"Colombia? As in drug cartels?!?"
My voice rose an octave and a half as my boss revealed himself to be an alien from the planet Moron.
"Who goes to Colombia? Do you realize that country's on the State Department's 'don't go there' list?" I continued in the same vein for a few minutes before allowing him to get a word in edgewise. He reminded me that all the major oil companies had major investments south of the border, that the advisory was for targets such as diplomats, and that regular business transactions were continuing unabated. I wasn't terribly reassured by all this. He tried to lay a guilt trip on me, pointing out that this would be a really good thing for the company to have under its belt, and that I was the only one who was available to take it, not that he was forcing me or anything. When he went on to describe the incentive compensation and how the client would arrange for a security escort, and by the way there was a $30 per hour incentive bonus, then I felt a little better. After all, my passport was current and I had no dates planned, so taking the job wouldn't really mess up my life. I told him I'd take it.
Then my boss gave me the kicker -- I'd have to leave in a week. Great. That wouldn't give me enough time to get anti-malaria shots and have them take effect. I eyed him with thoughts of mercenaries and torture flitting through my head, but the bonus money won out. Besides, there was a certain James Bond-ish thrill to the whole idea of going down there.
My roommate didn't see it that way when I got back to the apartment. "Colombia? As in drug cartels?!?" He added several pithy comments casting doubt on both my parentage and my sanity, concluding with "Guess I'll see you in the remake of Midnight Express."
Over the next week I arranged to put my email lists on vacation status, checked the Web on what to eat, drink and avoid, and crammed a week's worth of business casual into one piece of luggage. I'd have to use my laptop carrier for medicines and papers so I could get under the two-item carryon limit and not have to check any luggage. On most airlines that direction, checked luggage is another word for bye-bye.
I was all set by Friday evening, which gave me enough time to get my last McBurger for a while. And to see Angela and have my ashes hauled. I liked Angela -- she was a zaftig brunette with vibrant green eyes, something more than escort and something less than girlfriend, and she didn't mind if sometimes all I wanted to do was strip down and cuddle up to her backside for an hour. This evening I had more strenuous activities in mind, and I didn't leave her apartment until three hours later, having exercised all of the major muscle groups and some I didn't know were useful. I walked out of her apartment gingerly, trying to keep my aching empty balls from rubbing against the inside of my pants. I didn't even have the strength to get undressed when I got home, just fell onto the bed and collapsed.
My flight was Saturday afternoon. It was nothing exciting; the DC-10 was full up, the food was better than I expected and some Chris Rock movie was showing. There was a lot of turbulence -- the guy two seats to my right wound up with a rum and coke in his lap. I managed to get a couple of spotty naps anyway. When I landed at Bogota there was a minor hassle over my laptop, and I had to plug it in to prove that it worked. Also, they wanted to see the prescriptions for all of my medications. Finally, I made it through there, got my passport stamped, and looked for the uniformed company driver who was supposed to meet me.
The local company contact had been insistent about not taking any public taxis while I was in the country. I had a couple of nervous moments shaking off some shady-looking drivers who offered me a ride into town, but finally saw someone holding a sign with my name on it. Well, a reasonable approximation of my name. I waved and hauled my two bags over, and followed the guy out to the van where he put the bags in the back and I got to ride in the front. We chatted some on the twenty-minute drive, interrupted every so often as the van hit a bump or pothole and the seat slammed into my rear. It was a good thing my laptop case was padded -- this drive was worse than baggage handling would have been.
I arrived at the hotel, slightly the worse for wear but fully briefed on topics including which subjects to avoid in conversation, what the odds were on the Colombian team in the World Cup, where to get a good deal on jewelry (probably his brother-in-law, I was guessing), who to contact for security escorts and what the arrangements were to pick me up from the hotel in the morning. I checked in, got my room key, went upstairs and had just enough energy to take my hanging clothes out to unwrinkle before I took off my clothes and climbed into bed.
