Escape From Panama

It is hard to believe I’ve been in Costa Rica for three months already! The days just melt away. I start each day with a swim in the cove, followed by a shower to rinse off the salt and a breakfast of fruit and coffee, then I sit down to write before it simply gets too hot for me to think. We are deep into the dry season, and even the locals are dripping sweat from the points of their chins by mid-afternoon.

I don’t wear a watch and rarely bother with days of the week. Man-made time seems an anomaly here. I wake up in the morning to the pre-dawn monkey-alarm. It’s nice of them, really. It means that I am just awake enough to lie in bed and listen as each bird adds its voice to the choir. I love the mornings when I hear the very first note of the very earliest bird. The days end early too. The nights, void of man-made sounds and any electric lights other than my own, wrap their arms around my shoulders and guide me unprotestingly to bed. I find myself asleep at an hour I haven’t experienced since I wore pajamas with feet in them.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, however, the howler monkeys were replaced by the alarm of civilization ringing in my ears – I had remembered that my visa was going to expire March 1. There are still conservationists I want to meet about protecting the Osa, so I needed to get my visa extended. It is not hard – all you have to do is leave the country for 72 hours, and on your way back in to Costa Rica, they give you another 90 days.

We are pretty far south, so most visitors take the bus to Panama and hang out in a dreary and drunken border town for 3 days, but I had an incredible piece of luck. A wonderful Swiss-German couple who had been staying at Las Caletas Lodge were heading to an island in the archipelago off of the east coast of Panama, and they invited me to join them. I jumped at the chance to spend a few days with my new friends swimming in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

I quickly made my flight reservations and packed a bag. I am not the savviest of travelers, however – the term “Greenhorn” applies to my travel skills as well as everything else – and I had forgotten a little, tiny, insignificant detail: my passport is going to expire the middle of April. Countries don’t like to let you in unless you’ve got at least six months remaining. I had six weeks. But I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a try. The way I figured it, the worst that could happen was that they wouldn’t let me in. Then I could hop a plane back to the States. At least I’d have given it a shot, right? Well, I’d forgotten one other itsy-bitsy detail: I was trying this maneuver with Panama, the international standard for corruption.

My friends and I boarded a 12 passenger plane and after a bumpy ride east across the mountain spine of Central America landed at “Bocas del Toro International Airport,” which is a cinderblock building just big enough to accommodate the thirty or so tourists who arrive and depart daily.

After escorting us to the arrivals room, the pilot told us to wait for our luggage to be screened and our passports to be stamped. We stood a few minutes staring at the posters informing us that money laundering and double-bottomed suitcases are illegal in Panama, when out from behind a scarred wooden door marked Immigration Office stepped The Most Interesting Border Guard in the World. He stood 5’ 2” tall, with thinning black hair thick with coconut oil, a pencil mustache and sliding eyes. His barrel chest and robust waist perched atop short, sturdy legs. The entire package was wrapped in a tight, light blue uniform adorned with a sparkling gold-tone badge of authority.

He walked directly into the middle of the passengers, put out his hand and waited until each of us had offered up our passports. He then left the room entirely, explaining that he had to make copies. He returned 15 minutes later, stack of passports in hand, walked silently through the room, into his office, sat down behind a WWII-era metal desk facing the open door, waited a dramatic moment, then picked up the top passport and shouted the first name.

Over the next hour, he called each of us in one by one for a series of seemingly random and irrelevant questions. As the time passed and the number of waiting passengers dwindled – my friends were some of the first to be called – I became convinced that this was all a show, his way of making sure his victim was alone at the end.

Finally, he called my name.

As I walked into his office, he scolded “Sally. Sally,” and pointed at my passport.

I stepped further into the room, closer to him, so I could see the expiration date he was pointing at.

“I know. I’m not a very smart traveler,” I responded with an embarrassed smile.

His eyes slid up to mine.

“I should put you on the next plane back to Costa Rica.”


“But I know you want to come to Panama. You have heard Panama is a very beautiful place. You want to come to Panama?”


“You be nice to me. I will be nice to you.”

I have to be honest here. I wasn’t sure what type of “nice” he was referring to.

At my hesitation, he repeated, “You be nice to me. I will be nice to you.”

Just like I did it all the time, I reached down into my backpack, which I had placed accidentally but conveniently on the floor at the back corner of his desk, got a twenty dollar bill out of my wallet, and passed it to his waiting hand.

“Yes. You are nice to me. I am nice to you,” he said as he stamped my passport.

“You are so lucky that I am working. The other guard would not do this for you.”

What else was I supposed to say? “Thank you.”

Then a surprise: “When do you return?”


“Good. I am working Monday.”

I had no idea what that meant, but at that moment, I didn’t much care. All I knew was that I had my stamped passport in my hand and an open door to walk through.

The story provided a lot of laughter for my friends and me over the weekend, but on Monday on my way out of the country, the adventure continued. My friends were staying in Panama, so I was on my own this time.

After checking in with Nature Air, I again had to have my passport stamped.

By the time The Most Interesting Border Guard in the World arrived, an hour late, the lounge was full of people. He entered the room like a rock star, took a long look around the waiting passengers, pointed at me, and said with his sleazy smile: “Venga.”

I walked into his office.

“So. You enjoyed Panama?”


“You want to return to Panama?”


“You return, I will take you for a trip into the mangroves.”


“Such trips require beer…” and he put out his hand below the desk.

This time I had a twenty in the back pocket of my skirt. I passed it to him. He stamped my passport.

Then he said: “I give you my phone number. You call me when you return to Panama. We will have a very good time.”

I’ll be damned if he didn’t pull out a piece of paper and write down his name and phone number.

I took it, trying not to laugh, and went back into the main hallway.

I was talking to the Nature Air clerk when Tino, did I mention the Border Guard’s name was Tino?, appeared behind me and said to the clerk, “Ella es mi novia” and put his arm around my waist. Looking up into my eyes from below my shoulder, he said, “You must return to my office.”

I followed him back into the arrival lounge and into his office, then he reached around me and closed the door.

“May I kiss you?”


“May I hug you?”

I tried a “friendly” hug. When it stopped being friendly, I stepped away.

“The moment I saw you I knew.”

I’m not sure what he thought he knew, exactly.

“When will you return to Panama?”

“I don’t know.”

“This year?”


“You will call me,” he said, as if the hypnotic power of his sexual charisma had robbed me of every modicum of good sense. Then he opened the door.

I stepped out into the scrum of the waiting passengers and was standing there shaking my head when the Nature Air clerk, who I’m sure had seen this happen a million times, came up, put a hand on my arm and ushered me personally through the rest of security and directly onto the plane, just to make sure I was out of reach.

Best forty bucks I have ever spent. And one mangrove tour I will never take. I might frame the paper with The Most Interesting Border Guard in the World’s name and phone number, however. I’m sure it has a greasy finger print on it from his hair oil.

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