By the first time I ever traveled to the United States as a kid, my father had already gone through many passports during his lifetime, as a result of extensive international business travel. I was only five years old during that trip, as we waited in the customs line at Miami International. But despite my age, I still remember the episode well.
My father took our family's collective passports out of his attache case, and very quickly put them into the inside pocket of his blazer. Even as a little boy, I could sense an uneasiness about my father as he did this. He was tense, and appeared to be concealing our passports. My father was an experienced international traveler, so why was he acting like this? It was only at the very last second, while standing in front of the customs agent that he brought them out of his pocket, flashed a smile, and tried his best to get us into the country without any issue. I would later ask my mom what this was all about, the secrecy and tense energy about going through customs. She explained that it was best to hide our Colombian passports until they absolutely had to be shown. At the time, they were a distinctive green color and, so the story goes, customs agents in countries like the United States would walk through the lines of waiting passengers, looking for the tell-tale document in the hands of a Colombian, to pull them out of the line for questioning.
Years later, the Colombian government changed the color of its passports to match that of the EU. To allow its citizens to hide in plain sight. At least that appeared to be the reasoning for the change, and the story caught on among most Colombians.
Was it really necessary to conceal our passports as we waited in customs lines? Perhaps not. But the lasting effect of that lesson was powerful, and one that continues to play out over the years for me, as I hear endless stories of Colombian friends and family who wait for months or years for visas, and sometimes never get them. I remember the wailing mother at the American embassy in Bogota circa 1989 who was denied a visa to see her newly born granddaughter. The tales from friends who miss connecting flights as they are held for questioning, all on account of being Colombian. Threats of deportation are not totally uncommon for Colombians who live in another country legally. Leonardo Duque (ex-Cofidis rider now with Team Colombia) told me many stories about difficulties traveling, and acquiring visas at last year's Giro, as other riders around the table joined in the conversation with their own tales. Some were simply amazing, and I've heard others from riders that I'd rather not share.
Over the years, I've had to help Colombian friends get visas, including writing letters (and asking for organizations to write letters on their behalf) and for men like Pacho Rodriguez (Vuelta a España and Dauphine stage winner) to be able to travel and compete in gran fondos. Uran, Henao, Arredondo, Betancur and many others have missed races, training camps and team events for these reasons too. Some have raced with tourist visas, having to come back home, before flying out again for another round of races and training. Similarly, Team Colombia was down one rider in Colorado last year due to how hard it is for a Colombian to get a visa. Because of this, the team had to pick its roster for that race many months ahead of time, regardless of future form or possible injuries that could come. And come they did, leaving the team unable to fill the roster.
Our country's reputation, it would appear, casts a very long shadow. Which begs the question, what on earth must it be like to travel with an Iraqi, Iranian or Afghan passport?
Today, it appears as though Team Colombia riders will not be able to race at the Tour of Turkey. The rider's passports are being held by the British embassy in Italy, where the team paid extra fees for express processing of the rider's visas (for the Giro, which starts in the UK this year). They don't have their passports back, and thus can't travel. This process had to take place in Italy, after riders were denied visas at the British embassy in Colombia for no apparent reason, and were told to re-apply in Italy. Though far off, the Giro now hangs in the balance for these riders, on account of their passport, while the Tour of Turkey is slipping away.
If only they could have concealed their passports in the inside pocket of their blazer just a bit longer.