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Once were Gondwanan

Colombia to Costa Rica

COLOMBIA | Sunday, 26 February 2012 | Views [1857]

This originally was a blog about San José, Costa Rica, but then I started to think about my journey to there from Santa Marta, Colombia. I usually try not to dwell on the tedium of the familiar airport experience (you know the deal) but this day stood out for me. Disclaimer: It is only about the airports and my minor hiccups, so be warned, you may be bored. Sorry. Maybe I’m not keeping myself busy enough.

My trip so far has been so uncomplicated that I laugh to myself when I want to describe the minor hiccups as problems. I was supposed to leave Santa Marta at 7.30 a.m. (and be at the airport three hours earlier) en route to San José, Costa Rica, via Bogotá. Yes, I know. Bogotá is in the opposite direction. My problem was that when I tried to confirm my booking on line the night before, I had a message saying there was a problem with my flight. I tried to contact the airline, but couldn’t get through. I really didn’t want to get up at 3 a.m. for a flight that wasn’t going to happen, but I also didn’t want to miss my flight if it was going ahead. Big dilemma. In the end I chose my own compromise – I arrived at the Santa Marta airport two hours early rather than the recommended three. Good decision.

There was a cleaner at the airport, but I was the only customer there, nothing was open, and it was still dark. But what a lovely airport! Santa Marta has a population of over 300,000, but this international airport is tiny, with only two gates. It is right on the beach, with views of mountains and the sea. The downstairs waiting area is covered, but without walls. You could fish from there!

I was fairly sure that I wasn’t going to be leaving on time. My first clue was of course that everything was shut, and when the cleaner told me that the airline check-in desk didn’t open until quite a while after my plane was scheduled to leave, that pretty much confirmed that the online message about a problem with my flight was correct.

I felt like I was in a time-lapse photo as eventually the sun rose, lights of service desks were turned on, cafes opened and passengers arrived.

When the check-in desk finally opened, without apology or explanation as to why the flight was leaving two hours late, I had my next issue. When entering a country, you sometimes need to have proof that you have the finances to leave it as well, for example, an ongoing ticket. (Some people say this is just a requirement of airlines, because they don’t want the expense of returning you if you are rejected at migration – possibly true, I have certainly never had to show proof at land borders.) Anyway, I had shown my return ticket to the girl at the checkout. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t understand what I was saying, that I had a ticket, and she couldn’t understand why I kept saying the same thing. I was eventually persuaded that I had to buy an internal ticket, that my Chilé to Australia ticket wasn’t sufficient.  The girl passed me on to someone who spoke English and we had the same conversation. Eventually the penny dropped. It had not been a language barrier; it had been a stupidity barrier. That would be me. Instead of showing my ticket from Santiago, Chilé, to Sydney, Australia, I had accidentally handed over my itinerary from a few months ago from Santiago to Quito (well, they were both printed on white paper.) That was a relief; I hadn’t been keen on buying a ticket that I probably wouldn’t use. Also an embarrassment.  So I was finally off. Two hours late. When I think about it, the late departure shouldn’t have been surprising. On the television news I had seen reports about delayed flights in nearby cities due to Carníval, maybe that was connected.

I am whining now so I’ll say the next bit as quickly as possible: Arrived at Bogotá – airline check-in not opened, no information posted, no questions (accurately) answered, second plane late, don’t know why.

I had some fairly anxious moments when I was going through immigration in Bogotá. The officer asked me how long I had been in the country. A standard question, but I don’t know why they always ask, they can see precisely how long by looking on the passport page in front of them. Anyway, I didn’t know exactly, without being able to look at the date in my passport, so I made a guess. The officer just looked at me and went away with my passport.  I was anxious to get through immigration quickly, as I had discovered that my flight was boarding earlier than I had been advised, although later than originally scheduled. As I worried at immigration, I wondered if I had overstayed my visa. Australians are permitted to stay 90 days on a tourist visa, but this isn’t automatic. Sometimes you are only given 30, and I hadn’t checked, because I had just been planning to pass through within a week or so, and then I hadn’t thought about it (my mistake of course.) I knew I had been in Colombia for at least five weeks, so I was picturing just how bad Colombian jails really are. Anyway, eventually the officer returned and stamped my passport and without explanation told me to go through. In my lifetime I have been through customs over a hundred times before, so I will put it down to anxiety and tiredness that, instead of going past his desk into the correct area, I turned around back into the waiting line with the usual tape barriers used for forming cues. When I realised my mistake I was so embarrassed I tried to duck back under the tape, but forgot my daypack was very large. It became caught on the tape and unclipped it from the socket. When I finally regained an upright stance (but not much dignity) and fixed the barrier I was relieved that immigration was almost empty but I could feel the red sting of embarrassment on my face until I was well out of sight.

Although high security presence is the norm in Colombia, I was still a bit surprised when prior to our flight, all of the passengers had to vacate the gate waiting room, and then re-enter, where our bags were checked and we were frisked. Sadly for me, the frisking part was not by the good-looking young guy. I had seen passengers all lined up at other gates, and now I knew what they were doing. We had already been through the usual screenings, so I am not sure why this was necessary but I would always rather have increased security than not enough.

Lessons learned or reinforced: pay attention to which documents you submit, generally don’t be stupid. At least nobody knows me.

Tags: border, embarrasment, santa marta, south anerica, travel



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