Cartagena, Colombia - An Offline Story

by ronpass

A true story about my experience in Cartagena and the unbelievable problems I had in securing my luggage which inexplicably went offline.

Arriving in Cartagena Without My Luggage

The beginning of an epic journey

I arrived in Cartagena in 1997 from Brisbane for the Fourth World Congress on Action Learning and Action Research. I had traveled by plane via Sydney, Singapore, Los Angeles, Miami and Bogota (36 hours in all!).

I was attending the World Congress as a member of the international planning committee and President of ALARPM Association, a primary sponsor of the Congress. One of my roles was to open the Congress along with the Convenor, Professor Emeritus Orlando Fals Borda of Bogota University.

You can imagine my shock when I arrived at the airport in Catagena on a Sunday only to find that my luggage with all my clothes had not arrived. Apparently it was common practice for Air Avianca to offload some luggage to lighten the load for the trip from Miami to Cartagena.

On this occasion, at least 12 people arrived without their luggage so there was a queue for enquiries about lost suitcases. It was also common knowledge that any luggage that was heavy was taken offline for close inspection ...(and possible removal of valuable items). My luggage was heavy - I had about 12 publications I had carried from Australia as a donation from the ALARPM Association to the Bogota University Library (no one bothered to remove them!).

After a few frustrating and fruitless hours at the airport I took the cab to our shared house (8 Aussies) in one of the suburbs and proceeded to try to source some clothes. To my consternation, all I could buy was a T-Shirt with "Colombia" on it.

So I ended up opening the Congress with the jeans I wore from Australia and the T-Shirt from the street outside.  At least the T-Shirt was popular with some female students from Bogota University. The students asked me to autograph their Congress Programs (the first and last time anyone has ever done this!).

Unfortunately, 1,800 people from 61 countries were present to hear my opening address (and see me under-dressed).

Opening the World Congress with my Colombian T-Shirt

An Aussie casual approach - looking a bit under-dressed
World Congress Four Opening
World Congress Four Opening
The Offical Party - World Congress Four
The Offical Party - World Congress Four

Success - Lost Luggage Form Signed at Cartagena Airport

Small Things Excite Some People

After a number of fruitless visits to Cartagena airport over a few days, I finally located someone who could speak broken English (everyone, except me spoke Spanish - why did I not learn Spanish instead of GreeK?).

He took me the length of the airport (a long way) and then out the back to a shed and we were joined by another airport official who produced an ominous looking form of considerable length with fold-out pages. 

They then proceeded to ply me with questions as to the contents of my luggage - "How many pairs of socks?" 'What color were they?"..........One hour later, they had filled in all the spaces amid my growing uneasiness and tiredness (it was late at night).

Then, to my astonishment, the writer got up and shook hands with my "interpreter" and they patted each other on the back for a job well done (they completed the lengthy form).  They left me standing as they indulged in extended self-ongratulations.  They had forgotten I was there!  Suddenly they realized I was still hanging around, so they shooed me away.

Cartagena, Colombia

Old Town Colombia

Success? - Luggage Located 2 hours Before Departure from Colombia

A Hair-Raising Discovery

On the morning of my departure from Colombia (8 days after arrival), I received a call from Cartagena airport to say that my luggage had been located and that I could pick it up at the airport an hour before I flew out of the country.

Fortunately, one of my Aussie friends who could speak Spanish accompanied me to the airport.  She was planning to stay on for a few days and then travel on for a holiday in Brazil and Peru.

We arrived at the airport and were escorted to where my bag lay on the the presence of two armed police officers.  I was instructed to open the bag - which I did.

To my horror, all the inner lining had been cut by a knife but all my belongings were still intact, including the 12 books.  I had a horrible thought that they were going to try to pin a drug charge on me and that I would never leave the country.  This, however, did not happen - to my utter relief!

My colleague asked the police if she could extract the books to give them to the Bogota University to save my carrying them back to Australia.  They hesitantly agreed after a lengthy exchange in Spanish (none of which I could understand) and the books were released to my friend and I got to check my baggage in.

By this time I was exhausted and mentally drained but my drama did not end there.  As we were about to board the plane I was frisked by an armed police officer.  Then, as I was approaching the boarding gate (20 metres further on), I was frisked again by a young guard who had his hand on his holster the whole time.  I had the sense that he was just itching for me to object.

I have never been so relieved to get on a plane!

Updated: 05/29/2011, ronpass
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pajs64 on 10/07/2011

It didn't happen to me yet, and I can only imagine that it must be very inconvinient. My worst experience with airlines was a trip to Peru which ended in Brasil because we were runinig out of fuel. After company paid a fuel and changed a crew we were on the trip again. But hey, what would life be without adventure and stories to tell to our grandchildren and wizzley fellows.

traveller27 on 08/30/2011

The only time I've had problems with luggage was on the way back home - still a huge inconvenience.

ronpass on 06/02/2011

AJ - thanks for sharing. That is a clever send-up of British Airways.

AJ on 06/02/2011

Not nice!

The only time we lost our luggage was on a weekend trip to Vienna. We were not the only ones and I remember a lady absolutely distraught because her luggage had a ballgown in that she was due to wear to the Viennese Opera House that night.

We were lucky as we got our luggage next morning.

But one of my favorite pieces of graffiti could be found in some toilets at Heathrow Airport which was cleverly sending up a British Airways advert at the time when it was promoting early morning flights from London to arrive in time for breakfast in New York. It said

"British Airways - breakfast in New York, luggage in Hong Kong"

cosmopinkice on 05/30/2011

Wow! Your luggage dilemma sounds like it was a true nightmare. I hope this is a story you can laugh about, now that it's over. That picture of the old harbor is magnificent! The water actually looks like it is moving. Great article, but I realize the frustrations at the time.

ronpass on 05/29/2011

Thanks friends for your wonderful comments and shared experiences. While this part of my trip was both frustrating and scary, my overall impression was very positive (as Susan commented about her son's experience in Colombia). Cartagena was both a cultural shock and an eye opener and the Congress left an indelible, life-changing impression on me. If you think of South America as color, dance and song ...Cartagena is all that and more. The contrast alone between the history-rich old town with its fortress and the new town with its 1,000 seat conference center is incredible. Added to that is a backdrop of unbelievable human spirit, inconceivable levels of poverty and a natural beauty epitomized in the old harbor photo. You can't leave Cartagena without being touched to the core.

SquidRich on 05/29/2011

I had a similar experience travelling back to the USA. Thankfully, it didn't last as long as yours, but it is scary when some of your worldly goods go missing.
At least you looked like the coolest guy on the block there, Ron ;)

Dianne on 05/29/2011

International travel can be full of surprises. We had a similar (but not so scary) experience at the US/Canadian border yesterday. They pulled several random cars out of line, made us get out of the car and wait by the building while their dogs sniffed the cars. Then they searched the inside of some of the cars (not ours) before allowing us to be on our way. Good thing we left early! We were taking my sister and friend to board their cruise ship to Alaska. We would not have wanted them to miss the boat!

Guest on 05/29/2011

Love the photo from Cartagena. Thanks for sharing your story and glad your luggage turned up, even if it was too late for the holiday.

Susan52 on 05/29/2011

Great story, Ron! Glad you didn't have to carry those books back home again, too. Very nice-looking t-shirt, though certainly you stood out in that crowd! My son was recently in Colombia and really enjoyed his visit. Seems tourism is taking off in Colombia and the people are very nice and very accommodating. Fortunately, his backpack arrived when he did!

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