A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Air Travel in Colombia – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Colombia isn’t a big country. About 1.15 km2. For comparison (because that number means very little by itself), the United States is about 9.85 km2.
Therefore, traveling using the country’s extensive private bus companies is easy, right? Wrong. The issues is that three giant ridges of the Andes mountains run right through Colombia, meaning that, historically, ground travel in the country was an issue (which lead to the huge regional differences that we see today) and remains an issue today.
(The different regions of Colombia presented on a clay map made by one of my elementary students. Learning the geography of the country seems to be a very integral part of the school system here.)
To get from Bogota, which is fairly centrally located in the center of the country, to Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean Coast, would take approximately 17 hours if you are physically capable of driving non-stop, never having to stop for gas, and never encountering traffic. (Hint: Avoiding traffic is impossible here. It’s hit or miss. A friend of mine that lives in a city slightly south of Bogota says that it takes him anywhere from two to five hours to get home on a bus.)
A lot of Colombians elect to use air travel when possible, and the economy has responded by creating an economy airline. For those of you that have ever traveled in Europe, it’s a lot like RyanAir. It’s cheap.
The first time I flew using this airline, I was a panicking mess. Did I need my passport? What were the liquid restrictions flying domestically in Colombia? Would my carry-on be too big? Did I have to print my boarding pass ahead of time?
(There are three main Colombian airlines. Avianca is when you want to fly in style–hence why I am so happy in this picture. They always give you free cookies.)
Absolutely none of these were an issue. As a native of the United States who has done the majority of my air travel post-9/11, flying domestically in Colombia was a huge culture shock. (I use the word culture shock here because, as I travel more and more outside of the United States, I’ve come to associate high airport security as something uniquely USA. It’s almost like it’s a part of our culture.)
To begin with, nobody actually looks at your documents. There is no scanner. There is no official stamp. There is no security guard who actually bothers to direct their eyeballs to your chosen form of ID when you hand it to them. When flying the economy airline, they don’t even scan your boarding pass. (This later lead to an issue when I flew back from Medellin, where there were two similarly-timed flights going back to Bogota and everybody chose to get on whichever plane they chose. The flight attendants had no way to tell if somebody was supposed to be on the flight or not. Solution: kick everybody off and re-board.)
Second, security scans are very optional and very much biased. That being said, security is definitely racially biased in the United States, but it is so incredibly obvious in Colombia that I was shocked. When my friend and I (two very white and very blonde individuals) went through security and I put my arms up for the metal detector, the security guard laughed, winked, asked if I “español”, and then waved me through without ever actually scanning me.
The third biggest difference I experienced was in the form of our obsession with liquids on planes.
I knew the drill. One Ziploc bag. Four ounce bottles. I took it all out and put it in the little plastic bin, and I did it all for no reason because I have never once been asked about liquids going through security in airports in Colombia. In fact, on one of my flights, I glanced behind me and saw a man taking EXCLUSIVELY liquids onto a flight–and it wasn’t water, or shampoo, or contact solution, or anything that you typically see people struggling to bring in carry-on luggage. It was a giant gallon container of industrial cleaning solution.
(Parque de los Deseos, or Park of Desires/Wishes in Medellin, Colombia)
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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33 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Air Travel in Colombia – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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This is so fascinating!! I can’t imagine getting on an airline and not needing to give them the passport (license sometimes?) and having them read your boarding pass start to finish. I like your use of the word culture shock; it gives those of us who have integrally used that word in our studies a better idea for how different the system is. I do wonder what sort of event could cause that system in Colombia to change, however. I really enjoy your frequents blogs about your experience, thank you!
My first reaction upon reading about the lax security measures at Colombian airports was to think it didn’t seem like a very good idea; there’s definitely such a thing as being too relaxed in airport security. I realized upon further reflection, however, that the culture of fear surrounding air travel in the US probably formed my initial reaction. The primary reason there are such extreme measures in US airports is because of tensions with the Middle East and the fear many Americans have of the threat of another terrorist attack which, to my knowledge, Colombia doesn’t have. In addition, DHS tests have found failures of airport security at a concerning number of US airports. I think this fact only serves to preserve the, perhaps somewhat unique, culture of fear surrounding air travel in the States. I simply hope nothing happens in Colombia that prompts an increase in airport security measures like we have here.
