June, 1994


In June of 1994 I was invited to Bogota, Colombia to work with a few professionals to create an institute of Optics that would specialize in holography, a field that I have helped create over the past thirty years. The participants comprised an unlikely blend of people from a variety of professions. From the U.S. came Professor Steven Benton from M.I.T., a well known figure in the field of holography and Fred Unterseher, an artist and author of a widely published handbook of holography. Dr. Bill McGowen, a somewhat controversial museum curator from Canada, who had organized a traveling holography show, "Images in Space and Time", appeared to be in charge of organizing this effort, though some amount of confusion as to who was in charge persisted from the beginning. From Ukraine came Dr. Vladimir Markov, director of the Institute of Optics of Ukraine and one of the best known holographers from the former Soviet Union. This assignment ultimately led to two separate trips to Bogota, which I have integrated here as one.

Many Colombians were involved, with perhaps the most important being Dr. Eduardo Posada, Director of CIF, the Centro International de Fysika, a South American Physics Organization, Carmenza Domingues and Lilyana Garcia, two Colombian artists, and Pancho Florez, a local newsman. Two physicists from the National University were Professors Efram Barboza and Paulo Arrosco. We would begin by giving a workshop to teach advanced optics to professors and graduate students from all over Columbia. In parallel to this we had planned to establish a temporary holography laboratory in the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) where we would record in holograms some of the most priceless Incan gold artifacts.

I had met only two of the team, McGowen and Benton. It seems that all WWT trips begin with a strange coincidence. Standing in line at the Los Angeles airport ticket counter, I had a strange sensation that I should know the gentlemen waiting in front of me. Out of the blue I ask him, "You wouldn’t happen to be Fred Unterseher, would you.?" With his positive reply, we both got a good laugh. So Fred and I became traveling companions by default. It made a long trip interesting since we had a lot in common with much to talk about. As it happens, art is a secret love of mine and science is a secret love of Fred’s. Each of us has been accused since of attempting to steal the other’s profession. Meeting and becoming Fred’s friend, alone was enough to justify this trip to a country that most of my friends and relatives thought I was crazy to visit.

Visiting a country like Colombia draws widely varying comments from fellow Americans. I did not know which if any of the warnings I should heed, such as the ones about being kidnapped and some involving chain saws. At this time Colombia is best known in North America as the major supplier of cocaine to the world. The viciousness of the drug cartels are widely portrayed in movies, especially now that the Soviets are no longer the bad guys. Columbia seems to be in a constant struggle with a guerilla faction that controls about 40% of the country. One way the guerillas make money and create political pressure is to kidnap people and hold them for ransom. Ransom in many cases is quite small, so kidnap targets don’t need to be rich people. If such stories were true, I would be a prime target. Stories of people being shot in the streets, car bombs, and violence are widely told. I was aware of such stories, but like many countries and associated stories I had learned to reserve judgement until I saw for myself.

My first experience of leaving the country struck me upon arriving at the Miami airport. What I experienced was that this was not the United States at all, at least not what I had come to think of as the U. S. in my past years. Looking around, what I could see was massive crowds of people, all seemingly troubled about something, packing into lines, caught up in confusion, all speaking anything but English. I felt some depression at the thought that my country was being invaded, and it was all beginning right here in Miami. The people arriving in the U.S. in recent years seemed not to be interested at all in becoming part of the North American culture. They wanted to come and bring their own culture and language with them. What did that leave me as far as a country? Was my country no more than a collection of other cultures totally disinterested in being a part of anything unified? If so, then, being born here left me with no culture at all to call my own. Soon the country would have 200 languages and cultures all struggling to get their share, and someday experiencing the slaughters of Rwanda. The Miami Airport experience left me depressed to say the least.

The plane to Bogota was packed to its limit-it was a zoo. For some reason, it seemed much noisier than usual, with people having more demands of the flight attendants than usual, more problems like not enough room for baggage. No one, it seemed had checked baggage. That suggested that these people knew something about the baggage handlers on the other end that was not complimentary. A little old lady was holding up the boarding process as she struggled with a 100 pound bag too big to fit in the overhead bin. I attempted to be a Good Samaritan and give her a hand, but to my shock, she must have assumed I was trying to steal her bag and she started screaming at me. I sheepishly backed away as she stared at me with daggers and delayed the boarding another five minutes until flight attendants took the bag from her. The first good feeling I had came when I looked to the young man and woman beside me and noticed they were holding hands. Some love was near me-I remembered how good it feels to hold the hand of someone you love when everything around seems in a disarray. I wished I had the hand of my woman to hold at that moment. Remembering the value of the feeling left me feeling a little better for a while.

