The white SUV with impenetrable, black windows screeches up in front of us for the second time in under three minutes. Our getaway car. The driver had instructed us to start walking south, down the cracked, sunbleached strip of pavement that leads toward Panama. He said he would slow down so we could jump in further along. But we can’t shake the guard who has been given the job of babysitting us; the two gringos camped out at the border.
Where the hell are we right now? I find myself asking. Border towns often make me feel like I’m lost for some reason. Especially ones in the middle of the jungle that you have to drive nearly two hours to get to. And even though this particular border is familiar, today it feels anything but. We’re only steps from Costa Rica, but that relaxed, ‘Pura Vida’ vibe seems to have been denied access into this country as well.
I wonder, glancing around, what it is they’re so adamantly protecting. It’s a far cry from being a tourist attraction; this town. Sixaola, is busy, hectic, but feels desolate and far removed at the same time. Single story shops line the two, solitary roads of the little village. Jammed into the 20 yards that make up the town, there is repeat after repeat of the same store, offering duty free items, cheap cologne and discounted electronics. A couple of tiny food stands serve up ‘gallo pinto’ in unsavoury conditions, while locals pedal cheap souvenirs from China, and women pace up and down the road with buckets filled with local specialties piled atop their heads. All without ever breaking a sweat, of course. I can’t say the same for us.
My friend and I have spent the better part of the afternoon doing nothing more than sweating profusely through our T-shirts, having no other choice but to bide our time. It’s become increasingly clear that all we can do is wait… and watch. We watch as hoards of taxi drivers converge at the end of the one-lane bridge that connects Costa Rica to Panama, battling each other to offer rides to the tourists as they enter the country. We watch as children walk up to those same tourists, begging for money. We watch as the stores close, and the taxis disperse and the sun sinks down behind the palm trees to the west. We wait and we watch, as this long afternoon stretches out in front of us into an even longer evening.
The border is closed now, and droves of Panamanians are cramming themselves into passenger vans like sardines, heading home for the night. One by one, all the people are disappearing. Except us.
Though movement is all around us, my friend and I are still stuck in the same spot we’ve been in for the past 2 hours, seated on some crumbling cement steps out front of the ‘supermercado.’ With so few options, we’ve resorted to drinking beer out of paper bags as we try, again, to concoct and follow through on some sort of plan.
From the corner of my eye, I can still see the driver of the white SUV waiting, waving his arms frantically from inside his vehicle. Suddenly he steps out, simultaneously letting out a typical Latin American whistle, while I try to inconspicuously act as if I don’t see him. The driver is trying to get my attention, but the guard who’s perched above us, watching, just beckoned my friend up to clarify his orders for the umpteenth time.
I turn my head back toward the driver, finally, and shake my head ‘no.’ I motion up the steps with my head, hoping he’ll get the hint. Give us a minute, buddy. Our fugitive is in talks with his captor up there, I plead silently, only half joking.
The driver doesn’t get the joke. Throwing his hands up in exasperation, he gets in his vehicle, and peels out. That was the third ride that has now abandoned us on these steps. So much for Plan A, B, and C. If there is a Plan D, I have no idea what it could possibly look like.
I wonder briefly how on earth we got to this point; scheming, forsaken, and in all honesty, a little bit drunk.
The day had started off normal enough. I met my friend, Bryton, at the bus station in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica around 2 in the afternoon, which would time our arrival at the border near the end of their office hours. Our thinking simply that at the end of a long shift, nobody was going to hassle us, because they’d just want to get home. As a tourist in Costa Rica, you’re (usually) given 90 days when you come into the country, and people that choose to live down here simply take off every three months to renew their tourist Visas. Bryton has been doing this successfully and with little struggle for the past five years. But over the last little while, instead of taking the time and energy to actually do a border run, people have been paying to get fake stamps put in their passports. Eventually the Panamanian government caught on and cracked down, hard. They sent in the higher ups to try to find the people who had fake stamps, as well as the people who were making them.
Cue Bryton and I, rocking up to the border ready to head to a little town called Changuinola, about 15 minutes beyond Sixaola, where you cross into Panama. The plan was to indulge in some brand name candy you can’t get in Costa Rica, and bask in the glory of a hotel room with air conditioning for a night. But the Panamanians had another plan.
Bryton and I each walk up to a different officer and hand over our paperwork. You can tell something is up right away by the way they’re flipping skeptically through Bryton’s passport. After five years of this exact trip, his passport is nearly full. I watch them scrutinize each stamp with an intensity that is making me uncomfortable.
“Come inside,” they tell Bryton after a couple of minutes, motioning to the little room where they send all bad travellers to be detained.
The woman holding my own passport looks at me with dead eyes, “Are you with him,” she asks.
“Like with him, with him. Well… no. I’m traveling with him?” I respond, but it comes out more like a question.
“But will you go into the country without him?”
“Oh, uh, I mean… Yes?” Another question.
“Okay,” she says, stamping my passport with a loud bang, which for some reason in this instance feels more like a jail sentence than a privilege. “Because he’s not getting in,” she adds, expressionless. “Welcome to Panama.”
“Thank you?” I say. Final question.
I spend the next half hour or so lurking around just out of eyesight of the border officials, while trying to get close enough to catch hints of their conversation. I can still see Bryton through the glass door that says ‘Panama Migracion’ on it, and I can also hear him telling them that his passport doesn’t have any fake stamps, and that he owns a business in Puerto Viejo and has been doing this trip legitimately for five years. But their responses in Spanish to everything he says don’t veer much from “we can’t let you in,” and “there’s nothing we can do.”