I’ve only flown a couple of times, but this would be so surprising to me as well! You would think there would be more rules to follow, but it is just another example that cultures can be not wrong but different. However, you would think that they would come across problems but not scanning or checking tickets. Having to get off and re board seems like it could be easily avoided.
I think that this was so interesting! I have only flown a couple of times, but I am very surprised at how relaxed their airport security is. I think we all have this idea that since the United States has to have extreme security measures, that every country does, but clearly this is not the case. I liked how you used the term “culture shock” to explain your reactions. I just hope that nothing bad happens because of the limited security.
It goes without saying that the US is very strict on airport security. After something as terrifying as 9/11 happened, its hard to imagine the US not taking security precautions like they do now. This past summer when I travelled to Iceland, I had a similar experience to yours. The Icelandic officials checking passports when we landed didn’t even glance at my picture. He just opened up my passport and stamped on a random page. It seems silly to Americans that other countries don’t have strict airport security, but we didn’t have airport security like we do today until 2001. Hopefully, that tragedy won’t be repeated in another country due to limited security.
Airport security in the United States is very very strict. It is not only strict but it is very racial biased. People who I know, have been stopped simply by the way they dress or because of their last name. This, I think, makes traveling more stressful than what it should be. Being an international flying into the United States can be very scary, specially in migration where you are asked by police officers question after question. I do understand why the US is so strict after the unfortunate event of 9/11.
It really shocked me how Columbia isn’t strict when it comes to air travel. Like you said growing up in the U.S. going through all the security checks has become normal. It is interesting to me how one catalytic event like 9/11 can change so much within a country. For my family flying often times is much more stressful than if we were to just drive. That is why for us often times we choose to drive rather than fly. After reading your article I can see why flying would be much easier for Columbians to get from one place to the next. It still comes to a shock to me how different flying in one country can be from the next. Very interesting article and glad you shared it!
Traveling by air domestically in Colombia sounds like the opposite of how Americans do it! I’ve never flown of the country (internationally) but I have grown so accustomed to all the safety practices we’re forced into at our airports, for our own safety. Does Colombia lack any significant terrorism happenings via airplanes? I would think one fairly minor incident could encourage the government to increase security measures. Especially in 2016, that seems strange and sounds so unfamiliar. That just goes to show how vulnerable the United States is, or how vulnerable we THINK we are.
This is a very different view from what I know about air travel. My father is an airline pilot so I am aware of many security processes within the USA. After going through such a tragedy in 2001, I understand why we are so strict. I would love to travel to a place such as Bogota to experience the thrill of air travel at a much calmer setting. Does the USA see their differences in air travel to others in the world? If so, are they will to ease up or continue to enforce a safer, more strict way of air travel?
I found this view rather interesting. I barely remember a time before 9/11 and so I don’t really know what it’s like to live in a time without fear. There’s so much security checks throughout almost everywhere! I even had checks for weapons throughout grade school. It would be pretty amazing to live without all the security, but living with it makes people feel ensured of their safety.
I love reading articles like these! It is so fascinating to learn about how other countries deal with situations like flying. When I read this article I immediately thought how chaotic airports must be because of the lack of structure. I am so used to order and doing things a certain way that I don’t know if I could live without that structure. When my parents were in Bogota and Medellin, which was over 25 years ago, they could not believe the people that just did whatever they wanted to. What a different pace of life that these Colombian people live by. Very interesting read, thanks for sharing!
Wow, very interesting! It is crazy to hear about how different things can be compared to what we are use to. I would have been just as nervous and confused as you were. It is hard for me to even think that they have to take a plane to get from one side to another. There is just so much to learn everywhere you go. Thank you for sharing!