When the plane landed in Bogota, the situation was even more confusing. The airport was in a total disarray of construction. We walked down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac and then had to negotiate makeshift stairs and hallways to get to the terminal. Our first problem came with customs. Fred had brought along a box of specialized holography film, which we needed for our work, but which would not be available in Colombia. The customs officials insisted upon looking into the box. Fortunately, we were rescued by Paulo Arrosco, who simply told the people it was okay. With Paulo was Vladimir who had already been here for a few days.

Since the trip had taken an entire day, Paulo took us directly to the hotel, which was located in the oldest part of town. Although the hotel was one of the nicest, I got my first taste of things not to be taken for granted. One of these was hot water. In fact, by the time I made it to bed there was no water at all, except for a jug of drinking water, thoughtfully provided by the hotel. Two of my most valuable accessories in foreign travel are a water filter that I use to filter all drinking water, even that supplied by hotels and a water heater that I use to make coffee, tea, soup, hot chocolate, and anything else preparable in a cup. In a pinch I can even heat up a sink full of water.

I asked Paulo for advice concerning the stories I had heard. I had mixed feeling with the answers I received. "Don’t go out after dark alone, especially on the darker streets." But in groups you are safe". Then he mentioned one of the visitors who had recently been accosted by two men, who wanted his money. Casually, he added, "They shot him, but he came out okay." As for the guerillas, he minimized the problem by saying that as long as one stayed in the civilized parts of the country, there was no worry. "I would advise against wandering around in the countryside without having one of us along," he added.

I have learned that people around the world live on different time axes. The Colombians have a time axis that differs from North Americans in that it starts and ends without regard to time. Meetings set for 8 AM begin at around nine thirty. Lunches begin at noon, but with an ending that is rather unpredictable. No one seems concerned that a meeting is in progress with speakers scheduled. When someone says he will pick you up at eight, it is a good idea to ask him if he means Colombian time or real time…..there is a big difference.

I began a series of introductory lectures, while Fred, Paulo, and two graduate students left to gather materials for the laboratory. (We learned that some common materials like photochemistry were really hard to find here.) The first day was a long one. Being out of practice, I was exhausted by the end of the day. During the breaks I had met up with a few more interesting Colombians, among them the gorgeous artist, Liliyana, and Pancho, the newsman, both of whom I liked immediately. When five o’clock rolled around we decided to stop for the day. All it took was a suggestion that we have a drink somewhere in a local pub and we wound up with about 15 people in the party. This started a pattern that repeated itself each day. For some reason, the pub across the street was not okay.

We all packed into a few cars and headed out across town in traffic that was quite unbelievable. The first night was nerve wracking. I was in the car with Liliyana and two Colombians. After driving for what seemed like ages, I could only conclude that what was happening made no sense at all. Where were the others? Was I being kidnapped already? On a level of concern from one to ten, I was passing from six to seven. If I had to get kidnapped, I reckoned that I was glad it was Liliyana; such a sweet gorgeous woman couldn’t possibly mean any harm. I felt some relief as we converged with the others at a bar that was so noisy that not only could one not have a conversation, it was somewhat painful to the ears. But the Colombians seemed to thrive on this.

At the bar we ordered a mixed grill, which consisted of a huge pile of delicious beef, pork, and chicken, which we sat in the center of the table and shared. (Colombians get fantastic beef from Argentina.) Before I had finished my first drink Pancho had wandered off into the restaurant and returned with a local Colombian lady who he assured me wanted to dance. With my Spanish, being somewhat better than her English, I underwent a full blown test. I was saved by the fact that the music was so loud that we could not have communicated anyway. About all I learned about her was that she was a school teacher and that her friend wanted to be lined up with Fred. Fred was not particularly interested. The pressing lady kept asking me in a troubled voice, "PorQue??" (Which, in Spanish means " Why?" ). "Why" questions are not even easy to answer in English.

The musicians passed out various rhythm instruments to almost everyone in the audience. These instruments included wooden pieces that could be banged together, tambourines, castanets, and notched pieces with a stick to scrape over making a raspy sound. By midnight, it didn’t seem near as noisy to me. I think it had something to do with the fact that I was half drunk, busy banging on my wooden sticks, and somewhat deaf; Also, I think I was just becoming more Colombian.

