Another Close Call: Crossing into Panama

Lined up against the wall in the bleak and stiflingly hot warehouse, I was little concerned, after all I had nothing to hide. My fingers pressed clammily onto the faded and peeling yellow paint which, rather than crumbling at the touch appeared to melt in my hands. The corrugated iron roof sweated and sighed in the heat. Soon, all of this would be over, border formalities and we would be on our way and I would have another war story for my well-thumbed yet lagging travel diary.

And so we remained like this, stood against the wall, legs slightly apart and arms up above our head, just like in the films, our backs towards our open bags, ready for inspection and the requisa or search.

To my left hunched the Costa Rican pensioner humming a tune. From here I could not suffer the waves of his halitosis but during the past seven hours my neighbour had an unerring desire to share his views of the world.

“Everywhere is the same. People are the same. Politics is all equal.” And so it went.

To my right a mother grappled unsuccessfully with her infant daughter who was intent on brushing her doll’s hair, blissfully unawares of the search procedures of Central American land borders.

The door at the far end of the warehouse opened but offered no breeze. Four uniformed men strode in, each pair with a sniffer Alsatian. Moustaches and guns. They began nearest to the door walking the obedient canine along the rows of open bags. For the most part the dogs sniffed and snuffled with mild interest and moved on. Of course that is, until it reached my backpack

Commotion, dozens of eyes upon me and the sniffer dog had yet to emerge from my bag. It had managed to fit not only its head but also its fore haunches into the backpack and was scrabbling for the mega bust.

Gringo mochilero,” the head official approached. “We have strict laws in Panama. You like the drugs?” Was there a hint of a smirk beneath his waxy moustache?

I spun around to try and take some check of events that were occurring behind me and found myself rather forcibly pushed back against the wall. Surely I was the victim of some setup. I had read about instances like these. No, I couldn’t be the mug that gets put away for years or has to bribe the various levels of Panamanian authority.

Already, the other passengers were whispering, nodding and looking accusingly in my direction.

What the officials in their zeal to condemn the musty smelling backpacker and my fellow passengers in their haste for gossip failed to notice was that a sated Alsatian was now backing away from my bag.

On its nose, under its eyes and hanging from the saliva on its jowls were flecks of pastry and mystery meat. The underfed dog had seized the opportunity of a light snack of my empanadas bought some hours before at a rest stop in southern Costa Rica.

No apologies were made. Business as usual. My passport was stamped, fellow passengers and I crossed into Panama.

(This diary entry was written way back in 2000 while on assignment for Central America Weekly, an expat newspaper that is no longer published. I was a rookie traveller and a rookie journalist back then, but, I was still able to get into scrapes and make observations!)

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