The joy and splendor of travel lost on one man

Crossing the Border from Panama

Panama and Costa Rica: Building bridges to the late 19th century.

Costa Rica makes all tourists leave the country for at least 72 hours every three months. It’s part of the visa requirements. I like this rule because it automatically lends an air of intrigue to our time here.

“We had to blow Costa Rica for a few days, man. The government was about to come down on us, so we split until everything was cool again.”

We spent our three days in Panama enjoying the festive tourist pit of Bocas del Toro. It translates loosely to “Binge Drinking Capital of the Bull.”

Bocas del Toro is an archipelago. Most people live on the indelicately named “Colon Island.” The main city on Colon Island is Bocas Town, and it’s is a hopping place. You can’t swing a surfboard without hitting a bar, restaurant or hotel. Even the local bookstore sells beer. Sure, it’s touristy. But it’s fun touristy, not tacky touristy. Most of the bars back up right to the water. You can hang out on the docks, stare out over the water and watch water taxis come and go while you sip $2.00 caipirinhas.

Most people go to Bocas for the surfing, snorkeling and various nature tours. You’ll have to take a water taxi to enjoy any of these activities, but they only cost a few bucks.

I don’t know if I’d go back any time soon, but it wasn’t a bad place to hole up in for a long weekend.

We ran into an interesting group of travelers on our way home.

We were crossing the border on foot. After carrying our luggage across the bridge in the picture above, we got in line to have our passports stamped by the Costa Rican border agents. (Please note all the suitcases Pam is carrying, by the way.)

The Costa Rican border patrol office resembled a 1960s-era, walk-up hamburger stand in the United States. You don’t enter the building. Instead, you stand outside in the blazing sun and conduct all business through a crusty Plexiglass window.

A few listless customs agents were milling around inside. One geriatric guard stood watch outside. He looked like he was about to collapse beneath the weight of the machine gun slung over his shoulder.

Waiting in line directly in front of us were three backpackers. The first one was enormous. He stood well over six feet tall, probably weighed 220 pounds, and had a full beard and dreadlocks that went down to his waist. If there’s suddenly a rash of Bigfoot sightings in Central America, it’ll be because of this guy.

The other two seemed to be a couple. They both had long dreadlocks like their giant friend, but combined they probably didn’t weigh as much as him. The boyfriend had a cheesy, Shaggy-esque beard. His scrawny girlfriend was sporting half a dozen uninspired tattoos.

All three gave off the sickeningly sweet stench of week-old body odor doused with a few quarts of patchouli. They all wore dingy, olive green cargo shorts, sweat-stained tank tops and worn out brown sandals. Their backpacks were near bursting at the seams. Every inch of their bodies and belongings was covered in a thin layer of dust and grime.

The only colorful thing about them was their vocabulary. Every other word out of their mouths was one form or another of America’s favorite expletive.

“Man, it’s fucking hot out here. I wish they’d hurry the fuck up,” the giant one complained.

“No shit. This is some fucking nasty heat right here,” the woman echoed.

This bothered me. Rae was standing just a few feet away.  She’s only eight years old, and while she’s definitely heard me curse a blue streak before, these three were making me sound like a saint. I was getting more upset the more they cursed, but I figured saying anything to them wasn’t going to accomplish much.

Pam handled it well, though. She and Rae had simply made a game out of counting the number of times the backpackers cursed. It was a good idea, because we had been standing in line for about 15 minutes at this point. The game was keeping Rae very occupied.

I leaned down and whispered to Rae.

“What’s the count?”

“Ninety-eight” she said.

The line moved forward, and it was finally time for the backpackers to go through customs.

The beefy one slid his passport to the agent. She took it, flipped through the pages and reeled off a few quick sentences in Spanish. There was a long pause while she just stared at him through the window without saying anything. Finally, she pushed his unstamped passport back to him. The giant looked confused.

“Repité, por favor?”

The agent repeated what she had said, this time a bit more slowly.

“What the fuck was all that about?” asked the boyfriend.

“I don’t know. I think she’s saying something about tickets.”

The agent stared back at him impatiently.

“What the fuck?” the girlfriend asked.

Rae looked up at me and excitedly whispered, “One hundred!”

Now I was getting even more upset. On top of corrupting my daughter’s angelic little mind, these three were making all of us stand out in the sun for another ten minutes because they had failed to notice what was clearly written in every Costa Rica travel guide I’d ever read.

“She needs to see some kind of onward ticket,” I told them. “You need to show her something that says you have plans to leave Costa Rica. A plane ticket, bus ticket. Anything.”

The giant suddenly switched from confused to angry.

“Are you fucking serious? I’m flying back to the U.S. in two weeks, but I don’t have my fucking ticket on me. Who the fuck prints tickets these days?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rae and Pam busily updating their tabulation.

“Do you have a copy of your itinerary?“ I asked. “A printed itinerary from the airline will work, too.”

The giant turned back to the agent. His friends joined him, and the three of them began pleading in broken Spanish. They didn’t make any progress, though. The agent was having none of it.

“But we’re only going to be in Costa Rica for two fucking weeks,” they said.

The agent just shrugged. Her crappy shack in the dirt may have been Third World, but her incredible apathy rivaled anything you’d find in a DMV office back in the United States.