The first day of the job was very straightforward. I got up at 6:15, showered, got dressed, got my laptop and working papers set up, went downstairs and had a cup of coffee. A driver arrived promptly at seven, dispelling at least one stereotype about life south of the border. He and I went through a security scan at the front entrance, he went his way and I went mine, schmoozing with the staff until we started the first meeting at 7:30. We broke at noon for lunch, down in the building refectory. Then between working sessions, brainstorming and more meetings, we finally wrapped our daily review at 6:00pm.
Five of us stopped by security and picked up a driver, then went to dinner at one of the better restaurants, up in a high-rise with a revolving view of the city. We talked about office gossip, about the project, about sports. There was some conversation in Spanish, which I couldn't follow, but they kept that to a minimum. About an hour and a half later, they dropped me off at my hotel and I wandered up to my room to collapse, stopping in the lobby to get a daily paper. Up in the room I checked the TV channels -- outside of the Spanish-language programs there was just HBO, MTV and a Sony channel showing a variety of sitcoms. I looked through the ads in the paper but didn't see anything of interest, then flipped through the Yellow Pages. My rudimentary Spanish allowed me to identify the bars, some massage outlets (probably legitimate) and something that literally meant Turkish Baths. I made a few notes for reference, then flipped to the jewelry section and copied down some names and addresses.
The next day was like the first, with yet another driver; they must have had a number on staff, and they didn't seem to have a standard uniform. The work was longer, and we didn't get to our review of the day until 7:00 in the evening. I noticed during the day that there were very few women on staff, and that those who did work there were all pretty good looking. The group went out for dinner again, so I got to my room later than on the first night and still had to spend some time writing up my meeting notes.
I didn't have anything of visual interest on my laptop, because I'd heard tales of travelers who had their PCs seized by customs for pornography. I attempted to do some recreational programming, but my mind wasn't in it and I really didn't have the energy anyway, so I just went to bed that night.
On the third day, before I went up for the first meeting, I stopped by the security office and told them I'd need arrangements for an evening driver. I told them I wanted to go look for some emeralds and to check out the nightspots. At lunch that day, I stopped by the hotel in order to change a hundred and fifty into local currency. The bills made an uncomfortable bulge in my jacket pocket. We only worked until 6 that day, which left me a decent amount of time to go shopping. I went down to the security office, but they told me my escort would be at the front exit. So I went down to the front area and a guy in a driver's uniform was slouching by the door. I waved and went over to him. "You must be my driver," I said as I extended my hand to him, "Call me Brad." He took my hand and shook it, responding in kind, "And my name's Rogelio."
We got into a nondescript car and headed out. I told Rogelio I was looking for emeralds, and mentioned the place the airport driver had recommended. Rogelio made a rude face and muttered something in Spanish, short and probably derogative, then said only that there were better places to find quality gems. I looked around as he drove, noticing that there were high security fences around every residential building and barred doors and windows on the businesses. Apparently Bogota had the same sort of crime problems that you see in near-downtown Chicago or New York City.
We drove for a while until he pulled into a parking space somewhere outside the central business district. We stood outside the door as he pressed a buzzer, and when the door clicked loudly he opened it and we went in. The shop was small, but they did seem to have good stones. Rogelio turned out to have some knowledge of emeralds, and his advice was helpful as I settled on a couple of earring-size pieces for Angela and a stone that would make a nice pendant for the right woman. Also a ring for my mother; Mom was going to be surprised when I remembered her 60th birthday this year.
After that Rogelio suggested dinner, and drove us to a place off the tourist route. No decor to speak of, but the grilled meats were incredible. We chatted as we ate -- I talked about Dallas, my job, my roommate and my life. He related tales of foreigners he had taken one place or another and the troubles they had gotten into trying to use American behaviors in Colombia. I looked longingly at a baked coconut flan, but decided I'd best pass on dessert.
.... There is more of this story ...