Seven o’clock came much too soon. Today, Fred would lecture and I would proceed with the laboratory. Pancho, Bill, and I headed for the museum. This was my first look at Bogota in the day time. I was glad Pancho was driving since nothing made much sense. Like Italy, red lights seemed to have a different meaning. The number of cars spanning a road was defined by the width of the cars and road and the boldness of the drivers. I noticed that the streets were lined Uzi toting soldiers. At the time Colombia was in the midst of a terrible drug war with the cartels being better armed than the government troops. The Colombian government seemed to be winning, but not by much. Pancho pointed to a large burned spot on the side of a building. A few weeks ago, a car bomb had been set of in front of a local politicians office to remind him that the cartel was nearby.

The gold museum was housed in the Bank of Colombia. Pancho explained that the soldiers would not allow cars near the bank because of bomb threats, but that he, being the persistent newsman he was, could get us in anyway. My Spanish was not good enough to know exactly what he was telling the guard, just that he thought we should be allowed to drive up to the bank door. After some argument the guard waved us in and we drove into a nearly empty plaza in front of the bank. Bill and Pancho headed for the front door. To save time I decided to take a box of photochemicals from the trunk into the building. I opened the trunk, lifted the box, which was open at the top exposing about ten brown, quart-sized bottles of chemicals, and turned around face to face with an upset soldier who had a trembling Uzi pointed right between my eyes. At that moment, his Spanish, clear and loud, meant only one thing to me. If I so much as breathed too loud I would be a dead holographer.

I could not think of a single word in Spanish to say. Fortunately, Pancho saw what was coming down from inside the bank and ran out to rescue me. From that point on I realized that Pancho was both my best friend and worst enemy in this place. After going through several levels of security we made it into the basement of the bank where the laboratory was to be assembled.

We had built a sand box table and makeshift darkroom and had borrowed an argon laser from the local Spectra Physics representative. I had never seen a more gung ho set of students. Each one seemed extremely pleased to be a participant in the operation. By the end of the day we had almost completed the laboratory. The museum curator stopped in for a visit and offered us a special tour of the museum, since it had closed. This museum contains some of the most amazing artifacts I had ever seen. The Incas had learned to smelt and work gold over 2000 years ago and we saw pieces that traced their history. Even so, one piece stood out above all others; it was the piece celebrating the ritual Del Coronado.

The piece is so priceless, it is housed in a vault within another vault with a special guard who keeps constant vigil. As soon as I saw it I realized that this was the piece I had come to Colombia to record. The piece is so delicate and valuable, it will never leave this room and until Colombia becomes more attractive to tourists, the only way the world will see the original piece is through the magic of holography. A golden straw raft, about 8 inches long is manned by six natives adorned with golden jewels and powder. As the legend goes, these natives in a once each year ritual will take this raft to the center of a deep lake and jettison all of the gold to pay homage to the gods. The Spaniards searched for the lake for many years to no avail. Every Colombian I know claims to know the exact whereabouts of the lake but will take the secret to his grave. The only documentation of the ritual is this single one of a kind artifact, which was located in a cave over 100 years ago.

Late in the day we returned to the lecture auditorium near the hotel to pick up Fred. Being exhausted from the previous night and days work, I suggested a cool drink in a pub, but insisting this time that it be close and brief. At midnight, we sat, once again, in a noisy bar at the edge of the city banging like children on the wooden noisemakers.

Participating with such a diverse group provided me a new perspective of holography. On the third day the artist, Carmenza Dominguez, gave a lecture she titled "The History of Holography". I was amazed to discover that her list of whose who in the field of holography contained Dennis Gabor, the Nobel Prize winner who invented holography, and a string of artists of whom I had never heard. On her list was herself. Fair enough, she had never heard of me either.

On Thursday, we took a day off for touring. Efram had decided to take Steve and me outside of the city to show us the country side and some smaller villages. After an amazing drive through suicidal traffic on the "best and only highway out of Bogota" we arrived at a magnificent falls, where the Bogota river pours over a cliff and drops 4000 feet before hitting the valley below. Huge clouds of water vapor cover the area like a fog. We pulled into a large parking lot adjacent to the ruins of a tourist hotel that sat on a cliff facing the falls. It only took our stepping from the car to discover why the hotel was in ruins. The river is so contaminated that the falls has a dishwater gray color and the entire area smelled like an open sewer. Blending such beauty and ugliness together leaves one with a strange feeling that I have experienced many times in other parts of the world as well as here.

