Lessons from Colombian Border Control

I parted ways with a client at the airport in Rio de Janeiro.  We had been in Brazil to meet with our Brazilian tour supplier and perform the dreaded “hotel inspection” in about 50 hotels throughout the city.  In the small amount of free time we had we managed to get down to Copacabana Beach, where she bought a padded toilet seat (don’t ask) and I managed to procure 12 pairs of Havaiana flip-flops in varying sizes (at the time, the famous brand was not available here in South Africa and 12 pairs of feet I knew wanted a pair).

As she headed home, I continued my trip on to the annual “Travel Mart Latin America”, which was being hosted that year in Cartagena, Colombia.  Arriving mid-morning, I had just short of 48 hours to myself to do some whirlwind sightseeing before it was back to business.

That afternoon I took a walk around the historical part of town.  What an absolutely beautiful place with its Spanish architecture and wrought-iron balconies, narrow alleyways and tiny hidden park squares with vendors selling the best espresso I’ve ever tasted.  The entire downtown area is surrounded by marginally-high fort walls, complete with rusty cannons pointing out over the azure waters of the Caribbean.

The following day, I met up with my friend Paola, who worked for our supplier in Bolivia.  We took a boat trip out to one of the islands off the coast for a really chilled day of eating freshly caught fish and having large chunks of our skin exfoliated off by the beach-residing masseuses.  It was the calm before the storm.

I did not realise at the time that that glassy eyed fish staring up at me from my sandy plate would be my second last meal for 3 days – the full duration of the trade fair.  (My last meal was incidentally a banana that I took from a fruit display at the closing function, knocking over the display spotlight in the process).  Too many meetings running late meant there was no time to stop for lunch and the food stations for the evening functions were set up quite early leaving all consumables standing in the 35°C heat at 95% humidity for several hours – eating that food was a risk I was not willing to take.  Needless to say, by the end of the trade fair, I was running on empty.

The day before I was due to travel home, Paola mentioned that she had a friend in Bogota and basically pimped out her services to drive me around the capital for the day.  I try to never turn down the opportunity to experience something new.  Plus, lunch was promised.  I accepted the offer and all the necessary arrangements were made.

This is where things started going wonky.

Landing in the Colombian capital, I called Paola’s friend only to discover that there was a massive misunderstanding – she was under the impression I would be staying with her overnight and was not able to take the day off of work.  By now the lack of sustenance had made me more than just a little loopy and I didn’t want to risk getting lost in a foreign city, especially seeing as my grasp of Spanish extended to ordering “uno mas cerveza, por favor”.  Hugely disappointed, I decided to cut my losses and hunkered down for my 16 hour wait for my flight back to Brazil.

As boarding time approached I heard my name being called over the PA system of the airport.  I was to report to the boarding gate immediately.  I got there and felt a terrible knot appear in the pit of my stomach as I saw the border police standing next to my bright yellow suitcase.  It had been flagged as suspicious after being checked in 16 hours earlier.  A rather panic-laden 15 minutes ensued as brochures, branded pens and dirty underwear was tipped out onto the floor of the airport.  My 12 pairs of Havaianas were discovered at the bottom of the bag and things took a turn for the worse.

I am happy to advise that I am really just too stupid to be a drug courier.  I have never felt the urge to investigate how it would all work, but I am pretty convinced that trying to hide a stash of drugs in a flat piece of foot rubber is not the way to go.  This, however, did not stop the call for “sniffer dogs” as border control proceeded to push large thick metal rods through the sole of every pair of the brand new flip flops.  I started having premonitions of phoning my mother from a Colombian holding cell.

Once the footwear had been suitably transformed into something resembling holey Swiss cheese I was cleared and released.

A further flight delay awaited me when I landed in Sao Paolo.  Ten very long hours later I eventually dragged myself up to the check-in counters.  I wasn’t in the queue for very long before I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned to see a plain clothed policeman pulling a badge from under his shirt.  “Come with me please”.

Seriously!

Another round of brochure and underwear spilling ensued.  As the sandals were already decimated, attention was turned to the inside lining of my suitcase which was gently sliced with a razor blade to reveal the framework and padding underneath.  The pat down I was treated to afterwards can be described as a less relaxing version of the Colombian beach massage.

By now I was completely deflated.  My threshold for tears was officially reached when I eventually made it to the check-in counter and was told that the flight was overbooked.  As I was on a staff ticket I had to be placed on stand-by as preference is naturally given to full-paying passengers.

I am forever grateful to whoever did not arrive for their flight to Johannesburg because I made it onto the plane that night.  Never have I been so happy to see the unsmiling faces of South African passport control as I was that next morning.

This trip was what I like to refer to as “character building” and here are my top tips from the experience:

  1. Whatever happens, don’t panic – things will most likely turn out ok if you cooperate with the authorities. Getting upset will only escalate the situation, so try to be friendly (unless you really do have drugs in your bag – then you should probably use this time to reconsider your life choices).
  2. When you hand out the Brazilian flip flops to their recipients back home, yell “I hope you’re happy!”
  3. Go to the nearest shop and buy a pair of cheapie flops for yourself for R99. They’re a lot less hassle and perform the exact same function.
  4. Get ready for your next trip. Get over it and get on with it.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Colombian Border Control

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