The immigration officer was tall and burly.
“So are you planning to be here a while?” he barked, as he closed the door of his interrogation room.
“Yes, please,” I squeaked. I was trying and failing to mask an internal scream of desperation.
“Well… everything looks fine with your application,” he began.
Thank. Goodness. I breathed again, but he held up his hand.
“Everything looks fine… except…” he continued.
That was the moment I slumped in my chair.
I’d been up since 4.45am and sitting in the waiting room for around three hours.
Visa offices, generally, give you far too much time to think. For a start, they are decorated with pictures of the country you desperately want to live in.
They should be decorated with pictures of the Queen, Strictly Come Dancing, Steven Gerrard and Bombay Sapphire. At least that would mind remind you, that, if all else fails, you do have another ‘home’ out there.
The whole atmosphere gave me butterflies in my stomach. I was far too stressed to concentrate on my Spanish grammar book.
Instead, I thought back to July 25, 2010. The day I arrived in Colombia. I’d been living in a bubble on Galapagos for more than three months, so I was feeling a little vulnerable. I’d said goodbye to some terrifically genuine and, above all, fun people – both Ecuadorians and my fellow volunteers.
The night before I’d said my last goodbye, fittingly, to Pippa – the closest I’ve ever come to having a little sister.
I made it to Colombia, but when I arrived – the airport cash machine, in Cartagena, wouldn’t give me any pesos.
It was yet another blip in my plan. I shouldn’t even have been in Colombia. I only came on the recommendation of Isabel – the first and most gorgeous Colombian I’ve ever met. Her fun-loving friendliness encouraged me to build a two-week ‘Colombia hiatus’ into an otherwise carefully planned six-month holiday, strictly south and round to Brazil.
Soon, I was sitting in the back seat of my first Colombian taxi. I had no money – just 10 dollars in a currency I couldn’t technically spend. I had no accomodation. Back then, I wasn’t much of a traveller – just holidays and work trips – and I remember thinking: “Wow, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been to a country where I do not know a soul.”
Eight months later, there I was. Sitting in a dreary visa office, asking to build a life in that very country.
I thought of my new friends; Julian, who found me a home and paid my taxi fare from the airport when my cash card and all my pesos were stolen on a trip to Peru; Cesar, who persuaded the Colombian Chamber of Commerce to turn me into a business; Andrea, who translated my visa begging letter into such careful Spanish.
I thought of Angelica, Cata, Stephen, Andrea and Augusto, Jonathan and Mila and, of course, Eric, Renee and Christian who’ve helped me with everything from job hunting to throwing the biggest (joint) birthday party I’ve ever had.
Who knew visa offices could be so emotional? I even thought of Diego, whom I now never see. Okay, so he was a little crazy (I’ll never forget him telling me TransMilenio was the world’s most efficient transport system nor that Bogotá’s buses use special ‘clean fuel’) But he brought me to Bogotá. Thanks to his near deluded passion, I fell in love with a city I would otherwise never have seen.
(For those of you who never knew that story: I met Diego in my 10-bed dormitory in Santa Marta. He woke up seconds before I was going out for dinner. If he’d slept a little longer, we never would have met – because I was leaving on a week-long hike early the following morning.
A week later I was deliberating. Should I spend three days on the beach in Taganga with my friends, before flying straight to Peru, waiting just five hours at Bogotá airport? Or should I accept Diego’s invitation, take a bus south and spend those three days (ha!) in Colombia’s capital? That was August 14. I’ve since framed that bus ticket. It’s proof that life turns on a sixpence.)
But I’ll never explain why I’m so fond of Bogotá. It’s probably not because I have a Latin name, nor because I’ve always enjoyed dancing and have finally found my style. Even when my Dad came to visit me (taking his first trip to South America at the age of 67) he was confused.
“But it’s just a city. It’s just like London,” he said.
(That’s not a compliment. A thoroughbred cockney, my father grew up in the rubble of the Blitz, and finally fled the city, never to return, sometime in the 1960s)
Even my daft 101 Reasons will never cover it. I’ll never be able to explain why I was sitting in that awful office, surrounded by Venezuelans, Mexicans and Peruvians; all of us drained and beige in the face with stress.
I don’t even love Bogotá; I just happen to belong here.
I managed to recall all of those thoughts and more, slumped in that horrible plastic chair.
Meanwhile, the man’s words were still echoing in the air.
Except. Except. Except.
I knew what “except” meant.
This man had my bank statements. No-one ever tells you what “sufficient funds” means but I assumed that, after almost a year of travelling, I was swimming somewhere south of insufficient.
I gave him a defeated smile.
“It’s all fine except…?” I prompted.
He shuffled through the papers once more.
“It’s all fine except… you signed the form in the wrong place. So we’re just going to need to get you a new form, you sign right here and it looks like you qualify for the visa.
“It’s two years. Have a nice day Miss Kellaway.”