While we were there, we found out the rates the tour company's were charging to bring folks over to Panama were really low right now as it the low season for tourism here. Looking at the calendar, we realized visa renewal loomed just ahead of us next month and with me having a trip to the States planned at the beginning of the month and our chapel construction under way, it was better to leave now than later. So we booked the trip to leave on Monday morning. The van would be at our hotel to pick us up at 8am.
The first fun was that all of our clothes were really gross from the weekend at the beach and needed washing. We went to the places that were advertised as laundry mats only to find they were actually women who were willing to wash out two loads of laundry for the small sum of $40. So we opted to figure it out on our own. Somehow my husband convinced the boys that standing in the shower in their bathing suits hand washing the clothes was fun. And he convinced me that these clothes would dry enough on the porch of the hotel overnight that we would be able to pack them up in the morning.
(Photos from our trip to the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo)
I scrounged up enough clean clothes for everyone to have something to wear the next morning while the bos worked. The clothes got washed and hung to dry outside. Somewhere in the middle of the night one of the worst torrential down pours that anyone seems to remember began on the Caribbean coast. It rained almost 16 hours straight. The clothes outside were wetter than they had been when we hung them up. Trying to be a trooper, I gathered them in to a plastic bag and figured we could dry them when we got where we were going. I headed to the room where the clean clothes and suit cases were to get us all ready to go. Only to find it was locked.
And upon further investigation, it turned out the hotel did not have any keys for the door. At this point, we had just minutes to be ready for the bus that would arrive to take us to the border. The boys made do with whatever mish mash of dirty pajamas they were wearing and headed to the lobby to wait for the bus while the Greg and the hotel maintenance man attempted to break into the bedroom. Soon the boys returned announcing that the bus had arrived. I mentally prepared myself to have to journey to Panama in my pajamas as I strapped on my sandals and prayed Memorares to the contrary. Greg went to buy us some time with the bus driver.
Finally, after disassembling the door frame, the man was able to get into the room. I threw the bag of wet clothes into the suit case and handed it off to Greg while I quickly changed from my pajamas into my most comfy maxi skirt and a t-shirt. The maxi skirt would prove to be a poor choice as the not-so-good, terribly rainy day wore on and the water slowly creeped its way up my cotton skirt from its edges which were all too close to the ground. I was wet from the knees down for most of the day.
Minutes later, we were in the tour bus headed toward to border town of Sixaola. We arrived without incident and exited through Costa Rica immigration with no problems. Then we proceeded toward the bridge which spans the border of Costa Rica and Panama. We were to cross it on foot, pass through Panamanian immigration, and meet the tour bus from the Panama office on the other side. So, in the rain, trailing kids and luggage behind, we stepped out onto the bridge. It is a 103 year old wooden suspension bridge which clearly has not had much maintenance in the last 80 years or so. There is a brand new bridge being constructed just on the other side of it, but apparently there is some governmental scuffle about whose job is to finish the last portion where the two sides (the Costa Rica side and the Panama side) meet. The old bridge has gaps between its wooden boards large enough to make a mom's heart beat hard and fast and to complete negate the convenience of luggage with wheels. The rusty grates that provided protection from the edges of the bridge had gaps of their own. We walked slow enough to keep anyone from slipping on the wet wood boards but fast enough to keep anyone from getting interested in what was over the edges of that bridge. We arrived at the other side wet and relieved.
(Photos of the bridge crossing)
The line for Panama immigration was pretty long and we stood there in the rain trying to make the best of it all. We were rewarded for that by meeting the most warm, kind Panamanian immigration officer in the office on the other side. He was so excited to see our big family headed into Panama and to find out that we were missionaries that he waived the entrance tax for all the kids.
We found our van driver, dragged our luggage down the flight of steps that led to the street below the bridge and started on our way through Panama toward the islands of Bocas del Toro, our destination. A short way into our journey, the van driver received a phone call and then turned the van around and pulled into a restaurant parking lot. He informed us that the bridge we needed to cross into the dock town of Almirante was closed at the moment, so we would stop here at the restaurant for a while to see if it would open. I assumed this had something to with the weather.
So wet and getting tired, we savored the chance to sit, eat and sip a few cokes while we waited. The driver beckoned to us that it was time to head out and we headed in to the van. He informed us that the bridge we needed to cross was being blocked by indigenous workers who were protesting not being paid for their work on the banana farms. He would take us to one side, where we cross past the blockade and meet another van that would take us the rest of the way to dock.
We arrived at the foot of the bridge to giant traffic jam that was piling up as people took one taxi to one side, crossed and met another on the other side. Just at the edge of the bridge, under a large blue tarp, peacefully stood one hundred or so protesters. It's so hard as a missionary to just keep going on with life in those moments, to not stop at the sight of such injustice and join the protest. But our kids were wet and tired and getting them to safety was our first priority. We quickly walked past the blockade and met the van on the other side.
Now three hours behind schedule, the van sped around the winding mountain roads toward the dock. This apparently was not an ideal follow up to our unexpected lunch, because just as we arrived at the dock, Brendan showered the entire inside of the van with everything he had consumed. I smiled weakly at the horrified young back packers who had narrowly escaped the shower and attempted to clean us both up with some amount of grace. This was no easy feat as the place we had arrived was a wooden dock which was drenched with rain with bathrooms at either end marked men and women, but behind both of which were just holes in the dock's wooden planks opening into the water below. I found a sink outside and managed to get us slightly cleaned up, but remember, changing clothes was not an option as everything in the suit case was now even wetter than it had been before we left. We waited around the dock avoiding the humiliating glances of our fellow travelers as we had been informed that our boat taxi had been delayed due to weather. The boat finally arrived and we loaded up our luggage and hopped in, putting the motion sick traveler on the outside end.
We crossed the canals of Almirante and headed out into the open Caribbean Sea toward the beautiful islands of Bocas del Toro. We arrived without reservations for our three night stay and with the assumption that in off season it would be easy to find a place to stay. An hour and a half later, both the boys and I were begging Greg to just take any place that had room for us. He was finally able to make a reservation at some cabins on the island just across from Bocas Town and we grabbed some dinner and headed over.
From that point forward, our border crossing trip changed course. Bocas is one of the most beautiful, interesting places I have ever been filled with some of the most interesting people I have ever met. We soaked up every lovely minute there and fell thoroughly in love with the place.
(Photos from our time in Bocas)