May 1, 2016

Cuban Culmination?

Some of the 3,000 Cuban refugees that were stranded at the Paso Canoas border have been transferred to Gualaca, where they are being housed in local hostels and provided with medical attention as needed.  Those transferred included pregnant women and children and other persons in more frail conditions.  

Announcements have been made that the authorities are close to reaching some type of diplomatic arrangement for those 3,000 Cubans that are already in Panama.  At the same time, Panama has taken stronger measures to stop the influx of illegals into Panama without actually implementing a border closure.  President Varela announced on April 28th that new or additional refugees who enter Panama illegally will not be allowed to participate in the process currently being negotiated for the 3,000 refugees already housed near the border.  He stressed that Panama will implement a humanitarian effort to assist these detainees, but cannot continue functioning as a permanent logistical backup for illegal migration.  As of that date, Cubans attempting to enter Panama illegally will be detained and returned. The news of this measure has reached Cuba, I am certain, as I viewed an internet video broadcast in Cuba addressing the topic.  Since the announcement, it was calculated that only 100 additional Cubans have passed into Panama.  They are currently under the control of SENAFRONT and the National Migration Service.

President Varela emphasized that Panama will offer whatever emotional or psychological support measures it can to additional migrants illegally crossing the border, but that these persons will have to leave and need to consider which country they wish to return to.

Apr 16, 2016

Long overdue update

                                                                  Photo from Panama Canal Website's been nearly 2 months since my last post.  A lot has been going on in the world.  I've been so busy following the news that I haven't had the time to sit down and actually write about any of it.  

The USA presidential primaries have been akin to a reality show this year.  The Republicans have taken a no-holds-barred approach to political competition and no subject has been too personal to discuss during televised debates.  The rest of the world continues to enjoy lots of laughs and endless amazement at just how arrogant, prejudiced, and base we "Americans" are. The Democratic primaries are proceeding with a little more dignity, but there seems to be a lot of disillusionment with voter suppression issues and campaign rigging. Here in Panama the expat community seems just as divided as the folks back home. 

In Boquete there's definite evidence of the doomsday Christian immigratory wave. It can be perceived in the news pieces that are circulated on the local forums or via casual conversations overheard in public places.  Or, sometimes it shows up even in direct conversation intended for a different heading.  I recently learned many Boquete newbies believe that the general election in November will result in rioting and civil disorder sufficient for President Obama to declare martial law. The expectation is that subsequent to doing so, he will remain in office for an additional term "as he has desired all along" and that the US will become a dictatorship.  (I find this incredulous, but would certainly take an Obama dictatorship over a Trump presidency if those were the only options.)

I've received some orientation to digital currency, as well as a variety of conspiracy theories. 

The Cuban refugee situation is intensifying.  Costa Rica mobilized 8,000 Cuban refugees from their borders to the USA in the past year, at significant governmental cost.  The country claims it is unable to maintain this burden and has announced border closure.  Costa Rica, on April 15th,  identified enforcement measures it plans to apply regarding some 3000 Cuban migrants and 500 African / Asian migrants currently in Paso Canoas wanting to traverse their country. They will detain them in immigration centers and arrange for deportation.  The same morning, Costa Rica transferred about 200 people originating from Africa and Asia  back onto Panamanian soil after having been allowed to cross through Panama's border onto the Costa Rican side. Demonstrations along the Pan American highway resulted, and a strong police presence is being maintained in front of the immigration building there.  One Cuban man who was interviewed by the local TV channel stated, "Panama says it is helping us, and we are grateful for having a roof over our heads, but the accommodations are inhuman.  We are just as repressed here as we were in Cuba." Considering they have arrived en masse short on funds to maintain themselves and are being provided with food, water, and shelter, I take exception to the comment.  But then, I'm not living under the same conditions. A high level CARITAS worker in Panama interviewed by the local news station reported that Cubans who have reached Panama through Colombia are all reporting rough treatment from Colombian police and other officials who rob them of their cash.  They allegedly set out with money to care for themselves, but end up in Panama with nothing after their travels through Colombia.  Paso Canoas is a small town that can be completely traversed on foot in 20 minutes. It has few hotels. Pictures on the TV showed people living in tents under some type of large concrete structure with a tin roof.  The CARITAS worker also mentioned Puerto Obaldía, another small town where other Cubans have entered Panama.  She said the town consists of 600 people, but 800 Cubans have now arrived there.  There is one doctor to attend to the entire village, and the additional migrants as well as the nearby comarca, have overwhelmed the delivery of health care there.

