As I type this, I am currently sitting in a cafe on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, about two blocks from the U.S. Embassy, waiting for an emergency passport so I can return home. The following is a true recounting of events that transpired over my 2018 Spring Break.
For my Spring Break, some friends and I planned a 10-day trip to Cartagena, Colombia. We traveled in a fairly large group, 22 of us in total. I would like to think I was among the most excited for the adventures ahead, because I had never been on an airplane before, let alone traveled outside the country. Had I known what would befall, I imagine I would have been feeling otherwise.
After arriving Friday, we spent the first evening buying groceries, exchanging currencies and just settling into the apartment complex we rented. The next day we would go to the beach and see how sunburnt we could get. I have an affinity for water and, as one should expect, as soon as we arrived, I threw my bag onto the pile with everyone else’s and jumped in.
Now, being University of Michigan students who generally act in rational manner and try to think ahead, we left two or three fellows “guarding” the bag pile at all times. It also turns out that being a large group of white Americans, we were swarmed by vendors like I’ve never seen before the entire time we were at the beach. As the vendors distracted us, someone was able to sneak in and grab my bag off the top of the pile.
When we were all sufficiently burnt and the time came to pack up and hail a taxi back to the apartments, I noticed my bag was not with the others. My first thought was that someone was either playing a prank on me or had idly grabbed my bag, thinking it was their own. Once I returned to the rooms and interrogated everyone, I decided the next step was to call my bank and cancel my debit card as a precautionary measure. It was then that I discovered my card had actually been attempted at an ATM near the beach, and I realized I had indeed been robbed.
The fact I had been robbed was slightly less unsettling than the fact that my bag not only contained my (brand new, bought for this trip, three-day-old) phone, my wallet with all my money and all forms of picture identification, but also my passport — the only way to enter back into the U.S. They had stolen my ticket home.
As a foreigner in a country where I could not speak a lick of the language, it was quite difficult to figure out where to even began the process of getting home. After several calls to the U.S. Embassy, I discovered that I needed to travel to Bogotá in order to get an emergency passport. Easy, right? Fat chance. Bogotá is over 1,000 kilometers from Cartagena (or about 620 miles) through dangerous countryside and hundreds of miles of unpopulated national parks. My best chance was to fly there, but how does one fly with no form of identification? Well, several more calls to the embassy later, I now know that I must go to the police to file a report, get it signed and print a picture of my passport.
That same evening, I went to the “police station” with a friend who spoke minimal Spanish. We walked in and were greeted by a lone officer sitting in a dimly lit room, only slightly bigger than my closet. His desk was bare save a typewriter that was at least 70 years old and thoroughly surprised me when it actually worked. The officer proceeded to type up a report and upon completion gave us the paper and told us we had to get to the other end of town to file it. A 20-minute taxi ride later, we discovered this next police station was only open during regular business hours and it was still Saturday evening.
After foregoing most of the weekend excursions to get my paperwork in order and prepare myself for a flight to Bogotá, Monday rolled around and I was off again with my Spanish-speaking friend. Four hours of waiting in line, a game of pass-and-play risk and an hour-long meeting later, I finally had my signed police report.
Thanks to the multitude of help I received from my University family, after a post to Facebook looking for English-speaking contacts in Bogotá, I was able to get a trustworthy ride from the airport to the embassy and had a ride waiting for me afterwards.
As I sat in this restaurant, continuing to wait for my ticket home, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to be an American citizen, when so many people are being ripped from their homes and displaced by war, famine, fire or deportation. I know my country, friends and family are there for me and were ready to help me get home, when I was terrified I might be stuck there for much longer than anticipated.
I have always been fond of the saying “you win or you learn, there is no losing” and I have indeed learned a great deal. I learned to always lock your valuables up and avoid traveling or going out with them whenever possible. But most importantly, I learned a newfound appreciation for my friends, my family and my country. I have learned that I should take nothing for granted.
Lucas Dean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.