I write from a small internet café in a large cosmopolitan city called Panama. I don’t have my backpack. It’s in a parking lot somewhere. It’s 8 o’clock at night. I’m going to write fast because unfortunately the damn place is going close but I want to get everything down to share.
The day I left San Jose behind was a sad day. I had spent so much time with someone after having not having spent time with any one person for longer than a week in the past few months. Toinon became a good friend. She even flashed me. We´re close.
Gerardo, Denise´s chauffer, dropped me off on a highway heading out of the city to the west. Denise and her husband, also a Gerardo, had convinced me to head to the coast as my route out of the country. So the destination was a pair of towns, one called Quepos and one called Manuel Antonio, the entrance to a national park.
The hitching seemed to start well, as I got picked up by a dump truck without waiting too long. However the news was sour: my road had been washed out. Damn it. Well, I guess it was my fault to want to come travel here during the wettest month of the year. Another dump truck took me to a town called Atenas, where a large detour would take me around the damage and eventually to the coast.
Jose picked me up after a short wait in this palm-crazy town. Jose digs holes. I mean, he digs holes for wells and for support pylons. I remind him of his kids. That is actually a relief because most of the time I seem to remind people of a dirty 30 year old wanderer. Jose took me to the cost. But before we were to part he brought me to a rich beachside community where a guard put a flashy red bracelet on my arm and where Jose showed me a multi-million dollar Malibu home. They had hired him to dig some holes there. A service personnel building was going to collapse onto the million-dollar home. Well. OK then.
The drive into that place was pleasant enough. I didn’t see any monkeys, unfortunately, but the scene was set: observation towers built around large trees, ropes traversing the road overhead for the creatures to pass safely, leafs from Jurassic Park (that’s normal because the film was made in this country). At that million dollar home the view across the bay to Puntarenas was spectacular.
Back at the highway after finding it via a long dirt road, I waited without so much luck. I will probably repeat the fact that with higher GDP and a no-back-of-pick-up-truck law, the hitching gets worse. Finally I got a short ride to Jaco with a waiter. He veered into the city and I said I’d stay at the highway, but he insisted the other way was better. Wrong. I spent an hour walking back to the highway. I was so pissed, that I fed myself bread and cucumber for the rest of the day. (Nihilism).
I got flicked off. Then I got a ride with two guys who asked me if I knew couchsurfing. “Sure do.” They were nice, and dropped me off an hour and a half later at the entrance to Quepos.
I walked 4 kilometers to the town, and sat along the seaside eating some bananas, which are still cheap, no matter where you go in Central America. I watched an enormous colony of ants marching around their base in little highways of flittering leaf bits. Then I walked for what seemed like days, up, up up into the rainforest hills. I was determined to sleep in the rainforest near the Manuel Antonio national park entrance. I also wanted to see monkeys.
I got barked at, beeped at, and then, after walking 10 kilometers passed hotel and restaurant after hotel and restaurant, I jumped down 5 feet over a small creek onto some mud, and trudged across. I hacked through some big leaves and walked up through a forest with a canopy as tall as the apartment from Friends (yes, I used that example). I was in my rainforest. The African Palms reached out their hairy arms and appeared to gather the other trees to its bosom. The ground was wet and mushy, but as I went up the crest of a hill where it was a little less populated with trees, the ground hardened. Here, I pitched tent, ate a cucumber with some stale bread, and lay down to sleep. It was 6:30 pm.
During the night I woke with a start and started yelling at whatever animal had been yanking forcefully at my tent stakes or cords or I don’t know what! I wanted to see a monkey but I couldn’t find one. Oh well.
In the morning I washed my shirt in a small stream. I admired the canopy once more, and it reminded me of the ‘bamboo tunnel’ that I passed through at the rich community I visited with Jose. I hear monkeys. I don’t see monkeys. Damn it.
I got the finger again. These assholes need to get out of their cars and confront me with their concerns. I’d bash ‘em in the face with my umbrella. I’m sure the park is lovely but I didn’t want to go the rest of the way. It’s so touristy it hurts… what a shame what we must do to preserve nature.
