A Tale of Two Border Crossings
Since our family has been in Costa Rica, we have made 2 trips across both the Panamanian border AND the Nicaraguan border to get our tourist visas renewed. Each experience was VERY different. One literally gave us all headaches and made us wish we'd never gone. The other was an enjoyable "mini-vacation" to a city we'd never even thought we'd visit.
Preparing for writing these 2 posts (yep…I am breaking them up) has been tough, but I think I am ready now!
This was the nightmare trip…but at the same time, gave us insight into how God truly does watch over our family.
The problems started way back on August 7th when we landed in Costa Rica. For some reason, we were not given the standard 90 day tourist visa, but a 60 day visa. We didn't realize this until it was MUCH too late.
Before we began planning our trip to Panama, I had spoken with an immigration lawyer friend of my great-aunt. I asked her what would happen if we couldn't make it to renew our visa within the 90 day time period. Her response was not to worry…it's not a big deal…and that was echoed by American friends that had overstayed their visas by MONTHS and never had an eye batted at them when crossing the borders.
But the man at the immigration office on the Costa Rican/Panamanian border begged to differ.
It was a VERY hot day. One of those days you wish you'd actually bought the goofy looking baseball cap with a fan attached to it. We took a privately driven van to the border…a 4.5 hour drive. Everyone was in decent spirits. We were going to get our passports stamped to exit Costa Rica, walk over some bridge to Panama, get our entry stamps, walk around a bit, then return to the Panamanian office for our exit stamps and then get our new Costa Rican entry stamp/tourist visa for 90 days and be on our way.
Oh…how VERY wrong we were.
When we arrived at the border office, God had a little miracle waiting for us. As we sat down to fill out the paperwork, I heard someone call my name. It really struck me as odd because she called me by my middle name, which is the name I go by, not my first "official" name…like I have on my passport. I looked up to see this lovely Costa Rican woman with a huge smile on her face. Ania is her name and she "just so happened" to be at the border at the EXACT time we were there AND her best friend (since kindergarten) is my mom's cousin, Lola. Lola had shown Ania some photos of our family and Ania recognized us (I'm sure there being 7 of us did help!) and remembered my name!
This amazing "coincidence" did not have time to sink in because the nightmare was just beginning to unfold. The man in the Costa Rican office was NONE TOO PLEASED to see that we'd over stayed our 60 day visa by about 2.5 weeks. Ania did her best to try to help. The Spanish was flying so quickly of this man's tongue that I could barely keep up. I heard the words "penalty" and "delinquent" and "$100 per passport fine" and "required to stay in Panama for 3 days" and the rest was an audio blur.
I felt sick. Really sick. And confused. And very very hot.
The next thing I knew, Ania was saying everything was ok for now and that it was time to cross the border. Neither the Pilot nor I was sure what was going on except that we'd gotten our exit stamps and didn't have to shell out $700. We walked, holding tight to our children, what could be one of the scariest bridges I've ever had to traverse. I didn't take many photos because I was literally scared I would misstep (or one of the children would) and someone would end up in the river far below.
This photo truly does NOT do justice for how scary this bridge was.
But we survived the crossing and got to another border office, this time in Panama. Ania and her companion Bernardo handled all the talking for us. The next thing we knew, we were inside the man's air conditioned office (hallelujah!) and getting our passports stamped. He also said that he would give us our exit stamps in a short while after we had a chance to buy something to drink at a local restaurant.
Shew! No worries about having to stay in Panama for 3 days…something we were totally unprepared for.
So we went to a little restaurant in a very dirty and dingy border town of Changinola and quickly returned into Costa Rica.
As "luck" would have it, the Pilot was able to work with a different immigration agent on the Costa Rican side. That is until our first agent saw him at the window, rushed inside and began the nightmare all over again.
Ania, again, was an angel…talking on our behalf. We had very little idea what was going on except that this guy was NOT happy that we'd only spent a little while in Panama…not the 72 hours HE had said we had to do. Now, keep in mind that there was a law that had changed about 1.5 yrs ago that removed the 72 hour exit requirement and a quick turn around at the borders was now 100% legal.
Apparently this guy didn't get the memo.
After lots more talking, we were handed our passports…all with 30 day visas. We were going to have to cross the border AGAIN in 30 days. At this point, I really felt sick and the mother of all headaches was starting to squeeze my brain like a boa constrictor squeezes it's victims before devouring them.
The ride back to Turrialba, where we were staying (my mom's aunt lives there) was horrible. All of the children had headaches from the heat and stress and, towards the end of the drive, some of us started getting hit with motion sickness from the twists and turns on the mountain roads. Add to that some rain (so we couldn't open the windows for fresh air) and slow moving traffic and you get the end of a horrid day.
I crashed/passed out on the bed when we got to my great-aunt's home. During this time, the "behind the scenes" events of the day unfolded for the Pilot. Apparently, the border agent in Panama made a #4 symbol with his hand to Ania and Bernardo…it was his signal that he wanted $40 US dollars to "help" us out. (Panama's official currency is the US dollar. Weird, huh?) We had NO idea. No wonder he let us into his office.
And, in hindsight, we think that the Costa Rican agent wanted a little hand greasing as well, but because he was dealing with a Tica, Ania, he just got ugly. Perhaps if we had just been there ourselves, we could have slipped him a bribe and been done with it. But I just don't think like that, so we probably would have been in more trouble.
The worst part of the whole trip was realizing we were going to have to either be in the country illegally in 31 days OR do it all over again. My great-aunt suggested going back to the same guy to hold him to his "word" of giving us a 90 day visa in 30 days, but I didn't trust him.
Friends suggested just forgetting the whole idea of another border run…and honestly, that is what we'd planned to do. But when extended family members, who knew of our nightmare, began to ask about our next border trip, we knew we had to make plans.
But this time, we chose the Northern border with Nicaragua instead of Panama. However, that will have to wait for another post.
In the end, the lesson we learned was that each border agent LITERALLY holds the law in his or her own hands. It doesn't matter what the law says. If the agent wants to demand something, he or she has the stamp and the power to demand it. We also learned that it's better to play it safe and spend 72 hours outside the country on a mini-vacation. A day of driving is too hard on the children and the grown ups, too.
But lastly, we learned that God still sends angels to watch over and protect His children. Sometimes we don't see them, but this time, He let us meet one…a lovely Costa Rican lady named Ania and her companion Bernardo…to whom we are forever indebted for their kindness and willingness to help.