Cubans have been migrating to the US and other countries via Ecuador for a number of years.  According to reports, Costa Rica has been passing 20,000 people a year through it's borders en route to "el norte". The current crisis began back in November of 2015 when Costa Rican police broke up an illegal coyote ring that moved these people.  Costa Rica arrested and incarcerated 12 individuals, which threw a huge wrench in the [illegal] system.  Then in December, Nicaragua closed it’s borders to the immigrants, and Costa Rica was stuck having to mobilize 8000 Cubans headed for the US.  Costa Rica struggled valiantly with the problem and resolved it, but the immigrants keep coming.  Seems the ball has finally landed in Panama’s court and the outcome should be interesting.  Panama’s vice-president, Isabel St. Malo,  has emphasized Panama is concerned with humanitarian issues and is implementing measures to provide these people with attention while trying to work out international agreements. 

The Orchid Feria, the Jazz Festival, and Boquete's 105th anniversary have come and gone since my last post.  The Orchid Festival was the same as usual. The Jazz Festival was very expensive with shorter musical performances. In comparison to the Panama City Jazz Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of attendees, at an average cost of $10 per ticket and integrates the local community, Boquete's Jazz Festival cost $70 a ticket, took place in Valle Escondido, and may have included a handful of wealthy token Panamanians. The event I attended was full of non-local, non-resident groupies. There was a pervasive commerciality to the ambiance, and some gringo organizer kept bragging to me about the custom-made silver jewelry he was wearing. What a contrast to the rest of life down here. 

The Boquete Anniversary celebrations lasted a few days and included a cabalgata, typical and modern music in central park, school gatherings, a contest to elect a festivities queen, and civic and traditional performances.  I only marginally participated this year, but enjoyed the atmosphere and horse parade.  

The Panama Papers scandal has changed things here in not so good a way. Panamanians are feeling any combination of embarrassed, ashamed, indignant, persecuted, defiant and/or perplexed. They are an exceedingly patriotic people who take any criticism of their country personally and are very anxious that the scandal not be a label for the country.  A lot of things are going on internally, and the international press is also saturated with information about the matter, so I have little motivation to write more at this time.  Perhaps in a later post.  Suffice it to say that Panama is feeling the international pressure to comply with the automatic data interchange system established by the OCDE.  Though highly resistant, someone recently sent me an article out  of France indicating Panama has relented.  I haven't seen the same announcement locally, however.  

Lastly, the Canal Expansion is close to being opened.  The canal is currently in a testing and final touch phase, but the end is very near!  

Feb 21, 2016

A Paso Canoas Lodging Alternative

Most people would agree that Paso Canoas isn't exactly a vacation hot spot.  But many expats still go there for a variety of reasons.  After playing the tourist game for more years than I care to admit, I'm no longer obligated to make these trips, but they've sort of become a quarterly routine for me and I still like to regularly shop there.   I headed out two days ago and made my first stop at La Morenita as usual to drop off the car and check in.   Vilka greeted me warmly and then with a chagrinned expression said she had hoped I wouldn't be showing up this month. Apparently the hostal was full and there wasn't even a spare sofa to offer me.  She explained that the stranded Cubans had filled up the place and she was under government contract to give them priority lodging.  She expected things to lighten up in March.  In her usual, attentive fashion though, she called a friend who was able to put me up at their hotel. She said the name of the place was Las Canarias, and it was in the town center.  

Having a good idea of what central Paso Canoas hotels were like, I was less than enthusiastic about staying anywhere in town.   But Vilka assured me the place was decent. When I got there I was pleasantly surprised.  It's located about 300 meters south of the Panamanian immigration building on the road heading toward Puerto Armuellas.  If you follow that road, you will pass a Pio Pio place, a Melo store, a Banco Nacional branch, and then reach a strip mall across from a gas station and automotive repair / tire place.  

The hotel residencial Las Canarias is actually two facilities, one on the Panamanian side and one on the Costa Rican side of the border.  The hotel on the Panamanian side,  which is the one on the Puerto Armuellas road and is shown in the photo above, is the more expensive of the two. But the price differences are minimal ---around a $10 per room (and you get a lot more space for that $10).  

I was warmly greeted by name at the reception desk when I walked in.  The attendant spoke flawless English and I learned his father is Panamanian and his mother British, so he grew up with both languages.  He considers himself Panamanian.  My room charge was $50.   There are available parking spots off the road in front of the hotel, and I was assured there is a watchman at night.  The hotel itself is upstairs over the strip mall. Downstairs, next to the hotel entrance, is a small coffee shop.   

I asked about nearby restaurants for a more substantial meal and learned that their  Costa Rican facility, located 1.5 blocks away, offered home-cooked typical dishes, and so I decided to head there for dinner after some shopping.  

The rooms are  clean, spacious, and nicely decorated.  A standard room comes with two queen beds, private bath, air conditioning, cable television, hot water with great water pressure, and a small seating area.  There is a spacious and comfortable lobby as well, with numerous magazines to peruse.  Compared to equally priced other downtown locations, this place has it hands down. 

