Oct 082013

By Denise Mattia

My assignment was to cover a meeting in Cartagena.  Beyond the knowledge that I’d meet a group in San Andres and travel with them to Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Cartagena, no particulars had arrived.  It was an ominous beginning as  Avianca airbus 330I departed with only the roundtrip international air ticket on Avianca to Bogotá.  I hoped to pick up more information from a Copa Airline attendant about my flight to San Andres.

Despite a comfortable, gracious flight aboard Avianca, I arrived tired five hours later at the immigration counter in Bogotá.

At the Immigration Counter

“Where are you going?” the official asked.

“San Andres,” I replied.

“And how long will you be there?” she asked

“I don’t know,” I replied.

To which she asked, “Where will you be staying?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

To her stern look I added:

“Madam, I’m neither the type nor the age to spend the night in a tent.”

She stamped my passport and I walked half a mile to the Copa counter on the second floor of El Dorado Airport to check into the flight to San Andres, which was due to depart about five hours later.

Upstairs in Bogotá

Camilla, the Copa attendant asked me where I was going.  I told her. “San Andres.”

“How long will you be there, she asked?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

To which she asked, “Where will you be staying?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You need a tourist card to enter San Andres,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

There were border disputes with Nicaragua, she told me.  I also learned I could get a tourist  card downstairs at the Copa sales desk for $28.  (Gone are the days of impromptu travel!)

Downstairs in Bogotá

After waiting while a complicated transaction took place among three men, I was sent to the check-in counter without the document, where I formed a line behind a couple of travelers. When Camilla appeared, there were 15 people suddenly ahead of me.  Apparently, no one in Colombia knows about queues.  At long last, Camilla caught my eye and waved me over.  I whipped out my American Express card to purchase the tourist card.

My hopes of sailing through were dashed when she informed me that Copa Airlines only accepts cash . . . “and in pesos.”  Still, she was kind enough to walk with me to the exchange counter.  It must have been half a mile away.

We arrived back at the counter and, as though Camilla had never met me before she asked the same questions.  “Where are you going, How long will you be there, Where are you staying?”  My answers were the same:  “San Andres and I don’t know!”  “Then,” she said, “since you don’t have a return date, I can’t give you a tourist card.”  I showed her a printout of the information I was given and finally suggested I buy a return ticket from San Andres. It cost about $200 (cash preferred) and necessitated a return date.

Without an open ticket and without knowing when the press group would fly from San Andres to Barranquilla, I tuned down her offer. With a look that said not to bother her any more, she slid my passport and pesos across the counter.

I needed to call New York for help.  But I didn’t have an international cell phone.  Camilla sent me upstairs.

Show Me the Way to Go Home

Few in Colombia speak English.  I know very little Spanish.  Apparently, whatever the economic circumstances in the country may be, everyone has international cell service and doesn’t understand what a phone card is.  Attempts at communication were met with shrugs or “no comprende.”  Walking around upstairs I found the original Copa desk manned by Anlly (pronounced An-nie) Rodriguez who went through the same routine with me.  Still, she read my printout, looked up my flight information in the computer and called the 800 number of the reservation’s agent.

After she hung up, Anlly told me the agent had informed her the company’s responsibility was only for the international portion of my trip — nothing more.  Additionally, she reiterated the fact that I couldn’t leave Bogotá for San Andres without a return date and a tourist card.  My only option was to return to New York on Jet Blue, the choice of the reservation’s agent.

“Where’s the Jet Blue counter,” I asked.

“That airline operates out of Cartagena,” she said.

In all the years of travel, I’ve never felt so helpless, so impotent. I was trapped in an airport in Bogotá.

I begged Anllly to help me find someone with an international cell phone so that I could call New York.

Hello, hello New York?

She brought me outside to a candy/liquor/soda/pharmaceuticals vendor who had a cell phone with a sim card, which would allow me to call the states.

Nearing hysteria, I called the organizer of the trip and told her the situation.  Ashley told me she’d call the client and call me back on the vendor’s number.

She did and told me to return to the Copa counter.  I paid the vendor $5 for the call.

Between taking care of passengers, Anlly spoke to Francisco of PROEXPORT in Colombia who was in charge of press. He told us the departure date and flight number from San Andres to Barranquilla.

With an hour to spare and with assurance that my flight and stay in San Andres was secure, I walked through the x-ray machines and boarded the flight.

But all was not in order.

The papers, the papers…

In San Andres the immigration officer asked where I was staying and for how long.  And he asked for a tourist card.  Exasperated, I explained who I was and what I was doing in Colombia.  The supervisor came over, told me to wait and came back with news that I could purchase a tourist card and enter San Andres.  I did.  Begrudgingly.

As I exited immigration, a woman called my name.  Exuberant, I rushed over to her and we hugged.

Welcome to Colombia.

Later I learned two other colleagues had been caught in a similar glitch.  From our rendevouz in San Andres on, the trip, which was handled by two professional PROEXPORT women from Cartagena, was a complete success.  I’m impressed and appreciative of all those who went out of their way to help.  The incident and the trip will be etched in my brain forever.





Denise Mattia

About Denise Mattia

A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.

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