I return to Quepos with a taxi who decided to give me a free ride. Then I walked out of town for a spell, throwing out my thumb to no avail, it being a curvy road with no shoulder. Every car is a taxi and they seem upset that I have thumbs. So I was surprised when another taxi stopped and gave me a free ride all the way to several towns down the highway, to a place called Dominical. Lovely beach, strange how the palms grow on the beach like precise corn plants. It ain’t natural, I’m sure.
I bought more bananas at a stand back at the highway and when I turned around there was a strange marsupial with a snout staring at me from a few feet away. It looked like a deformed raccoon. He came up to me. He came up to my feet. Then he sat up, and then stood up and pulled at my pants’ pockets. I gave him a banana to leave me alone. Cute thing.
Later, Jenny picked me up. Jenny is a conservationist lawyer from Louisiana and she seemed so distracted. Usually people who don’t leave room for response or for empty space when they talk are, well, distracted.
I was getting tired of hitching in Costa Rica. I was waiting way longer, and I just felt like leaving. However, a little excitement was put into me when Jeff, the house-builder from Columbus, picked me up. He told me he used to build malls in the states. He used to travel the world too, and climb the tallest mountains. He was a carpenter in the Australian desert, and he hitched Asia. He left me on the side of the road dreaming of unfamiliar places. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been to any of the places I’ve been arriving, but they are indeed familiar).
I pooped in the forest, then used my umbrella to lower myself to a stream to wash my hands. That’s one more important use for an umbrella, folks. Back at the road, I sit in the sun. “I wonder if anyone has ever argued with others in the car about picking me up.”
I got a ride in a flatbed truck an hour later. One guy had shifty eyes and the other had a swastika on his palm. They gave me five bucks 30 minutes on.
Alors la, so here, I was in a place called Palmar Norte, where the Pan American slams into my little highway in the form of a big bridge. I swear this was the setting in Jurassic Park for the helicopter landing pad. I waited 4 hours for a ride. I’ll skip the gory details, but I was basically sweating of boredom. I lost some energy when, trying to hitch a cop car, they glared and showed me a cuffing gesture. Lame.
I walked by what sounded like a mini Star Wars battle in the forest. I heard R2D2 and ti-fighters in there! I miss Toinon. I forgot how lonely it can be hitching where the hitching sucks. I also miss Toinon.
I decided to use some of the money the two guys gave me after the 4th hour slugged by. I spent 400 colons for a 600 colon ride to a town, really, actually, not far. Ciudad Neily. Here, I will share a secret I’ve been keeping. If you read the past posts, you might remember a certain Costa Rican trucker named Ricardo who picked me up at the Salvadoran and Honduran border, you know, the ‘6 children to 6 woman’ guy… Well he gave me his number and said if ever I found myself in Paso Canoas that I could stay with him and his family.
It was night time now, and raining hard. I was in Neily, 20 kilometers from Paso Canoas. Well, it was worth a shot, so I picked up a public phone and dialed the operator like Ricardo had instructed me. I said my name into the phone, waited, and then,
“Hey Chael! How’s it going?!”
“Hey Ricardo, I’m calling! What’s up? Can I crash your pad?”
“Sure thing, take a taxi to the Comandos neighborhood, it should cost a buck fifty.”
I jumped on a bus for 20 cents instead, and soon I was left off in that neighborhood. I walked down the highway a bit until I saw a house next to a tall roof sheltering a semi truck. Ricardo yelled out to me, and I saw him and his wife waiting on the side of the road. Sweet. Ricardo rocks. His wife is cool too, and his son is fun to hang out with. The house was pink and the dog outside vicious (until I wooed her with love). I shared my history since last I’d seen Ricardo, about a month and a half ago. They gave me raspberry fresco and we ate a delicious meal of chicken, beef, and rice.
I pushed the Great Dane puppy across the slippery floor, admired the stick figure drawings of his son, and winked at his wife. They had two parrots as well, and one of them defended me against the other as they clung to my arm.
Ricardo and I shot the shit under his hanger, talking about trucking. I shared my thought that perhaps I would play trucker for a spell when I went home. He showed me all the things he has to repair his 1988 semi. He also shared the fact that he was thrown in jail for a year for trafficking narcotics money in one of the flatbeds. Good thing he didn’t pick me up then, huh?
