Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 55 - Panama Without A Hat

   I don’t know how many of you remember the Panama Hat, but it was very popular as a hot weather hat for men a number of years ago.  My grandfather had one, and I remember it well.  It would remind you of a pith helmet, only it is made of a light weight fibre material, and the sweatband held the hat up higher than the head to let the shaded air circulate.  I think there were grommet holes in the upper part to let off the heated air.  So much for the hat, we didn’t have one. (The hat you see in the picture that Mom remembers as a Panama Hat is really a French Pith Helmet. We had a discussion about this and after I looked it up on several websites, Mom has given in. She still sees this as a Panama Hat though...Mel.)
   We went to Panama on a twofold mission.  Firstly, Melaney and I had to get our passports stamped as leaving Costa Rica, entering another country, and then back into Costa Rica to extend our visitor status for another 90 days.  By the time that is up, our lawyer in San Jose should have a file number for us to show that we are in the process of applying for residency. 
   We stopped at a little shipping port called Golfito (everything in Costa Rica is an ito or an ita); that is where the shopping expedition starts.  That was the twofold reason for going to the border.  In Golfito, a person is allowed to shop for a thousand dollars a year in commodity, at a cut rate price (supposedly duty free).  Personally, I think it is more of a gimmick than anything else.  It is a regulation that one goes to the shopping area and gets a stamped document that gives you permission to make a purchase, then come back the next day to shop.  There is a forced stay overnight with the added spending in the area of food and lodging.  It’s too far to drive both directions anyway.
   By the time we reached the border town of Canoas, it was about six o’clock and the heat was really pouring in.  We found a place to park the car, keeping it on the Costa Rica side of the border.  We walked towards the Panama immigration building.  A young man insinuated himself into our company and informed us that we had to go back to the Costa Rica exit window to get our passports stamped there, then come back to the Panama window.  He spoke fairly good English, and seemed to want to help us.  We had Rita along as our guide and interpreter, so we weren’t really in need of the young man. (He seemed more like a bad toothache that we couldn’t get rid of...Mel)
   By the time I struggled over the gravelly walk back to the Costa Rica building, I was bushed.  I can’t walk very far in the best of conditions, and in this heat it was awful.  By the time our exit was stamped at the Costa Rica office, we had to turn around and head back a block to the Panama building.  When we got there the young man told us we would have to pay $30 each and get a ticket to another location in Panama.  He was starting to sound like a bit of a crook.  A woman came up to us and showed us stamps for our passport, and said $1 each.  She put them in the book.  This was some kind of a tax that had to be paid in American money.  I had only two hundred dollar American bills with me and she couldn’t take one.  Rita stepped up with the two dollars and we had the tax stamps.
   By the time we got up to the window of the Panama building at the entrance side the lights were out, and they didn’t know when the electricity would be back on.  We waited for over an hour, and finally gave up and decided to go back to the car and find a sleeping accommodation.
   We stopped at a couple of places, but they were full.  Then we found the Azteca, a bright red building painted in the Mexican manner, and they had rooms that were air conditioned.  Fortunately, our room had three single beds. The air conditioning was puny till Mel twisted a few knobs and got it coming a little better.
I was so fatigued that I just took the coverlet off the bed and lay down.  There was no thought of food, only water and air conditioning.  It was a puny effort at air conditioning.  The temperature must have been over a hundred degrees.  I lay and gasped and Mel and Rita lounged and watched the TV.  I just ignored them.
   I couldn’t strip off enough clothing and remain decent to get comfortable.  I thought I didn’t sweat, and normally I don’t, but I was sweating now.  My whole body was damp and my morning shower was long gone.  Melaney had to go back to the reception office to get towels for us.  Apparently they don’t just supply them, in case of theft.  The towels were so rough and old that no one in their right minds would want to steal them.  Melaney has such an honest face that they didn’t hesitate to give her three towels and tiny bars of soap.
We struggled through the night, and next morning around eight, we each rose, showered and dressed for the day. 
