A lesson in leaving Colombia with a minor

Desierto de Tatacoa, Colombia
It’s not quite Central America, but a new experience nonetheless. Desierto de Tatacoa, Colombia

Leaving Colombia and getting an exit stamp in the passport of a Colombian minor isn’t a straightforward process. Colombia has very stringent laws in place for travelling children, and rightly so to keep them safe from kidnapping or trafficking.

We  understand that our situation is a little more complex than some others as when a child leaves the country with only one parent, there are a lot more forms and processes to follow. Given that D’s mum doesn’t live in Colombia, matters are further complicated as we can’t get her to sign the Migracion Colombia permission form in the presence of a notary when we plan to travel.

With our sights set on taking D on international holidays, Edwin organised with D’s mum to get an escritura publica signed at the notary office when she was last in Colombia. The escritura publica is essentially a legal document that says that D can leave the country with Edwin for tourism purposes until he turns 18. Since it’s within D’s mum’s rights to annul this document and retract her permission at any time, we knew we had to get a copy from the notary’s office within 30 days of our departure date, which we duly did.

Rules, regulations and laws are prone to changing frequently, so rather than rely on our understanding of the requirements, Edwin went to the Migracion Colombia office in Calle 100 and spoke with a childen’s lawyer, showing her the documents we have. She said that all the documents were in order and that we would have no problems leaving the country with D. Edwin asked again if there was anything else we needed, and she said no, the escritura publica and his birth certificate were sufficient.

But it wasn’t.

After checking into our Christmas Day flight to El Salvador and lunching at Crepes and Waffles, we approached the immigration booth to get stamped out of Colombia, handing over passports, boarding passes, the escritura publica and D’s birth certificate. We knew something was up when the officer moved away to an office with our documents, and we started to get a sinking feeling.

When he came back he said we were missing a section validating the escritura publica and led us out of the quarantine area to the Migracion Colombia office beside the check in section of the terminal, handing over our documents to another officer.

We weren’t the only ones there in that office, and it appeared that all the cases were regarding children.

The officer explained that what we were missing was a nota de vigencia, a seal from the notary’s office saying that there was no amendment or annulment on record for the escritura publica. She showed us a copy of another traveller’s documents to explain what that was. What we had was a photocopy of the document from the notary’s records, and a notary’s authentication of that document. But no nota de vigencia.

The sinking feeling deepened into dread.

Edwin explained to the officer that he had gone to Migracion Colombia in Calle 100 just 10 days prior and was told his documents were in order by a Migracion Colombia official. Still there was nothing we could do, and the only thing the officer could do was include his claim in the report on the incident and encourage him to make a formal complaint at the office he had visited regarding the incorrect advice received.

So we were denied departure to Colombia because when we’d gotten the copy of the escritura publica, the notary hadn’t added the seal. Or maybe we were supposed to ask for a nota de vigencia instead, I’m still not clear.

With heavy hearts we left the office, spoke to the airline regarding our tickets and luggage and when we found out that the plane had to leave before we could get our bags, we took a taxi home to think about our options.

Before returning to the airport and after being able to process what had happened, we had devised a plan B. Given that it was Friday, we wouldn’t be able to get a nota de vigencia from the notary in Santa Marta until at least Tuesday, which would reduce the days we had to travel, and it would cost an extra US$150 per person with the difference in fare and the ticket penalty. We had our bags packed already so we decided to do a roadtrip instead, taking advantage of our time off to visit the South of Colombia which none of us had visited before.

The reality hit poor D – who was very excited about our trip and getting on an international flight – when we went back to the airport to collect our bags and he was glum until we got to our first stop at Desierto de Tatacoa the next afternoon.

I would hate for this to happen to you and ruin your holiday or travel plans, so here are my tips for reducing immigration heartache in Colombia with Colombian minors, which we will certainly be following  next time.

