Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Central: My 2013 Central America Bus Trip (Part 4)

Costa Rica-Panama

The chicken leg in lukewarm cream sauce that I ate in Nicaragua hasn't made me sick yet. Hurray!

Costa Rica is the opposite of Honduras. Nature here is unspoiled. The whole country is like one, well preserved, national park. As we pull into the San Jose bus station, some of the shopping malls we pass by remind me of upscale malls in Orange County.

At the station, the crew that has served us since El Salvador are done with their shift. I want to say a word about these two young men, our attendants. They were awesome. They have been working for almost 24 hours straight and they look just as fresh and dapper now as when they started this shift. I imagine they are the equivalent of what flight attendants in the U.S. in the 1960s were like-- glamorous, exploring exotic locales. Anyway, let's get back to the story.

The bus from San Jose to Panama City is completely full. The border between Costa Rica and Panama is supposed to be open 24 hours a day, so we arrived at the border at 4 a.m. The bus attendant had us quickly line up at the border. The urgency led me to believe that this was going to be quick.

It's 5 a.m., and we're still standing in line. The officials' windows have not opened. In fact, there's no one inside the border control building. I am tired, sore, and my face, which has not been washed for over a day, is greasy. So greasy, in fact, that when I rub my eyes, the grease burns my eyes. I also have to pee, but don't want to lose my place in line. And, there's nowhere to pee legally or discretely anywhere.

Then, I look behind me. And I see the sun rising. (See lede photo, which happens to be my favorite photo from the entire trip.) If there is anything more beautiful than a Costa Rican sunset, it's a Costa Rican sunrise. The scenery was augmented by the loud, almost shrill, chirping of hundreds of birds. All of my physical complaints vanished. My pains were gone. I didn't care about how my hair looked or how I smelled. I was in a zen-like trance. I was in the Zone. And it felt beyond great.

In that enlightened mood, we waited for another hour.

With Costa Rica's side finally out of the way, we walk across into Panama. An older lady who worked for Panamanian customs herded us, all of the passengers on the bus, into an oval room furnished with metal tables. She ordered us to place all of our luggage on the table tops and open them for inspection. But before she dug through our belongings, she led us in prayer. Strange.

After the inspections, it was more waiting. A guy in street clothes approached each of us and said that he represented the local municipality. Apparently, we each had to give him a dollar for the right to enter the area. It's the local ordinance. I sensed a scam, even if it's an officially sanctioned scam, and reluctantly gave him a dollar. To legitimize the transaction, he affixed a little sticker in my passport.

More waiting. This feral dog resting underneath our bus had the right idea.

Contrary to my mental map of Panama, it runs east-west rather than north-south. By late afternoon, we approached Panama City. I tapped the guy sitting next to me and asked if I was seeing the Panama Canal. He nodded. And we were going to drive over it, on a bridge!

At the foot of the bridge is this monument. It was paid for by the local Chinese community, recognizing 150 years of contributions to Panama.

And here we are, over the canal. This was an unexpected bonus of the trip, although when you think about it, how else was I going to get to Panama City by land without crossing the canal? To top it off, we were stuck in traffic on the bridge. I quickly learned that unless it's three in the morning, there is always soul-crushing traffic everywhere in Panama City.

In 43 hours of travel on Ticabus, I logged 2,223 kilometers through six Central American countries. I am almost done.

The next day, I plotted my trip to the Darien Gap. I went to the bus station to buy my ticket. The lady at the counter told me no tickets are sold in advance. Just show up at four tomorrow morning. I then went to the Tommy Guardia Geographic Institute and bought detailed maps of the Darien region. I capped the successful mission with a dim sum lunch at Lung Fung. Tomorrow, I complete my journey.


Alan said...

Excellent, really enjoying this coverage. Good luck and be safe.

Edvin said...

Well written about the most important skill in traveling, the ability to snap out of your self-inflicted misery and annoyance and to instead appreciate where you are and what you're doing. Those are usually the most memorable moments afterwards. Too many people lack that skill and are often seen complaining to the staff in a hotel lobby because their room doesn't face the beach etc. They don't realize that they're the ones ruining their holiday, not the hotel staff.