James arrives illegally in Colombia by boat but a family emergency means he has to wade his way through corrupt officials and bribes to escape back to the UK.
The day I arrived in Panama City I met some guys organizing a boat expedition to the Colombian North Coast- the only sane way into Colombia without flying. They were 3 guys and needed a fourth, and though exhausted from a brutal 3 week chicken-bus tour of Central America, I jumped at the opportunity.
After collecting some things (we had to supply our own food for the 5-10 day route) and sleeping for a few hours that night we woke early and rode a bus to Colon, a horrendously dangerous port city on the Caribbean Coast. We met our old Italian captain and saw the shitty little 33ft (10mtr) sailing yacht that was going to be our home for a while. With him and his wife we had 6 people on board.
We set out late in the afternoon and the first night we all had terrible sea sickness. I kept imagining the boat as a little cork in a bathtub with some giant splashing baby.
The next morning, we arrived in the remote San Blas Archipelago, a thin stretch of small islands covered in coconut trees and white sand. We spent 2 days relaxing, swimming, eating, and exploring the different islands, some inhabited, some not. It was perfect, but as paradise never seems to be sustainable, we had to leave with the favorable winds and the next day we were off.
Day merged into grueling day at sea and we all went a little crazy. The wind wasn’t strong and we trudged along at about 2mph the whole time. I kept thinking that if it were just solid earth I could get out and walk faster. I spent 23 hrs a day on my filthy little bench bitching to my Australian roommate or looking at the wall.
After the first day I stopped eating. The only water we had was the Colon tap water (technically drinkable, but I had my doubts). We all became terribly dehydrated. I can’t imagine what kind of terrible suffering it must have been to be an explorer on one of the early transoceanic voyages. It was a long 4 days at sea when we finally reached Cartagena, Colombia.
It was paradise. It seemed like I had been traveling forever only dreaming of Colombian beauties and rich living, and as we pulled into the heavily polluted bay and saw the third world skyscrapers and slums, I knew I had finally made it.
We paid the captain and handed our passports over with the police bribe money – to assuage the technicalities of entering without onward tickets. Upon entering land we walked a couple of kilometres with hilarious sea-legs and found a cheap hotel. I took a quick shower to wash a caking of grease off my body and went to the market for breakfast. I ate a corn pancake, a glass of orange juice and half a liter of water, but I had to fight not to vomit. I was too dehydrated.
I sat down for half an hour to pull my shit together and get over the strange feeling of being on solid earth. Eventually, I had the strength to walk to an internet café. I had to laugh that I had 50 plus emails waiting for me and almost all were spam.
Three were from my mom. I read the oldest first. My dad was very sick and I needed to come home as soon as possible. It didn’t really register in my mind. I read the next. My dad has liver cancer and is dying. He may not have much time. Get home now. Oh, and by the way your grandpa also has prostate cancer. He’s in better condition.
I felt my guts ripping apart and my head swimming. I couldn’t make sense of it. It couldn’t be true. My dad was one of the strongest people I know. It wasn’t possible. But, there it was, as clear as anything could be in an email.
There was only one international airline that I knew in Colombia, so I checked their website for flights. One was leaving for Miami at 3 o’clock that day. It was 11 o’clock. I tried to buy it, but their site was down. I asked where the airport was and got a taxi. Ten minutes later I was standing at the Avianca Airlines checkout trying to buy a ticket. I got the one I wanted and she printed off the information, but I had a problem- no passport.
I ran out the door and got a taxi to my hotel where my friends would have Paolo’s (the Italian skipper) cell phone number. They weren’t around so I packed all of my gear up and left a message at the front desk explaining what had happened. I got another taxi to the docks where we were going to meet Paolo later in the
day. There I asked around for him and was referred to a rather fat Colombian man with designer clothes and a gold watch.
He spoke good English, much better than my Spanish. I explained everything to him and he told me that if I could get him the passport he could have it done in an hour, but I had to find Paolo. He said that Paolo had gone down the street to check the internet or something.
I ran out and down the street searching for him. I looked everywhere, ran for about 15 minutes in the midday tropical sun and then finally had to stop. It was pointless. I was weak from the boat ride and dehydration. I jogged back to the yacht club and the “gordo hombre” told me to go to Paolo’s dinghy and wait. Maybe Paolo would show up. I waited, and waited, and waited. I finally sat down in the shade of a palm tree and surrendered.
I broke down and cried for the first time in what I could remember since I was a boy. My father was on his death bed and I couldn’t even see him one last time before he was gone. Maybe he wouldn’t even know me when I got there. I had seen what cancer did to my grandfather only a year before.
I wanted to throw myself into the oily waters of that filthy bay and
sink. I tried to pass my sobbing off as laughter. It was Colombia and I could look across the bay and see the shipping docks from where most of the world’s cocaine is exported. It wasn’t a place to be out of control.
My body was so weak and dehydrated that I could barely walk. Fighting back my tears, I stood up to see a passing juice vendor and grabbed a pineapple juice for strength.
I got a taxi back to the hotel, but my friends weren’t around. It was now 2 o’clock and any hope of catching the flight was gone. I went back to the internet looking for options on the next day. I saw, however, that I could catch a flight to New York on the same day at 5:15, which gave me almost four hours. I had some hope.
I sat and ate a pizza at the restaurant across from my hotel, where I would be able to see if my friends returned. As I finished and walked out I saw the Aussie guy and ran in to get the number for Paolo. When I talked to Paolo, it was impossible for me to understand. He spoke little English and my Spanish was far from fluent, and Paolo is an overbearing man.
