Sunday, March 27, 2011

Police Shakedown to Boquete

Did we seem tired in that last post from the Osa Peninsula? I felt a little like a whiner, and I’d promised not to complain about our 5 months of adventure while you poor suckers are sitting in a dark basement chained to your desks, being whipped by bosses in silk ties and leather face masks. Sorry, I haven’t been in a real office environment lately; That’s just the picture I have in my head.

But at the same time, I want to remember accurately the ups and downs we’ve had on this trip, and for the most part, will include them here. In fact, it’s these emotional ups and downs that I imagine are both the most difficult part of doing a trip like this and also what will lead to the most memorable experiences and teach us the most about how to continue to build a good relationship.

So with that in mind, I give you a down… (but with an up at the end!)

After our unsettling experience at the border, I got in the passenger seat and just said, “Drive.” Ann usually drives the borders while I hop out and shuffle papers through indistinguishable windows and press my ear against the glass so I can barely hear and hopefully understand the person on the other side. I think we’d only used a “helper” – the guys who flock around your truck once they see foreign plates, flashing laminated badges that may or may not mean anything – one other time when I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to find a particular signature we needed. Generally, we’ve found officials at the seven borders we’ve crossed to be professional – if a little slow – and had never experienced any inkling of impropriety in the form of a bribe request or the like. In fact, many of the windows we approached had signs in English saying something like “The services provided here are free. You will not be asked to pay anything,” sometimes with a phone number to report problems. At the Panama border, the attempted extortion of $200 was by one of these helpers; The agent didn’t seem too interested in the process. We entered Panama wary but with our trust of authority figures intact; It was shattered 500 meters later at the first police checkpoint.

(Picture borrowed from checkpoint in Honduras)

Ann rolled down the window and greeted the officer with a “Buenas.” We’d been cautioned against speaking too much Spanish to the police, better to retain the option of playing the “stupid gringo” later, but all that seemed a little paranoid. We weren’t sure that the stereotype of the fat, mustachioed Policia really existed anymore. Though we’d been asked for a few “extra” items – one cop in Honduras wondering if he could have our flashlight and one in Nicaragua claiming he was a “collector of foreign money” – none of them were particularly insistent and relented when we just gave them a firm “No.” We’d given each new country a clean slate but with one strike policy; The first officer we encountered was greeted in Spanish, but we would revert to only speaking English at the first sign of mischief.

“Licensia y circulacion,” he asked.

License and registration were a reasonable request. I reached under the seat for the zip up binder with the vehicle documents, and Ann flipped up the center armrest to grab her wallet. We both realized it at the same time; Since around the time we were mugged at machete-point in El Salvador, we weren’t really sure of the location of Ann’s purse. It had always been under the passenger seat, but we both had some recollection of moving it back into “the vault,” a steel box I had installed locked behind the rear seats. Neither of us remembered seeing any of the “perps” shouldering an Eagle Creek travel purse as they fled the scene, and there had been no activity on the credit card, so we were optimistic that we had it somewhere; But the cop at our window wanted it now.

We handed him a color copy of her license, but he just kept his thumb and pointing finger an inch and a half apart as if holding an invisible card. I dug into the center console and handed him mine – actually an old expired one of mine - hoping that chauvinism was alive and well in Latin America and a woman’s license would have been worthless anyway. He persisted, and we finally admitted with a little Spanish that hers was “perdido.” Lost. He dramatically shook his head, let out a mock sigh and motioned for me to follow him into one of the small shacks in the median.

Inside, a fatter, older cop, dressed in the same olive drab, military-style uniform with pants tucked into tall black combat boots, sat behind a metal desk. The first cop explained the situation to the “jefe,” the boss. He spoke in Spanish but with a drawn out, you-can-see-where-this-is-going phrasing. The idea was this:

“So, these guys just pulled up and, here’s the thing. This guy has his license but the girl doesn’t. And, the problem we have here is that, when they drove up, she was driving, not him. And like I said, she doesn’t have her license. So…”

The jefe leaned back in his chair and made an expression to show that he understood the gravity of the predicament, pulling back his lips and sucking air through his exposed teeth. “Shhhhhhhhh,” he said and then followed in English with “Baaaaaaaad.” Perhaps not sure I’d caught it, he repeated it, much louder this time. “Baaaaaaaaaad!”

A third officer walked in, dressed in jeans and polo shirt with a badge on his belt. They went through the same process, carefully explaining this dreadful position that they’d been put in, looking at each other with the same feigned concern. The new arrival walked over to me and said, “You speak Spanish?”

