Cartagena, Colombia - An Offline Story
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).
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.
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 floor...in 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!