This month our travelling writer takes a trip through Columbia commenting, as he does, on its culture and traditions
It was just one of those days, when everything you touch turns to slush. One bad turn triggers another, petulant and exasperated you drag yourself further deep into the hole, and swirling ever more chaotically downwards eventually you pull the rope in on yourself. A bad day at the office, or on this day, a mediocre one in hell.
It hadn’t been the worst of bus rides from Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, across the border into Venezuela. But it was 20 hours, and at the end of four months travelling those journeys take a toll. Like every time before I tilted my seat back as far as it could go and cocked my head towards the invisible spot of comfort between the window and the cotton, hoping slumber would take me away. This time I managed only a couple of hours and even then I was drifting in and out. When daylight came I was alert enough to observe well-ordered countryside and towns outside. There was a structure and intent in the movement of the people. So limited an impression shouldn’t be counted on, but mine was of a system at work. Through dense traffic we eventually penetrated Caracas.
The ubiquity of a couple of things stood out. It had the look of a state preparing for war, with a military base of some kind around every corner, and a gigantic version fitted out with helicopters and tanks slap bang in the middle of the city. Everything there is named after and expressed through the godly figure of Simon Bolivar, who led the charge in liberating much of South America from the grip of Spanish rule. I expect Che Guevara would wish to wage war if he could see that in this socialist autocracy there is somebody held in higher esteem than he. Nevertheless his iconic portrait is splashed on many an idle wall.
The only freedom of expression emanating from the place seemed to come directly from the elite in government. I wondered why they hadn’t found the time to paint Che’s facial silhouette over Ronald McDonald’s beaming smiles. Now that would have been apt, and the absence of it left the deepest of ironies. So simmering volumes of perspiration and suspicion preceded me into Caracas’ recently renamed airport. You hardly need to be told what it’s called.
The queue snaked off monstrously deep into the check-in area, I couldn’t make out the head it was so far off, but there was satisfaction in at least being in it. I slid my luggage lethargically forward, raised a hand to wipe away the bleeding sweat from my brows and embraced the faintest hint of relief.
“A donde vas?” came the first question. He was a squat fellow who looked like he wouldn’t be easily rattled. I was in no mood, so drained, dreaming presently only of boarding a plane and slouching over tea and biscuits at the end of it all.
“De donde vienes?”
“Voy a Madrid… vengo de Santa Marta. De Colombia.”
I’m convinced the five days of stubble marking me out as the gruffy returning traveller would on its own have landed me in it. But my sighs of indifference, borne of fatigue, made my interrogation a fait accompli.
“Ven con nosotros”, and the most horrible queue imaginable became a beauty unattainable in an instant because I was gone from it, destined for drugs screening alongside two of Hugo Chavez’s finest men in green.
Inside the screening zone, comprising one cold bare-looking room with two or three more smaller ones off it, various shades of army personnel hurried about in different directions, but at once giving that uniquely Latin American impression that nothing much was getting done. Desks and paperwork alone threatened to colour the place, and as with all over-militarised societies, there was that sense of hierarchy. A couple of admin girls to fill out forms on those being checked, rank and file soldiers carrying out the orders and escorting ‘suspects’ from A to B to C. One senior army chief tucked away in an office on his own, to sign off completed examinations. You could call it another hypocrisy of Chavez’s socialism. I do. But there was an edgy stench all around.
Atop a little table in one of those small rooms – which probably measured about 10 feet by 4 – every crease and crevice in my rucksack was pored over and sniffed out. But it was the repacking rather than the unpacking that was pricking my newly cultivated acquiescence. Toilet bag, socks and reading material went buried underneath jeans and t-shirts. I had to get the obliging soldier, didn’t I.
While all that was happening, two women who had also been pulled from various queues at check-in came in, one by one, and were ordered to strip naked at the far end of the room, about six feet from where I waited. Two officials accompanied them, one older and in plain clothes. Of all the people in the zone he was the one I didn’t trust. He looked at her, then at me, then back at her. She was down to her underpants. Out of respect I turned and moved slightly so that I was behind one of the soldiers.
“Yo me siento como feminina” was all I heard. I feel feminine. And with that she was dispatched outside.
Then the second arrived in, for the same scrutiny, with the same audience. As before the plain clothed one hung back, the younger soldier stood face to face with her and issued the commands. “Todo, ahora!” he said aggressively. In a careless moment I had caught sight of a voluptuous pair of bosoms, then I looked again as the older one gasped in my direction. Swinging low out from under the knickers was a sight none of those soldiers wanted to see. Did the soldiers have an eye for spotting the transexual and wanted to corner them? Was this a sanctionable offence in Venezuela? I didn’t care to find out, but it must have been humiliating for both of them.
