“Sus documentos son buenos. Bienvenido a Colombia, Senor Thomas” – El Dorado International Airport Immigration Official
So I’ve been here in Bogotá for a couple of months now and it’s been a complete whirlwind…personally and professionally. I’ll cover both aspects in greater detail in coming entries into the Dreams of a Diplomat series but for now, let’s rewind back on my arrival to Colombia.
LEAVING ATLANTA. After finishing Spanish and Foreign Service consultations at the end of June, I took 2 weeks of annual leave before departing the United States for my South America debut…a much-needed rest to recharge after a long period of study at the Foreign Service Institute and an opportunity to refocus on the challenge ahead of me in South America. I spent all of that time with my family but I did steal away a few moments to kick it with some of my classmates from the Huffman High Class of 2003 and, of course, close out all of my legal business in the United States. All of that led up to July 15: my departure date. I arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport approximately 4 hours ahead of my scheduled nonstop to El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá. My first stop in the International Terminal was the check-in booth of Delta Airlines. It was a bit of a weird experience because the agent and I had personal history…like we used to date personal history. Once we got past that initial feeling of weirdness, we got down to the business at hand: processing my documents and getting me my boarding pass. It was pretty clean overall though I was absolutely befuddled how the fees for checked bags jumped up in price. For the one-way trip, I had 2 luggage bags, a heavy-duty garment bag, a duffle bag, and my backpack. The first checked bag was free while the 2nd checked bag was $60. The 3rd checked bag—in this case, the garment bag—was $200. For a very brief moment, I considered checking the duffle bag but The Instant Gratification Girl told me that bag would also be $200. I literally let out a Clay Davis reaction and decided that one was going be hand-carried on the plane with me. After securing the boarding pass and making my way through the TSA lines, I was inside of Terminal F with 3 ½ hours to go until my flight was scheduled to depart. Notice those italics, right? As is the custom when I fly anywhere out of Atlanta, my flight was delayed. Apparently, the cleaners cleaned the wrong plane because they didn’t get the message that the plane was moved from Terminal E to Terminal F. I swear it’s always something at Hartsfield-Jackson. After the smoke on all of that hooliganism cleared, we boarded and departed at 6:21pm ET…almost 2 ½ hours late.
ARRIVAL IN BOGOTÁ. The late departure from Atlanta ruined what would’ve been a highlight experience for me: the opportunity to see some of the Caribbean from up high. With the flight only being at 40% capacity, I was able to transition to a more advantageous seat for viewing as I wanted to get pictures of Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, and the Pacific Coast side of Colombia before the descent into Bogotá. Because we were late leaving, it was dark by the time we exited out of American airspace and the opportunity was lost. I’m sure there will be other opportunities for the views but never the first opportunity. Big ups to Delta and Hartsfield-Jackson for ruining that. Anyway, we arrived at El Dorado International at 9:47pm Colombian Time. International arrivals into the Colombian capital are relatively easy…at least they are for diplomats. All I had to do was follow the pink signage that read Diplomáticos. After about a ¼ mile walk from the flight gate, I arrived at immigration and passport control. While the lines were long for Colombianos and Extranjeros, the line for diplomats was pretty much bone dry. It was only 2 of us—a diplomat who was going to be working at the Mexican embassy was also on my flight—and I was 1st. I showed the immigration official my documents, including my diplomatic passport, and he cleared me by uttering the lines of the epigraph. As I was walking down to International Baggage Claim, there was a guy waiting with a sign that read JUAN THOMAS. He pointed at me and I nodded that I was who I was. He was my expeditor—all set up by my administrative assistant—and he took my duffle bag and we walked down to International Baggage Claim, where he gathered the rest of my bags and we rolled out of El Dorado in an armored SUV. It was about a 40-minute ride to my temporary apartment and I got a chance to see some of the liveliness of Bogotá at night…even on a Thursday.
MY FIRST FEW DAYS. My first few days in La Atenas Suramericana consisted of me going through the gamut of inprocessing at Embassy Bogotá and getting comfortable with my surroundings here. I’ll cover it a little bit more in detail in the next post but the Management Counselor threw me into the fire on Day 1…no phase-in period or anything. Aside from getting familiar with some of my subordinates in the Facility Management section and my colleagues in the Management section, I did my tour of the Embassy facilities and met with some of the notable people in the Mission. I was surprised that everybody knew my name well before I knew theirs. When I wasn’t at the Embassy, I was walking around the neighborhood, seeing what was around me. On my 3rd day in-country—a Sunday before Colombian Independence Day—I decided to walk to Carulla, the local grocery store, to grab a few items to hold me over. I was actually very impressed by the store…the fruits and vegetables were fresh, the aisles were very organized, and almost everything was far cheaper than I imagined it would be by American standards. There were a couple of things that stunned me a bit: (1) the incredibly high prices on American brands, which is probably a consequence of import taxes, and (2) the milk being in heavy-duty plastic bags on the dry aisle right next to the bread. The latter is something that took me 20 whole minutes to discover…I almost panicked and thought there wasn’t any milk in the store. Anyway, with my groceries in hand, I walked back to the temporary apartment, and approximately 1 ½ blocks into the 4-block walk, I had to sit down on a park bench and just chill out. The high altitude got to me, which was surprising considering I’m in really good shape and I had spent much of the ensuing 8 weeks running and preparing myself for the thinner air. The truth of the matter is that the only true way to prepare for high altitude is to be at high altitude. Aside from that episode, it was smooth sailing my first week or so.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS. My first impression of Bogotá is that it’s a different kind of city. I’ve lived in bigger cities (a la Tokyo and Seoul) and I’ve frequented more spaced-out metropolises like Los Angeles, London, and Atlanta. But I can’t say I’ve been in a city where the differences in social class were so pronounced. In Colombia—especially the bigger cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Cartagena—there is a socioeconomic system in which residential areas are classified called estratos or stratums. They go from 1 to 6 with 1 being low-low class (or bajo-bajo) and 6 being high class (or alto). In between, you have stratums 2 thru 5, which as low class, low-middle class, middle class, and middle-high class, respectively. As I learned in Area Studies, this is every bit of a fringe 3rd world country considering the poverty rate is close to 50%. I saw that dynamic up close and personal…like taking a taxi that cost $15000 Colombian pesos (approximately $4 USD) within eyeshot of a street vendor who likely didn’t make that much from his day of sales or when I gave my Rappi delivery girl $6000 COP (5 times the suggested amount in the system and approximately $1.50 USD overall) as a tip and she starts crying at the amount. Those socioeconomic differences really tug at my heartstrings because I’ve been there before when I was much younger. Aside from that, Bogotá is a wonderful city…so far, at least. The people have been pleasant. They haven’t treated me as if I’m a “gringo” or as if I’m different because I’m Black. I would imagine that most think I’m probably Afrocolombiano until I start speaking.
I’m happy to be here in Bogotá and I’m excited for what’s ahead of me during my tour. Stay tuned for my write-ups on life in the Embassy and the cool digs I have.