On January 17th, the eve of our intended entrance into Panama - a country of transit, of separation and union, of thin contour but thick authority - we decided to avoid the easy yet expensive and uncomfortable bus ride through the mountainous section of the serpentine Interamerican Highway and the congested southern border crossing of Paso Canoas. Instead, we dove into the murky, unpredictable waters of hitchhiking. We were fully aware of the usual dangers associated with this alternative way of traveling, and wary of the particular risk of our undertaking, for we inescapably had to exit Costa Rica by the 19th, or else we would be forced to pay absurdly hefty fines.
We began the day as early as possible, in the fashion of what we now have began calling 'travel day', and after sharing a heartfelt 'see-you-later' with Esther, our neighbor, we set out to conquer the road. We erroneously thought that the best place to hitchhike would be the Interamerican Highway, for traffic is fluid and constant as it intersects San Isidro. After one hour of bypassing cars and trucks, whose drivers regarded us with distrust, disbelief, or mockery, we began to consider changing our spot and our route. Toute de suite, as we picked our bags up and headed to the other side of the city, a folksy local stopped a few meters down the road and offered us a ride 20 km out of the city. After a few minutes, our impromptu driver received a call urging him to return to San Isidro.
Perhaps more than any other incident that day, this opportune phone call would decisively alter the course of our hitchhiking adventure. This was an opportunity to frequent the coastal road. Our newest friend dropped us of in the western side of the city, where the road towards Playa Dominical begins. We learned that this path is preferred by those who descend towards Panama or the Costa Rican duty free paradise town of Golfito, as it is faster, straighter and more pleasant. In retrospect, it proved to be a good decision. Within a quarter of an hour we were in the back of a jeep with a couple of Jehova's Witnesses.
Much like on a snowy peak, one's emotions while hitchhiking can abruptly change from a restful blanket of powder snow into a rummaging avalanche swiftly occupying every inch in its path. Every time a friendly face breaks our expectant and patient wait to bring us closer to our final destination, an exhilaration of intrigue, nervousness and relief rushes through us.
Elated, we collect our cluster of bags and dart towards the car, as if afraid that the driver will regret his decision and take off before we can reach it.
One must be careful though, for all the excitement can play tricks on anyone, even the most responsible travelers. When a car does stop before you, remember that you most probably wont coincide with that person again, so it is always a good idea to double check your belongings before stepping out. Common sense would dictate so. It is common knowledge that common sense is not that common, although perhaps neither is knowledge. In any case, 'common sense' is often forgotten in times of urgency. That is why we recommend to turn this practice into routine.
Needless to say, we acquired this piece of advice by learning from experience, after forgetting our cell phone in the back seat of the Witnesses' car. Thankfully, a nearby information center allowed us to call our phone, which we had remembered to charge the previous night (also an useful practice before 'travel day') and after a few attempts, they answered.
Fortunately, they hadn't gotten very far and, although a bit reluctant - understandably so - they committed to bringing it back to us. Between one thing and another, we had lost an hour of valuable time and potential rides, but we had all of our belongings and were once again ready to hit the road.
Little by little we advanced along the coastal road, including a ride which caught us right in the midst of preparing a pitiful but delicious road-side picnic. We were in no position to refuse a ride, but our half-made tuna and tomato sandwiches were not negotiable. So, we jumped into the car with the tuna half spread and the tomato half cut; juggling to stop them from dripping all over the backseat and eager to devour them.
After four kind drivers and ten hours on the road - on wheels as well as on the road's shoulder with our thumbs up - we suddenly found ourselves shelter-less, minutes from dusk, in one of those crooked, lawless towns born out of a junction, where good never stops and bad always returns. As darkness neared, we began to fear that our romance with the risk and intrigue of hitchhiking would result in rose petals on the ground. However, a desperately polite plea hurled to the swift passing of a car - one of many petitions lost in the dust and odor of the asphalt - met obliging ears. Not without prior conjugal resolution, Marcia and Andres, a couple with a turbulent past but kind and charitable disposition, turned the car around and offered us a ride to the border; and to their home.
