Really Lucky Gringo
September 19, Aguachica, Colombia
Today may be the luckiest day of the trip but I'm not sure. Not because of a close call on the highway, although a day without a close call on the highway in Colombia is a day in bed. The trip through the valley to Aguachica was hot and very humid, probably 90+ degrees, and it was the kind of heat that is humid enough to make you feel even hotter when you travel faster through those billions of particles of hot water in the air which negate the usual cooling-evaporative effect of wind. As I arrived in Aguachica I rode around town and realized it wasn't really a place that I wanted to stay but I didn't have a choice because it was too late to reach another destination in daylight. I was looking for a hotel room and was motioned to pull over by a cop; it was the first time in Colombia for an actual official traffic stop.
The cop asked for my motorcycle papers. In every one of the countries I've visited it is standard operating procedure for the Customs office at the border to give you a piece of paper with info about your vehicle. When you leave that country you give that same Customs document back to the Customs office at the border you are leaving from and all is well. It shows them that you're leaving the country with the same vehicle that you entered with, thereby ensuring them that you're not selling any vehicles in their country. I always keep this piece of paper with my passport and have never lost one, until today. So when the cop asked for my papers I started thumbing through my passport and realized that it was gone [oh crap!!].
On the inside I panicked; I've heard horror stories of motorcycle confiscation and long expensive procedures to retrieve motorcycles when the owner had lost their customs papers. I don't remember which countries those stories were from but they were almost certainly somewhere in Central America, where they are particularly watchful of such an offense because it spells "opportunity for cash bribery" to cops and border officials who discover such an opportunity. On the outside I just kept calm and was saying hi and shaking hands with some of the military guys that were also there, as well as another cop or two. Then I just handed him my passport like it was what he asked for [remember; answer the questions you wish they'd asked you, hand them the document you wish they'd asked for, and be really nice].
I was thinking as fast as I could and came up with what a brilliant solution regarding what to do about my missing document: absolutely nothing, or maybe you could call it 'status quo'. I just kept on shaking hands and asking what things are good to photograph here in Aguachica and talking about places I've seen in Colombia and that I'm on my way to Cartagena and asking if they'd seen Cartagena and if they have any recommendations of other places I should see, and that I'm writing a book about Colombia, and somewhere in the middle of all my happy-gringo blathering the cop just handed my passport back to me and said "todo bien" [which is Spanish for "really really really lucky gringo"].
So tonight I'm in Hotel D' Leon, one of the cops recommended it. That leaves me feeling slightly vulnerable, as the cop could decide to find out why I didn't have my customs paper, but I think there's about a 4% chance of that because he really didn't seem like he wanted to do any of the extra work of pursuing a gringo and there was never any kind of a hint of bribery or anything like that, so all he has to gain by pursuing the issue is extra paper work. So there's a 96% chance that I'll sleep like a baby tonight and figure out what to do about the papers after I get advice from some of the local Horizons Unlimited folks that I just emailed about my little issue...