They regrouped for a moment.

“This is fucking bullshit. We live in an age of technology. Who the fuck carries plane tickets with them?” the girlfriend said.

“So what the fuck do we do now?” her boyfriend asked.

The giant asked the agent if there was an internet café anywhere nearby.

I cringed when I heard him ask this. The customs office was in the middle of absolute nowhere. He was not going to like her answer.

She told him the nearest one was a 30-minute cab ride away.

And we have lift-off!

“Thirty fucking minutes?” the giant roared. “Are you fucking kidding me? Fuck that!”

I looked down at Rae. She was counting on her fingers by now.

She looked up at me. “I think it’s around 120.”

It finally became clear to the backpackers that they weren’t getting across the border. They gave up and begrudgingly stepped out of the way. I slid our passports and the copy of our itinerary to the border agent.

The three of them started putting on their backpacks and continued their grumbling.

“Fuck this place,” the woman said.

“No fucking shit,” her boyfriend answered. “This is fucking ridiculous.”

“I’m not going to take a fucking cab for thirty minutes just to print out a fucking email.” the giant said.

He was starting to walk away when I stopped him.

“Then you know what you are, don’t you?”

He turned around and stared at me.

“No. What am I?”

I looked down at Rae, her once innocent ears now sullied forever, then turned back to the giant.

“Fucked,” I said.

20 Responses to “Crossing the Border from Panama”

  1. Jeff

    Just getting around to finishing this post. Amazing stuff. Also, I don’t know whether you or I will be more disturbed by my next comment – but you seem like a shockingly capable parent.

    Like

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  2. Nick

    Thank you, Ray. I didn’t want to say anything.

    And I haven’t seen my sister Tricia around in ages. Maybe I’ll have to post some more scorpion pictures or something,

    Like

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  3. Ray

    Nothing clever here? Nancy NIxon, are you kidding me? You mean:

    Nothing clever here — except for Nick Sustana!

    (And my sister Tricia.)

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  4. Nick

    Wait. Which part do white people like? Cursing? Offending little Vietnamese girls? Not bathing for weeks on end?

    Or all of those?

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  5. Bob

    You must send this post to Christian Lander of “Stuff White People Like” fame.

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  6. Nick

    Thanks, Liz!

    Michael, I’m happy to report that not all U.S. backpackers are as bad as these guys. I’ve met some decent folks who are traipsing around Central America. I’d say only 75-85% of backpackers drive me nuts. Compared to the percentage of people in the general population who drive me nuts, the backpackers are actually doing pretty well.

    They come in all shapes and sizes. The only real unifying theme I’ve noticed among backpackers is youth. I don’t think I’ve met one who’s older than 30.

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  7. Michael B

    Nick, I’m glad to hear that other parts of the world are still getting to experience our “American-bred” illiterate backpacking community. They are the traveling face of America… thanks for the great PR grubby hippies!

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  8. Liz

    Just like I was there next to you in line… What a great post, Nick. Thanks for the colorful, play-by-play!

    Love to all!

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  9. wife of MF aka JD

    “MF, can’t wait to get home and tell this story to your daughter. Repeatedly.”

    I’m sure that Rae will beat you to this.

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  10. Nick

    Sue, thanks for stopping by. We’re enjoying the trip, but we’re looking forward to getting back to Ouray, too.

    Erin, I have been in your actual living room with Catcher sitting right next to me during RHPS rehearsals. Nice try.

    MF, can’t wait to get home and tell this story to your daughter. Repeatedly.

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  11. erin

    So generally we read your posts out loud as a family but catcher had to sit this one out. And I am second guessing the one about the skin burrowing flies since he will no longer touch the worms in the garden because he is afraid they will dig into his skin. Oopps.

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  12. Sue

    When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Sounds like you did the best you could. Hope Rae and Pam aren’t scarred for life. Looking forward to seeing you back in spring-like Ouray!

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  13. MF

    That was a fucking great post. Those fuck’s learned who is fucking boss. I hope Rae isn’t fucked up for life. Over 120 fucks, fuck’n a that’s a lot of fucks.

    Enjoy the rest of your fucking trip fucker.

    If Rae’s keeping count please add 9 Fucks

    MF

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  14. Craig Kaminsky

    “(Please note all the suitcases Pam is carrying, by the way.)”

    Yeah, I noted that. I have also noted that Pam never carrier her luggage. You do. I further noticed you just crossed a bridge.

    Without any other evidence, I can only assume that you tossed 3 large suitcases over the bridge and into the water as you crossed.

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  15. Nick

    Lincoln, if I said those three dirtbags cursed more than I do during the UNC/Duke game, I’m afraid I’d lose what little credibility I have left.

    JD, thanks for the kind words and for checking out the blog. See you soon.

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  16. JD

    This was, by far, my favorite posting. :) I could see it all like I was standing right there with you three. Keep the tales coming. You are a great storyteller.

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  17. Lincoln

    Do you now resemble the scorpions you happen upon? Or do you have tales to spin for your Cross Fit buddies? And doesn’t Rae have to count much higher during a UNC-Duke match?

    The picture does make me want to visit. The weather, how happy Pam and Rae appear – all speak to a great break from Costa Rica. And Pam, next time let Nick carry that huge bag.

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