Tag Archives: travel

Colombia: close, but no cigar

21 Mar

Dear Country of Colombia,

LaDorada Valentina and Juliana

Valentina and Juliana early Saturday morning at a small park in La Dorada

It’s me, one half of Los Americanos Gigantes who recently visited your country. (My brother, Jeff, the other Gigante, is still there, somewhere. If you see him, point him north.) I had a very good time in your country. I was not surprised to learn tourism was up 12% last year. Colombians are very nice and hospitable, the country is beautiful, and I never saw a single snowflake. These are my main criteria for judging any country in March. However, you’re not a world-class destination, yet. With a little extra effort, you can get there. I offer a few tips:

1. Play hard to get
You make it too easy to enter your country. Make us think you don’t care if we visit. Though there was plenty of security at El Dorado airport in Bogota, it took me only ten minutes from the time I left the plane to pass through customs. This is not acceptable. How am I supposed to believe your country is worth visiting if you don’t make it a hassle to enter? Let me give you a better model: I returned from Colombia to the U.S. via the Miami airport. It took me, entering my own country, one hour to navigate customs. Miami provides kiosks that allow U.S. and Canadian citizens to self-process their passports. This is supposed to accelerate the procedure, but I had to wait in a long serpentine line to use the kiosks while being barked at by a customs official who would make a good drill sergeant. After that, A few hundred of us new arrivals were directed to another long line, where other officials yelled at us. There, I went through Passport Control where a human checked my documents anyway. From there, I stood in a third line so I could hand my customs form to another person who put it in a stack without looking at it. Finally, I went through the TSA checkpoint where I got to take off my smelly shoes and receive a full body scan by a device that checked my body mass index and got way too personal in other ways I would rather not think about. If that doesn’t say “Welcome to America,” what does?

 2. Don’t be sorry
Oldest Streets in Bogota
Don’t apologize because so few of you speak English. If we visit your country, it’s our responsibility to know your language should we want to communicate easily. In our America, we would expect you to speak English at least as well as we can. I mean, come on, we’re AMERICANS. It did not surprise me that you struggled with Spanish spoken with a north Missouri country accent. I’m still not sure how my brother is able to generate eight syllables out of Buenos Tardes. But who am I to judge? When I thought I was asking for directions to the Museo Nacional in Bogota, what you heard was: “Where can I buy a pair of purple shoes that smell like turtle poop.” You did not flinch. You told me exactly where to find such shoes, as though such questions arise daily. However, I mistranslated your answer to mean: “The museum is next to the Piggly Wiggly.” That is my problem, not yours.

3. Don’t be so helpful
My brother flagged down a second person on the street to ask for directions to the museum. The man appeared to be in a hurry, but he was eager to help. However, like nearly everyone we met in Colombia, he spoke rapidly. The only two words I caught were calle and carrera. I became very practiced at saying in Spanish, “My good sir, we are but simple North Americans of limited intelligence. Please, repeat what you just said.” He did. We still had no idea where the museum was.  (It was right in front of us.) Jeff and I waited until the man was half a block away before heading in the direction we thought was correct. We had taken about twenty steps when the man ran back to point us in the correct direction.

Prez Palace

Jeff in front of the Presidential Palace, just before being told there’s nothing to see here. So, move on.

Don’t be so nice
The man on the street was the rule and not the exception. Even cops and soldiers were nice. You have had more than your share of political assassinations and attempted assassinations, so I understand why armed soldiers are everywhere you have important buildings. And I can understand why they did not want us tarrying in front of the presidential residence. But even the guard who shooed us away did so with a sheepish smile. A motorcycle cop told me to quit waving my cell phone around like a twelve-year-old girl (I’m paraphrasing), because it made a tempting target for thieves. But nearly everyone in Colombia had nicer phones than me. I was kind of hoping someone would steal mine.

There is no place for your kind of honesty into today’s world. My math skills are left wanting in English, so you can imagine how bad they are in Spanish. Yet, store clerks and servers showed us exactly how much something cost before we paid. And then they slowly counted our change as though we were five-year-olds. Even then, it didn’t always help. In La Dorada, a store clerk had to chase Jeff when he left a few dollars in change on the counter.

Jeff believed he needed to have a Cuban cigar. He did not realize that only three Colombians smoke cigars and that two of them have succumbed to lung cancer. Still, everyone he asked had heard rumors of a place that possibly sold them. They provided the best directions they could. We spent more money on cabs trying to find one cigar than the entire Cuban GDP for 2014.

That reminds me. You make it too easy to move around your cities. The cheap, clean mass transit system in Medellin makes ours seem antiquated, which it is.

