The white colectivo rumbles along the Pan-American Highway shuttling me back towards Paso Canoas for a day of observation and photos. The border shows itself well before the “official” crossing—the space where the customs offices and vehicle checkpoints converge and the Panamanian and Costa Rican flags mark the ends of their territories. Its presence is made visible by the queue of furgones (semi-trucks) that line the side of the highway leading into the main checkpoint for those exiting Panamá. The line seems endless and I try to count the trucks, but it’s too much and I can’t keep track in the fast moving colectivo. One thing is certain though: the truck drivers expect to be waiting for quite a while. Passing by, you see the occasional drivers lounging in a hammock that he slung up under the bed of his trailer…just waiting for the final word saying that customs has cleared his paperwork. Others sit huddled in open spaces in the brush; sitting on up-turned 5 gallon buckets…wiping the sweat from their brows with grease stained rags. For them the period of waiting is transformed into a social event where they exchange dirty stories over a few warm beers.
About 300 meters before the border crossing, the colectivo rumbles over the Puente Río Chiriquí Viejo (Old Chiriquí River Bridge). A bronze plaque is mounted to the base of the concrete wall. Its presence is intended to remind travelers that the steel bridge was constructed cooperatively by the Republic of Panamá and the United States in 1960—when the Pan-American Highway was completed in this region. The bridge passes over Rio Chiriquí Viejo which seems rather docile today. Its currents passing gently across the stone shores. The water is too shallow for boats today, but deep enough for one couple who add their own chapter to the history of these waters. Prior to 1904 this river provided a geographical boundary between Costa Rica and Colombia (before Panamanian Independence). After 1904, it marked the border between Panamá and Costa Rica until their governments signed the Arias-Calderón Treaty in 1941; setting the border in the space that our colectivo approaches today. Centuries before the Pan-American Highway-- before both Costa Rica and Panamá were recognized as independent nations—the Río Chiriquí Viejo was used as an important point of passage for indigenous groups carrying people and items from one territory to the next.
The colectivo buzzes over the bridge and makes its final stop at the bus station just before the Panamanian customs office at Paso Canoas. Our crossing over the river hangs on my mind. It’s the layers of infrastructure that pique my interest. The highway—a sign of the era of hemispheric integration in Central America—cuts across previous means of transportation; paving over their histories with the same concrete that allows me to move quickly throughout the region. I speak with a number of people about the river and they all tell me the same story in one way or another. “When the rains would fall heavy, the river would flood creating a safe crossing point for travelers to transport people and goods from one country to the next in their canoes. This is where the community gets its name: Paso Canoas (Canoe Pass/Canoe Crossing).” Now, the Pan-American Highway intersects the river and provides travelers with constant passage through the new border northwest of the river.
The stories that I hear feed my curiosity. I need to see the river up close…I need to hear it…really experience it. I can’t come this far and quickly cross over it like countless others do every day. I decide to walk down the Pan-American Highway, back to the Puente Río Chiriquí Viejo. Halfway across the bridge I stop and hang my upper body over the railing…letting the blood rush to my head. I pull myself back up and turn to look at the trucks waiting to pass through the border checkpoint. Standing in the middle of the bridge, I can’t help but to think about the history of the community as I count the seemingly endless number of furgones waiting in queue to cross through the border. Much like those who waited for the flood of water generations before, these truckers wait for their papers to flow from the customs office so that they can cross safely from Panamá to Costa Rica without bottoming out on the rocky floor of the customs regulations.
“History is important to Chiriquanos, but there is no history of Paso Canoas written. It is missing. If you want to learn about the town you must speak with elders who have seen it grow.” This is a statement that has been reiterated to me by a number of active members of cultural organizations in the town. History is important. For generations cultural groups have been moving between these two points. Their footprints are forever embedded in the foundation of the community. The restrictions to their mobility, however, have shifted from natural obstacles to state regulations. The truck drivers that wait on their up-turned buckets find new ways to remove the obstacles that impede their travel, much like their predecessors who forged new routes through the river. Looking back at the Puente Río Chiriquí Viejo I see layers of infrastructure. Each carrying their own history, but inextricably intertwined. The colectivos pass over the bridge, but to do so they must engage with the river. This has great relevance. To capture the history of Paso Canoas we must tell the multi-generational stories of human movement through the various forms of infrastructure.