48 hours of Colombia
Finally, we had made it to Colombia. Throughout the trip, I had heard only fantastic things like ‘It will definitely be your favorite’, ‘Once you go you will want to return’ and of course, ‘They’ve got great coke there, maaannn’. The last being from San Pedro Pete himself, a hero amoungst the Huacachina party crowd, and a hell of a madman. Nonetheless, I had high hopes for Colombia, but my faith in the transformed tourist destination (their brutal anti-crime approach over the last 4 years has more than halved their crime rates) was shaken within the first 24 hours. The story goes something like this:
“Why are you suddenly so paranoid?” Alyssa asks, “I thought you had a guarantee from God we wouldn’t get mugged.”
"Yes, but the ONE thing I worry about is buses… remember I told you that story of the German girl in Argentina who got her bag taken right next to me while she slept. Just please, tuck the bag into the corner, so no one can reach it."
It was nighttime on a 25 hour bus heading to Bogota from the Ecuadorian border. After crossing without problem, we jumped on the first bus bound to the capital. I had a weird feeling about the bags, and wanted them tucked as far away from the aisle, and people’s reach, as possible. I had already witnessed the ever present ‘snatch and run’ technique before, so every bus I was on I was hawkish about the little backpack in which I carried all my important belongings.
She tucked it away and we fell asleep.
At 4.30 in the morning I woke to use the baño, and performed the usual check on the stuff, my paranoia high with this specific type of theft. It had happened, finally. The bags were gone. Someone had nicked them from the seat behind and left the bus at the last stop. I was strangely not surprised. Even while tearing the bus apart in search for the bags, waking Alyssa in the process, I knew they were gone. Behind the anger and frustration I felt a weird surge of relief, like when you are waiting on a deathbed for the inevitable and then it finally comes. The patient passes away, just like you knew they would.
"Well," I sighed, "There is it. That’s life I guess."
Alyssa began sobbing at the thought of her lost camera, passport, credit cards, and most bitingly, her journal.
I felt a surge of grief at the thought of Gloria gone forever, but big boys don’t cry… so I curled up in the seat, threw my sweater’s hood on over my eyes, and went back to an interrupted sleep.
We reached Bogota, filed our reports with the policia, and headed to the hostal. Armed with information about our various destinations for replacement from the helpful woman at the tourist office, we made the phone calls and arranged the times for our different embassy trips the following day.
It took me a long time to find the British Embassy, the good old colonial lady that was going to take care of her prodigal son. I cut the line due to my status of emergency and sat in front of thick bulletproof glass as an aging woman and her protégé talked to me from the other side.
They were almost too helpful, and their sympathy with my situation was constantly constricting their throats. I was given instruction, papers, forms, and photocopies through the impersonal metal grate, while I returned police reports, passport copies, and signed letters to my two angels of empathy. It felt like prison.
The older lady left to the back office while her protégé chatted with me about my travels. The woman returned just as I was explaining the joys of trying to budget for an entire continent. Her face paled as she slipped me the price for the whole affair. A temporary passport with travel documents was going to cost me 485,000 pesos… 250USD.
I wanted to cry. My head dropped and my jaw dropped further. I dared a glance at their faces and it looked like they too were on the verge of tears. Had one escaped from my eyes, I am almost sure they would have wept considerately and begged to pay the fee on my behalf.
But big boys don’t cry. I was a grown man, goddamnit… with a beautiful travel-worn beard to prove it. So instead I gave them the enchanting Chris smile, the one that rights all wrongs, and turns sour to sweet.
"If I must, I must!" I replied beamingly, "That’s life, I suppose."
They smiled back. I gave them my thanks and the promise of seeing me later in the day to drop off the last of the forms, then I got into the elevator whistling happily, having reinforced the high reputation of bearded men everywhere.
My joy lasted all of a block. The nu,ber kept banging on my head like a drum. 485,000. Holy shit. I spotted a café and stepped inside for a pick-me-up. While I sipped on my coffee I surfed the web, trying to seek alternative. Maybe I could sneak into Venezuela via fishing boat, and get the passport at the Trini embassy there? I mean, the Ven-Col border would be the worst of the bunch so far, and granted the risk would be imprisonment… but the silver lining: it would make for a great National Geographic "Locked up Abroad" episode.
I found the number for the Trini embassy in Venezuela and talked to a woman in broken Spanish. There was, she informed me, an ‘Honorary Consulate’ of Trinidad in Bogota. She gave me the number and the address, and bid me good luck.
I called the consulate and chatted with a guy about my options. He informed me he had done something similar once before, a long time ago, for a student who lost her passport.
"No trouble," he said, "Stop by after the match, and I'll see what I can do."
I hopped ona bus destined for the far northern suburbs of Bogota, and tried very hard to keep my expectations low. The dam would break with another disappointment.
I roamed the streets for a while looking for the right address, and upon finding it was escorted inside by a portly Indian man with a Spanish name and an English accent. A Trinidadian indeed. Arthur J. Fernandes took copies of the police report, my old passport and my email address while I sat in his stately office overlooking a garden with ornate water fountains and ponds. Trinidadian tax payers must have been forking over a lot for this man to watch football during working hours.
"Well Chris," he began, "I'll have to call Trinidad and work this out, but I should be able to get you the appropriate documents by next week. No charge."
Whatever they were paying, it wasn’t enough.
I wanted to cry, however, I refused to let a fellow Trinidadian down, even a non-bearded one. I filled my voice with its most masculine intonations and thanked him profusely with a long, firm, overethusiastic handshake.
I hopped back on the southbound bus, lay back in the seat and spent an hour watching Bogota fly by. Now I was sorted (granted the magnanimous Arthur J. Fernandes could indeed sort me out) . Now I could love the country the way I was supposed to. Now it was time for a drink with Alyssa in celebration of a good, good day.
A woman chatted to me, helping me with directions when she saw me matching the street signs to my tourist map.
"Do you like Colombia?" she asked with thinly veiled pride.
"Its only been 2 days… 2 very long days," I replied, "but I think it just might be my favorite."
She smiled at me. I smiled back. No tears today.