Which Way To The Border?
Traffic came at us from every direction. We darted and zig-zagged and tried to keep moving forward against the chaotic flows.
Cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, motorbikes…children, tourists, backpackers, farmers, pets…I even had to dodge a chicken crossing my path…
In this no-man’s land between Costa Rica and Panama, it was a free-for-all. In the dark, I struggled to keep my footing, not to trip over the swirling mass of little kids and small dogs all around me, while watching out for the semi’s, the pick-up trucks, and the buses.
Friday morning, we flew from Panama to Costa Rica. Friday night, we were making our way back across the border.
We’d taken a taxi from Jaco to the point where Costa Rica stops. We paid our driver, picked up our bags, and walked over to the Immigration window along the side of the road to get our Costa Rica exit stamps.
No signs to indicate the way as far as we could discern, so we took off in the generally opposite direction from that which we’d come. Through the bowl of territory that is neither Costa Rica nor Panama but where people of all descriptions and who knows what objectives were coming and going this Friday night.
Our guide for the day took the front position. Lief fell in behind him, leaving me to follow behind. After a few meters, Lief turned around to make sure I was keeping up.
“Why don’t you get in the middle?” he suggested, standing by so I could pass and he could take up the rear post.
“Follow Jim,” he said. “Don’t lose him.”
Easier counseled than accomplished.
Up ahead another counter…and a long line.
“You wait in the line,” Lief suggested, looking back over his shoulder, “and I’ll try to find someone to ask what we’re supposed to do.”
The young girl who’d approached me held out a book of stickers, with the intention, it seemed, to affix one in my passport.
Lief had the passports with him across the way, speaking with a guy at the counter.
While I hesitated, the Asian girl behind me spoke up.
“Si, aqui,” she said, “offering her passport to the other girl, who stuck in the sticker and then held out her hand for the US$5 dollar bill the Asian girl had ready.
Then the Asian girl took her bags and walked away, out of the line and off down the street.
“She’s asking for the passports,” I explained. “And she has these stickers. I’m not sure what it’s about…”
Lief held out our two passports to the girl, whose look of confusion grew as she flipped through the well-stamped pages.
She wasn’t finding whatever she was looking for.
“Somos residentes,” he explained.
“Ah,” she replied, returning our passports and turning her attention to the guy behind me with the mass of dreadlocks atop his head.
“What should we do?” I asked Lief.
Our new friend, our guide for the day, Jim, meantime, had walked around back and several blocks down the way to retrieve his car from where he’d parked it early Friday morning in anticipation of our evening crossing.
Jim returned. We continued to wait.
Finally, our turn at the counter.
What do we do for a living…how long will we be staying in Panama…what is our intended address…the usual questions. Then we were instructed to look into the tiny camera on the counter. Passports stamped, photos taken, we were waved through.
“Do we need to go in there now?” I asked, pointing to the room to the left with the table where travelers’ bags and suitcases were being opened and searched. Again, there were no signs or instructions, but I guessed that room was Aduana.
“No one has instructed us to go in there,” Lief replied, “so, no. We’re done. Let’s get out of here.”
Back out into the wave of humanity making its way from Costa Rica to Panama and vice versa, I did my best again to keep up with Jim as he led us to where he’d pulled his car around.
Bags in the back, inside the SUV, air conditioning on, we all heaved a sigh of relief.
“Why did we do this again?” Lief wondered aloud.
“Well, it seemed like it’d be quicker this way,” I offered. “Easier than driving back to the airport and waiting for the next flight.
“Plus, I wanted the experience of walking across a border. I’ve crossed lots of borders…but never before on foot.
“Now I’ve done it. We don’t need to do it again.”
“In fact, though,” Lief continued, “I wonder if all that was necessary. As far as I can tell, the border is completely open. There are no fences, no gates. I saw a few armed policemen, but they were hanging out, drinking coffee.
“It seems to me we could have gotten out of the taxi, retrieved the car, and driven on across to the Panama side of this mess…and nobody would have noticed or even minded…”