Colombia: Getting Going

The last time I was in South America, many people still thought that Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was probably a good guy - at least at heart. Admittedly, I did. Now most took him at best as a bumbling fool, if not the latest caudillo (strongman) that the continent was more than used to. What does that have to do with Colombia, you ask? Let me continue, I beseech thee: there will be a point to this digression. Anyway... Venezuela was my 2002 trip, consisting of the two months leading to the revolution/counter-revolution that both removed and returned Chávez to power. Exciting stuff, especially for an onlooker; it was assuredly less fun for the locals.

My primary reason for going to Venezuela then was because it was considered much like its more famous neighbor - here comes the connection - Colombia, yet without its violence. That was in 2002, when thinking of traveling in greater Colombia outside of a few designated safe zones was unthinkable. Who wanted to travel to a country to see only 1-2% of the place?

In 2010 the reverse had become the reality. Colombia under President Uribe had churned out eight years of ever-increasing peace, while Venezuela was busy sliding into a black hole. In Venezuela one had to bring in enough cash to cover an entire visit - unless choosing to be subjected to the official exchange rate of 2-1. The black market supported a more reasonable rate of 6-1, an ominous sign of the pervading lack of reality in the latest epoch of Chávez.

Meanwhile in relatively safer Ecuador, that ecotourism stalwart a hair to the south of both Colombia and Venezuela (all fellow members of the defunct country Nueva Granada, along with Panamá), things too had become considered more sketchy. And this compared to the former land of Pablo Escobar! (That's Colombia.) Wow.

By 2010 a different word was out about Colombia: one could now travel freely about virtually the entire country without particular fear. My head had poked up to this a few times in the previous year year with the thought. Finally the country was ready for the likes of me! Yes, I was long overdue to tread its coffee-infused grounds. Hmmm... that doesn't sound very nice.

Anywho! I was going to Colombia, and bully for that! I was truly excited to (however belatedly) get rolling into this last major Spanish-speaking country that had eluded me so long. Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Perú, Spain, Venezuela... even Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Panamá - they all knew my distinctive smell. But not Colombia, the poor bastards - although they really should've, and now the wait was over!

What a country! Straddling the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it hosts the tail end split of the Andes. Topography would figure largely, of course. And with 1% of the Earth's landmass, plus 10% of its biodiversity, flora and fauna would no doubt be impressive. But wait, there's more: this land was a notable hotbed of numerous indigenous musics such as cumbia and vallenato, not to mention an omnipresent pop force called Shakira. Yep, yep, yep! I had long felt that Colombia held its own in the upper echelon of Latin America's music strongholds (joining my other favorites of Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina): now I'd hear it all up close and personal like. With the musical note always a high draw in my trumpet-ridden reptilian brain, now I just needed to actually enter the magical place.

This would turn out to be a series of hiccups and burps, unfortunately - but nothing insurmountable. I'd at least start with great luck in buying a oneway ticket to Bogotá from Phoenix - that'd only set me back $225 or so. Cheeeeeeap! Unfortunately, that would be the only highlight in my approach by air. It'd turn out that some long layovers in a couple of cities (who shall remain unmentioned, D. and A.!) would find me in Ft. Lauderdale just as the Avianca (Colombian airline) gate had closed.

That was my final flight in the series, to Bogotá. It didn't make much sense to me, being some two hours early to the gate after all, but nothing but nothing would change the course of bureaucracy. That would see me cooling my heels at their deserted counter and awaiting a backup plan. Crap!

Luckily, I soon had one. A fortuitous checkin with American Airlines led me to a friendly agent, a gem of a human being who took over my fiasco. He quickly booked me on an early flight for the morning, taking responsibility as Avianca's partner that Avianca had no interest in. While at it he put me up in Miami's airport hotel for the night, then included transportation between the cities' airports. He finally went so far as to create a fake onward ticket from Colombia.

This last item would hopefully deter any questions Colombian customs agents might enjoy asking: Colombian law stipulated that one must arrive with exit flights already arranged. This was not a serendipidous detail for a one-way traveler such as I, but I had been ignoring it only at my risk. Now all was set, only leaving the niggling reality of sharing a long cab through traffic to get to Miami. That would go well, though, with a spliff-offering Jamaican and an attractive event-coordinating blonde from Chicago to provide me ample company. All was now done but the doing: "Colombia, I'm STILL on my way!" I shouted in a rather loud interior voice.

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