Keith Irwin

Panama

Feb 25, 2014

Latin America 2014, Hitchhiking, Travel, Panama, Costa Rica


This is part of my story of hitchhiking from New York to Buenos Aires and back, which I did in 2014. I may publish the entire tale in a book someday. Until then, you can read it for free here. To see other parts, check out Latin America 2014. 

February 25

I was surprised to hear, and see, people crossing the bridge at all hours of the day and night. It was in the early hours before dawn that my muse spoke to me an idea of how to cross the border. It was uncertain, but it was worth a try at least.

As the sun came up, I followed a path under the bridge and bathed myself in the calm river. There was no current, except the ripples I made. A fine mist hung calmly over the water and birds hooted. If it weren't for the constant creaking of feet crossing the bridge overhead, I would have felt quite at one with nature.

When the internet cafe opened, I logged onto a computer and scanned over the files on the desktop. I suspected that I wasn't the first traveler to have problems with the hard-ass across the river. As I had hoped, somebody else had left a copy of their plane ticket there. So, using MS Paint, I carefully erased their name and wrote my own in, as realistically as possible. I also changed the date of the flights, to put them in the future.

A screenshot of the fake ticket
The fake ticket I used

I went back to the Costa Rican migrations office. The man recognized me. “Do you have your plane ticket?” he asked. I told him I did and he stamped my passport again.

A photo of the bridge
The bridge facing Panama (photo by luissamudio)

I crossed the bridge and went to the Panamanian office. The same asshole was working there again. “Passport,” he requested, and I gave it to him. He scanned it over. “Plane ticket?” I handed over the unfolded printout. He scrutinized it for a long time while I rapped my fingers on the counter, hoping to mask my unease with an impatience.

“There's no name of the airline,” he told me, and handed it back.

I looked it over feverishly. “Right here!” I exclaimed. “United Airlines!”. It only said ‘United’ because whoever printed their ticket before me had cut off the rest of the line. The migrations dick just shook his head.

When confronted, a liar will become defensive, but a truth-teller becomes offensive. I wanted to be convincing so I lashed out at him. “It's shit. I do what you ask me! You have to allow me to pass! There is no reason not to!” He just shook his head and walked away slowly. But a woman working at a desk behind him motioned to me calmingly and said “It will be OK.” Sure enough, he came back and handed me my passport. I flipped through it and found it was stamped.

I walked back through the town and hitched a ride. I didn't breathe easy until I'd passed the police checkpoint again. It felt good to be back on uncharted roads.




I decided to skip Bocas del Toro. It was supposed to be a beautiful tropical archipelago, but I was sick of tourists. I had seen enough tropical beaches anyway. So for now I decided to go straight to Panama city. A Bolivian who was living there had also offered to host me. I made these arrangements at an internet cafe in Changuinola.

Hitchhiking in Panama was not bad. Standing in the outskirts of Almirante, I admired the blue sky and cottonball clouds. I saw some schoolchildren in uniform walking down the road. For me, this is Panama, a foreign land. But for them, it's just another walk to school.

I got several rides that day. The most interesting was an English-speaking fellow driving to Davide. He was from Panama but had American citizenship too. What's more is that he had two social security cards and collected double social security. “For one card, I am Alfredo J. Gonzales and my birthday is May 2, 1979,” he explained. “On the other, I am Alfredo Jose Gonzales, born on February 5, 1979. In Panama, we write dates with the day before the month, so I went to the administration and say, this is my birthday, and got two cards.”

Alfredo was also very talented at mechanics. He told me about a car he bought that wouldn't run. In two days, he got it working by installing a carburetor, even though it had injectors originally.

We gained altitude quickly and it got cold and started to rain. We had to close our windows. The change in climate was dramatic. He told me the ridge across the continental divide is called ‘Jaws of the Devil’. For a moment, I was able to see both halves of the continent. It was only raining on one side, and a vibrant rainbow was cast between the ‘jaws’.

He dropped me off at Chiriqui, the crossroads between Panama City and Davide and wished me the best.

I tried to find a stream where I could bathe and wash my clothes, but the only one I found was shallow and dirty. I washed my pants there anyway and hung them up to dry. Hopefully I could arrive in Panama the next day and take a shower.


Sixaola Arrival at Panama City