Day 3 (Jun. 6):
Paso Canoas, Costa Rica
A Rough Start:
Today marks the first day that I am going to engage in real work. I've used the previous two days to get acclimated to the flows of Central America and it's now time to pack up shop and hit the road. On today's itinerary is an 8 hour bus ride south on the Pan-Am to the border town of Paso Canoas. I felt a slight reluctance to leave my cozy hostel room for the dank bus station because I really didn't know what to expect from the bus company. As soon as I arrived at the TRACOPA station the familiarity of life on the road immediately rushed over me. Standing in the queue with my bag and no real schedule I was reunited with the Pan-American Highway; that road whose pockmarked surface tells the story of over one hundred years of history. A history whose secrets are buried under the new layers of gravel that has been used to erase the rocky parts that people either want to forget or hide.
The balmy shamble of a bus hobbled its way up and down the Costa Rica mountainscape making occasional stops in local villages. During the brief stops riders could take a minute to step off the bus, stretch, and find themselves some homemade toasted plaintains. Just beyond the food stands you could gaze down at the spectacular view of thick clouds settling in the base of the valleys below; leaving the mountain tops peeking out of the clouds like remote skyward islands. While the stops prolonged the already long journey, they were a refreshing break from life on the bus. This life was blistering hot and was only somewhat bearable when the crippled vehicle managed to gain enough speed to generate some airflow through its windows. After 9 sweaty hours, the bus rolled in to the border town of Paso Canoas. This border town was unlike any that I've encountered in Central America thus far. The town was far reaching and bustling. People hustled in all directions. Typically, border flows are all directed towards the physical border, but here the action is everywhere. There actually appeared to be a lively heartbeat here. Shops, restaurants, even a number of convenience stores and the highly touted Jerusalem Mall.
As soon as I exited the bus- which had become somewhat of a comfort zone- I was swarmed by the chaos and confusion of the border. Among the disorientation was the harsh realization that I was completely alone and needed to make sense of this place on my own. Previously, the bus had done my thinking for me; making the right moves without hesitation. Now this task was all on me and the disonnected feeling caught me a little offguard. I quickly grabbed my bags and slipped into a makeshift bar where I grabbed a semi-cold Imperial as a mask to look as casual as possible while I made sense of the unique flows of this town. As I sat with my beer in hand, every swig was like a clock ticking down the time that I had until I needed to get up and move on. After the last drawn out sip I was flooded by a force of emotion. My inner dialogue was going crazy: "What am I doing here! Am I really going to wander around like this for a month! I will never make it like this!" These thoughts raced through my mind and slowly steamrolled into a feeling of panic. Not a panic caused by a lack of safety, but of the reality of possible failure. What if I can't accomplish the goals that I set and fail to churn out some decent work? What if I completely botch this entire trip?
Photo taken by luissamudio
Sometimes it is necessary to reach your breaking point so that you can shatter your boundaries and reset your personal barriers. The only way to make it through this is to come here and do what I came here to do; work. To get my bearings I enlisted the help of one of my people of interest- the paralegal. He was a slender 20 year old Panamanian named Antonio. Dressed to impress with a chic polo and designer jeans, he was pleased to walk me through the border crossing process. While these types of workers are almost always written into anthropological studies of the borders as "nuisances", they actually serve a comforting purpose for lonesome travelers like myself. Antonio quickly showed me the ins and outs of Paso Canoas. Suddenly, that veil of confusion that blocked my ability to make sense of this town was lifted. My eyes saw a new, fairly simple place. The Costa Rica/Panama aduana stations made up the center of the town. The transmitadores, money exchangers, and peddlers- this was their territory. This is where all of the hardcore informal exchange occurs as travelers shuffle through the sweaty corridors. Beyond this are two chaotic streets that frame the central hub. The roads are loaded with shops and bars of all sorts. It quickly became clear that these streets are where those who weren't just passers by handled their business. These streets were for locals.
After a quick tour of Paso Canoas, Antonio led me to his favorite bar/restaurant that he touted as "the best in town." At first I was skeptical of his assessment. It happens all over these parts, border workers typically send their customers to the places in town that are operated by friends or family. To my surprise, the place was by far the best place in town. We strolled into a large wooden barn which displayed a sprawling dance floor area in the middle of the open floor. Surrounding the open floor was an array of tables, one long bar, and a kitchen area. To top it off, they even went the extra mile and mounted a couple flat screens on the wall and turned the loft area into a second floor viewing station. Antonio proudly explained that this was the place to be when the sun goes down. The place where all the people who stay in the area go after a long, hot day of work. I ordered a large plate of shrimp and fries and could see the hunger in the eyes of the well dressed kid. As a token of my appreciation for his help I offered to share my meal with him, which he devoured without question.
After the meal, Antonio was happy to reveal one last local trick that he had up his sleeve. He advised me to follow him as he sneeked through one of the large tiendas coming to a quick stop in an isolated back corner of the store. Here, he leaned towards me, quickly glanced around to ensure that the coast was clear, and whispered "this is the only place in town to catch free wi-fi on your phone, but we need to be careful and quick in order to avoid the shop owner who dislikes wi-fi thieves." This local trick bought me enough time to check-in with Rachel and let her know that everything was going as planned. After the entire ordeal- which lasted over 3 hours and provided me with some solid data- I graciously handed Antonio the paralegal a few dollars for saving me when I thought I was going to break.
The day had been long and I still had an 8 hour drive to Panama City, Panama waiting for me on the other side of the border. This time I decided to splurge and dropped $20 for a ticket on the swanky 7p.m. Express Panama to Panama City. I was tired, dirty, and decided to take the easy way out of town. Fortunately, the ride provided me with the luxury to catch a good night sleep, but there was a serious tradeoff: we were set to arrive in Panama City at 2a.m.. This little detail breaks one of my golden rules of traveling: Don't arrive in new cities at odd hours of the night. To compound the risk, I wasn't set to check-in to my next accommodation until 12p.m.. However, the Express Panama was my only option next to sleeping in the streets of Paso Canoas; which I am not above, but I really didn't want to pull this card on day 3.