We sat on the couch back inside, watching the television. The news was on. “The 6.0 magnitude earthquake effected most of the central western coast, and was felt as far away as Limon.” I looked at the circles that were drawn on a map of Costa Rica. The epicenter was right next to Quepos. That was last night.
“Did you know that you were in an earthquake?” Ricardo asked.
“No, no idea! Wait a minute, now I remember. I thought it was monkeys pulling at my tent straps. Go figure, that was my first earthquake.”
And so it was. I knew there had been something fishy about invisible monkeys.
I went to sleep on a comfy mattress, with a fan, thank god. The hours rolled by as I snoozed (I dreamt too! A good sign that I got a healthy sleep in). In the morning Jasmine, Ricardo’s wife, cooked up a delicious meal of rice and beans with strange-looking meat patties and fried bananas.
I came out of the bathroom after 10 minutes with a big smile, shaking the little box of matches that I’d found on top of the toilet. Everyone laughed. I sat at the table and Ricardo looked at me seriously. Then he took my hand and put 10,000 colons in it, or roughly 20 dollars. “No, I won’t accept this, thank you Ricardo you guys have done enough.”
“Nonsense, take it.”
I usually accept money that people give me after they insist, but I never knew why. I always felt bad after taking money offered to me. I sat there and I thought. Then a story Toinon had told me came to mind. She’d recounted:
“I was in Tele, Honduras, hanging out with some crab fishermen for the day. I was staying at a hotel but on a walk I’d seen them and so just decided to help and hang for a while. Around one in the afternoon one of the men say he wanted to buy me lunch. I insisted that no, I couldn’t accept. He replied ‘what? Is it because I’m poor that you won’t accept it? Don’t you realize that not accepting is more insulting in more ways than one than if you were to accept and let me buy you lunch?’ I realized that the very fact that I was not going to accept his invitation was wrong. So, I generally still try to persuade others not to give me handouts, but if they insist, I take them. People just want to help you. Why not let them?”
After a moment of reflection, I took the 10,000 colons. Jasmine gave me a can of aerosol OFF repellent, “we don’t use it.” We walked outside where I was going to hop on a bus to use some of the coins I still had and wouldn’t be able to change over to dollars at the border. We hugged goodbye and Ricardo said with a strange resolve: “this house is your house. You are welcome always.” I left as though I’d stayed a month.
10 minutes later I was at the border. I stamped out of Costa Rica without a problem, and skipped on over to the Panamanian side to stamp in. I also changed my 10,000 colons for $18.50.
When I got to the front of the line after a half hour wait the man looked at me as he glanced over my passport. I lay my hands next to the opening in the glass to profit from the cool conditioned air that all immigration offices seem to have.
“Return ticket?” He didn’t look up.
“Huh?.” I said. I knew that every once in a while officials actually do ask for a return ticket. Costa Rica, we entered without a problem, but now I was behind asked for a ticket I didn’t and wouldn’t have.
“You need a return ticket to San Jose. There’s a bus company over there, go buy one, it costs $15.”
“Um, well, see, I’m hitchhiking to Colombia, so I won’t be going back to Costa Rica.”
“Get a flight to Colombia then, there’s an internet café over there.”
“You need to show me proof that you’re leaving the country.”
“I’m hitchhiking, I won’t be in Panama longer than a week!”
“Go buy a bus ticket and you can get in the country.”
“I’m not going to buy a bus ticket that I’m not going to use. I travel with very little money. Please. Please make an exception, I know that you don’t always ask for the return ticket.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job. You show me a return ticket or you will not enter Panama.”
Fuck. Fuck that. Fucking asshole. He had no emotion whatsoever. Like so many cops he was someone filled with authority and indignant about it. Abusive, inhuman. I know that they don’t ask everyone that, it was just my unlucky day. I thought about my options.
