Nov 15, 2015

Cubans turned back at Nicaraguan Border

According to an article in the Costa Rican news source, La Nación, Nicaragua turned back 1000 Cuban immigrants from their border at Peñas Blancas.  They employed the force of 180 soldiers and launched tear gas bombs at the crowd, which included infants and children.  The government of Daniel Ortega furthermore closed the border and prohibited the passage of any cargo or tourism vehicle. Nicaragua has accused Costa Rica of creating a humanitarian crisis by its authorization of over 1500 special transit visas to the migrants.  

Around 6 pm the Costa Rican chancelor, Manuel Gonzalez, criticized Nicaragua's treatment of the migrants, emphasizing excessive use of accusation and military force to deal with a migration issue. 

It appears the Cubans have returned to being Costa Rica's problem.  It's yet to be seen what transpires.  My heart really goes out to these unfortunate people. 

Chaos for Cubans in Canoas

Photo taken from Reuters internet posting.
A Cuban migrant woman receives her passport with the visa granted by the immigration office at the border post with Panama in Paso Canoas, Costa Rica November 14, 2015.  Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate

Even before traveling back and forth between Panama and the US, I always considered myself to be a culturally sensitive person and have always expended effort trying to behave in a manner that wouldn't create negative feelings about North Americans in foreign countries.  I was born in Germany and have always been critical of "ugly American" stereotypes. In fact, I even did a post some time ago about people I had observed acting in an offensive manner here...

For the most part, I think  I've done a good job of being a positive representative for my country and culture.  I've worked long and hard at speaking intelligent Spanish,  I've made wonderful strides in relaxing what used to be an  uptight, perfectionist nature, and  I get along well with "regular people" in my tight knit, lower-middle class Panamanian neighborhood.  

However, over the past month I've been particularly remiss in following local news and national current events. There's been a lot of unpleasant online bickering in the expat forums and especially related to the quasi-hostile takeover of Ning by some really unbelievable web administrators.  I became frustrated  reading  it all and took a respite from all social and news media for several weeks. This escapism is responsible for my insensitive blooper last night.

I had no idea, for example, that due to the unfreezing of US -Cuban relations, there has been a mass exodus of Cubans heading to the United States to join friends and relatives.  Costa Rica reports it has processed more than 12,000 undocumented Cubans in just the first 9 months of 2015. Honduran numbers are even higher. Cubans are able to fly to Ecuador from their homeland without a visa requirement, and from there they travel over land and water routes through Central America  on their way to the US.  They are traveling undocumented, and apparently have better chances of being received in the US via land than by sea...

The countries though which these people are traveling  have been liberal about their lack of documentation.  They allow detainees to declare they are seeking political asylum in the destination countries, then release them and allow up to 20 days to move on to the next country's border, as they travel via  Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.  Many of the migrants utilize "coyotes" to guide them and interact on their behalf with local immigration officials. These coyotes, allegedly, are part of a large Mafia-based human smuggling ring.

Moving on to the current situation.  Apparently on Nov 11th, Costa Rican officials broke up regional operations of this smuggling ring and arrested 12 Costa Ricans involved at the Peñas Blancas border near Nicaragua.  In doing so, hundreds of illegals were left to their own devices in Costa Rica without documentation or the know how to get around.  These people were re-routed to San Jose, Costa Rica and  detained by immigration officials there.   However, hundreds more kept coming into Costa Rica via Panama, and the 11/11/15 raid created a quagmire that overwhelmed operations at the Paso Canoas border.  So, Costa Rica closed it's borders to Cubans on November 13th, the day I chose to do my routine border hop. 

According to accounts, the Cubans were arriving in Panama via boat from Columbia, and Panama was following their policy of treating them as political refugees seeking asylum in the destination country.  (United States)  Costa Rican authorities are miffed at Panama for continuing to allow them to exit Panama into Costa Rica in light of the problem Costa Rica generated by breaking up the illicit operations. Costa Rica attempted to return the Cubans to Panama, however Panama refused to allow it on the premise the people had already exited the country.   Apparently the numbers of Cubans trying to traverse Costa Rica into Nicaragua via Paso Canoas reached nearly 1600, which is a huge number of people to accommodate in the few lodging facilities the town has.  Nicaragua allegedly was denying entry of the Cubans into their country, which compounded matters.  Many of the "refugees" hadn't funds to pay for lodging, and that's why they were hanging around the immigration offices and sleeping on cardboard cartons and benches.  At one point they also closed down the Interamerican Highway, demanding to be allowed to freely pass through Costa Rica, and created quite a news stir in Costa Rica .  Of course, I don't follow the Costa Rican news stations, and even though there was some Panamanian coverage, I failed to turn that on, either.  

