Escaping Bogota

It's not a positive indicator when an airport worker at the mouth of the check-in line hears your destination, lets you pass, and then yells to their colleague and points at you.

You are The One they've been waiting for.

The woman at the counter looks very worried. She retrieves my reservation and leaves several times, disappearing quickly in one direction only to reappear some minutes later speed stepping the other way. Eventually she turns over my passport to read, looks at me and says "but this is a diplomatic passport."  She leaves again, extra worried.

When she comes back she has stopped walking quickly and is now executing more of a hunchback-mosey, like she may have run over a dog, and has the top edge of my passport on her lip. "Tengo mala noticia," (I have bad news) she whispers.

Next flight is either tomorrow morning at 0700 or the next night. I say the 0700 and ask about a hotel. She leaves again.

She comes back with a voucher for room and food - great. At El Diamante, Bogota. Sounds delightful. I go to the counter across the way "to call for transportation" where there is a line of angry people. A man who resembles Arturo Vidal's fat younger brother is at the counter arguing with one of eight or so women while his children - also plump little Vidals - evade the reach of his wife. Suddenly Fat Vidal Sr. realizes something, puts down the little Fat Vidal he was holding and sprints away, across the airport. Never to be seen again, presumably. Little Fat Vidals and wife weep.

Arturo Vidal
Eventually the woman tells me to "go outside and look." There I find a woman with a traffic vest who points me toward a line of passengers. I am the last in line when a mother and two kids come up behind me. I offer for them to go first but the men loading bags in the van and the rest of the Colombianos therein do not care that waiting in the dark are a mom and two young kids so they're telling me to get in while I'm telling them something I'm sure sounds like "women and children first!"

Finally the mom - receiving no mercy from the other passengers - punts, and tells me to climb aboard in their stead.

Well, we're all karmically rewarded toute de suite as not ten meters later the Bogota airport police pull us over. "Un segundito," says the driver - whose orange vest I now notice says Coordinador - and he jumps out with a paper. Five minutes pass and the gray haired curmudgeon of our group abandons his front seat in order to make his angry but of course fruitless crank case to a group of other police officers watching the late night cacophony engulfing the airport on strike.

Ten minutes, twenty minutes. Surely the little family we abandoned is by now sleeping sweetly at Wyndham Bogota.

The driver returns having worked out some sort of deal scribbling his paper on the seat of a police motorcycle, and we're off.

My fellow cast aways - all Colombianos waiting for flights to Cali or Medellin - begin chatting with the driver who eventually explains that he doesn't work for Avianca (the airline) but is "doing a favor" during the strike and the police had a problem because they didn't think he was supposed to be driving. Their Spanish reaches the pace and volume of a bar fight's opening incantations so I'm not tracking everything but the young woman next to me produces noises of deep distress as he explains his involvement and we begin to plumb the depths of a neighborhood charmed by window grills and dancing black lights.

We pull up to a hotel - our first together - and after some chuckles on the approach about running water my van mates are first to notice that this little shingle is indeed not El Diamante (never did see that little gem). Over my companions' objections my driver says this is where he was told to take us and begins unloading our bags.

Since I'm traveling on a black passport, my irrelevance in the workplace notwithstanding, I begin going through the algorithm of kidnap: was I led to this van? Yes. Did I see these people come out of the airport? No. Is there a hotel decal to be found? No. Am I now looking at this guy's buddy's hotel in Hell's Kitchen Bogotá? Seems plausible.

Curmudgeon is the first one in the building and as it turns out snags the only room. Just as well we think, on to El Diamante!

We saddle up and soon make land across town, at El Río. I'm not the only one lost as there is another small eruption at this still not being the hotel indicated on our vouchers. Here the night manager of the hotel and a second airport van join us on the street side and we all have a good yelling.

I began googling hotel options, the fare-faced lady at my side votes to return to the airport and the newly arrived driver weighs in watching the defeated men from our van slink out of the No Vacancy hotel into which they'd sprinted like animals on arrival.

At this point the group splits, which is tough for me you see because I speak about 45 words of every 100 they do. Strategic Planning is a chapter of Spanish for Dummies I haven't reached yet.