  1. If possible, check your documentation ahead of your flight with your port of departure. Next time we will be going to El Dorado Airport in Bogota to check our documents as they are the people that see these cases every day.
  2. Carry a copy, or even better multiple copies, of the child’s birth certificate. This is because the officers need to know who the parents are. We overheard another case in the airport where a 15 and 17 year old were travelling with both their parents and they didn’t have their birth certificates to prove that the two adults were their birth parents. The officers were prepared to accept scanned copies saved in an email, but the family didn’t have that either.
  3. If you are visiting multiple countries, take a copy of documentation to travel with the child for each country as Migracion Colombia keep the copies of your permission form (the per-trip authorisation by both parents – the Migracion Colombia website should have a template for download) or your escritura publica. I think they also keep the copy of the birth certificate.
  4. Make sure if you have an escritura publica authorising the child’s travel with a particular parent, that you get a nota de vigencia from the notary as well.
  5. As I’m not sure of the process if you are travelling with non-Colombian minors, you should check with Migracion Colombia what they need.

If you have any other tips or have a Colombian immigration experience to share, please feel free to leave a comment.

A fiesta!

Singing happy birthday
All the kids gathered around to sing happy birthday to D

When asked what he would like for his ninth birthday, a present or a party, D chose a party.

Preparations began by choosing a theme, Ben10, and trying to find all the Ben10 party paraphernalia as cheaply as possible. I’m sure the invitations, plastic cups, cake plates, lolly bags, plastic tablecloth and cardboard neckties on elastic came from some rip-off company and so were cheaper because we weren’t paying for an officially licensed product. But then again, what do a bunch of nine year olds care about royalties.

I brought to the party planning table an Australian mentality: There will be games, there will be prizes, there will be fingerfood and there will be a cake worthy of inclusion in the Australian Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake recipe book. However without having been to a kiddie birthday in Colombia before, I didn’t really have anything to benchmark against. I mean, I could throw a great party by Australian standards, but how would this hold up in Colombia?

The day before the party I was busy making jelly cups. Unfortunately they don’t have Freddo Frogs here, so they weren’t to be frogs in ponds, but just plain old ‘gelatina’ in strawberry, grape and cherry flavours. I said to mi novio “I think 25 jelly cups is enough. I mean not all of the invited kids are going to come to the party.” Mi novio replied with:

“Things are different here, the kids bring along their brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbours, whoever. All they want to do is dance and eat cake/sweets/lollies.”

Sudden panic overcame me as I did the sums. 24 invited kids x 1 sibling + 1 parent + 1 more extra just to be safe = not enough food and drink.

The dinosaur cake
The dinosaur cake, a winner with young and old!

We had the birthday cake (an elaborate test of my cake decorating skills dinosaur based on this plan), 25 jelly cups, little deep fried pastries with cheese inside, 7 litres of neapolitan ice-cream, 28 cupcakes and some wafer biscuits. After some dithering as to what I could make in an oven with no visible temperature markers, I decided we also needed honey joys. I hoped to goodness this would feed the hordes, I couldn’t have all these people think I was a bad hostess.

I spent the morning of the party icing the dinosaur. I have to admit I’m pretty pleased at the outcome given working in a small kitchen with no real baking tools, 30 plus degree humidity and with no proven cake sculpting skills under my belt. It also helps when practically all Colombians buy their birthday cakes from a cake shop, so the dinosaur created multiple wow factors. Wow! It’s a dinosaur! Wow! You baked it yourself! Wow! It tastes great!

Mi novio spent the afternoon blowing up balloons with the help of D, his cousin and his friends in the street and la suegra spent the afternoon putting away her precious ornaments.

At four o’clock the hour of the party arrived. Yet no guests arrived. Half an hour later and the sole guest was one of D’s best buddies from two doors down. As five o’clock started to come around, the house started to fill with kids and relatives. Mi novio and I were busy in the kitchen pouring cups of soft drink and sending out platters of cakes and jelly cups. No sooner had I arrived back in the kitchen would a child come up and hand me their finished cup/plate/spoon, only to be followed by all the other party goers. Whilst their tidiness was to be admired on one hand, the other (busy hand) was wishing they would just leave it under their chair to be collected later so they could stop interrupting us!

