Yes, I’m still in Panama. Trapped. With luck, I’ll get out tomorrow, but I won’t be surprised by another curve. At least I have a lovely place to stay with Eric and Jesse.
Ok, here’s the day: El Jefe yesterday told me I could take the car to the Customs, leave it there overnight, then get it in the morning and everything would be ok.
No, that wasn’t the real story. Eric and Jesse drove me to Customs, and that was the start of my second very bad day in Panama. Lola and I go from one office to the next to the next to find an office on the side of the building (calling this an office is generous). A secretary there explains something to me in Spanish—the essence is I have to wait for something or someone. This is prototypical Panama: wait, eventually some kind of official might show up. But it’s an even bet that he won’t.
I ask whether I can bring Lola inside to wait. No. No perro.
Here comes the good part of the day. I turn away from the desk and see a couple, a gringo man and a Central American woman sitting in chairs along the wall, suitcases in front of them. They did not look happy.
El hombre me dijó en Ingles, “We’ve been waiting since 8:00.” (It was 9:30). “Don’t expect a quick solution.”
This was the beginning of a long day together and a new friendship. I am the kind of person who can find a silver cloud in a hurricane—and this was the silver cloud. New friends.
We went outside (I had to be outside with Lola, who did not like being where she couldn’t see me). Jeff and Doria told me their story, which is turning out to be mine. They were waiting to meet with some official who was having trouble showing up. People in customs were nice, coffee, donuts, smiling, but nothing was getting done and no one was showing up.
J&D had been working on this since Friday (this is Monday). They live in Costa Rica and came down for a day to exit and re-enter Costa Rica because CA countries only give gringos three-month visas. While they were staying at a hotel, some people there told them they would be crazy not to spend a few days in Colombia and could get a round-trip flight for $70.00. So they bought tickets to spend five days in Colombia, leaving their car in the hotel parking lot.
So they get back, pack up, and begin the trip home. Hitting the exit customs for Panama, an official there notices in Jeff’s passport that he had travel by air to Columbia without taking his car to leave it at the David customs office. Apparently, there is some kind of executive order (not a law) that no foreigner can come here and leave the country with the car still here (it has to be left at customs). Crazy—or a good way of making money by fining people like J&D (and probably me).
Then the scene began: pulling the car over for two or three searches (probably to show that they were doing something.) After three hours, two officials from David customs come with sirens going, and they take Jeff’s passport and car documentation. One of them rides with Jeff back to David; the other makes Doria ride with him. They were told there would be an official (this is the Panamanian story) who would take care of everything. But when they get to David, their car is impounded, and they are told the necessary official is away and won’t be back until Monday, so they have to take a taxi somewhere and come back on Monday. And there they were, having arrived at 8:00 and at 10:00, they were still waiting for some kind of official. This was not good news for me.
Somewhere around 11:00, someone calls them into another office, and I’m told I’ll be taken care of after J&D are taken care of. So I’m waiting outside in the heat with Lola. If I go inside to see what’s going on, she starts barking. Oddly, most of the men seem to be wary of Lola. The women all come outside to pet her and let her kiss them. Lola is panting; it’s hot, but she is also getting stressed—sensing, I think, my stress as I’m waiting, hour after hour.
At about one, they are done with J&D. They come outside where I’m waiting with Lola and tell me they had to go through a long process of making some kind of deposition, which would then be sent to some other official, who would make a judgment on the issue the following day. So they would have to stay another night and come back on Tuesday. J&D didn’t think the process would be so complicated with me. Doria very kindly offered to wait and be my interpreter (she’s from Costa Rica). We waited outside with Lola for about another hour, telling each other our stories. Finally, at about two, I’m told I can come in with Doria as my interpreter. We sit at the official’s desk who interviews me, mostly asking why I stayed longer than the permit permitted. He was a nice young man—but you have to be careful of this type in Panama. He also wanted to know how much money I made every month. Hmmm. How much can they fine you? I’m surprised he didn’t ask how much cash I had.
I hear Lola barking during this entire interview. I am in love with Lola. I know what she’s thinking. She is panicking, not knowing where I am and being restrained on a short leash in the hot outside weather.
This took an hour, Doria interpreting all for me. Then he tells me he has to send this in and I can come back on Tuesday when someone has made a decision about my problem.
When I come out to get Lola, she is panting heavily, a sign of stress, very heavy stress. I know she is very upset.
Here’s the thing: these Panamanian officials are treating visitors like criminals, perhaps giving gringos a taste of their own medicine, the way we treat undocumented immigrants in the United States. They have my car, my transportation back to the states. Essentially, they have me by los cajones. This is not a comfortable feeling.
So I tell J&D that I’ve been staying with some very nice people about 20 minutes away, and they decide they’d like to stay there, too. I call Eric, find that all of us can get rooms for tonight. He and Jesse are at customs in ten minutes. We all pile into their car, Lola on my lap, and drive back to Little Italy, which is starting to feel like home.