturing and parading; all of it performed at high volume. I shuddered and kind of attached myself to a couple of moderately well-to-do Costa Rican families and after 75-80 minutes of disorganized jostling we made it to the window and then were spit out. I then got on a packed shuttle bus and we careered on down the highway to David. At David, one transfers to these somewhat charming old yellow Bluebird school buses (and with all the comforts you might remember from your school bus) and the final hour and half descent to Boquete is made in a bouncing reeling fashion, marked by perhaps 30-40 stops along the way.
The stay in Boquete was lovely, as it often is. The weather is decidedly cooler, after all it does sit in a valley at the base of the mountains, and they, like us in Costa Rica, had been getting a lot of rain. No problem. I had books, music, the newest issue of the New Yorker, and best of all (a birthday present from sister Barbara and her husband, Pete) access to the NY Times crossword puzzle and it WAS Sunday, big puzzle day. Life was good.
So for three days I read, ate, slept, hiked (when it wasn't raining), got massaged, ate, read and slept. Life was good. I got up early the morning of departure and blithely slipped, unknowingly into yet another adventure. I should know to expect these things by now. I left the hotel at 7:15, Costa Rica time (Panama is an hour ahead), wanting to allow myself plenty of wiggle room for traveling. I took a taxi to the bomba (station) in Boquete and got on another charming old yellow bus; again, more charming than comfy. It took about 20 minutes for the bus to fill with Panamanians on their way to their daily requirements and we jounced off down the hill to David.
The bus terminal in David is quite a scene, but I have learned over the years that it's best not to pay much attention to the beggars, animals, smell and overall mayhem. After one pays $.25 to pee in a disturbingly smell trough, one ventures to the opposite site of the terminal where a line-up of "busetas" (shuttle buses) awaits. Each bus has a driver and an assistant who serves in the capacity of barker. He stands outside the buseta and shouts out the destination over and over again in an apparent attempt to be louder than the guy at the buseta next to him. Slung over his shoulder is a chain that holds one of those old fashioned change making machines that I always associate with the ice cream man of my childhood.
The bus ride out of David is a bit circuitous, and meanders through some fine and not so fine neighborhoods before it heads out on the highway. Once upon the highway the buseta stops intermittently, but frequently. The barker jumps out and yells our destination, "Frontera, frontera" loudly and proudly and people either do or do not get on the bus. Despite there being an open seat, no on wishes to sit next to the only gringo on the buseta, which is fine with me. I check the clock and despite our numerous stops, we are making good time and I will have plenty of time to pick up Mr. Booker, take him home and with any luck take a shower before heading in to work.
We stop and start perhaps 50 or 60 times, but finally the arched top of the Panamanian border building is in sight and we're as good as home. When I came around the corner, however, to stand in line for the "salida" (exit) window to have my passport stamped, it seemed that another experience entirely awaited me. There was a mob of perhaps 300-400 people (who knew how many) standing, pushing, waiting grimly in front of one, yes one window. There was no semblance of a line, none at all, but being the good citizen I am, I walked back along the right side until I found an obvious break in the crowd. This was far, far worse than what I had deemed a "thing most horrible" when I was entering Panama on Sunday.
There is was, I was in "line" at the "salida" in Panama, trying to get back into Costa Rica and there was one window open with one slow moving and most beleaguered senor behind it. Outside his window milling in the waiting zone, the sidewalks and spilling over into the streets (the curb is 18" high) was a nascent mob of maybe 350 people all trying to reach the window at the same time. I tucked into line (ha, line, what line?) with a family of nine from Iowa and we bobbed and weaved together in the crowd like boxers in a ring, like small craft on large seas, like whole nuts tossed into a whirling food processor.
It was as close as I've been to a riot since I ran down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley tossing bricks through the windows of car dealerships in the name of peace. The crowd grew tired, then frustrated, and then, downright and upright (no where to sit, now was there?) pissed off and began chanting, then throwing things, and then, horribly, just surging forward with only a concrete wall and safety glass windows as their destination.