   The showers were diabolical; just an overhead spigot that spurted cold water.  The sides and floor of the shower were covered with tile by the yard, and slippery as can be. The paint on the walls above was peeling off in great shards.  When I showered, there was a carnivorous ant about half an inch long waving it’s antennae at me from the floor.  I didn’t feel like murder right then, so I just doused it with cold water.  That kept it busy so it didn’t bother me.
   We were ready for breakfast.  The Aztecita was empty, but by the time we sat in the chairs there was a fellow in the kitchen and a waitress at the table.  She was so slow that I couldn’t believe the pattern.  One doesn’t tip service people in Costa Rica, it is put into the bill automatically at 10%.  She wasn’t worth a tip. The fare consisted of rice and beans and eggs, none of which appealed to Melaney. She tried to conjure up enough words to ask for French Toast, or oatmeal, or pancakes to no avail. She settled with two very slim pieces of toast and butter. They had no jam. (Some restaurant, eh?)
   We had to go back to the Panama building.  Mel stopped close enough for me to walk there easily, then she went to park the car.  She had to produce a document to prove we had transportation, or else buy a ticket by bus. The parking stub satisfied the requirement.
   Rita and I walked to the window.  The lights were on now, and we knew that as soon as Mel joined us we could get some action.  We had been told the night before, and it was shown on a tab near the window, that each person had to have $500 American money with them to get into Panama.  I had $200, some Costa Rican Colones and a credit card.  We were able to borrow $430 from Rita.  That totalled $630 so we decided to pass that back and forth between us.  We weren’t asked to show funds. (Must be something to do with the honest faces...Mel.)
   We got our stamps from Panama, then headed back to the Costa Rica office to get our incoming stamps.  That is a terrible amount of foolish red tape.  I know that they are aware that everyone who wants to stay does it, but it is foolish bureaucracy.  In actuality, we stayed in Costa Rica overnight with our passports stamped as exited, we kept our car on the Costa Rica side all the time to prevent them getting the idea of taxing it into the country, and we never did go into Panama.
   Now get a picture of the locale.  There is squalor everywhere.  People line the tiny streets with a continuing line of different tiny shops with something to sell.  People infest the intersections with carts, bicycles with carrying cases on the front, anything to hold some kind of goods.  There were street vendors with food, hats, sunglasses, perfumes and creams, and T-shirts. Name it, it was there.  We drove up one narrow street and were too far in to try to turn around.  People were wagging their fingers at us, as apparently it was one way.  We managed to squiggle through it and eventually get back on the road to Golfito. (The side road was NOT labelled as one-way...Mel)
   When we arrived, it was about 11:00 and getting into the boil of the day.  I waited in the parking area while Rita and Mel went through to obtain their purchases.  We needed a dehumidifier.  That was our purchase and it was close to $200.  Rita got a lawn mower, and weed eater, some kitchen appliances for her sister, some shoes for her kids and I waited.  I was burning with heat.  I took the water bottle that I had and poured water over me a couple of times to try to get the evaporation to cool me down.  I was so terribly uncomfortable.  I believe I had an introduction to Hades, and I don’t want any part of it. I didn’t think they were ever going to get to the vehicle.  Finally, at about 2:00 they arrived.  They had hired porters to bring their goods to the truck.
   We had at least a six hour drive ahead of us.  That would bring us back to the home front after dark, and I am uncomfortable with these roads after dark.  We had been detoured from the main highway going down because there was trouble with a bridge, so we knew that we would be detoured coming back. As we climbed higher into the mountains, the temperature came back to normal for us.

   I had starved Mel all day (two skinny pieces of dry toast don’t last long for me. Mom had eggs and toast and Rita had Gallo Pinto – rice and beans, so they were fine. By the evening I was admittedly getting cranky. Mom said it would be good for me to go without food for a while. I beg to differ...Mel) trying to get as close to home as possible before dark.  I wasn’t sure she would forgive me, but I guess she did.  I fixed her a toasted cheese sandwich with mayonnaise and pickles.  I was so thankful for the cool air to go to bed. I know everything will look better in the morning.

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