I ask some clarifying questions about voucher validity to our driver as people are making their choice of hopeless van and he looks at me, eyes peaked, and says, "everything they told you were lies."

That's how you know it's good.

I hear someone say, "Vamos al Ejecutivo." I think, well shit that sounds about right. THE EXECUTIVE. Sure to be some good stuff there.


As the second driver is handing out styrofoam meals from a garbage bag he's fetched from his trunk, the others are checking in at The Executive. The couches are deep cracked and there's a fluorescent light pulsing in the low ceiling above the desk. I take the opportunity of being last in line to duck into the lobby phone booth bathroom to reassess my options.

It's the little things. I never travel with more than one carry on, but this time I'd decided to do a back pack plus a small suitcase in order to not check anything. Worse, along the way I added a bag of gifts which includes a beer glass; those paper handles long ago ripped out and now, I Am Bag Man.

Light switches in Colombia are exterior to their rooms, including hotel lobby phone booth bathrooms under assault by Bag Man. I forget that, of course, and am getting caught trying to shimmy my backpack and the handle-less paper gift bag I'm holding like a baby through the phone booth door trying to reach back around outside with my suit case hand in order to fondle the wall for a light switch. Closed inside it's a tiny echo chamber. I sigh loudly. I pee. It's all very loud.


The room is small - impressively small in fact, the double bed brushes both walls - and I sleep in my clothes on two towels draped over the bedspread, because I'm a freak.

I've slept in hotel rooms of all sorts. Spiders lizards cockroaches spasming generators; it's not that my standards are impossibly high. It's an experience-based paranoia of picking up bed bugs - again - that makes me stack my suitcases and stress breathe my way through phantom crawling.

A man snores. And he really does it well. Is he in my room? Is it possible that he's right here next to me? Is he dying?

He receives electric sounding phone calls and we all listen, like a chorus to its pastor. I doze. A child has a night terror. More phone calls.

There are no lights on in the hallway as I make my way down for the 4:45 cab. The night desk guy wakes from where he was sleeping on the couch. Thirty minutes later a cab pulls up and the fare-faced lady with her partner join me.

"La culpa" for what happens next is mine and mine alone. I failed to establish a sufficiently defensive posture after recognizing that I'd entered a stranger-than-fiction sequence, determined to fully work itself out.

After beginning to punch this little story into my phone at my gate, I made a three-bagged waddle to the bathroom as boarding was starting. This is always my strategy and it has served me well.

Being in need of a stall as I was I looked for a well-positioned one relative to its neighbor occupants, which is always like having the pick of houses fencing a penitentiary, and found my choices wanting.

In the normal run of cosmic card dealing, using the handicapped stall is a misdemeanor. I'm in, I'm out, I support tax hikes for ADA compliance and I go back to being of mediocre moral constitution.

Fast as I was though, I lingered too long. Remembering it now, I think I straightened a bit when the gentleman entered the bathroom; I sensed him, really, more than heard the turn of his wheels.

Still, I was prepared to shut things down and make a graceful if apologetic exit, but I had to take that third bag. That third bag, replete with beer glass.

The key to a David Webb-like exit, stealing out the window whence you came, are fluid movements that obey the mind's best mapping of clandestine escape across a forbidden space.

I chose another way. I stood and buckled, collecting my gaggle of bags by their nape like a farmer and his cats. I was Larry, Moe, and Curly all by myself. In my left hand, with that third bag, I reached for the stall door and in one motion opened it, peaked my head out, opened it farther, striking the inside of my left knee which surprised me, making me wince and close the door into my face. That third bag, embarrassed of me, made a self-harm leap to the floor and shattered its glass guts all over the sticky tile.


Seated now back at my gate, ducking the leer of the wheel-chaired man whose refuge I'd so sullied, waiting to board, I am intent on finishing this little journal entry.  Seeing that I can't know where on the storyboard I currently am, it's safe to say I'm rolling the dice by boarding this flight. So here I am, Bogota, bidding you farewell and begging safe passage.

No comments:

Post a Comment