The terminal manager finally emerged and did a fine job of emulating confusion, care and concern. He tried to enter the mass of humanity that was rudely sullying his fine terminal and was pushed back out as if refracting magnets had come, ever so briefly, together. So he did what any right minded individual would do; he went for back-up and came back with six Panamanian soldiers in camo gear. They did what any soldier would do under the circumstances; nothing. They stood and watched, like good army men.
When it was finally too obvious to ignore any longer, the military began apprehending and pulling the obvious party crashers out of the center of the mob and flinging them off the 18" curb and into the street. Someone threw something and someone got hit with an umbrella and suddenly (and finally, thank God) the brave soldiers entered the eye of the hurricane and started pushing people into something resembling a line.
People fell, bodies were strewn and curses in a plethora of tongues were hurled, but finally the courage of the military won out and there were two lines formed somewhat like steel is forged over a fire; one for senors and one for senoras y senoritas. And so it came to pass that the terminal manager saw fit to open a second window (stout thinking, that) and we all ultimately came to reach the window and get our precious exit stamp so that we could go stand in yet another line on the Costa Rican side. I was in the crush for three and a quarter hours and have never seen anything like it, although Altamont came close.
I passed through the Costa Rican side (where they have chains and stanchions to form the lines) in a relatively breezy 45 minutes. Upon reaching my little Toyota that I had promised my extortionist, the toothless gentleman in the blood spattered shirt, that I would pay to watch in my 72 hour absence, found that I was blocked in by a semi, sporting a full trailer. The woman who was obviously the "Jefa" of the parking mob hit me up for $10 and promised to find the driver of the semi. It was only another half hour before the driver was located, backed it up, and I was on the road. Clear sailing? Oh no, not yet, Chef. At the customs check a huge logging truck was broken down and a senor was waving us all to the left. The left? What was to the left?
What was to the left was the side of Paso Canoas that nobody really wants or need to see. I attempted to negotiate some of the most horribly rocky streets I'd ever driven on, ever trying to keep parallel to the main highway, but working farther and farther away from it. Finally I passed the Policia who told me, "adelante y derecho". Straight ahead, then right; that's what I'd thought.
I continued through lake sized puddles, abandoned cars and dead dogs. An obvious right turn emerged and I took it to yes, the main highway. Clear sailing? Almost.
It had begun to rain while I was waiting in line for the hallowed passport stamps, and now it was coming down harder. I sloshed through Ciudad Neily and checked the gas gauge. A quarter tank; I'd stop in Rio Claro for gas, a fluid discharge and more fluids. Despite the rain, the driving was good until I hit Rio Claro where it seemed to have rained a whole lot more that anywhere else, since the Rio Claro was not clear at all, but the color of mud and instead of staying in the river banks where it belonged, it was up over the road and nearly two feet deep. Traffic was proceeding through the renegade Rio, but slowly, and one lane at a time. When my turn came, I tucked in behind another smaller car and we searched for the high ground as the water came up over our tires.
I was a lot wetter on my brake drums than I wanted to be, but I was through the flooded Rio Claro and up to the town proper for gas. I pulled into the only service station in town and saw to my horror, that all the gas pumps had garbage bags over them. "Gasolina mal" was the muttered response to my yearning question. So I was above "E", but well below 1/4 tank when I got back out on the road. The next distance sign told me it was 47 kilometres to Palmar so I sighed in resignation and hit the gas.
Fortunately, I had forgotten about Chacarita at the turn off to Golfito and I gassed up, grabbed iced tea and club soda and made a final run for it. I was late, so late. My phone had lost its charge and I just had to power on. I got to work at 4:15 rather than my scheduled 2:00 and Booker the Dog had to spend one more night at the Jungle Pet Lodge, and I'm sure it was fine with him, he likes Nathalie. Just another day for him.
So there it is, the glory, the excitement and the thrill of the road. Travel far, see the world, share experiences with like-minded souls, press flesh in ways you never dreamed imaginable. Adelante...