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November 10, 2002

Travelers' Tales - Colombian Escapades

Chuck Sandy
(see also our Interview with Mr. Sandy)

(This is the first in a series on the adventures and mishaps that befall writers and educators on their travels. We would love to hear your story, too. We will publish the best in this column. Submit your story using our Contact Form.)

What's always true is that the unexpected occurs most often when travelling, and what's almost always true is that such situations build and fall on the classic narrative elements of crisis and resolution of one kind or another. What's usually true is that these situations arise in the first place because of ones own stupidity and absent-mindedness, and that's exactly how I wound up in the immigration detention center at the Nagoya airport for having overstayed my visa, and precisely how I got in so much trouble in Bogota, Colombia some years ago.

Here in Nagoya it was a matter of not having bothered to look at the expiration date on my Japanese visa that prevented me from leaving the country to be in Seoul for the Korea TESOL Conference recently. In Bogota it was a matter of not remembering to bring along the fax on which all of the details of my trip had been spelled out. I'd left it in the pocket of the jacket I'd decided not to wear at the last minute, and as I sped off in a taxi to the airport that day, I thought, "Oh, well, MV, my editor, has all that information."

I was to meet her in Miami and then fly together to Bogota. Unfortunately, MV missed her flight out of New York, and as my flight from Tokyo had been delayed I ended up having to run through the Miami airport to catch and board my flight to Colombia at the very last moment. Out of breath and decidedly frazzled, I made my way to my seat, then looked over all of the passengers -- which was easy because they were all looking at me. I carefully scanned the faces. No MV. "Oh well," I thought. "I'm sure some publishing person will meet me at the airport in Bogota." I was wrong.

I therefore arrived clueless in Colombia, with no information to give the immigration people about my hotel or the name of a contact person to contact. In fact, I didn't even have any proof that I was in fact an ELT author. Why carry copies of your own books when there will no doubt be copies there wherever you arrive? That was my misguided thinking, and what I tried to explain to the frontier guards at immigration.

I must have looked as panicked and confused as I was, however, because it was soon decided that I must have been either high on something or simply up to something no good. I wound up being taken to a small room and thoroughly strip-searched by burly Colombians, then questioned at length before getting sent out alone into the Bogota night three hours later.

This was a nightmare in itself, but given the sense of freedom one has when stepping out into the air after such an experience, I felt incredibly happy with the possibilities of a night in Colombia ahead of me. That's when I saw the guy holding this sign that had the words "Mr. Charles" written in bold black letters across it. "Well, that's me," I thought.

This sign even seemed to be adorned with the promotional sticker of some university, increasing the chances that I had found salvation. I walked up and said:

"Hi! I'm Charles Sandy!"

This guy -- who spoke as much English as I did Spanish - raised his eyebrows and said, "Mr Charles?"

I said, "Yes!"

He said, "Universidade de something or other?"

I said, "That's right!"

He asked, "Hotel de Bogota Executive?"

Thinking that sounded entirely plausible, I said "Yes, yes, yes!"

So, he took my bag and led me to his car, put my bag into the trunk, and motioned for me to get in the back. Away we went.

The driver had this old Ford Pinto that smelled of gasoline fumes and chicken droppings, but none-the-less, I felt safe, secure, and exhausted enough to soon fall asleep as he drove on.

After who knows how long, I woke to hear the driver talking at me in Spanish with this pained, possibly menacing look on his face. We were stopped on some little country road in the middle of nowhere. The car had broken down, but I didn't know that then. I thought -- given the facial expression and the big wrench this man had in his hand and was swinging around as he talked -- of the notice that would appear in the back of TESOL Matters: "ELT author meets violent end in Columbia" --or in the U.S. papers: "American Professor Still Missing in Columbia: FARC issues vague demands."

There I was, groggy with sleep, having recently been strip-searched, being encouraged physically out of the car and into the dark night by a man with a huge wrench in his hand. I resisted, and I think whimpered, but the guy took me by the arm and off we went, to my death, I thought. Instead, we walked about a kilometre to his cousin's house, it turned out. His cousin not only had a pick-up truck that worked, but also spoke some English and had some beer and some food in a sack that his wife had packed for us. The three of us rode off in the truck, pressed close together in the front seat, drinking beer, eating meat-pies, and in my case, feeling simply happy to be alive. The night still showed promise.

An hour later we arrived at this lovely hotel. I almost cried with joy then and insisted that the driver and his cousin take all the local currency I had as a gesture of my gratitude for delivering me safely. "No, no, no," they said. "Yes, yes, yes," I insisted. Finally, they took the money, gave me the last beer and the remaining meat-pies, and after a round of farewells, and even hugs, they drove off waving and shouting, "Adios Mr. Charles! Adios!"

No one had ever felt happier than I did at that moment when I walked into this fantastic hotel lobby at 3 in the morning. With my heart full of warm feelings and this sense of joy streaming through me, I walked up to the reception counter and announced my arrival. Of course, the hotel had never heard of me.

To make matters worse, the hotel was completely booked for the night, and when I was told this, I literally began to cry, thinking I'd be walking back into the Bogota night, cashless, with no clue where to go nor linguistic skills to find out. But then, as I turned to leave, I heard the desk-clerk softly say, "Sir, it seems that the Presidential Suite is available...." I didn't even ask how much it might be, nor did I care, especially when I was finally shown into a suite of seven rooms at the top of the hotel, with one room more luxurious than the next, and there! A well-stocked kitchen! And there! A wet-bar! And over there, a huge bed! There is a God and he loves me, I had to conclude.

To make matters even better, this was on a Friday night. It took till Sunday afternoon for me to make contact with my publisher's office. I spent that Saturday and Sunday in bliss, pretending I was the Baron of Excess. Finally, given the details of my earlier trauma, MV, when we finally got together, even suggested I keep the suite for the rest of my stay rather than move over to the much lesser hotel we were supposed to be lodged at. How could I say no?

This was years ago, but sometimes still, at the odd moment, I wonder whatever happened to the real Mr. Charles. Whoever he is, I hope he never has to try to fly out of Nagoya with an expired visa. If he does, the story won't end with a seven-room suite and luxurious excess, or even with the exotic flavor of meat-pies and beer on a Columbian night. Just imagine being released from crisis, only to find yourself in Nagoya, Japan.

That's what happened to me after being released here from the immigration detention center. Not Seoul. Not Bogota. Not even Tokyo. Nagoya. There was that sense of freedom, but it was a pre-packaged sandwich, a can of coffee, and a Meitetsu bus ride back to my home in Kasugai, instead of meat-pies and beer in a pick-up truck ride to luxury.

The only consolation was that when I arrived home to my 4 room pre-Bubble apartment of definite funkiness rather than opulent excess, they'd not only heard of me but even had dinner waiting.

Mr. Charles, whoever he is, wouldn't even get that lucky.

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy has directed English language programs and taught in Japan, the United States, Korea, and Brazil. He travels extensively to speak on ELT throughout Asia, North and South America. He is a regular contributor to the ELT News Think Tank feature. He is Professor of English Language and Culture at Chubu University.

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