High and Dry

Standing in a line, barefoot, with t-shirts and shorts hastily thrown over our bikinis and swimming shorts, it felt like we were waiting to be told off by our Brownie leader whilst on camp. We were actually at Panamanian immigration.

'Immigration island', as we dubbed it, had a beach, a jetty, a small office, an even smaller museum, an airstrip lengthened by sandbags dunked in the sea, and palm trees a-plenty.

We didn't only resemble naughty children because we were dripping onto the smooth concrete floor. We were also waiting to see whether our fake airline tickets out of Panama would pass the test.

"Ah, it's easy," had murmured Aussie Stuart, owner of Hostel Mamallena in Cartagena, one week earlier. "You just gotta, you know, print out a ticket, change the dates. Y'know? Everyone does it."

Armed with such terribly useful and specific information, Tom had his very own Catch Me If You Can moment, doctoring our real e-tickets, replacing flights out of Cancún with flights from Panama City. We'd even practised our story. (Such a pain that we couldn't get direct flights. What were we going to do during our change over in Atlanta? And fingers-crossed, Delta would provide tastier food than United.)

Not everyone on the boat had come so prepared. Suzie, outrageously tanned blonde from Wales, had her ticket faked by the captain's girlfriend. "And when was she leaving Panama?" quizzed the immigration official. "Manana?" she guessed hopefully: "Tomorrow?". Lucky, lucky guess.

"Ey-me lay-win", I heard called out from the far corner. My moment had come.

The official poked his finger at my ticket sitting on the table, flight date highlighted. "Do you leave on this day?"

"Si", I responded, puzzled.

"Tiene que pagar 100 dolares."

Pay $100? "Porqué?", I entreated. "Why?"

"To leave on this date, you must pay $100." I wondered if a strange loop hole had caught us out. Was it a special holiday? The president's birthday? He spun a rulebook around, and gestured at a highlighted clause. "You have to leave Panama within three days of arriving", he clarified. My heart sank. 'Thanks a bunch, Stuart', I thought, wishing a plague upon Mamallena Hostel. Our guess that having two weeks to spend on our fabricated holiday in Panama would be most plausible hadn't paid off. And it seemed that we would have to pay up.

Begging a few moments from the official, we rushed off to find our captain. "What do we do Steffan? No-one told us about the three day rule."

"You didn't know?", he smirked.

"No!", I squealed. "Why didn't you check our flights?" 

He just looked down his beaky nose at me. Steffan was clearly not going to take any responsibility.

"But we don't have the money!" I lied, hoping that he might cough it up.

"Vell, I'm not going to pay it. I guess I have to leave you here then." He shrugged, nonchalantly.

And at that, four days of suppressed bitterness spilt over. "So, you take 13 passengers instead of the advertised 8, don't feed us enough food, and only take us to three islands, and you can't even pay this?!"

As if that was going to help matters.

Returning to the official, mascara snaking down my cheeks, I tried something else. "What if," I began, more grateful than ever for my Spanish, "we were to buy new tickets - right now - from Panama City to San José, leaving in two days? Our boat has internet (it didn't.) We were planning on catching a bus to Costa Rica anyway" - I started getting into my new story - "but we could just fly."

Illogical as it was, and as terrible a liar as I am, it miraculously worked. "Vale", he agreed. "But you have to show me the ticket."

Tom swum off back to the boat, enlisted the (reluctant) captain's girlfriend and her laptop, et voila! We were the proud possessors of two flights to San José.

Returning with the laptop in the dingy, only a little hopeful that my not-so-cunning plan would come off, we edged into the office. "You've got the tickets?" I nodded, and spun the laptop around to show him.

He looked down at his list, merely glancing at the onscreen 'tickets', and handed me our passports.

"I usually need to have the tickets" - he jabbed at a paper pile - "to keep. But this time..."

The passports had already been stamped.


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