Thursday, January 1, 2015

Back With Adventures of an ExPat's Border Run

Hi Folks,

Well, though I announced almost exactly one year ago that I was done with this blog, to focus on my , and this is even more true now as that blog is under reconstruction to accompany the release of my new book, Moneylove 3.0, I have a tale to tell that is not about prosperity consciousness, though it is a triumph of the human spirit over unexpected challenges.

I write this to share with friends who might be interested, as well as on expat forums to let fellow expats know what the latest situation is at the border at Paso Canoas, shared between Panama and Costa Rica. The rules and implementation of those rules change so often, that it has never been the same in the four runs I have made since moving here in 2013. Until official residency, an expat is here on a six month's tourist visa and has to leave Panama and then come back to renew that visa.

On Monday night, December 29th, as I have done all four times, I went to Allbrook Mall at about 4pm and bought an express overnight bus ticket for the seven hour ride to the Frontera. It cost $14.50.
As usual I chose to hang out at the huge Allbrook Mall next to the terminal until the bus left at 10pm. You have to buy the ticket by 4:30 and it has to be bought on the day of travel at the terminal.

The bus ride was uneventful, and I arrived about 5:30am, having to wait 90 minutes until they did a cursory search of my backpack and stamped my passport to exit Panama.

So far so good.  I walked the two blocks to the Costa Rican border post and found a lovely agent who was friendly and spoke passable English. Different from last time in July, they did not ask to see a bus ticket showing I would leave Costa Rica within six months, or $500 in cash to show I could survive there. But still require a receipt for a $5 exit tax, which you can get right there at bank office ATM with a credit card. But, when I walked over to the Salidas or exit window, which the same lovely agent had just moved to, she told me they were refusing to do same day exit stamps as Panama would not allow people to enter without having spent 24 hours in Costa Rica. Panama border agents had forced me to stay 24 hours last January, so I was prepared for this, even though in July I did an immediate turnaround.

I found a motel, Johnny's,  that had WiFi, air conditioning, cable TV, and a shower, though I'm surprised they could fit a full sized bed in the tiny room as well as a writing table and chair. I could check in immediately at 7:30am and the price was $26.  It was also across the street from the InterAmerica hotel I stayed at last January (no WiFi, but bigger room for $30), which had a very nice restaurant.
Deciding I wanted to wait for lunch instead of having breakfast, about 11:30 (which was actually 10:30 Costa Rica time, an hour earlier than Panama) I walked over to the restaurant and tried to figure out what the menu items were with my almost nonexistent grasp of Spanish. Unfortunately, when I had my iPhone set up to get Johnny's WiFi, it didn't seem to want to translate on my Jibbigo software. Everything I typed in Spanish came out exactly the same in Spanish again. So I really had no idea what I would get when I ordered Casados con carne en salsa, except in the picture it looked like some kind of combination plate. I know carne is meat, usually beef, so I went for it. Got a lovely platter, and while the chunks of beef were a bit fattier than I prefer, it was all pretty tasty Costa Rican fare.
Luckily, I had uploaded chapters of the new book onto my Kindle for a final edit, so had plenty to occupy me.  Even went over to the restaurant again to try an appetizer plate that looked appealing as it had a bunch of items listed, but would have been too much to add to my lunch combo plate.

The tortilla chips were hot, as were the refried beans and the sweet salsa with some kind of peppers, and the regular salsa was tasty, too.  So another good local mystery meal choice.  The next morning, I got up at 5:00 Costa Rica time as the attractive agent had told me to come back at 6am sharp, and I anticipated a quick pass through to go onto Panama border station. There was a small crowd already at the Costa Rica exit when I arrived at 5:30.
So we waited, and waited some more, and finally, near 6:30 am, someone came by to tell us that it was a holiday and windows would not be open until 8am.  A whole lot of waiting ensued, but I still had my Kindle and was able to sit for a good bit of the time. By 8:30am I was stamped quickly and walked over to Panama (by this time on my previous border runs, I was already on the bus headed home). The line at Panama exit didn't look long, but moved very very slowly. I thought maybe the border agents were asking for more details, and might even discover that my computer printed airline ticket was really only a reservation to Miami in June on Copa, and would be cancelled if I didn't pay for it by that afternoon. I still don't know why it was so slow, well over an hour with a line that wasn't that long, but I went through very easily and quickly, after showing my pseudo ticket and $500 in cash.  I found a bus where I usually found one loading for Panama City. This time, it was a Panachif bus and I went to window to buy a ticket (on previous trips, I just paid on the bus, about $18-$19) It was the same big, new, clean kind of bus that usually makes this run. But for some reason, it was only $11.25. I kept on asking the Spanish speaking clerk if this was actually going to get me to Panama City. I got on at 11:20 Panama Time, about three hours later than on previous trips, but was so happily relieved to have made it through all the delays, and be on my way home, that it felt like a big win to just climb up and find a free seat, with an empty one next to it so I could put my backpack on it.  But my challenges were not quite over.
The driver looked even younger from the front than this back view. If you look you can see that he has his left hand up to his ear, where he is holding a cellphone.  Chiriqi Province is the mountainous western part of Panama, and the roads up and down mountains are precarious even for two-handed driving. Our young driver rarely used both hands even during rather high speed trips up and down mountain roads. He either was on the cellphone, or waving one arm and bouncing up and down in rhythm to the incessant Salsa music he was loudly playing. I considered it a major triumph that he wasn't feeling suicidal, and I even heard some locals expressing concern at our survival chances.
But I had my Kindle and my new book chapters, plus an old Edgar Wallace mystery to read between making notes for edits.  I was able to also be a bit distracted by an attractive woman and her very cute son, who seemed to stare at me with fascination a lot. She smiled a few times, but definitely didn't look friendly in the one photo I took.

At about 8pm, we pulled into the terminal. I got to McDonalds, where I was planning to get a large bag of fries to take home to have with a tuna submarine with hard-boiled egg slices I was looking forward to, but they closed just as I got at the end of the line, and would not allow me to even get some fries. Then I felt all good things were back on course when I found Antonio, a very friendly, English-speaking taxi driver. The drivers leaving Allbrook or the Gran Terminal usually want to charge $10 to go back into the city, despite the fact that it was only $2-$3 to come out from the city. But Antonio didn't make any requests, and he had two pretty young Panamanian girls in the backseat, on their way to go shopping. He told me how he refused to drink as long as he was a taxi driver and was spending New Year's eve with his large family. His thanks were effusive when I gave him $5.  

I even got to see some of the fireworks being set off throughout Panama City on the ride home. I made my tuna sub, savored it while watching an episode of The Mentalist on my computer, and was in bed and quickly asleep by 10pm.  A long 52 hours from Monday afternoon to Wednesday evening, but also another successful visa renewal. I hope and plan to do it differently for my summer renewal.