After shopping, I headed over to the Costa Rican facility for dinner. When I walked in, there was an attractive lady sitting at one of the tables who greeted me and asked me if I was "la señora Charlotte." She told me the attendant at the other building had called to tell her I'd be coming.  She asked me what I'd like to eat and said she could offer me fish filet, pork chops, chicken, or beef with a salad and rice, beans, a "casado" or patacones.  I ordered fish with salad and patacones and ice cold Imperial, a Costa Rican beer that I like much more than any of the Panamanian brands.  The food was delicious, the service excellent, and $10 covered everything, including tax and tip. The next morning I chose to eat there again instead of in the downstairs coffee shop.  There is no menu.  You simply tell the cook what you want and she prepares it for you.  I had a ham, cheese and onion omelette with ripe plantains and natilla (a Costa Rican cultured cream) on the side, plus a huge cup of local coffee.  The meal was $ 8.50 including tax and tip. 

At the Costa Rican facility, parking is off road and enclosed and roofed.  I didn't ask to see a room there, however as I was leaving I looked into one being cleaned and found it acceptable, but much smaller and plainer than the one I stayed in on the Panama side. To my way of thinking, the extra $10 is worth it.   Here  are some photos of the Panamanian facility's entrance and lobby areas as well as a photo of my room. 

They also offer a deluxe suite that has a jacuzzi tub, king size bed, small refrigerator and sound system.  The charge for the suite is $ 100 per night. 

For additional photos or information, the link to their facebook page is below:

Below are photos of the location, entrance, and lobby / restaurant facilities at the Costa Rican Las  Canarias location.

It's not easy to find decent lodging in this small border town.  I've tried several.  Prices don't vary all that much.  For the same room rates, you could do much worse.  Even if you were to pay more, you won't find locations better than either La Morenita or Las Canarias. And nothing beats their customer service.   Here's hoping things don't change anytime soon. 

Jan 23, 2016

Wandering Spider: The Final Answer

Two years ago I blogged about a large wandering spider I found inside my Chiriqui home at 3:00 am when my cats created a ruckus and woke me.  I sprayed it with insecticide and after confirming its demise, took some photos. Then I initiated a cursory internet research to identify its species and particulars.  Each time I saw a photo of a beast that resembled my deceased spider, the caption identified it as a phoneutria (Brazilian Wandering Spider).    Somewhere I read about another species (Cupienius) that was oft confused with the phoneutria but lacked the same reputation for being “deadly”.  I spent hours on the internet comparing photos of the two arachnid groupings, attempting to diagnose my night visitor as either harmless or evil. I didn’t want to believe it, but my spider more closely resembled photos of the phoneutria than it did the the cupienius.  
I then decided to call on the experts, and wrote to three online spider websites.  Two of the site masters confirmed my spider was a phoneutria based upon the arrangement of its eight eyes, the black line running down the dorsal carapace, (cephalothorax) and a series of 6 dice-like dots on the dorsal abdomen. Wikipedia also described these features as characteristic of phoneutria.  The last contacted website expert responded saying the spider couldn’t be classified without “seeing it in person”.  I surmised this respondent was too weird for further communication :-)

Given two out of three “experts” had confirmed my fears that the spider was a phoneutria, I published two posts alerting other expats to utilize caution in dealing with such critters in the home. Since then I’ve received occasional emails about the posts and I reiterated to those contacts that my information came from the internet and I had no first hand training or experience in arachnology.  However, I continued to warn people not to be too cavalier in their dealings with large spiders in the home.

Very recently, I received another email, only this time the author was not someone to be placated with generalities.  She wanted to know who I had contacted, why I reached my conclusion, and how dangerous the spider venom actually was.  She reported having found several similar spiders in her home nearby.  I gave her what information I had, but it wasn’t detailed enough and she was determined to get to the bottom of the matter.  I’d love to give her credit here for pursuing the issue, but don’t have permission to use her name.  Suffice it to say her initials are P.C. and I’m grateful for her energy and persistence.  She wrote to the Smithsonian in Panama City, and was directed to someone in Germany who subsequently directed her to another person in Brazil who then forwarded the information to the final expert.

Through photos P.C. sent of one of the spiders she sacrificed, the expert determined the spider was NOT a phoneutria but instead a Ctenus sinuatipes.  The Ctenus species are also wandering spiders, found frequently in Central America, but have not been declared to have “medically significant” venom.  This Brazilian expert recognized the distinctive features of the spider’s back legs (sinew-like) and mentioned this is what gave the species its name. 
I was interested in this information, but had doubts about the classification of my particular spider because it differed from the photos of P.C.’s spider.   I spent several more hours on the internet, trying to teach myself spider anatomy & physiology and blowing up photos of hairy arachnids to better examine magnified eyes and hair follicles.  It got to the point where if a breeze blew past the back of my neck, I jumped three feet.  I finally admitted I was in over my head and decided with P.C.'s blessing to contact this expert myself with photos of my spider. I digress here to mention that the expert is an arachnologist with a PhD, is affiliated with the California Academy of Sciences, has written numerous scientific papers, including a few dealing with the reclassification of tropical spiders, and is female, attractive, young, personable and, at minimum, bilingual.  She has been more than accommodating and helpful regarding our inquiries about the spiders.  I am very confident of and impressed by her knowledge.