Just walk into the country and deal with it, because there were no guards
Wait for a new immigration officer
Go convince the bus company to print me a ticket
Buy a ticket
5 minutes trying to convince the Costa Rican bus company to give me a ticket didn’t fly. I looked across the border. I could just… walk. I could just walk in. But if it was like any other country, there’d be a control a little further on. Also, if I wanted to leave the country by boat it could prove fatal to not get a stamp. I didn’t want to get stumped so far in to the voyage.
I was fuming, standing there waiting for options. I wanted to steal the stamp. Damn it. I walked into the internet café and sat down at a computer. I must have sat staring for 10 minutes. Browsing around… wait. Wait wait wait. I know. I’ll just make a goddamn ticket.
The man wore his ego on his sleeve, and held himself in too high a regard. I needed to find an authority he’d succumb to. Something powerful. Something like American Airlines. I wasn’t prepared to spend 15 dollars on a bus ticket. Instead, I would ‘spend’ 452.60 on a flight from Panama to Miami to Chicago. 2 hours later I emerged from the internet shop with a piece of paper. On the paper was an online confirmation from American Airlines.com complete with name, reference number, passport number, and flight information. I even got carried away and put a bunch of little advertisements and warnings on it. It looked more than real. The flight itself was real, I looked it up. I was going to fly on Halloween on a 737, meal included.
If anyone tries to put down the Microsoft program that comes with all Windows systems called Paint, at least it can get me across international borders. This could be the start of something good.
I walked back to the immigration line, waited 30 minutes more, and then put my passport and piece of paper through the hole to my stolid mister tight pants. “Ya?” “Ya.” He had a look of triumph, and I simply feigned a look of conceit as he handed me my passport back. “Welcome to Panama.”
By the time I crossed the bridge, it was already 3 pm. I eventually got a ride with a man who I asked at a gas station. He had a flat brimmed hat, something typical of Panama. He took me to a town called La Conception, after stopping and showing my passport at the checkpoint I’d predicted. From there, after a short dollar meal that I had to negotiate for, I got a ride with a machiner and his wife to David.
They dropped me off right in front of the fire station. What luck! The fire trucks gleamed orange and the place was nicely kempt, shining. I walked in and introduced myself to the chief, Franklin. I asked for a place to crash for the night and he gladly agreed.
I walked around town for a while as it was still light out. The bubbly neon signs seem to suggest that the city is trapped in the eighties. I sat in the central park to draw, admiring the strange fountain. It was a giant black diamond obelisk. There were streams of water being shot at it from all sides by Star Wars-esque double turrets (I like using Star Wars analogies).Their firepower seemed useless; the Death Diamond was not to be destroyed.
Panama is interesting, albeit hard to hitch. It’s the second ‘richest’ country after Costa Rica. You can see it in the buildings, in the way the women are comfortable dressing. You can hear it. Also, here they say ‘lif’ to mean hitch, and it’s just, as it comes from ‘lift,’ if you weren’t able to catch that already.
Back at the fire station I was escorted to the back, where there was a table and a stretcher. I crashed out on the stretcher for the night after eating a meal of crackers and tuna that Ricardo had given me. The day was a success, and I slept well.
Most Central American countries have license plates that show the outline of their countries. Costa Rica is different; the plates just say ‘Costa Rica’. Panama is bizarre. Here, the plates show a horizontally-positioned azul oval with choppy white lines outlining block people and buildings.
Back on the highway, it took me 4 hours to get out of David. No one was stopping. I tried several different spots but my luck was cashed out after the previous day’s success stories. I even became frustrated when I tried to get some cops at a checkpoint to help out. I shared my story and they began tutoring me. “Why are you doing this? Why not stay in your country and dedicate yourself to something instead of just wandering around aimlessly? Do something, make something of yourself.” I showed them my drawings. Then they got excited and were telling me they’d help if only I would draw an ugly check post. I walked away without saying a thing.
Finally a ride took me a short distance outside the city. No talking. Hmm. Now I was in the middle of nowhere, so I just started walking. After a half hour I started to do the “I’m thirsty” gesture, and the second car to pass stopped and took me to the next town. There, I walked out again after washing my shirt in a Shell gas station bathroom. The sun was high and it was extremely hot. Panama feels hotter than most of the other countries. It’s a drier heat but it is unrelenting when the breeze is dead.