So, enter this clueless gringa who has established residency in Panama.  She walks up to the immigration entry point in Costa Rica and encounters a stressed border agent who was nearing the end of his shift. Instead of just accepting his instructions to go buy a bus ticket to meet heightened immigration security requirements established by all the extra "big guns" who had moved into the office to scrutinize the rank and file's handling of the situation,  she challenges the agent and criticizes the administration's policy of requiring documentation of an entrant's ability and intention of leaving the country.  Wow...hindsight is always 20/20, is it not?    Given what I know now, I'm just thankful they handled me as well as they did while I continued to complain as they walked me back to Panama.   I feel very guilty about it all.    Here Costa Rica was actually working to address a problem that eventually would fall upon the United States after Panama evaded it. And I was a US citizen with residency in Panama, who in all her stupidity was demanding special treatment and criticizing Costa Rica for following appropriate immigration procedures.  If I had been that border agent I probably would have done the same thing.   I guess I win the ugly American award this week. 

Upon my return to Boquete on Saturday afternoon, I learned that Costa Rica had finally developed some type of procedure for issuing temporary 7-day travel visas allowing the Cubans to  pass through their country.  A few hundred people were being deported, however.  I still am not clear on what is going to happen when they reach the Nicaraguan border.  Apparently no one else is either. 

My driving privileges expire tomorrow, so I will be without wheels until I can find the time to take local transportation from Boquete back to the border to try once again to exit and re-enter Panama for an extended 90 day driving privilege.  I intend to wait a minimum of 7 days until the Cubans clear out, and would recommend to others they consider this as well.  For their own peace of mind.  And whatever else,  maintain your calm and keep your opinions to yourself !   I consider this a lesson learned.   It's probably a good idea to proceed with purchasing a bus ticket from San Jose to David before approaching border agents for the next few weeks.

I eagerly await the opportunity to apply for my Panama drivers license!

Read more here:

Nov 14, 2015

My First Bad Border Experience

After nearly nine years of living half-in and half-out of Panama, I finally decided to stay here permanently.  I returned from the states in mid-August and obtained legal residency.  I have a temporary Panamanian ID, valid for one year, and the permanent one arrives in the next few months. I've avoided excessive border hops because of my frequent trips to the states, but nevertheless have found myself making 1-2 runs a year to renew my 90-day driving privileges on a US drivers license. Once my permanent ID arrives, I will be able to apply for a Panamanian driver's license.

Yesterday, on day 88 of my return, I headed to Paso Canoas for what I was hoping would be the last exit and re-entry to update my driving privileges. With two days to spare, I stamped out of Panama as I always do, and walked over to Costa Rica to sign in at immigration there.   I noticed there were an unusually large number of people standing around the waiting area and along the side of the building, but attributed it to being November, which is a holiday month in Panama.  I remember thinking, "Wow, there are a lot of Panamanians leaving this weekend."  Then I noticed several policemen in the area, and black & yellow tape cordoning off the immediate area in front of immigration's entry and exit windows.  Figuring there must be some remodeling going on somewhere, I walked up to one of the policemen and asked where the entry had been moved to.  He instructed me to climb under the tape and walk up to the windows.

I approached an empty window and handed over my completed immigration form and passport to the waiting agent.  A very arrogant young man immediately demanded to see my airline ticket corroborating a flight from Costa Rica to the USA.  I provided him with a ticket from Panama City, Panama to the USA in December, right before Christmas.  He refused to accept it.  He stated he needed proof of my exit from Costa Rica, not from Panama.  I explained to him that I resided in Panama and planned on staying less than 24 hours in Costa Rica, as is customary for Costa Rican or Panamanian expats needing to update visas or driving privileges from either side of the border.  