After driving South for another hour we arrived in Pasco, a sleepy village with an impressive town square that sported a large fountain and sculptures. We strolled around the square and spotted a large church that looked interesting. As we approached we realized that something was in progress, a funeral. Pall bearers appeared at the door with a somewhat crude coffin which they loaded onto a wagon that was drawn by two donkeys. It seemed as much a celebration as a morning. We joined in and followed the procession from the church for a ways towards a graveyard near the edge of town.

Efram was clearly proud of this little village which was close to his farm nearby. "We have almost no trouble here", he commented. "Of course, the town was taken over by guerillas two weeks ago, but it was more a show of protest that anything really meaningful", he added. After asking if anyone was hurt in the process, he responded that the mayor had been kidnapped and later killed. Then he quickly added, "But this is a perfectly safe town. You could leave your briefcase here on the square and come back an hour later and it would still be here. You are perfectly safe…… long as they don’t find out that you are Americans."

Ephram wanted us to see the local museum, which had a great collection of native artifacts. When we arrived and the museum on a small side street, we found the door locked, even though a large sign on the door indicated that it should be open. Ephram was clearly unhappy about this and was not about to simply walk away. He began banging on the door with his fist. Soon a voice from a house across the street rang out with what I though was profanity and the foreboding of our arrest and hanging in the town square. Fortunately, however, it was the museum director, who was taking an early siesta, and he was actually happy to see us. He proceeded to give us a personal tour of the museum. Apparently, we were the only people to visit the museum that day.

On the way home, we stopped by a small farm owned by Ephram. The caretaker invited us for a cup of tea. Sitting in the tiny kitchen, the farmers young daughter allowed me to practice my Spanish, and she spoke some English. I was amazed to find out that even here in the jungles of Columbia, the kids were collecting pogs, the contemporary collectable of kids in America at the time. On the way home, Steve seemed to become more and more weary of Ephram’s driving, as he pulled around to pass a large truck going up a long hill. Steve queried, "Are the double yellow lines mandatory or just suggestions?" Ephram's response was, "We are supposed to obey them, but no one does. How would I ever pass this guy if I waited on a clear highway?" Funny question, it was.

Friends, Miguel and his wife took Vladimir and I to a country home on the first Sunday. The day began with a reminder that here is a country that has apparently, collectively agreed upon a specific attitude to disregard the importance of time. The plan to leave at 10 AM ultimately results in leaving at 12 PM. Nevertheless, the day was filled with interesting and pleasureful experiences. In going to the country, I experienced again, the agonizing traffic problem in Bogota. First the roads are nightmarish. Second, the numbers of people and cars exceeds their capacity by at least a factor of five or maybe ten. We hadn’t gone more than a few miles when suddenly we had a flat tire. Miguel pulled the car over, and to my surprise there was a tire repair garage almost exactly where we noticed the flat. The repairman pointed out that the tire was really in bad shape having a big hole in it. He was prepared for this, cutting a large piece of rubber from another tire and inserting into this one, but the entire job was done by hand, using sledgehammers, and crowbars, no hydraulics or power tools. What a job it was! Miguel explained that tubeless tires are not used in Columbia because they won’t hold up under the road conditions. I was amazed that the repairman charged us only few dollars for a rather extensive repair job. After we continued on, I realized why we had been so lucky. For the first time I saw that such a repair shop existed about every hundred yards along the main road.

An interesting phenomena concerns the types of cars one sees in Bogota. Everywhere I saw U.S. cars of 1950 to 1960 vintage, and many of them seemed to be in perfect condition. These kinds of cars would sell for a fortune in the U.S. and they were everywhere here. Miguel explained that parts for such cars are machined in custom shops in Bogota as needed and since labor is cheap, the parts are affordable.

The mentality of the drivers is somewhat bazaar. At one point, I noticed everyone leaving the toll way and driving off into the woods. "Why are we doing this?", I asked Miguel. Oh, he answered in a matter of fact way, "The toll booth is just down the road and we drive around it to avoid paying."

During the second week we moved to the Hotel Centro International, since it was within walking distance of the National University. This was a nicer hotel, but one still waited for morning to get hot water. At least, the hotel had a generator, so when the city power went off, which was quite regular, the hotel lights came back on.

