Welcome to Panama

“Hey, do you think I need to bring my passport?”

Little did I know the answer to that simple question would determine our fate.

A pause, then, “No. I’ve never needed mine. Probably safer to leave it here.”

And with that we were off: Alex, a Panamanian citizen, Cris, an American living in Panama, and me, an American visiting Panama. As Alex navigated the narrow cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo, Cris offered, “I think the fastest way to the Causeway is through Chorillo.” Alex protested. Chorillo wasn’t safe, we should take the longer route through the better neighborhoods, we didn’t want to be in Chorillo after dark, but Cris persisted. We drove towards Chorillo.

After ten hours in transit, I was finally in Panama. I welcomed the hot, humid air that blew across my face, curling my hair into tiny brown ringlets. I was far away from email, from computers, from work, ready to relax with friends and enjoy a week of beaches, sun, and carefree living.

The car stopped, I looked up to see a policeman outside of Cris’ window. He asked for our ids, we all pulled out our wallets and passed laminated cards to him. He examined Alex’s id card, nodded and returned it. He looked at my CA driver’s license, as well as Cris’. He studied them, turned them over, then put them in his pocket. Hm. Not a good sign.

Machine-gun Spanish was exchanged. It’s been a while since I spoke Spanish on a regular basis; I understood about every fifth word. It sounded like Cris and I were being arrested, but I was sure I misunderstood. Those other four words had to be terribly important.

The policeman motioned for us to pull over on the side of the road. We did. We sat. No words were spoken. A few minutes later, the policeman came back. This time I understood. He was asking for mine and Cris’ passports. Cris explained they were at home, but we weren’t far away, so we could go back and get them. No, no, no. The policeman seemed to think he couldn’t let us out of his sight. I listened from the back seat, still happy to feel the warm, humid air coming through the window.

At some point, I realized we were being arrested. I looked at Cris. “Seriously?” He nodded. We got into the police vehicle. It was a relatively comfortable police van. I leaned back, happy to be on vacation. I figured we would be taken to the police station, fined, and released. Alex, meanwhile, had hurried back to the apartment to try to find mine and Cris’ passports. Cris asked the police man which station we were going to. “Chorillo,” he replied. The look on Cris’ face indicated that wasn’t a good answer.

As we drove the buildings became shabbier, the streets populated with more stray dogs and loose women. “Hmm,” I thought to myself.

We entered the police station. I was the only hint of estrogen to be found within miles. To our right was the sole cell, populated by about thirty young men. Around our feet scurried mutli-legged creatures, cockroaches, ants, unknown insects. A single light bulb burned overhead, hanging from a tentative rope. We walked up to the captain’s desk, me in my sandals and strappy sundress, Cris in his pink polo and plaid shorts. The men in the cell pushed up against the bars to get a closer look at us. I whispered to Cris, “I don’t know if they’re jonsing for you or for me, but I sure don’t want to find out…”

The captain asked us several questions, and wrote down our names, addresses, citizenship, and passport numbers. Well, Cris’ passport number. When he asked for mine, I responded, “No se.” He looked at me, surprised. “What do you mean, you don’t know?” “I don’t know my passport number.” Well, that raised his suspicions. Why was I in the country? When had I arrived? What did I plan to do there? Where was I staying? When I didn’t know the answers to half of his questions, he was convinced I was in Panama for illicit reasons. I truthfully didn’t care why he thought I was in Panama, as long as he didn’t put me in the cell with the thirty male specimens who continued to eye Cris and I hungrily.

I whispered to Cris, “Where is Alex with our passports?” As Cris pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, he moaned. “Arrrrrhhh. I accidentally turned my phone off.” When he turned it on, it beeped furiously at him. “Seventeen new messages…” Alex had frantically been calling us; he couldn’t find Cris’ passport. While Cris called Alex, I smiled and talked to the captain.

After what seemed like an eternity, but probably in reality wasn’t more than 45 minutes, the captain decided he was done with us. He instructed the lesser ranked police men to take us away. I looked at Cris, “Where are we going?” He motioned for me to be quiet.

Thoughts running through my head:
My apartment is a mess. I would be embarrassed for my next of kin to enter and try to find any of my important documents.
Actually, no one knows where I am. I forgot to send my contact information to anyone. It will be at least a week before anyone even thinks that anything might be awry. Or maybe longer. My parents don’t call that often.
Oh. My desk at work is a mess as well. I hope no one goes through my inbox.
I forgot to send my Grandmother her birthday card.
I forgot to rsvp to my cousin’s wedding.
This really isn’t a convenient time for me to die.

We were taken back to the police van. “They’re taking us to the tourist police station,” whispered Cris. This sounded promising. The buildings slowly became better taken care of, the streets lighter. Presidential palace guards stood at attention. We instructed the police to drive to the front of Cris’ apartment building where Alex was waiting with our passports. The policeman took them from him without words and drove Cris and I a few blocks to the tourist police station. The walls were freshly painted, a photograph of the employee of the month hung on the wall. The captain there smiled and spoke with us jovially, as if we were meeting for cocktails after work. He examined our passports, meticulously copied each piece of information, then returned our passports and licenses to us. We stood there like sentries. “That’s all. Have a good night.”

We walked into the warm air. Alex was waiting for us. Stunned, we each looked at each other. That’s all? No fine? No ticket? Just two hours of driving us from place to place? We tucked our passports safely into our pockets and headed to the Causeway for dinner, through Chorillo.

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