I walked for another hour and a half with my outstretched thumb bringing me no luck. Finally at a gas station I asked the first car to pull in and he gave me a ride down the road. Panamanians are great if you can get them while they’re not moving.
A few rides later, and a poop in a gulley with some bats that spooked me from the tunnel, and I was in a car with Eric. Eric was an interesting character. He is a minister, and has a little puppy in a box. I played with that puppy for a long while. Eric shared his opinions on the United States (not a fan) and on gays (not a fan). Later in the ride he bought me a strange soda made from barley, which he was very enthusiastic about sharing. Overall he was a good guy, even though he was a little pushy with his opinions (a sign that I read and then decided not to disagree with anything he said).
It was 4 when we arrived to Santiago, a big city by any standards, but still quaint enough be confused with a ‘pueblo’. I decided to take Eric up on his offer of a place to stay, up in the hills in a town called San Francisco.
We drove for half an hour through rolling hills that appear to mimic the hills of South Dakota, but with soft ground that would take your whole foot in if you step on it. San Francisco was pretty, and had an old mission church built by the natives 400 years before. His house was quiet, but an entire wall was missing, instead it was a grate opened to the outside.
We went and visited a water fall and then ran to the car as a downpour began. It rained for the next hour, and back at the house the sound was like a TV turned on to static at maximum volume. He cooked us up a meal with some stuff we’d bought at the local market (Chinese owned, as apparently all the markets are in Panama). Chicken, salad, and bananas smashed by stone that taste like fries. Later he set up a projector and we watched There Will Be Blood.
In the morning we drove through Santiago briefly, but I didn’t feel like staying. I wanted to arrive to Panama. I won’t go into the details, but I waited once again for 3 hours after saying goodbye to Eric on the outskirts of town. I amused myself thinking of some of the things he’d said during dinner; “it was Adam and Eve, no Adam and Evan.” “Hahahahahaha, he shot the guy in the ear.”
Finally a truck took me several kilometers down the road when I’d flailed my arms around, frustrated. Then I waited for another hour. I miss pick up truck rides, man.
When no rides were coming, I decided to make a sign that read “20 kilometers.” The first car that stopped took me 2 hours further down the road, but he had thought I only wanted to go 20, that’s why he stopped. Lovely.
From Ponenome, another big town, I walked for a spell, and then hitched down a semi, to my great relief. I climbed into the cab to a smile and a welcome. He was going to Panama City. Awesome. The semi was loaded down with Atlas beer, the national beer. We drove for 4 hours and arrived at a towering bridge that scaled the Panama Canal. I saw the locks from above and admired the long line of freighters of all colors.
After an hour of traffic I was standing in from of the National Brewery. I walked to the city center, using my map from the Lonely Planet I’d snagged way back when. I walked for what seemed like ages, but finally arrived to what appeared to be a center. I ate a meal at a restaurant with some of the money Ricardo had given me. I asked the woman if I could work the rest of the night in exchange for a place to crash. “No.”
Plan B was the fire station, and the fire station, as always, came through. I was actually considering that for a moment. Police are far less helpful than firemen. But then, doesn’t that make sense in some obscure way? These men choose to be firemen or to be policemen. Policemen have authority, firemen only are there to help. It’s a psychological fact that those who choose to be firemen are for the most part more open to helping people. Lovely.
This time I have a couch, a bathroom to myself, and, best of all, a DRINKING FOUNTAIN. You know, the ones that have freezing cold water. I was reminded of times when I used to play hockey. Sembrano was the slow old man looking after the truck yard when the couch was. He let me stash my stuff and I walked to the waterfront. What a pretty sight to my eyes! Sometimes I get sick of cities, but sometimes I get sick of loneliness in the wild. So I’m not a city man, but nor am I a nature man. I guess I’m just both. Sitting on the waterfront was a relief, and I sighed gratefully. Seeing a tall city on the water took me home. I miss home.
The buildings are massive. The city is cosmopolitan and sprawling. There is everything that is American and more. The large ships wait in a long line out in the water, their lights convincing you that you’re staring at islands. I sat at a long path where runners and walkers roamed. It’s so much like home. But there’s no place like home.