Barranquilla, Colombia. June 1988.
I’ve watched plenty of episodes of the Nat Geo program, Locked Up Abroad. It’s a show about survivors telling their sagas of arrest and cringe-worthy incarceration in foreign jails. A few times the trauma was no fault of their own. Far more often, the storytellers did incredibly stupid things.
On our way home from Colombia for the summer, I decided to wear a pair of $10,000 shoes. I could have been one of those storytellers.
In the late 1980s, Miami Vice was a top-rated show on American TV with a Colombian drug lord or crazed gang scaring the crap out of the American public every Friday night on NBC. Maybe surprising to many, everyday life in Colombia was not like that. Sure you could find action and trouble easy enough but our biggest toe-dipping foray into this world involved exchanging excess peso salary for US dollars. The Colombians Kathy and I knew were friendly, generous.
There were legal channels for doing exchanges in the banks. Lots of red tape, forms, and a lower rate; a significantly lower rate than the black market. As you might guess, the black market in Colombia was completely controlled by narco dollars. Thank you USA cocaine users. When it came to exchanging money, it was always “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
A nice family connected to the school handled our regular exchanges. Most months, we would give them some pesos. They would write a check on a U.S. bank account. Really easy. For some reason, they were unable to make even a partial exchange at the end of the 1988 school year. We had $10,000 worth of pesos to exchange and no way was that money going to be left in Colombia for the summer.
Time was short but there was a travel agency we had used for a smaller USD exchange or two in the past. This could still work.
Can’t remember his name but he was a weasel of a man at the travel agency; thinned out comb over, clammy handshake despite the heat, and multiple, overflowing ashtrays littered his desk.
Me: “You can get hundreds, right?”
Weasel: “No problema, señor.”
I had done the calculation. The stack of $100 bills would be one-inch high. I’ll walk onto the plane back to the States with the money in my shoes.
Having been through the Barranquilla airport and passport control multiple times, we knew the drill. Checked luggage was a big no-no for any item of value. If money were found in the bag, you’d never hear anything. Inside the terminal, there were no x-ray machines, no sniffing dogs. Every carry on bag gets hand searched. Pockets too. But, never the shoes. Never the shoes.
A couple of hours later, the Weasel passed a paper bag over the desk. It seemed heavy. Yeah, there were some hundreds . . . and some fifties . . . and some twenties. It was a two-inch stack. Bastardo!
I gave him my best sneer. He just smiled.
Have you ever seen a weasel smile?
Every episode of Locked Up Abroad constructs a rising tension with a heavy dose of storyteller paranoia to the moment of truth – getting caught.
Walking through the airport, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking; Doesn’t everyone notice I have $5000 in each shoe? Am I acting normal? What if the Weasel is standing next to the immigration agent?” So, this is what it’s like to wear high heels.
In case of trouble, Kathy went through customs separately ahead of me. Zero chance to legally explain the cash in my shoes. If caught, best-case scenario would be use the cash to buy my way out of detention at the airport. Worst-case scenario would be a future episode of Locked Up Abroad starring me.
Now, it’s my turn through immigration. They searched my shoulder bag. I emptied my pockets. And then, I was waved through to the departure gate. Never the shoes. Never the shoes.
After take off, I moved the money to my bag and a day later deposited the cash in our Minnesota bank.
We never had another reason to smuggle something out of a country. A few years later, we knew a friend working in Saudi Arabia who smuggled hashish taped under his testicles into the Kingdom. The immigration entry card you fill out prior to arrival states in large red print, “WARNING! Death to Drug Traffickers.”
No way I’d do something that stupid. Our friend never appeared on the show either.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
– Aldous Huxley –