I have always wondered what airports and flying were like outside of the US. I had a friend in high school who’s mother was a flight attendant in Germany for many years. Her stories of air travel were glamorous and seemed to never feature any mention of security issues. I think it can feel bothersome to fly domestically here. When leaving Chicago for Minneapolis, I had my luggage dumped out and had to be scanned an extra time because of a tiny snow globe that was purchased in the airport. I find the information from your reports very interesting, perhaps I will travel to Colombia someday!
I really enjoy these stories each week, thank you! It’s weird to think that not every country is worried about security like we are. When I traveled to Haiti on a mission trip, all the security cared about was my shaving cream I forgot to take out and to make sure I wasn’t bring home any children; as bad as that sounds. Other than that, they didn’t care about anything else I had. Then coming back through customs in the United States, they had to check everything in my bag. It is very interesting, the difference in culture, between countries.
I flew RyanAir in Europe from London to Santander, Spain and I had the same experience. London does have liquid requirements and we are required to take them out of our bags and they were a little pickier than in the US as Chapstick was considered a liquid. In Spain though I experience much the same thing you describe. We flew into a town of only 120,000 so the airport was accordingly small and security seemed minimal compared to the US.
I really enjoyed this article. It is interesting to see the vast differences between flying in the United States and the flying described in the article. It is almost humorous how foreign this concept of casually flying is to those accustomed to the airports in the US. I cannot imagine flying in a way that is not monitored as closely as it is in the airports that I have been to. It would make me very nervous but I now see that this is a culturally impacted thought; if I were to fly casually like in this article, I would find our high security to be a strange concept.
What a fascinating article! It’s really interesting to see the difference between the US and other countries when it comes to air travel. Earlier in the article you talked about how bus travel with traffic can range from 2-5 hours. Does the bus ever apologize or reimburse people for being late? Great article!
Very stark and interesting differences in air travel procedures. I wonder if the U.S. will soften up as we get further from 9/11 or other parts of the world will adopt our security measures as a standard.
Early in the piece, you note that the mountains have created a natural border and caused differences in culture. I would have to imagine that there are many places like this throughout the world. It’s even identifiable in cities like Duluth wear natural and artificial “borders” separate neighborhoods.
The mention of the very few roads got me thinking of a recent event in Canada that really surprised me. A bridge buckled just north of MN and Lake Superior on the main road that travels West to East. Problem is, there aren’t any other West-East roads in that area of Canada, meaning the country was cut in half. This would have required cars and trucks to travel through Duluth and the United States before entering back into Canada a long ways later.
Reading this made my jaw drop! I suppose my reaction is due to the fact that I am so used to the strictness in air travel procedures in the United States. I have only been out of the country once and getting into and out of the country I was traveling to was a lot more difficult than getting out of and back into the United States. I suppose many of us have noticed that the increased strictness and racial profiling that occurs in airport security is due to 9/11. I cannot imagine flying on such a relaxed airline. Were you at all concerned at first?
You also mentioned earlier in the article that learning the geography of the country was very important in Columbia. How in depth is it? From my educational experience, geography was a rather quick section of my education. I could probably tell you basic facts about U.S. geography, but not much more specifically. Does their education on geography seem to go more in-depth?
As an international student, I was warned by family and friends about how strict the TSA would be when I arrived in the U.S., and they were spot on. I have now come accustomed to the constant security checks and questions, so it would be interesting to experience traveling domestically in Colombia.
It just goes to show how world powers, such as the U.S., remain very much at a high security risk. Hailing from the UK, I have also noticed how much Europe has come into line with the U.S. in terms of airport security. It is simply a risk they cannot afford to take in today’s climate of terrorism.
Very interesting reading about how long it takes to travel throughout Columbia. A few years ago, I traveled by car throughout Colorado, which is very different from Columbia, but I can understand how long it takes to navigate throughout the mountains. The winding roads where you are driving on the edge of a cliff can be pretty nerve wracking too! Also, it was interesting reading about how much different it is flying in Columbia compared to the United States post-9/11.
