The day after our ordeal of seeing Firefly, our sailing and cruising home, run on to a reef in the San Blas islands of Panama, our friends on the boats Kookabura and Joanna literally came to our rescue on the island of El Porvenir. The final task to attend to before we left the island was to officially check into the country. When our friend who spoke Spanish talked to the Customs agent the gentleman realized who we were and took pity on us because of our recent misfortune by not charging us the normal fees for clearing into the San Blas. Still in a state of shock we thanked him and left with our passports, trying to process all of the things that had happened in the last 24 hours.
We stayed in the San Blas for about 3 weeks to see the insurance claim process through and enjoy a little of those beautiful islands before returning to the US. The trip to Panama City for our flight out started with an hour-long boat ride to the mainland, followed by a 2 hour ride over the mountains and jungle. Along the way we were stopped once at a military checkpoint where we handed our passports over just like the other 4 passengers in our vehicle. All documents were returned and the soldier waved us on our way.
At a second stop about an hour outside of the city things went a little differently. A man at this stop thumbed through all of the passports and began talking to another person in a non-military uniform. Another passenger in our vehicle who understood Spanish told us there seemed to be a problem and began translating for us. Our passports, he told us, were stamped with only a 72-hour visa which meant we were illegal aliens. We were advised to report to a Customs office before flying out to straighten things out. When we retrieved our passports and looked closely at the stamp, there was some writing below the normal stamp that wasn’t completely clear but seemed to read in part: “72 hours”. Who knew?
When we arrived in Panama City with about 24 hours to wait for our flight our fellow passengers suggested we just go to the airport a little early the next day and handle it before flying out. We, on the other hand, had visions of missing our flight while trying to hurdle this little roadblock, and we set out that afternoon to find a Customs office and rectify the situation as soon as possible.
Being cruisers our first choice for finding a Customs office was at a marina, so after settling in to our overnight accommodations we took our first taxi ride of the afternoon to the nearest marina and found the Panamanian Customs office there. We presented ourselves and our situation and after some head scratching and animated chatter in Spanish, they advised us to go to the main Customs office downtown. Next came our second cab ride of the afternoon where we met Phillip, our taxi driver, who would become our newest best friend before the end of the day.
Phillip is a young, clean-cut and very friendly fellow, and along the way he told us that this was his first fare of the day since he had to run some personal errands during the morning. He said he knew generally where this Customs office was, but after two stops to ask directions we finally found the correct address. Along the way we learned that Phillip was a native of Panama, however he lived in New York City for several years before returning to Panama, getting married, and starting a family. When we related our reasons for finding the Customs office Phillip volunteered to be our translator. He even volunteered to do it for free! I was initially a bit suspicious but how could we refuse that?
As we presented ourselves to the Customs agents Philip explained our situation in the native tongue and showed them our passports, relating the circumstances surrounding our clearing-in process. We were initially told that we must pay a fine for our transgression, one that totaled all of my cash on hand plus $20. Seeing our dilemma Phillip pulled $20 from his pocket without hesitation and laid it on the counter, saying we’d square things up later. However, just about the time we thought our ordeal was over someone up the chain started questioning our story of losing our sailboat on the reef and things went “south”. Now the office was questioning our entire story and asking for some confirmation of the facts of that evening. Oh yes, and they were starting a “file” on us. From the tone of the conversation and the expressions on people’s faces, it seemed that our little “roadblock” was turning into a full blown “trainwreck”.
The Panamanian military personnel who evacuated us off of Firefly that night checked our passports and took detailed information about us which we believed was going into a report somewhere, but we never thought to ask and weren’t offered a copy of one. As the Customs officials retreated to their back offices our translator started getting nervous and when we questioned our status the answers began to feed that anxiety. The stated closing time for the office was approaching and our translator was overhearing that we might be looking at some sort of “detention” until our story could be checked out. He suggested that we contact our Embassy. After all, they considered us to be in the country illegally since our 72-hour visa expired (I would). Carrie was starting to get very upset and I was starting to get angry, but I knew I had to hold it together to see us through this.
My call to the American Embassy was routed to someone who’s English had a strong Spanish accent. During my explanation of our situation when I said we’d just paid a fine for the mistake we’d made, the Customs official suddenly said “NO FINE WAS PAID!” and promptly handed me back the cash we had just handed over. I was so stunned I couldn’t tell if that was a good or bad thing!
The Embassy person asked to speak to a Customs official and I handed over the phone. Their conversation was in Spanish and unintelligible to me, but when the phone was returned to me the Embassy person said we should “just give them a little time to check out our story.”
“We don’t have a little time!” I responded, “The office is getting ready to close and we are NOT going into detention for the night!” At that point they were talking about separate holding cells for both Carrie and I. Her assurances that everything would be alright didn’t comfort me at all, and then she said she had to go to a meeting. When I demanded she stay with me on this she reiterated that she would call me back after her meeting to try and help further. That never happened.
Just when it seemed that the office would close and everybody would go home for the evening (except us) the Customs official started asking about the details of our flight out of the country the following day. Suddenly the attitude of everyone on the other side of the counter softened, and as we produced our flight information we gathered that word had in fact returned from the San Blas office confirming our story. I’m not sure but I think they suddenly saw a way out of this. Within the next few minutes we were each issued a one-day visa, good until our flight left the country the following day for the US. We paid a much smaller fee than the one stated earlier, and after some goodbyes made a quick exit with our translator Phillip as he now reverted to Cab Driver (picture Superman emerging from the phone booth as Clark Kent.)
As the elevator doors closed the three of us visibly sighed and broke into nervous laughter, exchanging High Fives. As we quickly pulled out of the parking lot reviewing the nightmare we had just been through, Carrie and I realized how difficult this would have been without an advocate on our side. As he returned us to our hotel we thanked Phillip many times over, and our fare was supplemented with a substantial tip for his kindness. As we departed we made arrangements for him to transport us to the airport the next morning.
The following afternoon as our plane lifted off the runway with Carrie next to me and Spike in his carrier tucked under the seat in front of me, I could feel myself letting out a breath and unwinding. The whole time we were in the airport waiting for our flight to board I felt tense and uneasy, as though someone in uniform was about to step out and ask to see our passports and question the legitimacy of our presence in the country. We couldn’t imagine anything else going wrong, but who could have imagined the situation we encountered at the Customs office. I suppose they encounter all kinds of situations and normally get to deal only with the worst ones, making them question anything out of the ordinary, which would certainly include our situation.