OK, in the interest of fair and balanced reporting, I have to share with you some of the not-so-fun experiences, as well as the good stuff. After all, life happens and it's not all fun and games. So here goes...
We were starting out on our trip to Bocas del Toro, early on a Monday morning (about 7:15am). Our first stop was to pick up our friends, Terry and Cheri, who were going with us on the trip. They only live about 10 minutes away from us. I was driving along the very nice, 4 lane divided highway toward their house. We spotted the street they live on but it was on the other side of the highway and there was no left turn lane and no break in the median. I drove quite a ways past their street, looking for a way to turn around. When I finally came to a break in the median, I made a U-turn and headed back toward Terry and Cheri's street.
Only about 15-20 seconds after making the U-turn, I saw a motorcycle cop in my rear-view mirror - and his lights were flashing. I pulled over, hoping he was on his way to something more important and was going to speed on by - no such luck. I got out my driver's license and the copy of my passport that I always carry. I've heard plenty of stories from Gringos, about getting pulled over, hit up for bribes, etc. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect...
I opened my door, since I can't roll down my window (the damage to the door had not yet been fixed). The cop started speaking in Spanish, of course. My Spanish is "muy poquito" (very little) but I understood enough to know that he was telling me I made an illegal U-turn. He took my paperwork and walked back to his motorcycle.
I got out my phone and called a local organization that has a 24-hour helpline. They will act as an intermediary for Gringos who find themselves in situations where they need an interpreter or need advice on how to handle a situation. My call was answered by a guy named Rodney. I explained the situation and Rodney asked to speak to the cop. I slowly got out of the car, got the cop's attention, and pointed to my phone. He took my phone and spoke to Rodney. I was hoping Rodney could work some magic and get me off with a warning. That didn't happen.
The cop had already written the ticket and he gave it to me, along with my paperwork. He hopped back on his motorcycle and was off. Not the best way to start off our Bocas adventure but I didn't have time to worry about it at this point. I would deal with it when we got back from Bocas.
When we returned from our trip, Tina began researching how to handle a traffic ticket. Mind you, the last traffic ticket I remember getting was when I was in college and it was in the US. I also had a friend, who speaks Spanish, call the office number on the ticket and find out what I needed to do. It turns out I had to go to an office in David, at one of the large malls. I could pay the fine there.
A couple days later, we needed to run some errands in David, so we made the traffic office our first stop. We found the office and it was busy (probably always is). A gentleman seated by the door looked like he worked there and I showed him the ticket. He walked me over to one side of the office and pointed me down a hallway. I walked down the hall and saw there were 4 different doors. I stuck my head into an open office door and the person at the desk looked up. I showed him my ticket and he indicated I should knock on the door at the end of the hall. The sign on that door said Authorized Personnel Only (in Spanish, of course). I knocked and there was no answer.
An older lady came up at that point and started asking me questions in Spanish. I showed her the ticket and she started giving me instructions, again in Spanish. I used my well-worn "Sorry, but my Spanish is not yet very good" phrase and she just shook her head and mumbled something about how I should speak Spanish, since I'm in Panama... I couldn't blame her and wondered how many times I've thought the same thing about foreigners in the US.
She opened the door and ushered me into a small room with young ladies seated at two desks with computers. She explained to them that I was a non-Spanish speaking Gringo who got a traffic ticket. One of the young women held out her hand and I gave her the ticket and my passport copy. She started typing into her computer. After a few minutes she looked up and told me (in Spanish) that I would now need to pay the fine. I asked her how much it would be. When she told me it was $75, I grimaced and said "Ouch!'. The two women thought that was hilarious and they both laughed out loud. They were very friendly and we were all having a good time but it was going to be expensive for one of us. She gave me some paperwork and directed me to go to the "caja." She asked me how to say it in English. "Cashier, " I replied. Time to pay the piper.
I coughed up the $75, got my receipt, and we were on our way. I now know that, despite the fact you see people doing it all the time, it is illegal to do a U-turn almost everywhere in Panama.
Another experience along the expat road...
Posted by Mark