In an attempt to get the party revved up, mi novio wanted to commence with the games. So we played musical chairs, and then while he dashed off to the supermarket for serviettes and apples, he told me to start dancing to liven up the party and get the kids dancing. I succeeded in getting the 3 year old nephew to dance, but all the other kids looked at me awkwardly. So I retreated to the kitchen to make my honey joys.

The tiny kitchen was overflowing with used cups and spoons, trays, ingredients for honey joys and 600ml blocks of ice. The music was throbbing at the typical Colombian ‘nobody needs to hear anyone talk’ level and my feet hurt. Was it time to cut the cake yet?

But no, we still had to play the other games. Despite never having played, or even seen it played in real life, I had decided an apple bob would be fun. Because it was raining outside we had the tub of water on a chair inside and each kid had a turn at pulling an apple out with their teeth. I had underestimated how popular this would be with the kids, even with 12 year old girls. They relished the challenge and it was insanely hilarious to see their heads bobbing about and their faces come out dripping wet! Note to self, this is a game we can play again.

Playing pass the parcel
The kids playing pass-the-parcel, they’d never played it before.

After pass-the-parcel where D started to sulk because the parcel never stopped for him to open a layer, we moved on to the cake and happy birthday. I should have remembered from last year that I would need to brush up my birthday singing in Spanish, however I overlooked this detail. The Spanish version of Happy Birthday they sing here seems different to that which I learned in Spanish classes. So I just smiled and murmured and took photos.

With the birthday cake dished out, the party started to grind to a halt, and mi novio and I could breathe a sigh of relief, pour ourselves a soft drink and eat a left over jelly cup. I had been petrified that a zillion kids would come, but there were only about 13. Most of D’s friends from school didn’t show up. I think if they did, it would have been chaos!

D went to bed happy, full of sugar and with lots of new clothes given to him by his guests.

And I went to bed thinking that at the next Colombian party we throw, we need to have ample drink and ice and just make sure we feed our guests as soon as they arrive. That, I think, is the key to a successful Colombian fiesta.

Bedtime for young boys

Recently la suegra (my boyfriend’s mother) went to visit her daughter in another town. This prompted the question from my boyfriend’s nearly nine year old son “Who am I going to sleep with?”

D has shared a bed with his grandmother since he was three and came to live with his dad. D also shared this bed with his aunt until she married and moved away. For him, having his own bed, let alone a room to himself, was not something he was used to.

D had devised all sorts of sleeping arrangements that revolved around him not having to sleep by himself and most often left mi novio and I in different beds. However, we were firm. He would be sleeping by himself until his grandmother returned.

The first night, as I enforced a 9:30pm bedtime, there were tears. He sat in the chair, crumpled and crying about having to sleep on his own. When I asked where he thought he would sleep when he’s 16 he replied “With my grandmother” and again when he’s 20 apparently he will still be sharing a room with his grandmother! Trying a different tack I asked him where he sleeps when he goes to visit his mother and he said “With my grandmother.” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him always sharing a room with his grandmother as I remember sharing with my brother and sister at his age and itching for my own room.

Finally, due to the sternness of his father we got D to bed. We moved in a lamp from our room so he wouldn’t have to sleep in the dark and removed the doll which stared down at him from above the cupboard with a ghoulish smile. Mi novio promised he would stay with him until he went to sleep and that he only had to tap on our door if he needed us during the night.

Mi novio kept checking on D during the night and then got up to his calls at about 5am that he was cold. In the morning when asked, D said he had slept fine. No problemo! Each night thereafter followed the pattern of mi novio waiting with D until he fell asleep and there were no more tears at bedtime.

A week later, la suegra arrived and the first thing D said was “Grandmother, you’re back! Now I don’t have to sleep on my own!”