I’m amazed by the different procedures! My only experience flying was in 2004 and 2006 and a memory that sticks out so vividly is the hassle that my parents went through as a result of the post 9/11 culture that so many world travelers experienced coming through the US. The ease in which you were allowed to travel makes me curious what travel was like in the US before the events of 9/11. During the boarding process when taking flights internationally do you still feel like it is necessary to have reservations about the lack of security because you grew up in the US? Great article, I enjoy the various topics you’ve brought to our attention each week!
I also found this story really interesting! I too, have only flown post 9/11, so the only thing I know is the tight security. I remember when I was younger, I was so scared of all the security people, and I was afraid they would yell at me, even though I had nothing. I also like the term you used, “cultural shock” to explain the differences! Thank you for sharing, it was a very interesting story!
Wow that is incredible how little security there is there! Living in North America we just come to assume that the rest of the world follows our lead when it comes to matters like this. I am to young to remember what the airport security system in the US was like before 9/11, but I’m sure it would be fascinating to find out. I also the travel limitations placed on Columbians by geographical features was very interesting. I would’ve assumed it would be very easy to navigate around a small country like Columbia, unfortunately this is clearly not the case.
It is interesting once you experience another countries security customs compared to the United States. When I got to Brazil, I expected to have to scan my bag and possibly answer a few questions before getting to go on my way. However I just got a stamp on my passport and walked right to the baggage claim and that was that. The United States has a dramatically different system and possibly for good reason, but I do think that our intense security can sometimes be a turn off for people who come to visit. I would like to see a more laced system in the United States as well, even if I know it will never happen.
It is fascinating to see the different standards and policies of another country in comparison to the US. When I was reading this, it reminded me of the movie ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’, when he was traveling down to Africa, the airplane was in a very scary condition, but passengers from that country was very chill about it while Hector was panicking. Looking at your picture caption for the clay map made by your students made me think about my elementary years in school. We were taught and learned the states in the US, but later on in high school it was a struggle when I was asked to define the different districts in the Twin Cities and the big highways itself. Since the US is so huge, I think it is important to know about the geography of the state we live in as well. Thanks for sharing your story!
It is quite a large difference that we see in the US compared to out there. I know every time i have traveled it has always been a pain with all of the security checks and having an environment like that would be kind of nice now and then. One particular instance that my mom never likes to let go is when we were on our way to the airport when i was very young. My brother was still in a stroller and it had a neat compartment that i could put my toys in. So i decided to bring along my snap gun which snapped a piece of paper which would cause a reaction, make a pop noise, and send out some smoke. Long story short, 20 security guards came rushing out to hold us and my mom nearly died of embarrassment because i wanted to bring along my toys. If we were to do this these days, we probably would not have been allowed to fly on the airplane.
Amazing. One of the reasons I don’t travel all that often is because of the anxiety of the tight airport security that’s just an accepted reality in the US. I suppose when air travel is the best option, they find ways to make it easier. I wonder, would it be different if Columbia had experienced something akin to 9-11? And how different, given the geographical necessity of frequent air travel? I hope to goodness they never have to find out, of course, but cultural differences like this are very interesting to think about.
I bet this was an experience you never expected to have! Strange how it is so opposite of the airline culture in the USA. It would be interesting to know why this is, or if the American airline culture was like like in the 1990’s or a little bit later. I can see how this could make a trip to the airport much more enjoyable instead of arriving 4 hours earlier to get through security. Thanks for sharing!
How interesting! I just came back from china and had felt the same out the domestic travel there! I don’t need to take me shoes off? Okay! Although once we got to new locations filling out travel cards was a different story. But so interesting! This definitely brought back (some good, some bad) memories of international travel!
Wow that is so different! I feel so closed minded, I always assumed that at least Europe and USA had strict flight restrictions, but I though all places did to some degree. Wow thats amazing that flying is much more economical there such a cool thing to lear! Thats like I learned from a friend in poland that they take real trains there everyday. For some unintelligent reason MN got rid of most of its railways. To travel as a passenger in the US seems even more expensive then plane travel. It would be so fascinating to fly around Europe and see how different everything is!