An hour passed and intermittently I reminded whoever was near that I was in danger of missing my flight. But I was going nowhere. Forms had to be filled in, for which I had to wait my turn, because now I was in line for a urine test. Soldiers came, soldiers went, and meanwhile I repacked my bag.
Two of us were taken together to the mens. He tested negative, I tested positive. The soldier who I had kept company with for the best part of an hour seemed as surprised as I. “Tomas mucho café?” Well yes I drink coffee, can coffee trigger a positive drugs test? I was led out, the word went round that the Irishman had tested positive. God knows how, but now what to do.
“Tomas drogas?” No I told them, I don’t. And for the next hour I’d be asked a million times over, “Tienes drogas ahi, no!” pointing to my stomach. They were testing my resolve, hoping at some point I’d confess to carrying substances inside my body. But the only place this could be verified absolutely was at the hospital. I kept repeating one line: “Yo no tengo problem irme al hospital, solo quiero cojer el avion.” Take me to the hospital, but just get me on that plane. I was accompanied back up to a manic check-in area, where I was given a boarding pass but told to keep my luggage with me. I would take my rucksack as hand luggage, if I made the flight at all.
I suppose you could say I was having an eventful day, but by the time I was crouched in the back of a Venezuelan army jeep, flanked by three armed soldiers and one plain-clothed maniac, en route to a hospital through rush-hour traffic, for some bizarre reason I began to relax. There was even time for some politics.
“Te gusta el Chavez?” asked the one who I had gotten to know best, and whose hard shell I felt I had cracked open somewhat with some carefully chosen small talk.
“Ah Chavez, si.” A certain amount of ignorance had to be feigned.
“Patrio, socialismo o muerto” they reminded me. Patriotism, socialism or death. They were good servants of the state, but what for the consequences of defying the mantra, I thought. Patriotism, socialism or death?
One of them showed off his designer watch, boasting how much it had cost. Later I’d be quizzed on how much my camera cost, before it was examined in some detail.
“Eres Catolico?” I told them yes, I was Catholic.
“Creas in la virgin Mary?”
Then I kind of guessed what they wanted to hear.
“Si, creo, claro.” Of course lads, I’m a believer.
“Tu eres un buen hombre.” A good man, and I was making progress.
I stood tired and skinny, half naked, in the x-ray ward of a hospital in some town 20 miles outside Caracas. The sweat was pouring off me, there were patches of rash all over my chest, but I was almost ready to pick and drag my belongings one last time. My flight was leaving in 15 minutes, but I’d already given up on it. The soldiers loitered and joked with the attractive nurses who would be the bearers of my judgment. Clean.
We filed back into the jeep, whisked through throngs of cars on the way back to the airport, and 10 minutes later I was back at base, galloping upstairs to locate an ATM. Airport tax needed to be paid before leaving the country. As one ATM after another refused to give me money, I noticed Mr plain clothes still at my side, apparently not at peace with the fact that my interrogation was finished.
“Tienes dinero para mi? Para mi familia, para comer…” It was his one last chance to get cash from the gringo, out of sight of the others. I’d done my time in south America though, we were out in the open in a public airport, and I could tell him to get lost in comfort. But how I felt for him also. So much for socialism, that this is what it reduces a man to.
There were three more layers of security to get through before I could board. But it’s amazing how compliant people can be when you rush past them, like a madman, skipping every queue as you go. I just pleaded as I went and had the impression, in fact, that the nuttier I came across, the more co-operative they became. Because I had to carry all my luggage through, my scissors got confiscated, but I was happy for the lad to have it. One last theft for the road.
I got to my boarding gate in the end, 20 minutes after the flight should have left. Boarding was slow, passengers were being frisked by the military as they went on the plane. I handed over my boarding card, trudged along towards the air bridge, and there they were, my old pals again. People were getting their bags turned inside out. My turn came, and I approached the soldier who had earlier probed my religious views.
I held up my arms like the seasoned pro, he nodded and looked at me almost motherly, executed the most pathetic frisk I’ve ever seen, then patted me on the shoulder and waved me through. “Listo”, he said. Ready to go. I guess it was my faith that pulled me through in the end.
392 total views, 2 today