Home » On The Road » Próxima Estación - Esperanza » Of Laundry And Losing Everything

Of Laundry And Losing Everything

Feng And Me In Front Of The French Embassy, Panama, January 2002

Feng And Me In Front Of The French Embassy, Panamá, Jan­u­ary 2002

We didn’t do any­thing. Just tried to do some laun­dry. And yet, we ended up at the police sta­tion… got into a big mess.

In Jan­u­ary 2002, we had just arrived in Panamá, after cross­ing Mex­ico, Belize, Guatemala, El Sal­vador, Hon­duras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We has spent Christ­mas in Boca Del Toro and a few days later, we had arrived in Panamá City, the capital.

We had taken a night bus, arriv­ing at dawn. We had waited for a while at the bus sta­tion before going to an hos­tel. Unfor­tu­nately, it was closed and we even­tu­ally had to find another place to stay, nearby Casco Viejo.

We had unpacked, taken a shower — a rit­ual we both mas­tered by then. We were both tired. A few months of chicken buses, cold show­ers and var­i­ous insect bites does that to you. I was really sick of doing the laun­dry in the sink at night and our clothes hadn’t been prop­erly washed since Nicaragua. We put all our dirty clothes in a big garbage bag and decided to go look for a lavandería.

We were not famil­iar with the city at all. We crossed a busy mar­ket, busy streets and busy area. At one point, a woman stopped us and told us to go no fur­ther. But we kept on going. What could hap­pen in broad day­light, in such a busy place?

Feng had just told me the place looked a bit seedy when we heard some­one run­ning behind us. It hap­pened in a mat­ter of sec­ond. One guy (I think they were two or three) grabbed my back, the other one grabbed my neck­less and the third one was fight­ing with Feng who was car­ry­ing our clothes. I was so mad I fought back but they left as quickly as they have arrived. I col­lapsed on the ground and burst into angry tears.

We entered a nearby store. Every­body had seen the rob­bery and peo­ple we nice to us. I begged some­one to get my bag back. At the time, I wasn’t sure what was in it (we had left the hos­tel quickly) and I was afraid I had left my pass­port in it. Phys­i­cally, we were both fine except for a few scratches. Feng fought as much as he could but we had been taken by sur­prise — not much to do.

Some­one had called the police and we were taken to the nearby comis­aría. We filed a report and the police brought us some kids to try to iden­tity our rob­bers. I barely looked at them. I can never iden­tify the bad guy in the movies and I didn’t trust the jus­tice sys­tem that much in Panamá. What good was it going to do any­way? I was pissed off but mean­while it was our own stu­pid­ity. Time for action, not for revenge. We thanked the police and they released the kids.

Back at the hotel, I checked my back­pack and real­ized I still had my pass­port. Feng didn’t lose any­thing (his had left his wal­let at the hotel and only had small change). I had lost a neck­less, my bag, my agenda and my wal­let. There weren’t much money in it, so it was okay. Trav­eler cheques and US dol­lars were at the hotel. I didn’t care much for my French IDs but there was my credit/ debit card in my wallet.

Although I doubted the kids would attempt to use it (they didn’t have the code), I needed a replace­ment because it was my only way to with­draw money. Feng had lost his wal­let in LA a few months ear­lier and he assured me he was a straight­for­ward process. I had no idea. I was 18. That was my first bank card.

We then went to the French Embassy, which was located in Casco Viejo, the seedy dis­trict. Bars on win­dows, bul­let­proof doors, we got an idea by then. The peo­ple are the embassy were sur­pris­ingly help­ful and a doc­tor that hap­pened to be here looked at our scratches and bruises. Noth­ing bad, thanks God. I called Mas­ter­card and my card was can­cel. I ordered a replace­ment one and left the French Embassy address as I fig­ured it was the safest and eas­i­est way to pick it up.

We went back to the hotel. Our room was tiny with just a bed and a shower. We lay here and hugged. Panama was said to be the safest coun­try in Cen­tral Amer­ica… yeah, right. El Sal­vador, Nicaragua etc. are not always polit­i­cally safe but peo­ple were nice in gen­eral. Petty thief could hap­pened but vio­lent crime didn’t seem to be in the air. I sensed a dif­fer­ent atmos­phere in Panamá. There were armed guards every­where, bars on win­dows and bul­let­proof win­dows and doors. A dif­fer­ent level of crime, prob­a­bly. Drugs, money and traf­fick­ing. That was new to me.

Mas­ter­card had told me it would take a few days to received a new card. Mean­while, we hanged out a bit on Via España, the only safe place around here. We vis­ited the Panamá Canal, got our yel­low fever vac­ci­na­tion (required to enter Brazil) and Feng applied for a Brazil­ian visa. We ate tuna sand­wiches, Pringles, Kee­blers cook­ies, and watched U.S TV in the hotel room.

We started mak­ing a daily trip to the embassy to check if my new Mas­te­card was there. Days were going by and noth­ing, nada. I kept on call­ing Mas­ter­card in France and they were pos­i­tive they had sent the card. Even­tu­ally, one day, the Con­sul him­self took pity on us and phoned my bank. Turned out these idiots had sent my new bank card by reg­u­lar mail, rather than by FedEx or DHL, because they had been told “mail was reli­able in Panamá”. The Con­sul lit­er­ally yelled at them and I started to cry. Again, out of frustration.

It became clear that I would never get my Mas­ter­card, which was my only debit and credit card. But I needed my money. That day, I went out at 3am to call my bank in France right when they open. I was tired, sick and frankly a bit scared to hang out nearby the pay­phone, a few streets away from the hotel. But Feng needed his sleep and frankly, because I was speak­ing French, he wouldn’t have been much help any­way. A solu­tion was found: the bank would send me the remain­ing of my account bal­ance by West­ern Union and the trans­fer would take place imme­di­ately. I would still be with­out a credit card but at least, I could change my money for Trav­eler Cheques (thanks God the cur­rency of Panamá is $US).

It took another few days to get the money from West­ern Union. More phone calls to my bank (I would can­cel my account upon com­ing back to France a few months later). Mean­while, we bought our plane ticket to Quito Ecuador. We would not go through Colom­bia, as we had thought.

Even­tu­ally, I got the money from West­ern Union, about $2,000 in cash. We car­ried the crisp biils in my bra and Feng’s socks to the near­est bank and bought Trav­el­ers Cheques. A few days later, we flew to South Amer­ica. Bye bye Panamá.

This Decem­ber, I will make sure we don’t need to go to the lavan­dería. I swear.


  1. This story you remem­ber on the cusp of head­ing off to Panama? That doesn’t bode well. But I am sure this time it will b e amaz­ing. Now that you know where and where not to go! Have fun!

  2. Hey I never wanted to say that :(

    and Nah! Do not believe that wrin­kle thing! You look gor­geous :)

  3. This is why I would never go to any 3rd World coun­try… except maybe Canada… ;)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>