It’s already 5:30 p.m. by this point and the borders in in both countries close at 6:00. The Costa Rican office is located in a separate building and Bryton is doing everything he can to not get sent back in that direction. After a bit more back and forth they let Bryton out of the holding room. Rushing over to him I ask what the deal is.
“They aren’t going to let me in. They say one of my stamps in missing a signature and because of that it must be fake.”
The stamp they’re referring to was from over a year ago. Bryton has come in and out of the country multiple times since getting it, but that doesn’t seem to matter to these guys.
“It’s that magnificent moustache of yours, B. They think you’re taunting them, ” I laugh. Bryton has a large, somewhat ridiculous, Mexican mariachi moustache. He definitely stands out in a crowd, and maybe that’s exactly the reason they’re picking on him. Though we’re both keeping our sense of humour about things so far it seems like shit might be about to get real, because 3 armed border guards from the Costa Rica side are now marching up to us.
Luckily, they seem like they’re just there to have a chat. Everybody gets acquainted with the situation and we proceed through another lengthy discussion that gets us nowhere. In the end we’re told that Bryton needs to try to return to Costa Rica instead.
“It’s almost 6,” I lean in and whisper. “Keep them talking and then when the offices close they’ll have to make an exception and let you in.” He’s already thought of this, of course, and is all over it. We manage to jerk everybody around for another 15 minutes, and when we mention that the office is now closed and we can’t just go back to Costa Rica, the only response we get is a collective shrug.
Bryton asks them in Spanish multiple times what the solution is here. And as the Panamanian officials retreat to their office and renege on their ability to make eye contact with us, the guards begin walking us up to the bridge that leads back to Costa Rica. When we get there, they motion at a rickety, rusted-out bench on the side of the road and let us know that it might be a good spot to set up camp for the night. Or, perhaps we could pull up a nice piece of pavement and join the ranks of the street dogs running rampant and peeing on everything in Sixaloa.
Again, thanks guys.
“Okay, listen, I need to go get something to eat and a beer,” Bryton says. It takes a bit of time but we finally convince them to let us walk to the market that’s about 100 meters down the road and in plain sight of where they stand. We grab a couple 6 packs and take a stoop right across the street from the market, brown baggin’ it while we figure out what we’re going to do.
“I’m not staying in this shithole overnight,” Bryton says matter of factly. So that leaves us with one option really; sneak this moustachio’d man into Panama.
Bryton happens to know a few people who work at the border, and with the help of one of his acquaintances, we manage to find a slightly crooked driver who is willing to hide Bryton in the trunk of his car for the short 15 minute drive to Changuinola. For a fee, of course. The only real danger Bryton’s facing is the roadblock that’s set up 24 hours a day just outside the border. They often stop tourist vehicles to check that everyone has their paperwork in order. So basically, they’re looking for Brytons. And these guys are serious. They aren’t just border patrol, but people with the power to actually take you to prison if they find out you’re in their country illegally. That’s why getting a ride with a local and his family (who probably won’t get stopped) and stowing Bryton away in the trunk is looking like our best option. But it seems our crooked cabbie’s wife wasn’t having it, because although we wait for him for about 45 minutes, the guy, and his perfect front of a family, never show up.
And neither does the second guy we find to do the job. Which brings us, finally, to the white SUV. Our savior, that actually showed up twice he was so dedicated to the cause. But alas, now he is also long gone, along with the rest of ‘em.
Bryton walks back down the steps from what feels like his 27th rendezvous with the guard, and takes a seat beside me. I hand him his beer.
“Dammit, that was our guy,” Bryton says, taking a sip. He’s referring to the driver of the SUV.
“What did the guard say this time,” I ask?
“He just keeps saying ‘Seguro. You stay here.’ Like I don’t already know that’s what he wants me to do. Fuck that. We’re getting to Changuinola.”
“Well, either way, whether we sleep sitting up, back-to-back in this here shithole, or we smuggle you into Panama, this is all going to be really funny in like a week. Actually it’s kinda funny right now.”
“Yeah, and we’ll have one hell of a story to tell. Besides, if you don’t get yourself in these situations that create good stories when you’re young, you’ll just end up being a really boring old man someday.”
By now it’s nearly 8:00 p.m. and our options as far as hitching illegal rides are getting pretty sparse.
“I think we’re going to have to ghost out of here,” Bryton says, meaning we need to disappear into the night somehow. “But if I do get arrested at any point, just pretend like you don’t know me.”
“Really?” I say, considering my options. But since I actually do have my stamps I know I’ll be fine either way. I’m just along for the ride at this point, so instead I respond with a “Nah, fuck it. I’ll go to jail with ya!” I figure somebody needs to stay in the country with him and figure out where to direct the bail money.
“You’re a good friend,” he says, laughing.
Now the way that the border is set up in Sixaola is with an embankment with a little pathway running through the middle, separating the two roads below. Presumably so the border guards can patrol around and look authoritative and important. The guard that had been watching us was standing right at the top of the steps on the embankment, arms crossed, face frowning, authority figure – level: expert. But something sparkly must have sent him wandering back toward Costa Rica, because when I casually glance back over my shoulder I can’t see him anymore.
“Can you go check if he’s still up there,” Bryton asks.
I stroll up the stairs, stretching out my getaway sticks in preparation, and peek down the dirt path.
The guard is nowhere in sight.
“He’s not up here,” I yell-whisper back down to Bryton.
“Let’s make our move,” he says, standing up.
“Go, go, go!”
And that’s when shit really starts to get weird.
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