When returning to the United States after an overseas trip, the first required task ahead of you – prior to going through customs or baggage claim – is a screening at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency’s passport control area. Think long lines and a pod of glass encased booths with unsmiling border agents. The purpose of this formality is to have your passport and documentation checked out as well as having agents possibly ask you a few questions about your trip. For me, that sometimes includes an inquiry as to why I was visiting the country from which I am arriving. This always irritates me a little. Why? If it’s legal, it’s none of their damn business. You just can’t say that.
My reply is always truthful, yet vague. If you offer too much information it only invites a more intrusive set of questions that feel like a dangerous game of “gotcha” even though you have nothing at all to hide.
Then again, you can’t be too vague either. An answer along the lines of, “because I felt like it” will likely land you in a small room, under a hot lamp with a few stone faced, humorless inquisitors and a missed connection to boot.
“For photography,” I say and this reply satisfies quite often enough. I might even get a genuinely friendly response such as, “Oh I imagine (insert country name here) is a beautiful place for that” or something along those lines.
Upon arriving from Bogota, Colombia that answer left the Miami agents less than convinced.
“Photography? You mean, like taking pictures?”
This calls for mucho self control on my part.
“Yes, exactly like taking pictures.”
They then want to know of what and where I was practicing photography; if I know people in Colombia; how did I come to know these people in the first place; did I buy any photo equipment there; if not, what did I buy?
I can’t tell you how tiring and banal these overtly loaded questions are, not to mention slightly insulting. We are all aware of Colombia’s mostly unfair reputation so why don’t we avoid any further delay and just ask where I’m hiding the blow?
Then again, their lack of good faith could rightfully be forgiven seeing that not too many gringos travel to the Land of El Dorado for the sole purpose of photography. But that could be changing soon. Photographers can draw inspiration from a varied set of natural environments and climate zones: the Amazonian rainforest with it’s dizzying array of biodiversity; the snowfields and glaciers of the northern Andes mountain range with the highest peaks reaching over 18,000 feet; the tierra caliente of the lowlands and tropical Caribbean islands; and the wet Pacific coastline. This makes Colombia one of most naturally diverse countries on the planet, ranking third in the entire world in the number of total living species and number one in bird species.
So I arrived in Bogota with high hopes after receiving and accepting a speaking invitation and separate weekend teaching assignment with La Bloom Photo School, where a group trip to nearby Chingaza National Park was planned. But first, I wanted to explore the city and countryside and I allowed an extra week on my own for this purpose.
After checking into the hotel, I took a leisurely walk around the block to get a feel for the sights, sounds, and rhythms of this new place. It didn’t take long for me to notice that something was obviously wrong here. The armed guards at nearly every intersection and restaurant didn’t give me much pause at first but the explosive-sniffing dogs at the entrance to each hotel, parking deck, and government building was, I admit, a bit unnerving.
I tried to have a taxi take me to Bogota’s historic city center right before sunset for some twilight and long exposure photography. When asked for a destination, I just said, “oh, just drop me off anywhere here” as I pointed to a location on the map I was holding. He refused, for my own good. My Spanish comprehension is at best passable, but I know a good scolding when I hear one, no matter the tongue. It was beyond foolish to be downtown at night alone, was the message in so many words. Yet undeterred, I tried another and was refused once more.
On my return to the hotel, I was struck by a man on a small motorcycle while crossing one of Bogota’s chaotic streets. Famously chaotic or not, he shouldn’t have been swerving through and around stopped traffic at an intersection and then fail to stop at all once he arrived at the light. For this, he paid dearly as the forward motion of his bike was immediately arrested by contact with my body while he, now separated from said bike, continued airborne in that same forward direction unabated until terminal impact with the pavement.
This traffic-stopping scene drew many awed looks from nearby drivers and pedestrians, as I stood over the wreckage virtually unscathed. He was okay as well, just bloodied up a bit, but still was taken to the hospital in an ambulance as a precaution. After a very short interview with police, I continued my walk back to the hotel, all the while mulling the inauspicious start to the trip.
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