My clarification was useless with this particular agent, and he advised me if I wanted to enter Costa Rica, I would have to purchase a $ 20 bus ticket from San Jose, Costa Rica (which is 8 hours from the border) to David, Panama.  I questioned the need for it, because in nine years of crossing back and forth, I've never had to provide this.  I explained again that I resided in Panama, had driven to the border, and would be returning in my private vehicle that was about 6 blocks away.   He insisted a bus ticket was required. I commented that I found this policy objectionable as it obviously benefited the Costa Rican bus company and took advantage of tourists who might want to just shop for a few hours.  (About a year ago, Costa Rica implemented a $7.00 exit tax for people crossing from Costa Rica into Panama, and everyone has had to just accept the imposition.  Panama has not levied any similar fees.)  

The agent informed me  I could not enter Costa Rica without it, so I left to buy the ticket.  About 20 minutes later,  I returned with the bus ticket.  The agent immediately called his supervisor and I was informed by her that I would not be allowed to enter Costa Rica because I had been rude to her agent and accused him of promoting the bus company's business interest.  I denied this and repeated exactly what I had said, but I might as well have spit in the wind.   I was told to go around the corner to enter a door on the side the building.  It opened into a small, windowless office with one desk and a side chair.  There were two Costa Rican immigration police with bullet proof vests standing by the desk.  I was instructed to come in and sit down.  One of the police officers held a typed NCR form in his hand.  I hesitated.  Visions of a Costa Rican interrogation and/or jail cell popped into my head, as ridiculous as that may seem.... They insisted I enter.  I entered but remained standing and asked if I was being detained or arrested.  They never answered, but then the two of them together directed me to leave with them.  I insisted they tell me where we were going first.  And I repeated my question about being detained.  One of the officers cracked a slight smile and responded that I wasn't being detained. The other one then explained that I was being sent back to Panama and they would accompany me because otherwise Panama wouldn't receive me.

So, for the next 6 blocks or so, I walked between two police officers in riot gear back to Panama immigration and was not given possession of my passport.  I was ushered into the back of the Panama immigration office (which thankfully had windows) and was again instructed to be seated.  No one spoke to me, but one of the officers handed my passport to a Panamanian immigration official who examined it for five minutes with a magnifying glass.  After viewing the multiple entry/exit visa, he requested my temporary ID and then examined it under the magnifying glass for another two minutes.  Eventually he stamped over the exit notation in the passport and I saw that they had annulled it.   I was  then allowed  to leave.  It was 7:30 pm and dark, so I headed to Hostal La Morenita and booked a room for the night.  The next morning I considered trying to cross the border again, but noticed my two escorts from the night before were inside the office and decided to give up and go home without updating my passport status.

What I subsequently learned sheds a lot of light on the rationale for my treatment at the border and probably explains why my innocent but irritated and ill-thought comment got me into the trouble it did.    A kind Panamanian whose ear I bent at the hostal advised me  next time to tell the border agent I plan to stay 3 days in Golfito and to speak English.   Apparently there is a big push to generate as much revenue as possible in Costa Rica from people who pass through the country.  Additionally, Costa Rica has their own little "Cuban Crisis" going on.  Because I'd been taking a respite from the local news for the last few weeks, I walked right into it clueless.  I will explain and elaborate in the next post.

Nov 7, 2015

Lost Waterfall # 2

A friend and I spent one Sunday morning hiking up the Lost Waterfalls trail in Bajo Mono, Boquete.  We got as far as the second of three waterfalls located in the area. The hike was a bit difficult, due mainly to the steep incline and damp earth pathways, but arriving at such a peaceful location truly compensated for the effort.   
My friend, being in better physical condition than I, attempted the additional hike to Waterfall # 3, but returned disappointed.  She said the trail was essentially a straight vertical climb that required holding onto ropes and trudging through slippery mud.  She felt the trek was nearly impossible at this time of year and encouraged me to emphasize its inadvisability.  I was more than happy to take her word for it...

This was our second visit to the area, having reached only the trail head on our first outing.  The waterfalls are located on private property and there is a $5 charge per person to visit the waterfalls.  We were told the owner is Wendy Burton, someone I've never met, and that she is retired and no longer visits the grounds with any frequency.  (Given the effort entailed in getting there, this is understandable.)  The fees are purportedly used to maintain the trail, however one shouldn't expect maintenance characteristic of trails in the US , Canada, or other first world countries. You are keenly aware you are in the rain forest when you hike these paths.   The rates charged for hiking the property could conceivably raise sufficient funds to support the Ngobe caretaker and family living in a tiny hut at the trail entrance, but then again, maybe not.  We encountered no other hikers on either of our two outings there. 