This evening I received her response that the spider I’ve been calling a phoneutria for 2 years also happens to be a male Ctenus sinuatipes.  So what does that mean?  Essentially it means it is not considered "dangerous".  Male Ctenus sinuatipes generally live for about 1.5 years and die shortly after mating.  They are known to travel great distances to mate.  Females can live up to 10 years.  A bite from this spider would be painful, and there is always the risk of a anaphylactic allergic reaction that could be serious and/or lethal, however absent a significant allergy to the venom, a person is unlikely to die from a bite.  

Dr. Daniele Polotow elaborates to say that even phoneutria bites are rarely fatal. Having worked more than 10 years for the research institute in Brazil that produces all the spider and snake antivenoms and vaccines for Brazilian hospitals, she reports that the majority of people bitten by these spiders don't receive antivenom.  The treatment standard is observation and palliative care. This includes treatment even for the scientists who work directly with the live spiders collecting venom.  She reports the bite is extremely painful and may cause confusion and other symptoms of neurotoxicity, but is rarely fatal and easily treated.   She then goes on to caution that, despite ongoing research into Central American spiders, a lot remains unknown regarding the effects, toxicity, and symptoms their venoms cause. Better to be safe than sorry.   If one finds it necessary to erradicate a questionable spider, doing so won't endanger the species. Logging, mining, and real estate expansion are the real dangers to species extinctions.

An internet search I conducted in Spanish regarding Ctenus sinuatipes bites turned up a report by the Organization for Tropical Studies data base in Costa Rica of an individual bitten in 1981.  (The spider was captured and later identified as a female Ctenus sinuatipes.  The specimen is registered at the Museum of Zoology in Costa Rica.) The report indicates a 25 yr old woman was gathering laundry on her patio in San Rafael de Coronado when she received a spider bite on her left thumb.   The victim immediately felt intense pain at the bite site, a generalized sensation of fever and diaphoresis, edema, moderate cyanosis and numbness of the hand where a bloody puncture wound was seen at the innoculation point. An hour later she experienced dizziness and fainting, coldness of the hand and tightness in the elbow joint.  Later, she had a headache.  The following day she experienced persistent numbness of the hand.  The third day she had pain that radiated to the elbow upon applying pressure to the bite wound.  On the fifth day she was asymptomatic.  Treatment consisted of intramuscular antihistamines, intramuscular penicillin, and oral analgesics and anti inflammatory medication. 
Internet photo of  Ctenus sinuatipes found in Costa Rica.  Note the sinuous final segments of the hind legs. 

Nov 28, 2015

Cuban Conundrum Continues

The Costa Rican Cuban situation has been well covered by the press in the last several days, and they've done a much better job at it than I possibly could, hence  no new posts.  But to avoid just leaving the topic up in the air, I will recap where things stand at the moment.  

Apparently a meeting of Central American and Cuban officials on November 24th failed to solve the issue of the 2000+ Cuban migrants who are stranded in Costa Rica at the Nicaraguan border.  They have not been granted passage onward toward the US, and Nicaragua is allegedly fortifying the border with more foot soldiers. Nicaragua is also pressuring Costa Rica to have them removed from the area where they are camped out on the Costa Rican side of the frontera. For a large number of them, their funds have run out, they are receiving food handouts from charitable Costa Rican agencies, and they are sleeping on the ground in the open. 

What seems to have been worked out during the meeting, however, is stricter regulations regarding the transit of Cubans from their home country.  Ecuador, which previously didn't require visas, is now requiring visas for Cubans wanting to travel to that country.  The visa process has to be done online, and is complicated by the fact that Cuban internet services are poor.  Cuba is stating they will welcome back any migrants who wish to return to Cuba.  

According to a BBC press release (link below) Nicaragua was the only country out of 11 Central American nations to hold out against any "joint and integral solution" to the current crisis.   Costa Rica accused the nation of acting in bad faith.  At this time Costa Rica is trying to work out a solution without the participation of Nicaragua.   More information at the link below or by searching Cubans in Costa Rica on the internet.

As an aside,  I returned to the border 4 days after my negative experience and passed into and out of Costa Rica without incident, and without the requirement of a bus ticket !  The matter took 40 minutes only.  Unreasonable bureaucrats everywhere are a pain in the behind.  All I can say is that it was my first and only ugly experience in nine years.  

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.