As I sit back and reflect on the year past, and the journey that has just ended, I realize I can not close that chapter of my book without saying thank you to those who helped get me to Panama City to catch my flight.
You see, it wasn’t as smooth sailing as you may have imagined. Sure it was the last few days of my trip, and I was a veteran in the backpacking department. But, if you have gathered anything from reading my blog, you’ll know that I have just about the worst luck. And that most of my “adventures” are misadventures in their own way as well. Those last few days brought with them so many road blocks, that even I was left feeling pessimistic and scared. Had it not been for a few incredible strangers, I may not be sitting here now, telling you the story.
I guess it began when I decided to leave an day early from Puerto Viejo. Like I said, I was loathing the idea of leaving such a beautiful bohemian haven. But, I figured why not give my self some extra time, so I’m not rushing to the finish line, or losing my mind in worry. After all, I had no idea what I was doing.
Most of the time, travelling somewhere new on the route, is sort of a word-of-mouth event. Since someone has already made the journey, you can take comfort in knowing its easy and safe. However, for the first time I hadn’t actually met anyone with any advice to share. The normal route from what I had heard was to head to Bocas Del Toro, stay a few days and then learn more from there. So here I was cutting corners, with no one to tell me to head east or west, up or down, and no ideas of what to expect. I was excited, but apprehensive of potential problems I might encounter.
I jumped on city bus bright and early at 7:30am. I had twenty dollars American left in my pocket, and the 200 Canadian dollars that I had started with that I planned to exchange at a nearby bank. I had at this point depleted my entire travel fund. Not to worry, made a quick time to the border, my music was at 100 percent, and from what I had read it was a quick walk over the border into Panama. (Literally, you walk over this old railway bridge, it’s the weirdest crossing I have ever encountered.) But without a shuttle, and a driver to hold your hand, it was actually a tad more difficult than anticipated.
I was ripped off paying taxes in Costa Rica (you can pay them at the window on departure, you don’t need to pay them before), and nearly missed the entrance window into Panama. Luckily, my cab driver, who obviously didn’t want to deal with potentially smuggling me out, notified me of where to go. I was ripped off for a second time, getting across the border, it seemed as though they wanted more than the usual amount from me to enter, and I was in no place to argue with the men holding the guns.
I made it to the nearest city with two dollars left to spare, and set out for the nearest bank. That’s when a police officer notified me that my Canadian dollars were useless, and that no one, no bank, nothing, would take them. That’s when I realized just how interesting money really was. It’s really just paper, or plastic. Here I was, with 200 Canadian dollars in my backpack, that’s more than a months wage for Nicaraguans, and even some Panamanians, and I couldn’t even afford a 3 dollar meal.
I searched and searched for some Wifi, to send out an SOS to my family. Surely, someone could just send me some money and I could be on my way. But again, turned up unlucky as no one seemed to understand me, or know where I could find any. I thankfully saw a familiar yellow M. Actually, I have never in my life been so happy to see a freaking McDonalds in my life… But when I arrived at the door, it was locked and its employees were just sitting their no doubt enjoying a meal that I was at this point longing for. They never looked up at me when I knocked on the see-through glass door.
I walked around, back and forth down the only main road in the most godforsaken town I had ever been. Feeling hopeless, sweaty from carrying my backpacks, and craving a nice cold glass of H2O, I entered a nearby hotel, bought a bottle of water, caught my breath and asked politely to use their Wifi.
“No WIFI” they said, to which I asked where one could find some, in response. My Spanish, being on fire at this point had me understanding that I came on the one day that the entire city was out of power. Of course, being daylight I was not aware of this, and had spent my last bit of cash getting here, in hopes of both a bank, and/or some Wifi. The owner was male, a bit heavier, and always smiled at me, but in sort of a sad, I-feel-sorry-for-you-‘cause-your-hopeless, kind of smile. He spoke no English. He gave me a second bottle of water at no charge, and instead of shooing me on my way with arms crossed, like everyone else I had encountered, simply handed me his cellphone. He used his hands to tell me to take a seat, and said to use his phone in order to get some money. When it rang, and I tried to hand it back, he shook his head, knowing by my sad face, that I had not yet finished with it. He allowed me use his phone for over an hour.
When I finally got through to someone, and the 60 dollars I asked for was safe and secure in my account, I said my thanks, and set out to use an ATM. Actually, I tried to use every ATM on the godforsaken street and NOTHING worked. This town was trying to swallow me, keep me forever, and there was nothing I could do about it. I waddled my way, with my head down back to the only man I knew who may help me. I was greeted with that same smile, this time he rushed to my side, taking my bags off and putting them behind his desk. I explained that no ATMs would work for me. He, prompted me to come with him, and brought me to his car.
I never suggest getting into vehicles with strangers, but sometimes you just need to trust your gut. His eyes radiated the kindness that he invoked. I trusted him, and he brought me to a Global ATM, waited for me while I waited behind 15 people in line, and cheered me on when it finally worked. He then asked me where I needed to go, and I explained that I had to get to Panama City by tomorrow. You guys don’t know how far the Border is from Panama City, but I knew it was unlikely that I would be getting where I needed to go by the time everything was sorted. I had left Puerto Viejo at half past seven, and it was now 2pm. All the direct buses had left by noon.
My new friend led me to a terminal, jumped out of the truck, and exchanged Spanish with the ladies at the window. When he came back he dialed a number on his cellphone, spoke quickly with whomever was on the other end, and handed it to me. He had called a friend of his who spoke English, and had him explain to me how I would get where I was going. I had to take a shuttle to David in a few hours, and from there I could catch an overnight bus to Panama City. He also made sure I knew to wait in David until 11pm to catch the bus, so I would reach the city by daylight. He did not want me to get their any earlier, as it was not safe. I realized then, my new friend, and now my guardian angel, was also a father, and he was trying to keep me from being harmed. At this moment I knew I could trust him completely.
I ate at his restaurant, even though it was slightly out of my price range, to give all I could back. Though, we never really could speak the others language properly, we understood each other. He gave me all his contact details, when he dropped and asked me to let him know that I got home safely. Unfortunately in my tired state, I lost track of the paper he wrote on. I think subconsciously that’s why I am writing now to, thank him, hoping that maybe one day he will find this.
The story doesn’t end here though, you see. The combination shuttle I hadn’t originally planned on taking cost me more money than I had initially asked for. After ATM fees, and the currency switchover I really only had around 45 US to grapple with, and the entire ordeal cost me 35. I would be getting to Panama City with over 30 hours left in my trip, and ten dollars to eat and sleep. Definitely, not enough. I decided the only logical thing to do was take a city bus directly to the airport and play my luck with currency exchange over there, OR if all else fails, could at least afford a few bananas, and being where I needed to be, could sleep on the airport for the night.
I shared my 11pm departure advice with a fellow solo female traveler. She thanked me for the safety tips as she had currently been robbed in Costa Rica and couldn’t deal with anymore shady luck. When I politely asked what was stolen, she shared that her parents had been visiting and they had their credit cards stolen from the house they were staying in. The robbers had broken in while they were all asleep. She concurred that the culprits were most likely children as they had also taken her only pair of shoes. Since I gathered that this was the beginning of her trip, and the end of mine, I asked what size shoes she lost. As fate would have it, we were the exact same size, so I payed it forward and gave her my hiking shoes. I asked for no money in return, but instead for her to let me know all the wonderful places the shoes had taken her when she returned home to Germany. Given my New Year move to the U.K. I figured, maybe we would even meet again, and she could tell me in person.
We sat together and made it to Panama City earlier than anticipated and she paid for us to catch a cab into the city as thanks for the shoes, this way I could tour around before having to head to the airport. She offered her room as a place for me to hold my bags for the day. When we finally made it to the hostel, they were booked so we crashed on the lobby couch for a couple of hours and were awoken by her friends who notified us that they were in a hostel that had extra space.
When we finally put my bags in her room my luck began to turn. Karma was here for me. I was happily greeted by 3 quite hungover, fellow Canadians. We had a lot to talk about, and we all lived coincidentally within a few hours distance of each other. Turned out, they were a few days from leaving as well and happily exchanged me some Canadian cash for American. Instead of having to rush to the airport I was able to hang, and we grabbed some beers and groceries, toured around Panama City, then made a communal meal between us. The hospitality didn’t end there. A couple in the same room offered me one of their beds, so I didn’t have to sleep in the airport, and shared a single bed between them. Things just ended up working out perfectly.
My German friend left early, but left me a nice thank you note in the morning for the shoes. Little did she know, I too was extremely thankful for her kindness. Because of her, the Canadians, the couple, and my Spanish Angel I made it home safe and sound, on time for my flight, and was able to eat properly.
Those few days reminded me to always keep an open mind. To be loving, trusting and helpful, that small acts of kindness make huge differences in the lives of others, and that we are all one. Being good to others works like a boomerang, and karma is real, if you project positivity and love, you will attract it.
This trip did a lot of good things for me, but most importantly it restored my faith in the ability of strangers to make a small impact in my life, and reminded me to always pay it forward.