Getting to the trail head is an effort in and of itself.  The only way to get there is on foot.  On our first attempt, it took about 45 minutes and a lot of huffing and puffing. Most of the walk is uphill. On our second trip, we made it to the trail head in about 15-20 minutes due to better physical conditioning and not stopping for photos. There is a small cabaña at the trail entrance that rents out for $90 a night on Airbnb.  We were told it has no electricity nor internet. Our enthusiasm for staying at the cabaña was dampened by the thought of carting food, drink, and personal items up to that location.  

Start of path to trail head 

Cabaña right next to the trail head

View from the start of the Lost Waterfalls Trail

Caretaker's hut

From the trail head to the first waterfall is about a 10 minute climb and the trail then levels off and eventually heads downhill. 

We chose instead to follow the trail up to the second waterfall...

The pool at the bottom of the falls was large and deep enough to swim, but I've never been a fan of cold water.  The spray alone was enough to prompt use of an extra windbreaker.  Instead we made ourselves comfortable on some large rocks and enjoyed a quick picnic lunch before heading back down to a quicker pace---Chiriqui style, as seen below.

Oct 31, 2015

Boquete Artist Marjorie Freiburghaus

Boquete artist, Marjorie Freidburghaus, is one of my favorite local artists. Self-taught and versatile, she paints an array of subjects and is equally comfortable doing folk art or abstracts. 

Whether producing a commissioned painting to complement someone's new home decor or creating her own inspirations, Marjorie's work is always distinctive.  Her use of bright colors and simple composition draws you into the canvas and wraps you in a good feeling, as you gaze upon a bunch of bananas, watch a hummingbird, or negotiate your way through an abstract maze. 

Below are photos of  a few of her works. My snapshots don't do justice to the color and clarity of the originals, unfortunately.  Feel free to let me know your thoughts, and I'm happy to provide the artist's contact information via private email.




Oct 30, 2015

Sitio Barriles, Volcan, Panama

Sitio Barriles is a pre-colombian archeological site located on private land near Volcan, Chiriqui in Panama.  I'm told that personnel from National Geographic came at one time and helped with excavations, however they are no longer involved. I haven't corroborated the veracity of the following, but I was informed that personnel from this institution took most of the "better pieces" out of the country.  Whether this is true or not, and whether the artifacts were purchased or taken, is also up for speculation.  This information was not provided by the site's official guide, but rather communicated via rumor mill.  I am ashamed to admit I don't care enough to research further.  Bottom line the pieces that were allegedly discovered there, are no longer there.  If National Geographic did remove them from the country, hopefully they are somewhere where they can be appreciated by a much wider audience.  

The small finca that houses the remaining artifacts and history is open to the public and is frequently visited by educational institutions.  The grounds are scenic and captivating as well. There is a small fee for a guided tour both the museum and grounds.  Tourists are $5 per person and locals are $3 per person.

This statue is a replica of the original which is located in a national museum.  It is a symbolic representation of the peoples who comprised the ancient civilization that populated the area.  They were comprised of Asiatic and African elements and are reported to have collaboratively inhabited the region. 

Noting that the Asian was on top, being transported by the African, I questioned our guide's explanation that they collaborated.  It was then she explained that the statue is a reflection of the collaboration.  The African is depicted as blind, and the Asian as lame.  The two peoples were able to accomplish their needs and goals through mutual effort and assistance.  

Below are a few artifacts found in the small on-site museum.

Mother and Child statue

These are ancient map rocks, indicating a central location and surrounding foot trails.

Another map rock of trails leading to the summit of Volcan Baru

Sign of the serpent,  for good luck

The area above remains to be excavated.  Students from the universities donate labor as time permits. 

The above photos are of a hillside that has been partially excavated to reveal an ancient burial ground.  Remains of the dead were stored in the clay pots embedded in the hillside. 

Pre-historic ferns and bamboo forests comprise much of the natural landscaping along the trails to the burial grounds.