This is a true story, two-and-a-half months old.
My college roommate’s wedding seemed like a good time to visit Costa Rica. Bonus! The cheapest flight there had a transfer in Panama. Que excitamente! It would be fun if I could rush outside, touch natural vegetation and say, “Hola! Que tal?” to a Panamanian. That would be enough to earn a passport stamp, more or less. Ok, that’s sort of cheating for estampas, but come on—I have no near-future plans to go to Panama, so this is sort of my only chance! I love bonus stamps!
So we land in Panama at sunset between hills of living emerald and a sad futbol field with a game in session. I’m wearing what I consider “vintage Panama” in my romanticized version of reality: an A-line red halter dress with a short jacket, brown embossed pumps, brown riding gloves, and a woven linen satchel-purse. Adorable! My vintage Panama self scopes out the airport and finds customs. Ah-ha, the man at the both looks younger than I am. Easy target.
He looks at my ticket and up at me. “No.” “Por favor, sola una estampa?” No, he says again. My flight leaves very soon, too soon for me to pass back through customs. No, he cannot stamp my passport and let me stay in anyway. No no NO! I smiled and looked confused and batted my eyes and he was having none of it and sent me back up the Stairs of Shame, back to the Waiting Area from Whence I Came. I circled around to observe the line in customs. This airport is tiny and I would have no problems, I think, but the guy is still there, and I check my gate and my flight is boarding after all, so I give up in a fit of failure and board the plane. 🙁 blah. Failure. [photo: me, the closest I got to Panama!]
The uneventful flight to Costa Rica, on which passengers were served an odd, beany-burrito with lots of cheese (which caused no intestinal problems, believe it or not), led to an old, non-descript man in another customs booth. I handed over my passport.
He scrutinized it and frowned at me. “You came from Panama?” “Si.” “Business or … turista?” “Turista.” “Ah, hablas espanol?” “Solo un pocito.” He asked a long and complicated question in Spanish while many, many other people were casually having their passports stamped at booths all around us. I shrugged and was genuinely confused. This is a game most customs agents play with Americans, isn’t it? I am not suspicious-looking, and yet I always get the death stare, so I just tried to look helpful. The man said, “You came from Panama?” again, and I said, “Si, Florida a Panama a Costa Rica.” He flipped through all the blank pages again and re-asked if I’d come with all the passengers from Panama. All I could figure was he was surprised my passport was untouched, but I haven’t used it since I got it back with my married name.
Finally he shrugged, stamped and waved me through. And there was Mariana at the gate! Yay! I related the weird story to her in the car, and she was similarly baffled.
It wasn’t until she told me why they’d canceled their honeymoon to Peru that we put two and two together.
A recent outbreak of yellow fever fatalities has many countries requiring vaccines for people traveling north. Costa Rica requires them from Peru (hence the cancellation) and Panama. So if I had succeeded in flirting myself into a passport stamp, I would have been held by customs until I was injected with a vaccine, lectured in Spanish within an inch of wishing I HAD contracted yellow fever, or being DEPORTED from Central America!
Flirting with danger nearly ruined my trip! Mariana thought it was hilarious I almost got deported from her country, which brought back memories to the summer between when her undergrad visa ran out and her grad visa began. “You know how there are now 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.?” She’d asked. “Now there are 11 million…and one!”