The President and I

I attempted in vain to move my blazer hem over the mayonnaise stain that now marked my lower crotch on my beige chinos. The President offered his hand:

“Thank you very much for your company today.”

He did not appear to notice. What a relief. Given the limited space on Colombia’s Presidential jet, I was saved the sheer embarrassment wrought by violent turbulence on the journey from Cali back to Bogotá. Attempting to keep my cool:

“You are very welcome Mr President.”

What a buffoon. Me, not the President. What a day.

Earlier, booted, suited and clean shaven, I was subject to nothing close to the full body cavity that I had expected. A few x-rays and identity checks and I was in what looked eerily similar to the series The West Wing. Ushered down a hallway to the Press Office and then briefed on what was to come

We hurtled in a minivan, weaving our way through Bogotá’s congested roads en route to Catan, the airbase from where the Presidential jet leaves. Each time we passed a church, Javier, a presidential cameraman would cross himself. Fervent Catholicism or praying for deliverance from an attempt on the President’s life?

In the VIP waiting room a TV played to nobody. Bigwigs and top brass were deep in conversation, too busy to notice a freelancer with very little business of being there at all. More interestingly, the film showing on the television was Clint Eastwood’s *In the Line of Fire*, a film about an attempt on the President. I looked around to see if anyone else could see the humour, but alas no like-minded souls. In fact, looking around me I was quite upset to see that there were no heavily moustachioed, aviator glasses, be-medalled generals looking set to topple over from the weight of their fantastic epaulettes twitching in excitement at the idea of a coup d’etat.

The steward must have been well prepared for dunces such as I, no right to be there, along for the ride. Before I could look suitably stupid, he ushered, nay, led me by the elbow to two rows from the back, well out of sight and mind of the President and more importantly, less likely to create an international incident here wedged in between deadly looking men with earpieces and camouflage clad paratroopers.

What to do? I looked in the pouch. No magazine, not even safety advice. Across the aisle from me a Paratrooper major was reading Tom Clancy’s *Shadow Warriors*. From where I sat I could see liberal smatterings of the acronyms CIA, DEA and then of course, FARC.

I couldn’t see the President from here. The expensive seats up front run lengthways, but I can see the Commander in Chief of the Colombian Army leaning in and talking in a measured and calculating manner. Out of the window on the right wing are the numbers 1041. Such is my excitement I note the number down, I am determined not to miss a trick and to observe everything.

A platter of cheese and biscuits fit for a President are placed on my tray-table. I note though, that while I am left to drink my coke out of the can, the President gets a glass.

The pilot comes over the intercom to inform us of our descent into Cali’s Air-Force base. As we hit the turbulence on the way down, the Special Forces operatives are handing live magazines down the aisle to one another.

And just as I think that this day, only just seven days into my Colombia adventure, could get any more fascinating and bizarre, I am informed that all the of the people in the back six rows of the auditorium are former FARC guerrillas who have turned themselves in for reintegration into society. Joining the FARC was a career decision not a lifestyle choice.

The President speaks of opportunities, homes and jobs.

Chatting with several members while the President and top brass are off in a Security Council meeting, the usual conversation arises. Am I a gringo? No. I am from England. David Beckham? No, I don’t know him personally. Can I spare some change? I turn the conversation to them and their replies are telling.

“Who likes to live in war? Who wants to be marching in the jungle always?”

The return journey was uneventful, the President was inattentive, we parted ways formally, and the stain on my trousers, remained thankfully unnoticed.

R McColl

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