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Will's international travels hit a brick wall while he’s still in the Bogotá airport. Elsewhere, a German teacher on vacation is confused by Will’s ancestry. Join Will as he leaves behind his life - his career, his fiance, his home in New York City - to explore the globe only to find that the world out there is just as rife with confusion and awkwardness as life anywhere. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be our friend (or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada).

Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say

  • Getting on a plane and flying across the world to just… start living? It’s weird. I’ve been in many airports in my life. This one was the hardest to handle.
  • I wasn’t quite ready to admit this, but I made up the man in the suit who lent me the pen. There was literally a tray of them at the airport. I spent like 45 minutes fretting before I saw it.

Relevant things I wrote that you should read

Relevant articles and posts by smart people

I hear with my little ear

Show transcript

[Sounds of public restroom. Flustered man pacing, breathing heavily and mumbling. “Okay. TE-NES, un... No, TE-NES. No, it’s not a sport, man.”]

Here’s the visual: I’m pacing back and forth, panting, in front of the urinals in an airport bathroom in Bogotá, Colombia. 

[“Tienes. Is that it?”]

Men are pooping, toilets are flushing. Cinder block walls, drab green stalls, mustard yellow tile flooring. It’s a real earth tone rainbow.

I’m reading off Google translate on my phone, sweating through my shirt. I mean, literally. I came into the bathroom in the first place to change into the shirt I’m now wearing, which is already showing sweat stains ninety seconds later. And, of course it is. It’s not my shirt’s fault my arms are wetter than the urinals and my face looks like a sunburned pancake.

[Toilet flushes]

Man, all this because I need a pen. Yeah, a pen. A 99 cent BIC ballpoint. Blue? Black? I don’t give a shit.

I need a pen for the customs form at immigration. I didn’t have time to ask for one on the plane.

[Hand-dryer hums]

Well, that’s not entirely true. The flight attendant passed by six or seven times, but I just couldn’t seem to get the confidence up. She didn’t really speak much English, but she was the only person in a whole long while who’d speak any at all.

I probably should have guessed that, flying, you know, to Colombia.

So now the minutes are ticking down to my connecting flight to Cartagena. I can’t seem to drag myself out of this bathroom. 

Man, I thought I loved traveling. I did love traveling, up until... I don’t know, this morning? Back then, I had an apartment. A job. A fiance. A life. Now? I just… don’t have a pen.

[Theme Music Begins]

This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells. I'm Will Conway. Text POD to (332) 877-9540.

Here we go.

[Theme Music Ends]

[Sounds of an airport - murmurs, announcements, etc]

Did you like the music? Good. Well, I managed to pull myself out of the bathroom while you were gone. Still don’t have a pen, though. I’m standing in line at the Avianca customer service desk.

I used to fly a lot for work. I actually love flying. I like underdressing the business travel crowd with a checked long-sleeve and an old pair of jeans. I like the confidence of showing up in a new place with sunglasses on and my go-to leather duffle slung over my shoulder, slinking down the jet bridge. I like timing an Uber perfectly as I step out of the terminal as a sort of cocky self-reflection of how flawlessly I know the cadence at JFK or LAX or DCA. But this one? This is a little different. I’ve never done this before.

Anyway, I’m at the head of the line. The lady at the Avianca customer service desk is craning her head forward. People are tapping their feet behind me. Checking watches. Groaning. I don’t blame them. Honestly at this rate, I’m going to miss my flight too. 

Just say the words man: “¿Lo siento, tienes un boligrafo?”

The customer service lady has big, kind eyes, warm smile. She looks on expectantly.

[Eight seconds pass of airport murmurs]

“¿Tu… hablo Espanol?”

For those keeping score at home, that directly translates to “You… I speak Spanish?”

She giggles politely. I blush and rub my neck. She points to the customs line. I say “thank you,” in English, and walk away. 

I find an American - wearing a suit - twenty minutes later. “Hey — I’m sorry. Do you have a pen I can steal for a minute?” Like I showed up to math class unprepared. Turns out I forgot my protractor too.

This customs line is huge. Snaking back and forth like five times. If I miss my flight, it has nothing to do with the fact that I burned half an hour in the bathroom. Nah. No, it’s the line’s fault.

Also, it turns out there aren’t many white people in line for immigration at the Bogotá airport. It’s me, the American in the suit who lent me the pen, and this one young woman about my age. Among hundreds.

The woman is exactly one row’s worth of people behind me. We pass each other in the opposite direction once every seven minutes or so. It’s hard to ignore the only other white person in the place. She speaks first. 

She asks if I’m German. She says I look German. I decide I like that.

“Yes,” I say. Because my blood is a little German and I’m a dumbass American not used to meeting actual Germans.

“Oh,” she says. “Where are you from?”

I say New York City.

Her head tilts, confused. My line moves forward, hers goes back.  That was our first pass. Four left. 35 minutes until final boarding.

___

Six minutes later, and I’m 28 minutes from missing my flight and 90 seconds from pass number two.

The problem with a customs line is it messes with the dimensions of social space-time. For instance, there’s a moment in any interaction when you’re moving towards someone - say, walking down a hallway - when you’re too close to not acknowledge them, but still too far apart to start talking. Well, in a customs line, you spend about three minutes right there, in suspended awkward animation, pretending you aren’t pretending to be about ready to start talking to someone you don’t really want to be talking to in the first place.

We make eye contact. I nod. She purses her lips. I smile. She tries, God bless her. I run a headcount on the remaining line. Somewhere between 236 and well, five million. I may have lost count. She invests some quality time in the departure and arrivals screen.

There are four people between us now. She’s close enough, I think. 

[“Hey I’m sorry that made no sense - I’m American but my blood is German. I’ve been flying all day, I wasn’t thinking, and I just didn’t quite understand your question. Anyway I think I’m going to…]

She waves it off. Her eyes warm, actually.

“Why are you in Colombia?” she asks. 

“I don’t know.”

“Well, how long are you traveling for?” 

“I really don’t know. Probably forever. How about you?” 

She says two weeks.

Me, forward. Her, back. 26 minutes to final boarding. Three passes left.

___

She is a teacher - little ones. Seven and eight. They apparently don’t go to school in July in Germany either.

“What do you do for work?” she asks.

“I probably should have a good answer for this now. I stand in airport customs lines.”

Me forward, her back. 19 minutes to final boarding. Two passes left.

___

She’s curious why I’m starting in Bogotá. I say I’m not and that this is a layover. I’m actually going to Cartagena in the north. Her shoulders slump. 

“I think I’m going to miss this flight though. It leaves really soon.”

Her eyes twinkle.

The old man behind her whacks her leg with his cane.

That was rude.

Her forward, me back. 13 minutes. One pass left.

____

She explains that if I’m backpacking and have nowhere to be, there’s really no reason to start in Cartagena and not in Bogotá. 

I explain I don’t know anything about Bogotá; I don’t even have a place to sleep. She says I’m taking it too seriously and if I was really a backpacker, I’d figure it out. And also I could just come with her.

I say, “Let me think about it.”

She says to wait for her after I get through immigration. 

I say, “Let me think about it.”

Me forward, her back.

___

Two minutes before final boarding. Front of the line.

The customs agent says... things in Spanish. I don’t respond. She sighs, switches to English. She asks how long I’m staying in Colombia. I say thirty days because that’s... a number. 

She asks why I’m here.

[Long pause]

She asks if I’m here for vacation.

I say yes. Bienvenido a Colombia.

I turn left and looked back at the snaking customs line. My German friend is four people from the front. I wave goodbye. She doesn’t see. I keep walking.

I missed my flight. Had to wait two hours for the next one. But, honestly, it’s for the best. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing once I get out of the airport.

[Theme Music Begins]

That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells. Except, I guess I tell them, so... going to have to workshop that. Anyway, sound design, production, writing, marketing, weird rambles all credited to Will Conway. The music goes to my uber-talented brother Kit Conway of the band Stello - check them out. For fun trivia and other insights, as well as weird credits, like the toilet flushing at the beginning of the episode, go to heybaggageclaim.com. You'll get it all there.

Lastly, text POD to (332) 877-9540.

[Theme Music Ends]

Will Conway

About

Former political software guy. Now a traveler and adventurer, which isn't a job, and host of the @heybaggageclaim podcast, which really isn't either. Travel stories no one tells.