There are three toilet stalls in the men’s room of Cali’s Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport’s international departures terminal, none of which have toilet seats. But one of the police rooms just beyond security has a state of the art x-ray machine through which one can see virtually every orifice of the human body. From my very unscientific study, about one in seven men who passed through security last night wound up in that room, where they quietly stood side-by-side watching images of each others’ bone structure move across a 21-inch computer screen.
“Robert,” the police officer calls out, as he hands me my passport and bids adieu without a nod or another word.
It didn’t occur to me until much later, when sipping my last cortado of the day, that they could probably create a decent income stream by making drug screening x-ray prints available for sale. I wouldn’t buy one, but I’m sure others might.
Based solely upon what the ticket agent told me in Quito as I began what will be a 42-hour journey to Doha, I didn’t expect to have to officially enter Colombia. I would simply be transiting through Bogota, she assured me when when I was handed my two boarding passes for Avianca Flight #14, which originates in Bogota bound for Madrid via Cali.
“It’s the same plane,” she lied. “You won’t have to get off the plane. You’ll only switch seats.”
That last part clued me in to how clueless she was about this particular connection. No airport in the world intentionally allows passengers to sit on a plane during a two-and-a-half hour layover. Not one that I’ve heard of. My assigned seats –I requested and was given aisle rows—didn’t add up either. Bogota to Cali was row D, the transatlantic leg G. They couldn’t both be aisle seats on the same aircraft.
The idea was inviting though. I was up at five a.m. after less than four hours sleep and knew I’d be tired by the time we reached that balmy runway in western Colombia. Dozing on an empty plane for a few hours sounded peaceful.
But obviously that wouldn’t be happening, even as an Avianca gate agent on the ground in Bogota’s massive Eldorado airport, who told me to go directly to the international gate, played along with the fantasy. I was in that terminal long enough to learn that my flight didn’t actually originate there, but in a domestic terminal, which meant backtracking through one-way doors, setting off a small string of alarms and attracting the glare and attention of nearly a dozen security staff. They eventually waved me through.
By the way, clearing immigration was quick and efficient, with a 90-day visa given by default to bearers of US and EU passports. Others too I’m sure.
The airport’s a pleasant modern facility which offers just about everything you need to kill time during a near seven hour lay over: good coffee, free if slow wifi, and a wide selection of moderately crappy food.
Cali was short flight away; upon arrival about a dozen of us who were booked onwards to Madrid were asked to step aside and wait, a period I took advantage of to scope out the immediate surroundings. Much of it is a hardhat area.
The airport is a construction zone throughout, a major renovation I was told, whose finish date was yet to be determined. “I really have no idea when,” a gate agent told me as she guided us through the hardhat area. She laughed at the seeming absurdity of my question.
She escorted us along corridors lined by dusty walls of hastily mounted drywall which separated travelers from workers and finally through to the exit and back towards the departures area and exit immigration. Warm early evening air wafted in through the un-air conditioned airport’s street level. I found its warmth energizing.
Checking out of the country was quick, efficient and painless as well; security was, at least, the latter. After asking a few questions, the first police officer took my passport and told me I would collect it after another security check. In the meantime, my carry on, along with everyone else’s, was emptied and checked thoroughly. Next came the side room hosting the full body x-ray, which the chosen ones passed through on a moving sidewalk-style conveyor belt.
Colombia is still technically at war with the FARC guerillas and continues to step up, at least on the surface, it’s anti-drug smuggling efforts, so the extra precautions weren’t a big surprise.
When I passed through the country overland two years ago, stop-and-search was a routine part of any long distance bus journey. Then, my bus was stopped twice on two longer overnight trips, once by the national police and another time by an anti-narcotics unit. Both time all my bags were opened and searched by officers acting with a courteous, if firm, professionalism.
I just wish they wouldn’t always pick me.
On the Madrid-bound leg, a flight of a just over ten hours, I was seated in the aisle row of the middle section with a mother of two four-year-olds next to me on one side and another young mother holding a one-year-old on the other. All their conversations were loud. I thought of the orderly quiet of the Cali x-ray room as I drifted off to a very brief sleep.