Thursday morning, I was feeling somewhat stressed; I needed to find a refrigerator, set it up for delivery, go to the border, get several stamps and approvals, cross into Panama, return quickly (I prayed), and then drive five hours home. Yikes!
The shopping itself was easy; I bought at the first store I found. Then came the hard part; here is what happened (bulleted for your convenience):
- I paid for the item and was given a receipt. The cashier entered the information on my duty-free roster.
- I was told to get this paper stamped by “the man by the gate.” There were, of course, several.
- After many attempts, I found a fellow sitting at a picnic table. He took my papers and gave me another. When I asked if I could have the receipt and the roster back, he said no. He told me to walk past him to the gate and then turn around and come back in.
- I reentered and went back to the store, where a burly fellow was packing my refrigerator in plastic. He asked me to sign a paper saying that it was in good condition, even though there was no way for me to determine that. I signed.
- Next, a young man with a cart came over, loaded my refrigerator and told me that we needed to go through the same gate, only together this time.
- At the gate, a new guy would not let us through because we were missing something. After much whistling and yelling from my companion, the burly guy who had packed my item came over with a magic marker and wrote something on the side of the refrigerator. Satisfied, the gate guy wrote something down and said we could pass.
- Now that we were out of the duty-free, we needed to go to the shipping company office. The fellow who had been rolling my cart stopped suddenly and asked to be paid 1000 colones (two dollars). He then left me and the refrigerator and walked away. Then another guy with a cart appeared and loaded my refrigerator.
- We walked and wheeled over some very rough terrain until we reached an office. Here we found a woman at a desk who asked for directions to my house. After a lengthy discussion, including what to enter in WAZE, she stamped my delivery paper and said I was done.
On to Panama.
I entered Paso Canoas into WAZE and it took an hour drive to the border. Previously, while online, I saw pictures of the locations I would need and printed them out. Photos in hand, I parked the car and then went in search of
- the 24-hour parking lot,
- the $8-Tax-to-Leave-Costa-Rica Office (my name for it),
- the Passport-Exit-Stamp-from-Costa-Rica Office (again, mine),
- the Pay-a-Lady-a-Dollar-for-Another-Stamp Office,
- and the Panama Entry Office.
As it was midweek, there were no lines of more than three people. Now, keep in mind that one is not supposed to leave and return the same day. However, when the guy at the ticket window for parking lot asked me how long I planned to leave the car, he saw my hesitation and told me not to worry. His exact words, translated, were “Just relax for two hours and come back. No problem.” This was another unnecessary reminder that I have Gringo written all over me.
Each step went according to plan. I had read that Panama Customs wanted evidence of my leaving before my 90 days were up. (Costa Rica has this as well). I discovered online a difference of opinion as to whether it could be a bus or plane ticket. So, on Tuesday, I bought a really cheap airline ticket online from Panama City to San Jose, CR; and it was good that I did. The woman on the Panama side did indeed ask for evidence of my return flight to Costa Rica. (She actually asked for my “flying paper,” which confused me, but only briefly.)
With my luggage from the night before, I rolled across the border to Panama. At least a dozen guys asked me if I wanted a taxi; it got so annoying that I said I was waiting for a friend (I know, not original, but I was stressed). I mention the luggage because 1) I didn’t want to leave it in the parked rental car, and 2) I feared that trying to enter with just my wallet might give away my true intentions. Some of my more brazen countrymen, however, apparently didn’t care and crossed empty-handed. What ever happened to cultural sensitivity?
There were large duty-free stores here, as well, but with less well-known brands. However, anything I bought here would have been taxable upon returning to Costa Rica. So I wandered around in the poorly air-conditioned stores and finally saw, in the middle of the Jerusalem Mall(?), a Subway with tables and chairs. I ordered a sandwich and sat and read my book. I lost track of time because I had forgotten that Panama was an hour ahead; no doubt a legacy of US influence when we norteamericanos owned the canal. Then, after an indeterminate amount of time, I bravely walked back to see if Panama Customs would let me leave. The fellow at the window studied and frowned at my passport; he could see my entry stamp from the same day. This was probably just a little game he played to make people sweat, but, before I could lose my cool and starting crying and begging, he stamped my passport and let me through.
Unsure if I was yet on Costa Rican soil, I came upon a male version of the Pay-a-Lady-a-Dollar-for-Another-Stamp Office, who stopped me and said I needed to give him a dollar. I saw that he had a book of stamps, so. even thought I’d read that there was nothing to pay from Panama to CR, I paid him. I didn’t have any more singles (I had brought dollars and colones); so I gave him what I thought was 1000 colones (between one and two dollars). He looked at it and said it was mucho (too much), and I just told him to keep it. After he proceeded to give me a personal escort back into Costa Rica, I suddenly had a sinking feeling that I’d given him a different bill than intended. I thought about asking what I had given him, but I realized that, other than wrestling him to the ground until he told me the truth, there was nothing I could do about it.
Costa Rican Customs was a snap, and, after buying a couple of bottles of water and paying for parking, I was on my way home. The trip was hard; because my shopping excursion took much longer than I had planned, I ended up driving those winding roads in total darkness. Oh, and it started pouring rain; in fact, there appeared to be a direct correlation between the degree of darkness and the amount of rain. Finally, an hour out of Escazu, just for good measure, WAZE stopped working and I had to drive blind, with no idea of where I was or how to get home. I pulled over, restarted the phone, and eventually got Internet.
As many of you know, there is nothing better than coming home to a dog who is so excited to see you that he jumps up and down. After that trip, when I walked in, I think I jumped higher than he did.