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The Taxi Trick at Panama's Tocumen Airport

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Written by Matt   
Thursday, 26 February 2009 11:49
Tocumen Airport PanamaPanama's Tocumen International Airport has seen a number of renovations over the year that have catapulted it from being a dusty third world international airport, try to a dusty third world international airport with free wi-fi. When you're leaving Tocumen, ambulance the grimaces on the faces of its staff serve as relieving parting gifts, the type of farewell that one might receive upon completing a long weekend with his in-laws. Upon arriving though, when flying into Panama's Tocumen airport, the strangely unwelcome air is like a warning call, a brace for impact. "Welcome to Panama what are you doing in this country?" the immigration officers like to say in rehearsed computer-like voices with more or less the same tone and enthusiasm you might get from a fifty year old working the drive-thru at Taco Bell. Oftentimes, the officers are preoccupied with other, more important things than officially registering you in their country. Things such as consolidating the contact list in their cell phones or talking with fellow Tocumen employees about the women of carnaval. That the atmosphere is so unfriendly does little to disturb the visitor or national who is excited to be in Panama. The customs desks could be manned by jihadists for all they care.

Upon leaving the main terminal, assuming I don't have a ride waiting for me, I like to practice a small trick I learned the first time I ever came to Panama. It was a day somewhere around Christmas and in the spirit of giving, the man next to me on the plane had decided to adopt me for the arrival process. He was a young guy somewhere around my age, and he wore a fine black suit with one of the most dazzling watches I've ever seen. "You'll need a tourist card first," he said when we entered the terminal. "See that man there? I know him. Go pay him $5, fill it out, then get in line next to me. I know everyone here."

New to the country and not wanting to look incredulous, I did just as he ordered. "Good, now follow me through the baggage claim. Stick close to me though, these people all know me well." As he said this, he pointed and waved hello to a window where a lone woman sat yawning and looking at her opened palm. "See? That woman. I know her really well. A very good friend that one there."

"What woman?" I wanted to ask. "I don't think she even saw you."

As we exited the baggage claim, wading through the ocean of people awaiting their friends and family, I fought the urge to break off from my guide and approach one particular limousine driver who's sign read Welcome to Panama Mr. Matthew Levin. It would have worked, I'm pretty sure, but my guide hissed and motioned to me from a small staircase that led to the upstairs platform where we'd catch a recently emptied normal city taxi for about half the price as the overpriced Tocumen vehicles below.

Looking back, the maneuver from the guy in the suit was genius: avoid the obligatory $30 fare asked by official tourism taxis (the ones with the green license plates) by walking upstairs to the drop-off lane where normal taxis will accept almost any price. However, at the time the scenario seemed sketchy and kidnapper-ish: Idiot Tourist, the headlines would read, Last Seen Around Man With Nice Watch. It's funny the rationale that goes through your head when faced with a split-second decision in a new country. He does have a really nice watch, I remember thinking to myself. And that suit - what kind of bad man wears a nice suit like that?

It was my most recent trip to Panama that I used the taxi trick successfully again, walking up the stairs from the arrivals area to the departures platform, and entering the passenger side seat of a low-riding box-on-wheels, driven by a man I'd come to know as Jerome.

"Heron," he introduced himself as. "Nice to meet you, I'm...Ghernon."

"Jerome?" I asked. "You say your name is Jerome?"

Whether I misinterpreted his name, I don't know. Logic tells me "Jerome" isn't a terribly common name for an old Panamanian farmer guy. The cab was bathed in the light of several blue neon lamps and sharp tipico music blared from the one working speaker just below by legs. The majority of the appliances such as the air conditioning box, the handles, and the locks all hung by wires like dying flowers on the stem. When asked whether the seat belt strap was supposed to remain this loose, Jerome reached around and strapped my buckle into a holster in the back seat.

As we slalomed out of the airport lot and I explained it to him, Jerome was nearly as proud of my taxi trick as I was. It was a win-win for both of us.
Driving into the city, Jerome stopped at a gas station to have the front rims on his car tightened: not something I've ever experienced on a mode of public transportation. On the Corredor Sur, he dodged small holes and cracks the way you might while riding a bike with an open gallon of milk. At forty and then fifty miles an hour, you got the feeling that a strong gust of wind might blow the entire cabin right off, leaving Jerome and I stunned frozen in our seats like crash test dummies.

Nearing my destination, I pulled out my cell phone to check some new messages. "What is that?" Jerome said. "Is that a cell phone? Brother, careful with that cell phone in Panama. People will kill you for a cell phone like that."

"OK," I told him. "I'll be careful."

Jerome dropped me off at my door and I paid him the agreed-upon $15, which was about half what a normal Tocumen taxi traditionally charges. Some might say, in choosing to pay such a cheap fare, I put my life in danger from a number of different angles and they'd probably be right. But not only was Jerome the first, nice person I'd encounter in Panama, he got me to where I was going and he did it with style. For good company and prompt service, $15 is a small price to pay.


Comments (3)Add Comment
Looks familiar
written by evan , February 26, 2009
I think i read this on some other Panama website
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written by Shane McGowan , March 03, 2009
Yeah, he read it. So, if seven people look at a red wall and when asked what color the wall is they all respond "red" then six of them are cheating. Right? Factsisfactsbananabrain.
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Panama now a day
written by Rafael , August 05, 2013
I think your advice is good in terms of saving $15.00, but unfortunately not every cab driver will treat the same way.

The tourist cabs have different rates because of the safety that they provide. They have covered with accident insurance, the work closely with local authorities in order to provide with safety conditions (they are not allowed to answer phone call when driving or stop in gasoline stations), most of them are bilingual.

I suggest safety rather than low price. When are business travels, time and safety are crucial to accomplish objectives in the visit.
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Last Updated on Thursday, 26 February 2009 12:01