Panama Cops

March 6, Panama City, Balboa neighborhood, Panama.

            The Balboa section is not a neighborhood that a pale-face needs to walk around in, or ride a motorcycle around in, after dark.  I simply followed my guidebook to the "hotel center" of Panama City but the guidebook neglected to classify the Balboa neighborhood as the crappy hotel center.  I arrived around 6:00 pm Eastern time [Panama is on Eastern time, the rest of Central America is on Central time] and I still had some daylight left to search for a hotel.  I looked at four hotels and took the first one with secure parking, Hotel Caribe.  I've seen other "Hotel Caribe's" but they are usually on the Caribbean coast, and decent hotels.  This one is on the Pacific Coast and maybe that's why it's the crappy one; if it were called "Hotel Pacibe" it would be better.

            Yesterday's ride from David to Santiago was not bad, other than a stretch of highway about 15 miles long that was broken up from construction but I've seen much worse.  There is a highway checkpoint between David and Santiago where they stop everyone and ask for papers.  The first cop looked at my passport and "vehicle permission" papers, then went inside the little guard-shack that sits between the two lanes of opposing traffic, to get the superior officer.  The superior officer was Panama's version of a cocky redneck, with mirrored sunglasses and his cop-shirt unbuttoned halfway down, and I was sure that he wanted my money.  My only goal was to convince him that I was so completely clueless that the time and effort it would take to make me understand that I needed to pay him, would far outweigh the money he was hoping to take.  [I did this in Tulum, Mexico, with the cops that were talking about giving me a ticket for parking on the sidewalk, by just continually thanking them and saying "I'll park over there with the cars from now on" no matter what they said].

            The superior officer asked me where I was from, in Spanish, and I just smiled and said "I'm going to Santiago!" [all my answers were in exaggeratedly crappy gringo Spanish].  He asked what I was doing in Panama and again I acted like I completely understood him and said "I'm from Seattle, USA!!".  Then he asked for my passport and permission papers and I proudly repeated "Si, Pasaporte!" as I handed it to him like I was just so darn stupidly confident with my command of the Spanish language.  He asked how long I would be in Panama and I just said "I'm a photographer and I'm writing a book!" and handed him one of my cards.  He just glanced at it and said, in broken English, "you can go now man".  I can't say for sure that he intended to get bribe cash out of me but I would bet that he did so I just had fun with preventing another bribe.

            Today after I left Santiago I saw a cop in the median - they often hang out there under a bridge or at a dangerous intersection to regulate traffic or just stare at people, or who knows what they really do.  He held his index fingers up and rotated them around each other while clearly looking at me; I'm pretty sure the translation of this action is "turn your pale ass around and come and talk to me so I can figure out an excuse to take your money".  I clearly saw him but acted like I didn't.  I never moved my head, just my eyes under my sunglasses, so he couldn't tell for sure that I ever saw him.  I was going under the speed limit with several other cars and he had no reason to pull me over but he was clearly making the "turn around" sign at me.  I just kept riding forward.  I was a bit paranoid for the next half-hour or so and kept looking behind me but I passed 2 other cops on the side of the road who just looked at me and made no indications that they wanted me to pull over.  Then it was smooth riding the rest of the way to Panama City.