Thursday, December 9, 2010


I arrived in Bogata, Colombia as a guest of the country. I was under US State Department auspices.

As I entered the arrivals area of the airport, I passed through a row of men in uniforms, face masks, shields, who were standing stock still, holding guns.

I looked around for a State Department representative. No one was there.

I didn't know that the U.S., at that point, was not getting along with the Colombian government. No one had notified me -- maybe they'd tried to contact me after I left New York, and gone to Durban, South Africa. My performances in South Africa were not arranged by the state department -- they'd been arranged by me.

I wanted to perform my big solo, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, with full orchestra, ninety musicians on the stage -- I wanted the feeling of being surrounded by sound. I'd read about the conductor in Medellin, written him, and arranged two performances for a fee (it was called an honorarium), that would cover airfare and hotel expenses.

While I was applying for a visa, the head consul at the Consulado General Central de Colombia en New York, a black-haired, tall, fortyish, expensively dressed, handsome man , asked me, more or less, for a date.

In my Maria-Callas-of-the Dance mode, (a critic had called me that; it was inscribed on all my advance publicity), I was maybe a little flippant, but I felt glamorous, and knew I looked glamorous. Laughing, I brushed him off with some sort of sophisticated remark about being a super-busy professional dancer.

He was annoyed as he asked for my height. weight, age, hair, eye color, address, marriage status, (all of which was on my passport), and what was my purpose in Medellin. I explained I was dancing to Mahler's Fifth -- two performances -- I was going to be given an honorarium, of $1000 for each performance -- a total of $2000.00.

He issued me a visa. I didn't know until much later, that it was a "work" visa that required me to stay in Colombia for 3 months.

I'd shipped my baggage a week earlier from Durban, South Africa to Bogata, where it would be forwarded to Medellin. It was a 70 minute solo; it needed the 10 fabulous costumes, and dozens of props, like the huge china-silk cape in the picture, that I lift and float over the stage with the final chords of the music.

In Medellin, I saw my things -- large green trunk, blue canvas ski bag that contained poles, 3 duffel bags, the blue hat box for my head gear -- they were stacked behind a locked gate. The porter shrugged and summoned the head of security, an unfriendly, snarling official who looked like a tall James Cagney. He said my baggage was being shipped to Lima, Peru, since I hadn't applied for permission to bring foreign goods into the country.

Whoo -- it was scary! I tried to explain that I couldn't perform the Mahler without my things. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

I called the State Department; they told me to contact the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. I phoned -- couldn't understand the operator. I hired an interpreter, a student who was waiting for a plane. He told me the embassy was closed until "trade regulations" problems were solved. From an airport pay phone, I tried the State Department again, but I ran out of coins. I'd given the student one of the three twenties I had in my purse. The money changer machine wasn't working -- the money changing desk at the airport was closed. I had traveler's checks, but when I tried to cash them, people behind the counters just shook their heads.

I called my Medellin sponsor. The orchestra rehearsal was that night. He knew from the brochures and photos I'd sent him, that the costumes and props were essential. We both knew the performances would have to be canceled.

I realized that if I didn't get my baggage, my next performances -- three nights in Buenos Aires -- were going to be canceled.

"Don't panic," I told myself, drying my eyes, rubbing away the smudged mascara, redoing my makeup.

At the Varig Airlines ticket-counter, I made friends with the ticket girl. She fixed my ticket -- arranging for me to fly to Lima in three hours, and in Lima to connect with another flight to Buenos Aires.

Watching the clock and dozing, I waited in a huge empty waiting room till my flight to Lima was called.

At the glass door entrance gate, two uniformed soldiers with shields and guns were standing guard. A third solider with a shield and gun was checking passports. As I handed him mine, tall James Cagney -- oh no -- there he was again, tapping my shoulder. He informed me that I could not leave the country without permission from the police.

He escorted me to the police station just outside the airport. They fingerprinted me. In an inner office, the Chief of Police questioned me, winking and grinning at me, as if I were a prostitute -- age, height, eye color, weight, profession, was I married, did I have a protector. When I didn't respond, he said I couldn't leave until I paid taxes on my earnings. I said I hadn't earned anything. A uniformed soldier handcuffed me, escorted me to another room, and pointed to a bench.

I sat on a bench filled with other arrestees, who were crying, smoking, spitting, cursing, complaining, scratching, talking with relatives. One relative said he was a lawyer --"I help you." Two hours later, he told me I had to pay taxes on three months of income. The Consul had put down my "star" earnings as $2,000 a week x 36 weeks.

What a nightmare! I don't speak Spanish. The lawyer and the tax agent didn't speak English. What they were yelling at each other was over my head. Finally, I gave my lawyer the $500 I had in travelers checks. Somehow, he negotiated a satisfactory payment and paid himself off as well.

Back at the gate, James Cagney stopped me again. "You cannot leave until the Consul stamps your passport." When, Sir?" "After the holiday, Madame." "What holiday, what office, Sir?" When he said it was "The Consulada Central Central de Columbia en New York," I burst into tears. People where staring, pointing. A crowd was gathering. I rushed into the ladies restroom.

The Varig ticket-girl saw me at the sink, trying to repair my makeup. Tears rolling, I babbled about James Cagney, consuls, soldiers, Chief of Police, horrible lawyer, performances in Medellin, performances in Buenos Aires. She pointed to the streaks of mascara on my cheek and said, "You fix makeup. He is my boyfriend. I take care of it."

And she did.

In Lima the porter said the baggage room was closed for the three-day holiday. There I was back in the nightmare, weeping, till a man named Emilio Guersey (never will I forget the name), took me to the locked baggage room. My bags were there! Emilio, who was the security officer, simply unlocked the door. Emilio loaded my bags on a cart -- green trunk, ski bag, 3 duffels, blue hat box, and settled me and all my baggage in the first class section of a British Airways plane for Buenos Aires.

The memories of all that -- the terror of being a stranger in a strange country, the luck, the miracle of finding Emilio in Lima, Peru, and then the excitement and glamor of dancing in Buenos Aires -- the cheers, parties, men and women saying they loved me, a musician proposing marriage, an adoring manager -- the man who arranged the performances, presented me with a gigantic bouquet of roses. Explaining that the check would be sent to my manager in New York, he knelt and kissed my hand.

Well, the Maria Callas of Dance triumphed, but I am still waiting for the check from the Agentinean manager. It was definitely a bunga adventure.


Linda Phillips said...

Your life has been amazing! You have so much courage and you never give up!

Carola said...

What a nightmare. You really are brave - I would never have dared to do that trip by myself. And I guess we women can use sexism in reverse by crying: though it was a woman who took pity on you in the end.