A bilingual Spanish girl helped me communicate and he wanted to meet at the scheduled time (3pm) that we had all agreed upon on the boat. I didn’t like it, so I got a taxi to the docks and he was there talking with the Gordo Hombre. After paying the taxi, I tried to talk to Paolo, but he kept hushing me and saying, “tranquilo, tranquilo”.
I had to fight an urge to punch him in the face and throw him in the black, hideously polluted waters of the bay. I eventually got through by yelling in his face that my dad was near death. The Gordo Hombre stepped up and said simply, “vamos a la aeropuerta”. We were off in a minute.
I told him I had to stop at the hotel to get my bags. My friends were waiting there with wide eyes. I jogged in to grab my bags and was on my way out while they kept asking me ridiculous questions about where their passports were. I couldn’t tell them anything because I didn’t know. I scribbled my email and went on my way. I never heard from any of them again. I was back in the car and running along to the airport in a minute.
The cab ride was unforgettable. My mind was full of crazy ideas. I hated to leave Colombia, everywhere were gorgeous girls, street vendors and exoticism. Damn.
Then I looked at the Gordo Hombre in the front seat and had to contemplate what the hell he was into. He was not the kind of guy to fuck with and was certainly doing me a big favour to pull strings at the airport immigration like this. I wondered how much money he would want. Would I have enough? I had $200US in my pocket. That was my last hope if something went wrong, and anything could go wrong.
When we got to the airport my driver badly overcharged me, but I paid and went on my way. I followed the fat man into the immigration office, but it was empty. I took a seat at the direction the Fat Man, and waited patiently.
A few minutes later, the immigration official entered. The Gordo Hombre and the immigration official talked for a minute and then the immigration guy gave me a sideways look as if to say, “you’re a pain in the ass,” but he hesitantly agreed to whatever had been said.
Gordo Hombre looked satisfied and I followed him out the door and back to the airport. We went upstairs to a travel agency where they asked me what flight I wanted. They gave me the price: about $900. It was bullshit, I had seen the price closer to $350 a few hours earlier on the internet. Anyway, I didn’t have
We went back downstairs to the Avianca ticket booth and they gave me a new price, closer to $500. I could do this, so I handed over my debit card. She tried scanning it, but gave it back. Gordo Hombre said a little impatiently in English, Not enough funds.
Shit. I grabbed my other card and said a silent prayer to any god that might be listening. Perhaps they were, as a minute later I had the ticket in my hand. I was halfway there, even if I still didn’t have that damn exit stamp.
Gordo Hombre took me back to the immigration office and talked to his friend again. He gave him the passport and we waited. I studied him for signs that he was in some sort of control in the situation and I wasn’t going to be completely fucked with no money or passport in Colombia, but every time I tried to ask him something he’d stop me in mid sentence with a raised hand. He was my only hope, so I shut up and waited patiently.
We waited and waited. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty. It was one hour before takeoff when a man returned with my passport and a stamp from the airport. I was technically legal. Granted, it made no sense that I would have a transit visa through Cartagena for a flight out of Bogota for the same day, but I was just happy to have the stamp. I’d worry about the rest later.
My fat friend and I left the airport for a minute to discuss my present for the immigration officials. I expected something big, hoping that I had enough. To my surprise, he asked for only $40. I gave him the money with a handshake and a sincere thank you. I don’t know what kind of illegal shit he might be into, but as far as I am concerned he was a good man.
I went through the half-hearted luggage search and walked up the checkout. Everything should have been fine, but a man ran off with my passport. Was I discovered? I asked the woman behind the counter what was going on, but she said something about having a paper missing.
Apparently it was okay, though, and he returned with it in a minute. I was shaking with the fear that I could be discovered and thrown in Colombian prison for a few days, my worst nightmare.
I caught the flight to Bogota, all the while wondering in the back of my mind whether it was really going to work. That flight was hard. The thoughts of my mom living alone and losing the farm, my dad wondering where I might be and why I hadn’t come to see him on his death bed turned my guts upside down.
I couldn’t help but cry. Everything was destroyed back home and there was nothing I could do. I still had in the back of my mind the fear that I wouldn’t make it. Anything could happen. Then there was the thought that I was leaving somewhere that I had risked everything to be in. I had worked for months at shitty jobs to save the money, trekked across half a continent only to hop on a one way flight home, the last place I really wanted to be. I had plenty to think about.
Bogota International Airport was like every other airport in the world. I had some Colombian pesos left, so I went to the internet hoping for more info on my dad’s state. Finally, I received some replies that he was going to be okay for awhile and that he wasn’t actually on his death bed. He could have weeks, months or even years to live.
I think I took the first deep breath in the whole day at that moment.
There was still the final immigration counter to come though. Would they be able to accept the fact that I’d arrived in Colombia the same day and was now on my way out? Did I meet the ideal profile of a drug smuggler?
I couldn’t stand the suspense and so I stepped up to the counter at once. The official took the passport and looked at the ID page. He glanced at me. Satisfied that the dirty, bearded, gringo in front of him was in fact the man (or at least the shell of him) in the passport picture he moved on to the stamp.
He flicked through page after page of memories, Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and finally he had his stamp. He scrutinized it for a moment and flipped back to the front. He looked at me for a moment, then talked to one of his co-workers. I couldn’t understand what they said. I could feel my heart racing and my hands shaking. My face was getting red, but I tried to stop it.
You’ve been in Colombia for two days? he asked me.
No, just today, I replied. I was trying not to sweat. He looked at the stamp again.
Cartagena? he asked with some doubt. I agreed as confidently as I could. He studied me one more time. I tried to smile a little and blinked, trying to look confident. He shrugged and stamped the passport. Once around the corner and out of sight I did a small dance in celebration that it had all worked out. I was home by
the following night.