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Twenty Dollars to Leave

Welcome to the Maritime Authority of
Panama, where our well-laid pans went awry!
Today Shawn, Kavitha, and I took a taxi to the docks because, of course, we thought our boat the Voz Confio was leaving at around 8pm. When we got to the Maritime Office, guess what happened? Well, you should know by now.

She wasn't leaving. However, the immigration officials were there and they said that another boat, the Amparo, was in port and was departing at around 8pm to Jaque at the Colombia border. Score for The Odyssey! So Kavitha went to buy tickets for us, and I stayed and chatted with one of the officers who had worked in the immigration office for the last 15 years.

As we were getting our passports stamped, another jefe (boss) told me we'd have to pay an exit fee. We've gotten used to paying some sort of impuesta at all the borders, so I casually asked him how much while reaching in my wallet. He said, "Veinte" and my jaw dropped.

"Como? Como?" I asked, hoping that I misheard but knowing that my Spanish wasn't that bad. "En total o cada uno"

"Veinte dolares cada persona" I had heard correctly. The jefe explained that there is a tax to maintain the port. At the airport the exit tax is thirty dollars.

Twenty dollars each is more than we've paid combined throughout all of Mexico and Central America for exit fees. I told the jefe that we were hoping not to pay too much because "no tenemos mucho mas dinero," which was true. I had about $60 dollars on me.
Visiting Fort Clayton

During our stay in Panama I took an afternoon and went to visit the US Army base in Panama with my friend, Mikel. The guards weren't so sure about letting us on to the base, but a little patience and a big smile worked almost as well there as with the Panamanian officials at the docks (see the story at left.)

The guard looked at Mikel keenly and said, "You're PCC (Panama Canal Commission), aren't you? Mikel nodded his head and explained, "My dad just retired," and I piped in,"And I'm just a tourist. We're going to the library." The guard frowned and I smiled back at him.

I kidded, "Maybe I have something for about a chocolate bar?" and the guard said, "Oh, bribery now...that's a federal offense." His boots were spit-and-polish shiny, and his camouflage uniform was perfectly pressed. After checking my driver's license and asking for Mikel's social security and phone number, he let us through. I guess we don't look that threatening.

As we were busy trying to get into the base, a lot of people were thinking about how to get out. You see, this base, along with the Panama Canal, is being turned over by the US to Panama after December 31, 1999. We saw lots of moving vans in the driveways of some of the houses. Last year, US Army Southern Command transferred from here to Miami. From 5000 to 7000 Panamanians will be affected by the base closure - people who work and live near here.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year when the base closes, US Army employees move to Puerto Rico, and the Panamanian government gains control of this base, the Canal, and the economy.

We were worried that we wouldn't have much money coming into Colombia, and we had heard that the border patrol wants to know how much money you have and then decides to send you back or let you continue.

I implored, "Somos un grupo sin fines lucrativas, por favor, no hay un descuente? (We're a non-profit group. Please, can we get a discount?)" The jefe looked out the window and left to go smoke a little bit at the top of the stairs. So I followed him out and explained, "I know there's a tax at the airport, but flights cost a hundred dollars sometimes. Here it's only 12 per person. That's why we're going by boat, because we really don't have that much money."

Finally, the jefe replied, "This time is the only time we can do this, but you can't tell anybody because we can only do it this once. But we can reduce the fee, because there is a fund to help travelers without much money."

"Oh, gracias, muchisimas gracias!" I fawned, knowing that I would definitely tell all of you, and that the tax probably was on a sliding scale, depending on if you were a gringo or not.

"Cuanto pueden pagarnos?" (How much can you pay us?) The jefe asked me. Hmm. If they're asking for twenty, I can probably go down to three. "Tres cada uno, o cinco, pero nada mas." (Three per person, or five, but nothing more.) I couldn't believe we were bargaining for the opportunity to leave the country.

Finally, the jefe relented and said it was fine for us to pay a total of fifteen dollars, and we were outta there before they could change their mind.

We found out later that the two other foreigners on board, a Canadian man and a Japanese man, had paid 20 dollars each, and the Canadian, Hank, had to pay an extra 25 balboas for his motorbike. The Odyssey wins!

After the adventures with immigration, we expectantly sat by the dock waiting for the Amparo to get loaded up and depart. We ended up waiting a long, long time. Eventually it got too late, and some of the other passengers went to sleep on piles of wooden planks, but the Captain let three of us stay on board a neighboring ship.

One of the sailors helped me string up my hammock, and I lent my sleepsack to Ryo. From the deck we could see the lights of the New City: all the high rises and skyscrapers lit up the bay, and a half-moon and some stars were out. I finally fell asleep to the sound of ranchero music coming through my earplugs.

At the Panama docks
When dawn broke, a whole bunch of pelicans came flying across the water, and the city looked a little misty. It was beautiful. While watching the sailors load up the Amparo with dozens of items and other passengers, I realized that I was terrified of going on the Amparo. The sailors hadn't been particularly nice, and they had dropped quite a few things and broken one of the planks, and the Voz Confio was also scheduled to leave tonight. What to do? I looked at the Amparo and realized I didn't want to be on it, and Kavitha and Shawn agreed, so we went to ask for our money back, which the ticket man eventually gave us.

We're scheduled to leave tonight. Kavitha said, "Guess what? We've traded a 12-hour boat ride for an 18-and-a-half-hour one. The Voz Confio is going to stop at another port and then continue on to Jaque and Puerto Pina." But it's okay because we know the captain and crew and feel more comfortable on board.

It's always good to trust your instinct.


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Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I Love Ya, Tomorrow

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