We spent the night comfortably on an inflatable mattress installed on the kitchen floor of their humble home, ten minutes from the border. Without asking for anything in exchange, they shared their food, time, faith and life stories with us.
Having spent the best part of their youth as victims of poverty, crime and pitiless romance, both had now found in religion and each other the strength and wisdom to overcome the cruel adversities of life; which in Marcia's case included several years in prison. Not for a second did we feel frightened or uncomfortable after this revealing confession. In fact, we felt lady luck's smile shining above us once again after having found a couple so inclined to help us in such a precarious circumstance. The following morning, they prepared our last Tico breakfast (which consists of re-cooked rice and beans) and accompanied us to the frontier, where we complied with the necessary paperwork, and within an hour had entered into our second country: Panama!
This time, we only had to wait fifteen minutes for Edgar, a young Panamanian who also resorted to hitchhiking in his travels, and thus, did not hesitate to pick us up. As if it were customary when picking up hitchhikers, Edgar also treated us to a meal. Nonetheless, a meal and a ride wasn't enough for Edgar. He also took us to buy a Sim card for our phone and dropped us off at the doorstep of our hostel! Lastly, before we parted ways thinking we would never see this kind-hearted man again, he offered to take us to visit the mountains and beaches surrounding David, where one can find the touristic attractions of western Panama, aside from the over exploited archipelago of Bocas del Toro.
Incapable of wasting a chance to discover new places, just a few hours passed before we were in Edgar's car once again, heading to the famous mountain town of Boquete, a tourist favorite where an international coffee and flower festival was taking place. We spent a wonderful day in the mountains, but bypassed the festival, for it was an over hyped and overpriced magnet for easily impressed tourists and a reason for impoverished locals to spend their measly savings on alcohol. The mountains proved to be much more enticing, as we drove and walked through stunning cliffs, waterfalls and rivers. As we marveled at such a scenic contrast to the flat, dry, asphyxiating heat of David (just 40 minutes away) we discussed Panamanian politics and the ongoing power struggles between the implacable indigenous communities that reside in the mountains and the national government. The current government of Ricardo Martinelli has completely disregarded the autonomy of the Indigenous Comarcas (an Indian Reservation with the characteristic of a quasi-autonomous province) and unrelentingly sought to cash in on their untapped resources by granting construction permits to multinationals so they can build hydroelectric plants, mines and power lines to feed the increasing demand for resources and electricity in Panama City and Costa Rica.
Ironically, despite Edgar's antindustrialist comments and his advocation for traditional agriculture, sustainable development methods and the preservation of indigenous communities and the environment, he works at a hydroelectric plant; the main symbol of foreign industrial imposition, of economic disparity and rural underdevelopment in Panama. At first we were reluctant to hint at the hypocrisy of his words, but after a few more rendezvous we gained enough trust to engage in a conversation about the friction between ideals and reality, thought and action. He explained that in Panama the options for electromechanical engineers are few and limited, and that he had spent a great deal of time and money in university to end up working in low-income, low-satisfaction jobs. While we understood the desire to challenge himself and reach his full potential, we couldn't help but to think that the high pay was more motivation than the excitement of hydroelectricity or the lack of other options. Nonetheless, there is always another way.
In David we stayed in a hostel called Purple House. As the name indicates, it is purple. The problem is that everything in the hostel is purple. The walls, chairs, plates, cups, blankets, furniture, decorations, doors, soap. Everything. Is. Purple. It's surprising that the owner - a serious, almost rude lady with a good heart and the need to please every client that steps in her hostel - isn't purple, or at least crazy. After a couple of days I began to feel a bit claustrophobic, or rather, porphyrophobic and was itching to move on to our next project and less monochromatic surroundings.
Thankfully, after three nights of interesting yet speculative conversations - a dogma of the backpacker - we finally managed to escape our halt and found our next destination: Soloy.
Although we didn't learn anything new about the secrets of human goodness and generosity, this experience allowed us to meet people of various backgrounds and unconditional generosity. In any case, we did ascertain that hitchhiking is not an outdated or extremely risky way to travel. Of course, this isn't true in every country, but if you employ routine caution, there is no reason to fear the worst and all the reasons to enjoy an alternative way to travel and meet people.