We are at the back of a long line of people waiting to punch out of Costa Rica, and punch into Panama. It is an ostensibly pleasant 85 degrees, but humidity is touching 95%, and in these conditions, everyone’s patience is evaporating far quicker than their sweat is able to. The time is a little after half past 7, and the border closes at 8. Paso Canoas is nothing like the famous border posts of Tijuana or El Paso some 3000 miles to the north. There are no bars, strip clubs and by-the-hour motels. When the border closes, everybody goes home, and comes back in the morning.
The line is moving almost imperceptibly, as we edge round the corner of a low concrete wall on which a number of sleepy Ticos are perched, half-heartedly trying to make their final sales of the night. We turn down the offer of a bottle of Coca-Cola bobbing up and down in a cooler of tepid water that may or may not have been ice at some point during the day, and instead cast our eyes towards the front of the line to see what the delay is.
I have made this border crossing three times during my time working in the rural south of Costa Rica; the visa run is a tri-monthly ritual for many foreigners who visit this country for work, rest or play. Every 90 days hundreds, probably thousands of gringos head to Panama in the south, or Nicaragua in the north. My visa is 87 days old, and in the event that we don’t get across the border tonight, I will check into one of Paso Canoas’s safer hostels, and try again in the morning. Another person must have been successful in making it across, for at this second a ripple of movement briefly courses through the line of people as we all shuffle forward a pace or two. Now we can see, and even hear, the reason for the slow progress tonight.
“You ain’t fuckin’ listening to me, I been down here twenty goddamn years, you hear me? 20 goddamn years! And now you’re telling me I need my fuckin’ passport to leave this shitty country?”
The border post at Paso Canoas is fairly efficient one, as these things go. Three of the four service windows are occupied by stern faced but respectful officials in impeccably pressed uniforms that appear to be impervious to the sweat covering the waiting tourists and travellers. Sweat is visibly dripping from the monstrous, bloated man who is physically and verbally taking up two of the three windows. His legs are planted wide apart in a stance of aggression possibly learned many years ago on a wrestling mat somewhere in middle America, but more likely to support his significant bulk. His t-shirt is stretched taut across his misshapen torso, extolling the virtues of Rhino Charger Sport Fishing, Tamarindo Costa Rica, and a faded and battered baseball cap adorns his bald pate, despite the sun dipping down below the horizon over an hour ago, as it does every day of the year here in the Tropics.
“-Apologise, sir, but without a passport you cannot go beyond this point, perhaps-”
The heavily accented but grammatically flawless words of a female border official float along the line. Those of us not already clutching our passports absentmindedly pat our pockets and open our bags to ensure they are in reach, and of course they are, for who would attempt to cross an international border without a passport?
“-You have your tarjeta de residencia costarricense with you?”
This border official is being remarkably courteous and polite in the circumstances, but standing her ground. Her opponent however, perhaps in the way he took on rival wrestlers in his younger days, for better or worse, remains on the attack.
“Do I look like a fuckin’ tee-coh to you? I’m an American!”
The nationality of this gladiator man comes as no surprise to anyone in the audience, but the way in which the words are brandished like a weapon, aimed at this border official like a battering ram, draw sighs and looks of contempt from some. Much to the surprise of nobody except he who uttered them, these words hold no magic power here in Paso Canoas. The drawbridge does not open, and the border official calmly asks the man to stand aside so that she may assist someone who has the required documents. There is general murmur of agreement at this and the line shudders forward another two feet or so. The American is almost apoplectic with rage at this point, and with a final throw of the dice, produces a battered mobile phone, and makes some threat about “taking this shit as high as it needs to go” as he waddles toward a bench along the back wall of the customs and immigration area. Satisfied that this particularly piece of street theatre has run its course, business as usual resumes at three of the four service windows, and we cross into Panama around 9 minutes before 8pm.