When I first started going to Key West back in the late 70’s, we would fly a puddle jumper from Miami to the southernmost city. Usually a tiny propellor plane with about 12 seats. And everyone was served a Tequila Sunrise. That was the only thing you were served, but so what? Sometimes, if the flight wasn’t too full, you could get two. I always got two, because one was never enough. THOSE were the good old days.

Nowadays, you fly jets from Miami to Key West. No Tequila Sunrise. Too complicated.

Air_panama_planeI don’t know why, but I was taken aback to have an old propellor plane take us from San Jose to David. Kinda like driving a stick. It made the flight just fine in spite of the fact my arm rest wouldn’t go down, my personal ac vent wouldn’t point at me and a couple of the overhead compartment doors kept popping open. Glad that didn’t happen with the cabin door. Or a wing.

The terminal in Panama reminded me of the old Key West airport, too: small, casual, worn-out looking in a comfy sort of way. That’s from the outside. It’s no fancier inside but, at customs, it gets real serious real fast. The Panamanians’ approach to customs is not casual at all.

I think the most startling thing, after living in Costa Rica for so many months with no military, was the military-looking guy there. He looked very Noriega-like in his dark green tight outfit, that spiffy skirt to his shirt, pants tucked into his boots. Now, Panama has no military, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at this guy. And the two head customs cops were very fit and had those distinctive We Don’t Take Any Shit expressions. I didn’t hear a single bomb joke.

Once inside the terminal, you immediately get in line at the customs counter. The man and the woman behind the desk read every word of every piece of paper you give them. And they consult Big Books and Other Lists on Clipboards. They look at your passport photo, then at you with a dinstinctive You Can’t Fool Me expression. I was starting to get a little nervous and it’s my passport….

While we were in line, one of the cops carried a cute cocker spaniel thru the door to sniff the plane. If you can enlarge the photo (if you click on it, it opens in a new window full size), you’ll see Kojak has the dog. Then they led Rin Tin Tin to the baggage area outside where he sniffed each bag, every single one, and barked his approval. After your passport is finally stamped, you walk your bag over to a counter where they search your bag. Every single one. Very thoroughly, I might add, and with no expression.

Fortunately, there were only about 20 of us on the plane, so it only took 90 minutes to get thru. During high season and full planes, I’d suggest having a boatload of patience and a good book with you. Along with a portable stool and a bottle of water. Maybe a fan. It’s hot in David. Just like Key West.

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