Scenes from an American airport. The difficulties of traveling with a bike (when you have a Colombian passport).


The 1980s and 1990s were difficult times, and not just because Hall And Oates' popularity (although that certainly didn't help). My reason for saying so is that as a Colombian citizen, it was particularly difficult to travel internationally during that time. Back then, Colombian passports were a distinctive green color, which was easily picked out by customs employees as we stood in line at airports throughout the world. Officials would spot our poop-green identifications, and makes us step out of the line, and directly into interrogation rooms. We were the world's enemies, and our passports gave us away. As a result of these ongoing troubles, the Colombian government eventually stumbled upon a fantastic solution...make its passports look as much as EU passports as possible. The strategy worked, believe it or not. Having said that, the first page of all Colombian passports still has an unusual statement (in multiple languages) which is intended for the customs officials we may encounter in our travels. The statement asks that the government of Colombia kindly asks that customs officials and authorities around the world please respect the rights the document's holder, as they would the rights of a citizen of another country. It states Colombians have rights, and should be treated fairly. That statement, I suppose, is one obvious difference between an EU passport, and a Colombian one.

The change in the passport's appearance, and the unusual statement in its pages speaks of an earlier time, the 80s and 90s in particular. In those days, were the world's enemies. We were seen as potential traffickers, terrorists and murderers. We were held in such low esteem that we were often blamed for things that, in retrospect, seem insane. No I'm not talking about us being blamed for horrible disasters during that time (like the TV show Models Inc), but I still remember the day when O.J. Simpson fled from police in his white Bronco. I remember that day better than most because my blood boiled for nearly the entire duration of the day as news reporters and commentators endlessly repeated that Ron Goldman's murder was probably committed by "the Colombians", due to the nature of the attack . The same was true on September 11th, when I heard reporters in multiple channels say that Colombians were probably behind the attacks.

Those days, however, have largely passed. The baton that marks you as being the most feared and hated nationality in the world has largely been passed on to those who come from middle eastern countries. Having said that, when you are a Colombian citizen, flying back from Medellin with a medium sized box as your only checked luggage, things are still bound to go wrong. Even today, so let me explain.

Going to Roubaix
When flying to Europe in order to show professional cyclists how to ride the Paris-Roubaix course earlier this year (those guys need all the tips they can get), I had the following conversation with an airline agent here in the United States, as I checked my bike box:

Her: What's in the box sir?
Me: A tradeshow display.
Her: It's a bike sir, there's a charge for checking a bike.
Me: It's a tradeshow display, not a bike.
Her: It's a bike sir, the charge is $175

Okay sure, I was trying to get by without paying the bike fee. This, I admit, is a less than honorable thing to do...but the lady was still rude as hell, and didn't buy my tradeshow display story for a minute. In the end, I had to hang my head low, pay the damn fee, and move on with my life.

Now compare that conversation to the one I had while checking a bike frame in Medellin's airport only days ago:

Her: Is that the only piece you are checking today?
Me: Yes, yes it is.
Her: Looks like a bike frame, or a bike. Is it?
Me: Uh.....
Her: Is it a Colombian frame? Who built it? Was it one of the builders in Medellin?
Me: was
Her: My brother raced for the Orgullo Paisa team, have you heard of that team?

Next thing you know, I'm having a drawn out conversation with the ticketing agent about bikes and her brother's cycling career. Apparently he wasn't much of a climber, so he was released from the team, or something. To be honest, I lost track about two minutes into her diatribe...but I appreciated it nonetheless. In the end, my boxed frame got checked, and received a handful of "fragile" stickers all over it, as she passes it to another person by hand. The woman refused to put it on the conveyor belt in order to keep it safe. There was no charge for it being a bike frame, for it being over the weight limit (I loaded the box with a bunch of other stuff that I was bringing back with me...ranging from bags of coconut rice, to CDs for my mom, and dirty laundry). This was exactly the same treatment I received flying out of Bogota earlier this year too, when I flew with two bike frames. The fun and games (and conversations about people's brother's cycling careers) came to an end once I set foot on American soil.

Arriving to the US
As some readers may remember, I've had some difficulty going through customs before...namely the incident earlier this year where I told customs officials that I was a professional cyclist who had just won Paris-Roubaix....and I did so in front of Jonathan Vaughters. If you haven't read that account, you can do so here and here. During this latest trip, I once again sort of lied to authorities when questioned. As a customs official looked through my Colombian passport, he asked me about the contents of the the box I had with me. Our interaction was the following:

Him: What's in the box
Me: Bike parts, and clothes
Him: Why do you have a bike sir?
Me: I like to ride a bike
Him: And why would you travel with a bike, are you a professional biker?
Me: Uh, well
Him: Why did you bring a bike with you, do you race on a team as your job?
Me: Uh... yes. Yes.
Him: What kind of brakes do you have on this bike?
Me: Well, none. It's not a complete bike, so it doesn't have brakes
Him: I'm gonna' need you to step into room #8 for further inspection

And that was my greeting by the United States, a guy asking me about what kind of brakes I had on a bike frame, and if I'm a professional. For some reason I responded by saying I was, even though I'm the furthest thing from it. I've been asked similarly unusual questions before in those settings, which are clearly meant to trip up a person who has something illegal with them. For example, consider the time that I was in Holland in the 90s, and upon my return the customs agent (who looked just like Kojak) said the following:

Him: You're a Colombian citizen, and you were Holland
Me: Yes sir
Him: How much weed are you bringing back to the U.S.
Me: (Without even thinking about it) None!
Him: Right answer, have a nice day.
Me: Thank you sir.

So because of these incidents, as well as having been questioned (sometimes at great length) in the UK, Canada, France, Italy and Austria, I know how these things work. I also know why I get questioned. I'm not crying about it, but merely mention it because the differences are mildly amusing. I'm always honest, instead of saying whatever I feel will get me out of the situation quickly. That was exactly the case when I said that the bike had no brakes. It didn't. I guess my explanation was not sufficient though, and I was held for further interrogation. As I waited in a white room, two men looked over my box far away. They took it into another room, and I waited some more. They ran the frame through a machine, had it sniffed by a dog, poked every one of its openings...and thus violated the poor frame's sanctity. During the whole process, I was told not to move from my chair. Eventually, I was asked to step forward, and was once again asked questions about the bike frame, my trip, my job and finally about why this was not a complete bike...and why it didn't have any brakes. The damn brakes again. I started to think that these guys were trained to stop bike frames that could be built up as pseudo track bikes (sans brakes) from entering into the country. I assured them that the bike would have brakes...and all its parts, but for now I was merely bringing the frame into the country. This time, the guy asking the questions was a drill sergeant-type (we'll call him Kojak #2), and after I went through the whole story one last time, he seemed content. He had me box up the frame (along with my dirty underpants), and I was off to catch my next plan. Sure, my four hour layover had now shrunk to forty minutes, but these things happen. When the box finally arrived at its final destination, I noticed that it had been checked and opened up at least two more times.

Perhaps at the heart of the problem was not my nationality, but the fact that there's no great reason as to why I'd travel with a frame and not a whole bike. As a matter of fact, there's lots of questions that you can ask of someone who rides a bike often, which simply have no great answer. The clothing that's worn while on the bike, the number of bikes we may own, the times at which we ride, and the conditions in which we ride. Many of these things appear to make no sense. Additionally, why do I ride as much as I do, when I'm not (regardless of what I tell customs agents) being paid to do so? These things make no sense, and I don't expect them I'm fully prepared for further interrogations in the future. Bring on the questions Kojak.