Driving Courtesy in Panama

I’ve discovered something new about driving in Panama… and I totally love it.

When we get to the end of our day, like 8pm, and it’s time for dinner, we like to go out as a family and find a local “place to eat”. We pile into our tiny Toyota, Yaris and hit the road. It’s kinda funny, but we have to exit through the gate by the condo and there’s always a friendly wave from the gate-guard who says, “Buenas noches, hasta luego.” When we make it out to the Pan-american hwy, after 10 minutes of dodging pot-holes and various mangy mutts, who don’t seem to care about traffic in the slightest on the slightly paved access road, we precariously merge into traffic along side 18 wheelers, cross-country buses, and intercontinental taxi-vans traveling at 120 km/hr. It feels like a vintage video game rendition of “asteroids” on Atari’s game console from the 80’s, but so much more real-life than anyone can imagine.

We get onto the highway and I’m reminded instantly of the driving courtesy among travelers shared around the world.

It only took us 1 or 2 trips down the road before being stopped by los federales. There was a fully dressed national guardsman, armor plated vest and all, standing with a shotgun, motorcycle helmet and mirrored sunglasses, next to his Kawasaki 1100, holding a radar gun pointed in my direction. He motioned for me to pull over, so I did. I instantly thought of Officer T.Radcliff and only wished it was him instead of this officer from Panama.

I had no idea how I was going to get out of this one. What had I actually done? I was being passed by every possible vehicle on the road, including the worn out pickup truck with 15 men in the bed of the truck drinking open beer bottles. Was it this silly little white Yaris we are traveling in? Is it our pale skin? Was this a case of ‘profiling’? What’s going on?

I pulled the car over in front of his bike, shifted to neutral, pulled the e-brake, turned off the car and rolled down the non-electric window. He approached the car… total Spanish. “Papeles por favor. Licensia, passoportos.”

“Con permiso, senior, que paso?” How do I ask this officer what I was being pulled over for?

He went on to tell me (I think) that I was going 80 km/hr in a 60 and that he was going to give me a ticket. I begged him, “lo siento, senior, soy turisto, y no ver la sign-o de limito. Lo siento. No quero ticket… soy manejar este coche despacio.” Dang it, how am I going to get out of this ticket. I can’t afford a ticket in Panama of all places.

Then the conversation turned and the officer gave me back my license and passport. He told me “vente dolares.”

Vente dolares? That is $20. I don’t want to give this guy $20 for a bribe. No way.

I was in Monterrey Mexico with Pastor Gualterio on a mission trip a couple years ago, and being pulled over while driving with the Pastor, which is another story, the officer there wanted a bribe. Pastor Gualterio told me to never pay the bribe. The officers, and the justice system are so corrupt that when you don’t go along with their bribe they don’t want to then go back to giving you a ticket, because you can tell the judge, if you have to, that this officer demanded a bribe and they will be disciplined. It took 3 seconds to remember this story… so I didn’t want to pay a bribe to this Panamanian federales.

I played dumb.

I said, “Soy turisto. No comprendo. Hablas ingles?”

He shook his head, he didn’t understand English.

I said, “Porque vente dolares?”

“Refresca” he said.

“Refresca? Que es refresca?” I thought I knew what refresca meant, but I didn’t want to buy him a beer, or a drink, or some water. I didn’t want to give him anything. I reached over to my water bottle in the center console of the car and handed it to him. “Agua?” He shook his head. I reached into the glovebox, which doesn’t sound like a good idea now as I’m writing this… he could have thought I was reaching for something dangerous. I pulled out a small Spanish dictionary, and looked for the word refresca. I didn’t find it. I looked at the officer, and he just shook his head.

He walked away. I rolled up the window. He got on his bike and rode away. hmmmm. That was weird.

Now I drive much more slowly, besides, this no-guts Yaris is not difficult to keep under the speed limit.

Now, when driving, especially at night, I totally appreciate the driving courtesy of Panamanians. If there’s an officer hiding up the road, near a tree on the hwy, on-coming drivers will flash their headlights in warning that an officer is ahead. I love this, not only because it gives me time to slow down (if I’m speeding, which is, of course so rare now, right?!), but it gives me a confident feeling that other drivers are actually looking out for one another on the hwy.

There is courtesy here. It may not appear very clearly when one is merging between 18-wheelers, buses, taxis, and after-work pickup truck beds full of 15 hombres… but there is driving courtesy. When headlights flash coming toward you, be thankful for a few friendly amigos who are looking out for you along the way.

What if our Christian journey on the spiritual life hwy were a little more like this?

What if we looked out for one another more often, amidst the temptation potholes in the road, the mangy mutts of discouragement and disappointment, the 18-wheelers of doubt, buses of anxiety, fear and loneliness, and the pickup trucks full of “I told you so’s” going home after work… what if we looked out for one another more often and flashed our high beams of encouragement, affirmation, support and “I knew you could do it’s” at oncoming travelers along the journey of faith, so that they are not pulled over by the enemy of our souls (ok, the metaphor breaks down somewhere – officers who pull people over for traffic infractions are not the enemy of our souls. Sorry officer T.Radcliff). The enemy of our soul doesn’t just want a bribe either, he doesn’t want a “refresca”, he wants to totally destroy your life and cause you never to travel on the faith highway again.

So, may we come to realize that our encouragement of others along the highway of faith goes a long way. We are more than just weary travelers. We are journeying together in this kingdom of God and we are called to bless one another, encourage each other, and look out for each other by showing the next traveler how to beware of what’s ahead on the road. Thank you Panama for teaching me how to become a more courteous driver, with your help I can make it through the rest of our sabbatical.

Published by Reid Olson

I was a pastor who still knows a personal connection with God and I like to share thoughts and insights to make God's Kingdom a little more tangibly, while sharing conversations on leadership insights. Now I'm a funeral director, still seeking to share about Jesus.

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