Travel is such a wonderful experience. Most go for the leisure type of holidays, filled with days of lounging at the beach or poolside with a drink, spending time sight seeing and shopping. Others, like me, prefer the more adventurous holidays filling our days with discovery and adventure. No matter which type of traveler you are, there are always certain risks you take. The common ones are pick pockets, scammers, and the occasional missing luggage or missing a flight. Third world countries also add another level of scrutiny as you travel through the airport. I’m always conscious of this whenever I travel to Latin America and I travel there often.
In February, 2018, I spent a week in Panama during Carnival. My adventurous heart also took me to San Blas Islands. These islands are a popular destination for the more adventurous souls who want to get away from the typical resorts. But, the region I was visiting was in Playon Chico with only one hotel in the area. There were others but only the shells of these prior lodgings remained as Yandup Lodge was the lone survivor.
Yandup Lodge is on a beautiful islet just off the coast and it’s run by the local Kuna people. This means that visitors would have access to the Kuna village that was on a separate island of it’s own. These islands have some amazing beaches and are mainly untouched by tourism. Yandup Lodge only has ten cabanas and it’s the only one in the region so the beaches are baron of sun bathers. There are the occasional sailboats that wander through the area as well. I saw three during my four day stay. These secluded islands are an untouched version of paradise.
The other reason for coming to Playon Chico was visiting the village and the Kuna people of Panama. The lodge offers a tour through the village and to my delight, it was their independence day when I toured the island. I witnessed there small celebration that included a parade where the locals dressed up as soldiers mimicking the brave people who fought for their independence. It was an amazing experience to see these people trying to keep their culture a live and not be influenced by todays modern way of life.
It was time to get on that small plane and head back to modern society and Panama City. Most of the people who fly out of this little airport, actually it’s just a runway with a small outdoor waiting structure, are the indigenous people. And, they’re treated like third class citizens or worse. My flight was delayed ninety minutes, not because of any issues with the flight, but because the plane was sent to replace another plane that had mechanical issues. Third class citizens don’t deserve on time flights… right? A plane arrived about an hour later. Keep in mind these planes are tiny and only seated about 16 passengers and they had over booked it. The other guests came in a group so I volunteered to catch the next flight that was due to arrive in five minutes, what’s five minutes, nothing right! Well, it turned out to be another thirty minutes before it landed. I was just glad to be on the plane.
We landed and walked our way to the domestic terminal. It was what I would call a hanger attached to the terminal, a large open air cargo hanger is how I would describe it. I saw a dog in a kennel in the back of the hanger and I thought it was someone’s pet waiting to be picked up by the owner. The luggage arrived and they neatly put it in rows and then they gathered the dog. It finally dawned on me that it wasn’t a pet but a drug detection dog. It made its way down each row of luggage and it lingered over a bag. The owner of the bag opened it and everyone had a laugh. It was just local indigenous food he had packed. With that now behind us, we were able to proceed through the security check. It was now my turn and I gave the security officer my passport and he thumped through it and he saw the multiple stamps within it. He started asking me questions in Spanish and I told him “no hablo espanol.” He didn’t speak English so the airline attended had to translate for us. He wanted to know where I was coming from so I told him Playon Chico. He asked how long I was there and what the purpose of my visit was. I told him I was on vacation and I had stayed at a lodge for four days. He had this puzzled look on his face as if he didn’t believe me. He wanted to know where I stayed and said there are no hotels in that area. I told him “Yandup Lodge” and some of the passengers even vouched for me and acknowledged that I had stayed there. The officer wasn’t swayed, it didn’t make sense to him. Why is this foreigner, with a US passport, on a flight with a bunch of indigenous people coming from a region that isn’t a tourist destination and has no hotel, to his knowledge. What is usually a source of pride, all those stamps of so many countries on my passport didn’t help in this situation. He added two and two together and he came up with fugitive. I must be an international fugitive on the run and coming out of my jungle hide out. I was being detained as he ran my information through Interpol. They opened my luggage to check for any contraband. All they got was the stale smell of the ocean still lingering on my clothes. The woman doing the search gave me a smile and a look that she new that there was nothing out of the ordinary here. The officer took me back to his office while we waited for the Interpol results.
For some reason I was at peace with this whole situation. My heart rate wasn’t racing and I wasn’t at all panicked by the situation. I new I wasn’t a criminal and nothing would come of their inquiry. I even wanted to take a photo of the “WANTED” posters on his wall. I even started to move some of my items from my one luggage to the other in preparation of my international flight later that afternoon. That move might have signaled to the officer that I wasn’t a criminal. It had been thirty minutes since the start of this ordeal and the officer stepped out and asked the uniformed officer that was in the hallway to guard me within the office. Another fifteen minutes had passed and the officer, along with our airline interpreter, came back in with a printout that must have come from Interpol and he began to apologize. I wasn’t a wanted man or a criminal of any type. I was free to go. I should have been mad at the whole thing but I wasn’t. I was more proud at how calm I was during the 45 minute detention. They never gave me a reason of why I was detained and the reasoning of being an accused fugitive was what I think is the logical explanation. I didn’t stick around to ask as I rolled my luggage out as fast as I could to the exit of the airport and I was surprised my driver was still waiting for me.
As I look back, I’m glad I didn’t get angry as that may have made the situation worse and lengthened my detention. I stayed calm and kept my faith. That is the moral to this story. When your in a situation that seems to be overwhelming, keep calm and keep your faith. This may have freaked out most travelers but it was just a small blip on my travel experiences. I actually had my driver take me back to the city and I toured an area I a hadn’t visited earlier. My holiday continued that day and it hasn’t slowed me down as my travels roll on.