The Drive to the Panama Border: Do you have a special kind of visa?

Special Kinds of Visas.

The shuttle picked up my wife, Erika, and I in Puerta Viejo, a small coastal town with a laid back vibe. We were setting off to the Bocas Del Toro island in Panama. Our guides across the border were an unnamed driver in a thin Nike rain coat and a Californian named John. John said he came to Costa Rica to raft the Río Pacuare and stayed for nine years.

“How do you stay that long, do you have a special kind of visa?” He didn’t answer. He was trying to sell his travel business. He sipped coffee from a thin jar.

A couple from Chicago joined us and a girl from Mexico who knew John and who sold her handmade jewelry in the tourist spots across Central America. She pulled out her board hung with earrings and necklaces to show the Chicago couple and they said they already bought all the jewelry they needed but it was all so beautiful. The girl said everything was ten dollars each. It was a good deal. Then she put away her jewelry and John walked us through the procedure once we got to the border.

We first check in at the Costa Rican immigration booth. They give us a stamp. Then we go across the river to the Panama booth and they give us a stamp. Then we get into a different shuttle van and drive to Chiriqui Grande, where we board a water taxi that takes us to the island. The same will happen on our return trip.


The Drive to the Panama Border.

When the Sixaola River flooded in November 2008, it wiped out much of the roads the government had paved. Afterwards, the people built their houses and grocery stores and bars on stilts with ramps and terraces.

(It’s quite possible they’ve always built their houses on stilts)

Deep trenches stretched in straight lines between the miles upon miles of banana trees. The banana stalks hung wrapped in blue Chiquita bags. The van slowed to a crawl every few hundred yards to avoid the deep pot holes in the nonexistent road. Erika fell asleep on my shoulder.

We passed empty soccer fields and schools and signs stating oil for sale. I was hyper vigilant for instances of poverty. Sometimes children were shirtless and shoeless and the houses a ramshackle of nailed boards and tin roofs.

But the houses and the people coalesced with the banana trees and the pot holes and the mountains deep green with swathes of gray fog.

Here, poor didn’t necessarily mean synonymous with need or any sort of deficiency. I didn’t know how to recognize need even if I did see it.

I saw beauty. I saw empty soccer fields I wanted to run. And I saw dark skinned people who didn’t look like the ones I saw on television infomercials. They seemed happy or occupied. So human. They looked like people I walked by everyday in Oregon. But I cannot speak to them.

And I felt so inhuman because I didn’t know how to place what I witnessed into my hierarchal system of class and category. I was a tourist. A dumb American. Just an invisible passerby.