TRAVELING ABROAD - Airman deployed to a foreign country learns a few rules of the road while visiting Bogota, Colombia

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet
  • Torch Magazine
Bogota, Colombia, is a city of contrasts, consisting of high-rise buildings standing next to colonial churches. It's a city of universities, theaters and shantytowns. It is a mixture of influences, Spanish, English and Indian. It's a city of great wealth and unprecedented poverty.

When I visited Bogota to do a story on an Air Force team working with the Colombian forces in the country's new altitude chamber in June, I was fortunate enough to be able to explore downtown and take in the local flavor. Even though I don't speak a lick of Spanish, I found the people friendly and the sights beautiful.

I was able to see some of the city's contrasts firsthand, with modern day vehicles sharing the road with a horse-drawn wagon. The wagon driver was delivering eggs to a small store with high-rise buildings marking the skyline.

To ensure my stay didn't turn into a nightmare, I followed some important tips from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs for those traveling in foreign lands.
  • With an altitude of 8,600 feet above sea level, you should take it easy for a day or two in Bogota and drink lots of water to avoid altitude sickness.
  • While the water isn't really an issue in Colombia, it's never a bad idea to stick to bottled water in foreign countries.
  • As much as possible, plan to stay in larger hotels that have more elaborate security. Safety experts recommend booking a room from the second to seventh floors above ground level -- high enough to deter easy entry from outside, but low enough for fire equipment to reach. Read the fire safety instructions in your hotel room.
  • Use reputable taxi drivers that your hotel recommends. I used a driver to haul me around the city. That kept me from driving on roads that I was unfamiliar with, not to mention traffic conditions. That also left me with a built-in translator. Traffic laws in many foreign countries, including speed limits, are often ignored and rarely enforced, creating dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians in major cities.
  • Know how to use a pay telephone and have the proper change or token on hand. Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
  • Learn a few phrases in the local language or have them handy in written form so you can signal your need for police or medical help.
  • Avoid street vendor food. I sampled many delicious foods, such as patacones (green plantains squashed into thick pancakes and deep fried). But to avoid intestinal distress, I shied away from street vendor eats, which can easily become contaminated. Because while street vendors were plenty, doctors were not.
  • When there is a choice of airport or airline, ask your travel agent about comparative safety records.
  • Check the State Department's Web site for travel advisories for the country you're visiting: