Anyone who keeps up to date with my blog – all 4 posts a year – probably thinks I hate travelling. I only blog about the bad times I have, so it’s easy to make that assumption. It’s not true, but the funny thing is that when I have an awesome time I struggle to put it into interesting terms. I meet some amazing people and have an indescribable experience, which when written down just doesn’t seem interesting to anyone who wasn’t there. Perhaps I’m just not a good writer, perhaps it’s because I’m a pessimist, or perhaps it’s because it’s genuinely harder to write about those kinds of feelings. But when the shit hits the fan, I have no problem writing about what happened and how it felt, and I think it’s an interesting read for everyone.
So let’s get to the point: another shit-filled story about why you should not take the San Jose to Panama City bus.
It all started on a rainy Saturday in San Jose. My trip in Central America was coming to an end with only 6 days to go. My travelling buddies Fay & Olivia left me in San Jose, but I decided that I wanted to go a little further south to check out Panama City. I already had a flight leaving Panama the following Friday, which ensured that I’d actually make it down.
I went to the TicaBus ticket office to get a ticket for Sunday. Frustratingly, the guy at the counter spoke no English, so when he said there were no tickets it made organising an alternative difficult. I compromised on the Monday, which only left me 2 days in Panama. I really wanted more time, but I had to take it. That night I had a cheeky look into flights, which were $350 booked the day before (excluding taxi’s from the airports) and took 1 hour. My bus was $60 and took 16 hours. I debated it for a while but decided to stick with the bus. I wish I hadn’t.
10pm on Monday, Luigi (my Costa Rican friend I met in London) drops me off at the TicaBus station. The bus leaves at 11pm and is scheduled to arrive at the border at 6am.
I try to get a bit of sleep, but it’s average. The driver legs it to the border and we get there at 4.20am. Being ahead of schedule is usually awesome, unless you’re woken at 4.20am to stand in line at the border control that opens at 6am. Here’s a hot tip for TicaBus – everyone would rather stay on the bus and sleep than stand in a queue for 1.5 hours waiting for border control to open. That really sucked, but we watched the sun rise as we queued bored-shitless and ended up getting through on time.
I was aware that Panama required proof of leaving the country – it seems common in this region but Panama seemed no worse than anywhere else according to my research. Unfortunately for me, my research was wrong.
I walked through no-mans-land, got to the border control at Panama and the officer didn’t speak English. This wasn’t a problem until he started yelling at me in Spanish when I showed him my flight out of Panama on my phone. Someone next to me chimed in after they heard me saying “no intiendo” like a broken record. Apparently I needed a printed copy of my flight out of Panama. I also needed a printed copy of my flight back to my home country (thank fuck this was just a small trip and I actually had that flight booked). I also needed proof that I had money, in the form of a credit card (which sometimes they’d turn away for no reason), or a printed bank statement. None of my research gave any indication of the second 2 requirements, although a lot of other people knew (or just so happened to have the relevant information).
I just walked away confused, thinking “what now”?
The majority of the people on our bus got through, but there were about 6 of us without the required documents. One of the helpers on our bus managed to inform us about an internet cafe, but we had to wait half an hour for it to open. This is when I started to stress. There’s no way in hell I wanted to sign into my email account on some random computer in no-mans-land between Costa Rica and Panama. Let alone my fucking bank account. Somehow we managed to get our helper dude to open up a wifi connection through his phone, and I managed to get the required documents and forward them to an unused email address, ready to print. I felt a little more confident at this point, and at least other people were in the same position. I thought I was home free.
The internet cafe opened and we piled in to start printing our stuff. We got it ready pretty quick, but it took the lady about half an hour to get the printer working. With every passing minute I worried a little more about whether the bus was still there or not. When I finally got my stuff printed, I ended up with 9 pieces of paper with random shit everywhere. At this moment I felt that I finally had everything I needed, so an hour late I went back and tried to get through border control again.
I watched as everyone else was accepted and boarded the bus. When it came to me, they took my piece of paper for my flight leaving Panama, then stood me to the side while they tended to other people. I waited about 10 minutes, then they finally got back to me and told me that my flight didn’t exist. They were adamant that it was bullshit – they even said they called American Airlines and they were told that the confirmation number didn’t exist.
An American couple behind me said they’d been trying to get through this border for 2 days. 2 Days. At this point it was looking pretty clear that I wasn’t going to get into Panama. I couldn’t communicate with anyone because no one – not the border control, not the bus drivers, not any of the staff – working anywhere in the vicinity spoke English. You’d think that with the importance of tourism in this region English would be a pretty important part of border control, yet, nothing.
Their advice through translation was to call American Airlines, but when I asked for a phone I got no response. How can I make a call if I don’t have a phone? I don’t know why, but these guys really didn’t want to let me into their country.
I really started shitting myself at this point. I’d kept the bus waiting for 1.5 hours. How much longer was it going to wait? I couldn’t even ask the driver. And what if it leaves? Do I have to go back to Costa Rica? What happens to the flight I booked? Do I have to forfeit that, lose all my money, and book another flight from CR to NY? People have travelled Panama before, why was it so fucking impossible for me? My mind was racing trying to figure out a solution if it all went pear shaped.
I started getting angry at border control because I just couldn’t believe this was happening. It’s so frustrating when no one understands what you’re saying and you don’t understand anything anyone else is saying. Especially when it’s going to fuck with your shit. I hate it when my shit gets fucked with.
A guy from TicaBus came up to me to try and figure out what was going on. The border staff explained it to him, he thought for a minute, and then took me to some old lady with a mobile that could make international calls. I spent 10 minutes trying to get through to American Airlines, and when I got through to a person, it hung up. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. I tried again, then I got through to someone, who confirmed my booking details and flight. What a fucking surprise considering I booked and paid for it and had a confirmation number. I took the phone straight to the border control, and gave the phone to the guy that could understand a bit of basic English. By this stage I was shaking and I could barely speak a word (English or Spanish). I couldn’t even put together a sentence when people tried to ask me what was going on. I didn’t think it was going to work, but after a couple of minutes he gave me the phone, nodded his head, and stamped my passport. Thanks for doing your job properly in the first place mate.
I took my bag – the only bag still sitting outside of the bus – to customs and as I walked there I passed an older couple from the bus who were also having problems. They asked if I got through, I said yes, they seemed stressed too. Customs was a breeze. I boarded the bus, the doors closed and we left. I guess the other couple couldn’t make it.
I sat for the next few hours in disbelief. What the fuck just happened? What a mess of a situation. I couldn’t believe that I got through. How did I do it? It felt surreal. Somehow, a million small things aligned to work in my favour, despite the big picture working against me. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Never in my life have I had such trouble crossing a border. Next time I’ll fly into Panama.