Drifting south along the Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast, we end up at the Sixaola River, the border with Panama. Understand that this is not exactly Wagah, barbed wire, and goose-stepping Army rangers. Here, Zu and I pile into a tiny canoe, and a leathery old man chewing gum silently paddles us across the swift water. Across the border, done. Despite his silence, there is definite excitement: first, as the boat tips one way, nearly tossing us out; then, as the boat tips the other way, nearly tossing us out. We squeal, but the old man chews on stoically, never says a word. Never looks like he is going to be tossed out.
So as I step onto Panamanian soil, I feel like Columbus and Vasco before me must have: triumphant but weak at the knees, slightly nauseous and very anxious to check out the shop in front of me.
A shop, yes. For the benefit of Costa Ricans in this desolate southern corner of the country willing to brave the trip across the Sixaola to buy cheaper in Panama, there is a mini-supermarket right here. There are fans and TVs and a sale today on underwear -- oh yeah, I needed to find out about the underwear. All in this spot surrounded by forest, hills and the river, with no other settlement, or even a building, anywhere in sight either in Panama or Costa Rica. And in fact, "no roads continue to the rest of Panama from here", says my trusty blue Costa Rica guide.
Bizarre? Not a patch on the owner: a Spanish-speaking Palestinian from Jordan, PLO button on his breast. Making money to send home to the cause. "There are guys like me doing this all over the world," he tells us.
But of course, you're asking: forget the PLO, dude, why were you so interested in underwear? Well, hold the sniggers a moment. That goes back to Puerto Jimenez, some days earlier.
We get to Puerto Jimenez, a small village on the Osa peninsula on the Pacific coast, after a long, shimmying ride in the back of a tiny pickup. One bone-jarring puncture on the way, no jack, all of us lift the thing up so the driver can change the tyre. That red contraption is the once-a-day, and only, transport from the two-hut hamlet of Carate, on the other side of the peninsula. And we had reached Carate itself via a day-long hike along the beach under a blazing sun.
So by the time we hit Jimenez, we are grimy, sunburnt and exhausted. But cheerful as well. Because we had passed through Jimenez some days earlier still and its tiny-town friendliness had simply captivated us. This is the kind of place where a woman on the street noticed us searching for a place to stay and sang out, come stay with me! Basic but clean room in her home, three dollars a night. The kind of place where a tame parrot hung out in a streetcorner guava tree and whistled at the passing girls -- but only the girls, Zu was tickled -- but hid in the leaves if you tried to locate him.
Nice nice nice, to be back!
So today, we locate the woman, the same room's ours again. We bathe and wash some underwear. Suitably freshened after the journey, Zu and I set off for the Carolina restaurant, undoubtedly our favourite Jimenez spot. Angela, the pretty young waitress there, recognizes us right away and conjures up tall, cool glasses of the stuff we so liked before: jugo de tamarindo (tamarind juice).
A long, leisurely dinner in this place that seems like home again, and we are ready to sleep. We don't want to make it too late a night. Not just because we are tired, but because at dawn tomorrow, a dinky little four-seater plane will arrive to fly us over the Golfo Dulce ("Sweet Gulf", that's right) so we can return to San Jose and head onwards to the Atlantic side of the country.
It's just starting to turn light when my alarm goes off. We stumble out to the clothesline to collect our underwear. It's all dry, sure. But all these years later as I write this, when I think about it, I still shiver at the memory of what we see there, that cool Jimenez morning.
All of Zu's underwear -- every last fluttering bra and panty -- is slashed.
It is a tiny plane, a shaky one. But as we climb away from Jimenez, the plane has nothing to do with the shaking inside us.
Never figured out that sinister puzzle. Nor quite got over it. But that's why, I swear, I made my way to the underwear section in the jungle supermarket in Panama.