This was it. This was time for “stupid gringo.” It was happening. This little drama they were putting on was the real thing: a full on shakedown.

“No," I replied. “Only English.”

He gestured to the car. “She?”

“No. She no Spanish.” I reverted to full caveman English to get my point across.

My heart was pumping; I could feel my hands starting to shake. But at the same time, I’d also been sickly looking forward to this situation. I’d read about in other people’s blogs and wasn’t sure how exaggerated the details were. I’d lain awake some nights before leaving on the trip wondering whether I’d be able to keep it together.

“Me speak…” I paused, over-acting my mental search for the Spanish word for “better,” and more importantly the best way to mispronounce it. “Me speak may-jor than her.”

The three of them huddled up behind the desk, devising a plan. The cop in jeans came back and told me in Spanish that they would have to issue a “sancion” for this egregious offense. The other actors picked up a phone hanging on the wall and started talking into the handset; I don’t honestly remember whether I saw them dial.

“They call Transito,” he said, referring to the division that handles traffic fines. “Ticket. Baaaad.”

“Ticket?” I responded. “Okay.”

The only thing worse for their plan than a stupid gringo was an accommodating one; It’s only when the victim breaks down and asks “Isn’t there anything I can do?” that they have a chance at collecting the bribe. This sent them back into huddle. But just when I felt like I had the upper hand, I made a crucial mistake.

“Disculpe, voy a la camionetta para un poco de agua.”

Crap! I just told them in Spanish that I was going to the car to get some water. The jig’s up! The gringo can speak Spanish! But there was no sign of realization. They just nodded as I walked out the door. Ooops!

When I came back, the cop in jeans pointed me into another room where he sat behind another metal desk. The jefe was standing beside him giving final instructions, miming the flipping of bills by slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other and saying in Spanish, “Just do this motion with your hands and say ‘money.’” The cop in jeans responded in Spanish, “Okay, but I don’t think he’ll understand.”

Even after eavesdropping on this entire conversation, I had a feeling he was right. With the jefe looming in the doorway, the cop in jeans did his best. He did the money flipping thing which I just mirrored back to him with a confused look on my face. Finally, he made a gun with the fingers of his right hand and said, “The police… money.”

“Police. Money. Okay, ticket? I get ticket?” I responded cooperatively.

“No. The police… money… and you go.” He tried again.

There wasn’t much way I could pretend not to understand that. Then I had a flash.

“Oh! The police want money?” I replied excitedly. “Well, the problem is, we don’t have any money. Wait until you hear this! It’s soooo crazy! You see, back at the border, they told us we needed to pay $200 to get the permit for the car. We paid them all of our extra money! Now we don’t have any!”

The cop in jeans said, “You no have money?” as the jefe peeked through the door.

I caught him looking and turned to him talking much too loudly for their tastes and in excited English. “So you guys want money?! I was just telling this guy. We paid $200 at the border. $200!” The jefe winced with each barrage of English I hurled at him, waving it away like I was spitting bees at him.

He turned to face the road, his back now in the open doorway. With one final sneer in my stupid, accommodating, tapped out gringo direction, he gave a hurried flip of the wrist and walked away.

“You go now,” the cop in jeans said, shaking his head in exasperation as he stood up from his desk. I walked straight back to the driver’s seat of the car, got in and drove off, victorious.

Well, needless to say, Panama had not gotten off to the best start. In fact, probably two of top three bad experiences we’d had thus far. And yes, we were tired and not particularly receptive to having our minds changed. 

We followed a cutoff north towards the small mountain town of Boquete, on the banks of a pretty river. A The main attractions; hot springs, coffee tours and hikes on the nearby Volcan Baru, weren’t calling to us but we had a nice day walking around “Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin,” a huge private garden that has been opened to the public. Families, couples and groups of teens roamed the winding paths and hanging bridges, looking at the coy in the ponds or climbing the observation tower. As evidence of the need to take all online reviews – probably this one included – with a grain of salt, one person wrote on TripAdvisor that it was tacky and looked like a giant miniature golf course. I don’t recall seeing the polka dotted animatronic hippo, but we still enjoyed it.

We also backtracked a little ways down the road to a bookstore called “The Bookmark.” Owned by an older gringo, this was the kind of place you’d love to have blocks from your house; Crowded but well-organized shelves wound from room to room, filled with tons of used do-it-yourself books on construction, alternative energy, sustainable farming and gardening and everything our minds have been swimming with over the last couple weeks. We’d highly recommend stopping by this place on your way into Boquete. We bought a random sampling of hammock literature and a one-year-old Lonely Planet we hoped might put Panama back in the game after a two-strike day.