Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)
April 21, 2016
Fear of the Unfamiliar:
“Damn it, Aaron! Already breaking your travel rules!” I mutter to myself as I peer up at the night sky. The sun is now completely below the horizon as I begin my trek back to my house. A fresh loaf of bread from the panadería (bakery) sticks out of the top of my grey High Sierra gym backpack like an empty flag pole. It has only been one week since I’ve arrived in Paso Canoas and I was still acclimating myself to the flows the of the town. During this period, it is my custom to stay off the streets in the evening, since I was not a familiar face within the community. This means finishing my work well before sunset. Well, today was a little different. I was running late with my daily errands—gym, groceries, cell phone, the usual—and I knew that it was going to be dark by the time that I finished my work. After purchasing groceries at the super (super market), I decided to stop off to talk to a few fixers (informal workers that sell prepaid phone cards and sim cards) to see if they could figure out why my phone refuses to pick up service when I am on the Costa Rica side of Paso Canoas. After about 20 minutes of finagling and bullshitting, we decided that my phone is unable to accommodate many of the Costa Rica phone services. I paid them $3 for their help and started up the Pan-American Highway towards my place—kicking the stones that collect on the shoulder of the road. At this point in the trip, I try not to walk down the highway in the dark—it is 800 meters (1/2 mile) from the official border to the house—but, after spending three dollars trying to fix my phone, I thought that I would make up for it by passing on the $1 taxi.
So here I am. Kicking stones down the Pan-American Highway in the evening. To ease my nerves, I decide to phone Rachel—my wife—to chat as I tempt fate. Unfamiliarity with a place will make your mind do funny things. The smooth rhythm of our conversation is interrupted as my voice comes to a stop mid-sentence. I notice a shady silver SUV pulled off on the side of the road ahead of me. It is just lingering on the side of the road; lights dimmed. You see, narco activity in Paso Canoas really picks up after sun down and the wrong streets get pretty dangerous at night. I have yet to learn which places are no fly zones in the evening, so I am on high guard for anything that looks out of the ordinary. My paranoia kicks in and I cross to the other side of the highway. Crazy thoughts start to brew in my head. I think to myself, “Well, if they do decide to shoot me down, crossing the street will at least give me the chance that they may miss…slightly increasing the odds of survival in relation to walking directly in front of their vehicle”. The space between myself and the shady silver SUV closes quickly. I hold my breath as the vehicle enters my periphery…and…I walk by without a problem. “Aaron? Are you still there?” Rachel asks through the phone. “Yea, I’m here. Just freaking out a bit”, I respond coyly; slightly embarrassed by my paranoia.
Rachel and I continue to chat for a few hundred meters and then I see it again. This time it’s moving too fast to register what exactly is happening. The same shady silver SUV tears across the highway, cuts over to the shoulder, and slams on its breaks directly in front of me. Its taillights light up bright red as stones fly from beneath the tires. “Oh fuck!” I am I not sure if I said this in my mind or out loud. “Gotta go”, I shouted into the phone as I simultaneously ended my call with Rachel. Let’s see if my trick works one more time. Again, I jetted to the other side of the road. No luck. There was no avoiding them this time. They roll down their windows and with a quick head nod unload out of the shady silver SUV. The black cargo pants and embroidered polos are a sure sign that they were border police. That’s a relief, but it still doesn’t clear me of the possibility of falling into a steaming pile of bullshit. The driver approaches me. “Identificacion? (Identification?)” He asks sternly. A brief moment of panic rushes over me as I pat at my cargo pockets in an attempt to kill time. Fuck, I haven’t been traveling with my passport because I don’t want to misplace it or have it get wet in the afternoon rains. My hands continue to search each set of pockets as I try to think of a way out of this (this isprobably the first time that anyone has thought “good thing I’m wearing cargo shorts”). Then I remember my gym backpack. “Shit yeah”, I celebrate mentally. I have my passport in my backpack because I had to sign my gym membership! I fumble around in the backpack and eventually hand over my passport to the officer.
“Hay muchas cosas pasando aqui en Canoas (There are many things happening here Canoas right now).” He says to me with a serious look and a tilted brow. With the 400 African and 4,000 Cuban migrants stranded on the border right now, I am guessing that the officers assumed that I was a Cuban trying to make my way through the country on foot. The loaf of bread waving out of the top of my back pack was certainly a red flag. Add to that the fact that I kept hopping across the street each time that they approached me and their suspicion is well justified. “Te entiendo (I understand).” I respond. “Estoy quedando en la casa allá y típicamente yo no camino a noche, pero no quise gastar dinero para un taxi esta noche (I am staying in a house over there and I typically do not walk at night, but I did not want to spend money on a taxi tonight).” He takes a quick glance at my passport and immediately changes his demeanor when he sees my legal stamps. Recognizing this change to lightheartedness, I blurt out “Yo me dio mucho miedo cuando su cruzó la calle usted! ¡Pensé que fue los narcos! (You really scared me when you crossed the street! I thought that you were narcos!)” This statement brings the three officers to laughter. “Con mucho gusto. Buena noche. (It’s our pleasure. Have a good night.)” He muttered in between chuckles as the driver slapped my shoulder in affection. The group of officers hop back in the shady silver SUV, hit a quick U-turn, and speed back down the Pan-American towards the border. I pause for a moment to collect myself and I can’t help but to laugh. I pick up my phone to explain to Rachel why I hung up on her.
Moral of the story: 1.) Always carry your passport as a foreigner. I would have been fucked if I was without it tonight. 2.) Paso Canoas is just a town and it is ok to walk about in the evening. The silver lining: At least I’ve introduced myself to the border police.