Jeff and Cecilia-Case Guadelupe

Jeff with Cecilia, our Bogota spouse

Don’t worry about us so much.
Many people in Bogota, Medellin and La Dorada told us to be careful. For example, Cecilia worked at the Bogota Hotel where we stayed. Cecilia does not speak English, but she made herself very clear. We called her our “Bogota spouse,” because she tried to keep us in line. She reprimanded us when we forgot to lock the door to our fourth-floor balcony. She wrote “No” on a map to show places we shouldn’t go, because that part of the city can be a little dangerous at night. But everyone else was out having fun, so why couldn’t we?  We may have ignored Cecilia’s advice. Please, don’t tell her.

I intend to return as soon as possible to see if you have implemented any of my recommendations. I will be extremely disappointed if you have.


p.s. suggested reading: The Vortex by José Eustasio Rivera is Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joseph Conrad rolled into one.

Mandela, an airport, and progress

6 Dec

You can learn a thing or two about a country by visiting its busiest airport. For example, the Atlanta airport may say about America that our connections with each other are becoming more distant, and it has become harder to make them. But if we fail, we can always count on a nearby Sbarro.

In 1992, my uncle and I passed through the main airport in Johannesburg on our way to visit my brother in Botswana. Apartheid in South Africa was in its death throes;  the first universal vote was two years away. The country still seemed shut off from the rest of the world. Our flight on South African Airways landed at dawn, and our connecting flight to Gaborone, Botswana wouldn’t leave until mid-afternoon. We had the better part of a day to waste at the airport, which was then named for Jan Smuts, a British colonial who had served as South Africa’s prime minister in the thirties and forties. Smuts was a segregationist.

SAAI’ve been to airports in remote places like Honduras, Nicaragua, Mazatlan, Zambia and Orange County, but the Jan Smuts airport was the worst. A three-story concrete block building, it was the backwater of backwater airports. An oleo of travelers from the Southern Hemisphere’s diaspora occupied all the seats in the small departure lounge on the first floor. There were few signs explaining where we could go for a little more space to begin our eight-hour wait. No one seemed helpful. After a little searching, Uncle Royce and I found an empty lounge on the third floor furnished with ratty, overstuffed couches and chairs. It looked like a college dormitory lounge in the seventies. Except for a few vending machines, there were no cafes or other concessions except in the ground-level departure lounge. I was afraid to use the bathroom. People in that part of the world apparently did not relieve themselves the same way Americans did. At Jan Smuts, it involved standing over a metal grate. I still can’t get my mind around it. The only thing that worked well at the airport was the PA system, which repeatedly blared updates on departure times, first in Afrikaans and then in English. I can still hear that woman’s voice: South African Airways flight 232 to Bulawayo has been delayed…  Zimbabwe. Now there was a country on the move. Robert Mugabe and his revolutionaries had vanquished the Rhodesians more than a decade earlier, and Zimbabwe was going places. South Africa could learn a thing or two from Zimbabwe, I thought.

Two years later, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. During his presidency, his country made the relatively peaceful move from apartheid to universal democracy in which citizens of all colors had a say in their country’s future. More important, Mandela initiated a national reconciliation in which whites and blacks together would  move the country forward. Fifteen years after my first visit, my family and I returned to see my brother and his wife. We again had to go through the Johannesburg airport. It is now called O.R. Tambo International Airport, named after an anti-apartheid leader, and it feels like a real international airport. Escalators? It has them. A shopping mall with overpriced trinkets? You bet. Best of all, some of the cleanest, nicest bathrooms in the world. The best hand driers, too. www.gauteng.net-OR-Tambo-International_1-620x0

South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. When my family was there three years earlier, the city seemed to buzz with anticipation. Everywhere around the airport, workers were putting up high-rise hotels. Everyone was busy. People seemed happy. At the airport. I repeat, people (excluding customs officials who must scowl) seemed genuinely happy at the airport. Nelson Mandela doesn’t deserve all the credit for that. As far as I know, he never worked as a skycap. But the difference in atmosphere in that one little area of South Africa had changed dramatically. A strong leader who “gets it,” one who understands that one group can’t progress if another group gets left behind, can have a great impact. Look at Zimbabwe now. Robert Mugabe has turned that country into a backwater, because he chose to put the few ahead of the many. Mostly, he has put himself ahead of everyone.

When someone asks me that clichéd question about what three people I would like to have dinner with, I would first choose the two pickiest eaters I know so there would be more food for me. Then I would pick Nelson Mandela. I would like to know how he became so much wiser than just about everyone else. We could use a lot more Mandelas.



This crappy pic…

5 Jul


This crappy picture, taken with my camera phone through a charter bus window, shows a large white cross at I-75 exit 142 in Jellico, Tennesse. You can’t see it in the picture, but the cross is next to an adult book store. I’ve seen that cross on the way to and from the Carolinas, and I always wondered who put it up. Did a church call a special meeting to come up with an idea to counter the evil of the porn store? Has it kept away any porn customers? That was part of the inspiration for The Savior of Turk, which takes place in a small Missouri town along an interstate. There’s a porn store involved. And a church. And an Indian kid, but the idea for that part came from somwhere else.

At Amazon and Barnes & Noble.