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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.

25 comments

  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… ;)

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