Tech Trek: Bogota, Colombia

Why do we travel? Seriously, why do you leave your couch? For me, I’ve always had this basic urge, a hypnotic siren’s call to look up fantasy trips on Travelocity or rewatch Anthony Bourdain episodes I already know by heart.

I imagine it’s more complex for me than for most because travel is my work, too. Every year I hit CES, E3, TGS, AEE (yup, that one). Like many tech culture writers, I’m one with the acronyms that keep me on the road throughout the year.

In fact, right before TechHive big cheese Jason Cross and I discussed travel over coffee, I was invited to Bogota, Colombia (yeah, that one) for Colombia 3.0. A tech expo for the burgeoning country, it was to represent an evolution for the once blood-soaked area. Akin to Germans and World War II, the Escobar cocaine war is something that is talked about without being discussed, as in “…so we’re looking to create a new history, especially with everything’s that happened…”

Passports and Passbook

As I got ready to depart, I realized that tech has always played a major part of my life, but not necessarily of my travel. For instance, I had nearly every major e-reader, but I had never used a virtual ticket to board a plane. I decided that this trip would be a little different.

For my God-awful-early-in-the-morning trip to Bogota, I tried the United app. I’m not a fan of United/Continental (our previous relationship culminated in missing luggage for my sister’s wedding), but its app is clean, fast, and effective. I found only one problem: With international flights, you still have to go to the actual airport counter and manually check in. Luckily, since my flight was before the break of dawn, I was able to speed through the short line.

Apple Passbook worked well with United’s flight app.

Once I checked in, I was able to use Apple’s much-hyped Passbook service on the iPhone. It’s a simple concept: Download the airline's app (United’s, in my case), and Apple Passbook will keep your ticket “live” starting a couple of hours before your flight. I opened up Passbook, and, sure enough, my just-checked-in flight now came up front and center. If I turned my iPhone screen off and back on, the flight info would appear mid-screen as a notification. I’d do a quick swipe, and a virtual ticket with a QR code would appear on the screen.

I was a bit more nervous about the virtual ticket actually being accepted at the security checkpoint. Picture me, dragging myself along after minimal sleep, flying to Escobar country, using a technology barely out for a couple of months. I show my iPhone to the security guard, getting ready to go into my bag and grab the “real” ticket I'd packed just in case. The security guard looks for a second and says “Thanks,” ushering me on. Getting on the plane itself required just a QR-code scan under the gate’s red-light scanner.

Plugging in

Colombia is an awfully long half-day ride from California, but it is a gorgeous country worth visiting at least once. The capital, Bogota, is best described as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Barcelona all in one: The Andes keep the weather Bay Area-cool, the city's humongous size brings the ethnic diversity (and bad traffic) that L.A. is famous for, and the amazing meats, open-space architecture, and laid-back vibe show the Spanish influence.

Thankfully, Bogota uses the same outlets and wattage as North America.

The hotels are just as modern. I stayed at the Windsor House, one of the nicer spots in the northern side of the city. The coolest part? The electrical outlets are the same as in the U.S., so I was able to plug in my gadgets immediately without an adapter. If I had to buy another five-in-one international adapter…

Things got more interesting when my guides and I had a meeting at a major state building to discuss the government’s tech initiatives. The city is safer every year since the ‘80s drug wars, mainly because the new government has put peaceful but well-armed guards on every major corner and next-level technology into every government building.

Bogota keeps its classic Spanish architecture in even its more modern areas.

At the state building, the front desk asked me to simultaneously look at a camera and put my index finger on a pad. I’m positive I was wincing, as I was almost expecting the pad to give me a quick prick like a diabetic’s test needle. Instead, I just had to stand still for three seconds before being ushered on. “Don’t I get a badge or something?” I asked under my breath to no one in particular. As I walked to the entrance, I understood: People were holding their index finger on a concave button. The Colombian government totally had my fingerprint on file now! I suddenly had second thoughts about sneaking Colombian rum back in my suitcase.

Can I borrow your phone?

Colombia has some ambitious technology plans, including having high-speed Internet throughout the country, available grants and low-interest loans for tech entrepreneurs, and 4G cell availability. Bogota specifically has a five-year plan to transition itself from an emerging tech center to the Silicon Valley of Latin America. Government representatives told me they don’t want to be another China or India cornering the market on call centers or manufacturing, but rather to be a Palo Alto or San Francisco birthing the next generation’s Facebook or Twitter.

Bogota also has 10 million residents with no stable public transportation, low home Internet penetration, and only one in four residents carrying a smartphone. The gap between the city's high-tech plans and its daily realities was obvious.

Later in the week, as my guide and I wandered in one of the main town squares, I took in the different street food carts pushed by little old ladies. They advertised the few local words I knew: Arepas, naranjas, minutos a celular. Huh? I pull my guide aside.

Need a cell phone? Go to a food cart.

“So those carts are selling food and cell phone minutes?”

“Yes, you can use a cell phone.”

“Okay. You mean you can purchase a cell phone card.”

“No. You can use the cell phone from there.”

“Oh. So you have a limited number of minutes on your cell phone, like what we call a pay-as-you-go phone, and you can refill it there?”

Welcome to 1997.

“No. They have cell phones and you can borrow them.”

“Oh, Okay. Wait, what?”

“…”

“Okay, we have to do it. Now.”

I approach one of the older women, do my best “Por Favor,” and point at her minutes sign. She nods and gives me a candy bar phone circa 1997, the numbers rubbed out from use and the brand unclear to me. (God, I’d love a picture of this phone! Done!) My guide gives me his number, and I slap the large phone buttons. We get connected, say a few awkward hellos, and then I quickly hang up.

She turns to me, I turn to my guide, she talks to him, and then he tells me “250 pesos,” which was about 15 cents. I give her 300 pesos.

“Thanks. That was really… strange.”

“It’s pretty normal here.”

“But I’ve never heard of that anywhere else in the world!”

“I know,” he says with a shrug.

Where will the old cell phone ladies be in four years, I wonder, when the current city government will be up for reelection, the country will be going on its seventh Colombia 3.0 tech expo, and Bogota’s five-year plan should be almost complete? It’s not just about tech: Bogota is struggling to find a new normal. But that's a story for another day.

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