I could feel the dust sticking to my skin as we bounced our way towards the border. We left the city with its colourful, rough houses that quickly faded into a winding ribbon of tarmac twisting through the mountains, having now become this dirt track. The air was thick with dust and the heat of the early afternoon. It caught in my throat. It came streaming through the open window as we sat squeezed shoulder to shoulder in our rattling tin can.
The stops were getting fewer and shorter, no longer shelters, just posts by the side of the road, sometimes a wooden seat. Once we had our break at the gates of a rural mansion with the skull of a bull tied to the gate. The image of the sun-bleached skull sat uncomfortably in my mind for hours afterwards. It was a status symbol. I couldn’t help thinking about the extravagant richness of that place surrounded by such poverty.
There was no a road sign in hours, no indication of what direction we were going, distance still to travel. As there was also no other road for miles, it was hardly important. I asked the driver at the last toilet stop how far we had come when we piled out of the sweaty box into a tiny roadside "café", a wooden shack selling hot sweet tea. The driver shrugged at my stumbling question, either he did not know, did not care or my Spanish was so bad he had not understood. In any case I received no answer. Only the sun in the sky indicated that we were heading south and common sense assured me there were several hours left.
The bus had left Costa Rica’s capital city of San José in the cool dawn. As the sun began its journey for the day, I began mine. We were headed south for the city of David across the border into Panama; the sun would reach its destination long before I reached mine.
The road faded to a dirt track. With a final bump, came the smoothness of tarmac as the first road sign whizzed past. Panama, 20 kilometers, we were there! A cluster of buildings swam into view through the haze of heat. Nervousness bubbled within me. I surveyed the crumbling concrete structures in the distance; all the warnings from friends echoed in my mind. This is a difficult border for westerners. Local officials suspect you of trafficking drugs and can deny entrance without a good reason. If that happened, I would have to wait here by the side of the road to catch the bus on its return journey the next morning.
We exited the bus and joined the line of chattering locals to get our passports stamped out of Costa Rica. The border was alive with people, a barren strip of land filled with men shouting, people running and children crying. Vans and lorries screamed passed rattling and rusted, bouncing over potholes. The transaction was simple, the immigration officer asking a few questions first in Spanish, then at my confused look, broken English. He stamped my passport and waved me on with a smile.
I followed the signs for customs and found myself joining yet another line. A few feet before reaching the customs office, a small desk was set where a frowning man with one eyebrow sat. He declared, "Two dolla", holding up two fingers to make the point. I tried to ask why; he held up a sheet of stickers. I am not sure if this was a scam or an official toll and he didn't seem inclined to explain. I handed over the money in the hope of an easy passage. He looked at my passport, handed me a bunch of papers and pointed to his left. I thought – two down, one to go.
I sat by the side of the building in the mid-day sun to muddle through the sheets of Spanish hoping I was giving the correct answers to most of the questions, that I didn’t accidentally claim to be a terrorist. This completed, I joined my third line of the day, clutching my completed forms in one hand and my passport in the other. The minutes ticked buy, stretching into hours. My feet started to ache, a change from the ache in my buttocks. I finally handed over my passport to the surly guard and waited. As the minuets stretched on, I began to panic. I need not have. He did eventually return, handing back my passport freshly stamped, "dolla". I paid the departure tax to leave Costa Rica and took my first steps into Panama.
I walked towards a cluster of battered vehicles and I spotted our bus driver leaning against the side of the beaten up yellow box, smoking casually. He nodded in recognition. The bus was full, waiting for me. I squashed myself back amongst the chattering strangers and watched out the window as that confusing, messy place faded back into the heat haze. We left for David.