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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.

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