The hotel had a wonderful buffet desayuna (breakfast). In addition to tortillas, eggs, and lots of meat dishes we had guava, yucca, and plantains. Plantains were served with just about every meal. One of the best meals we had was in a small country restaurant suggested by Pancho and his wife. We had "three potatoes soup, which contains three varieties of potatoes. Pancho always managed to drink more than he should at these events, and tonight was no exception. How he managed to drive in such a state always amazed me. (Pancho was killed in a car accident the following year). Later that night, we ended up in a small country bar selected by Pancho. At one point we were driving down a desolate dirt road, looking for this place. Pancho pulled over to relieve himself. As I stood in the bushes, I began to ask myself, "Isn’t this what they told us definitely not to do?"

One of our favorite discoveries in Bogota was the inexpensive taxis. One could grab a taxi anywhere and for a few dollars go anywhere in Bogota. Every chance I had, I took a taxi to a different place to see in Bogota. A week later on the plane home, I was discussing Bogota with a native Colombian and I asked him how safe he considered Columbia for Americans. He responded by telling me much the same as I had heard before with one exception. He added, "One of the most dangerous things for you is the taxi, since many of the drivers are hooked up with the guerrillas and they will kidnap you. So you should definitely avoid taxis."

The East Side of Bogota is dominated by the Andes mountains. Bogota itself is at 7000 feet. Standing in Bogota one looks up at an 11000 foot peak, containing a church and a huge cross, that is lighted at night. During the second week, a group of us took the tram up to the peak one night and walked through the small village. The view of Bogota from this peak is indescribably beautiful. It is difficult to imagine such a beautiful place to be in such a turmoil. On one end of the village lay a large restaurant where we had dinner. Everyone ordered lobster, which is the restaurant’s claim to fame. The surprising thing was the small size of the check, which I picked up that night. Five lobster dinners (huge, delicious lobsters) and two bottles of wine came to a whopping 50 dollars.

By the end of the week, our experience with the Museo Del Oro was taking a negative turn. In our enthusiasm for recording all of the artifacts in holograms, we had shown the museum officials samples of holograms of other museum pieces. They were so astonished by the apparent reality of the holograms, an unexpected fear set in. Our idea was to be able to share a hologram of an artifact to the world, the next best thing to the real thing. This concept seemed to be backfiring on us. If we made holograms of the gold artifacts, then the holograms themselves could be used to show people the objects without their coming to the museum. Moreover, once we made the recordings, we could sell the holograms to anyone, thus reducing the value of the museum piece itself. The museum officials realized that they needed more control over the holograms. At that point they froze our operation and refused to let us take any of the holograms of museum pieces out of the museum. Once lawyers were brought into the process, the intensity of the arguments was elevated and the entire operation was put on hold, where it remains today. At one point one of the Colombians commented, the Spaniards came 500 years ago and stole our gold leaving us only mirrors in exchange. Now you are trying to steal our gold in the form of holograms.

Fred and I were due to leave out on a Saturday morning on Avianca airlines. Lilliana and Carminza persuaded us to stay one more day so we could visit Pancho’s home in the mountains. Lilliana took charge of our tickets and made the necessary changes, or at least we thought she had done so. She had found a way to return on Sunday morning instead of Saturday for the same price.

Carmenza had produced a variety of holographic art pieces, and I am a proud owner of one of them. One of the extra nights she invited me to her home to show off some of the works that were displayed in her home gallery. I used to time also to interview her and hear her thoughts on where the field was headed . At midnight she called a taxi to return me to the hotel. This all seemed okay until I soon realized that the driver had no idea where my hotel was and he spoke not a word of English. This proved to be one night in which what little Spanish I knew was worth its weight in gold.

Lilliana is primarily a painter, although she has delved into holographic art. She, likewise, invited me to her home to show off her paintings. It seemed that everyone lived on the other side of Bogota. It is hard to imagine what one goes through to cross over Bogota, but the reward was well worth the trip. Lilliana's home was in a beautiful part of the town. The walls were covered with her work, and I soon realized that she was not just some amateur; she was well known in Columbia and her art fetched handsome prices. By the time we had discussed art and had a few more drinks, we realized that it would not be practical for her to take me home. She insisted that I sleep in her bed. Lilliana is such a gorgeous and wonderful creature that just sleeping in her bed, even without her in it was a real treat.

About the time we prepared for bed, an unexpected visitor arrived; it was Pancho. Pancho, being the fatherly type, and as much as he seemed to like me, was worried about Lilliana’s being alone with a strange man in her house. To make matters worse he was so inebriated by the time he arrived that he was almost unmanageable. I could hear he and Lilliana arguing long after I had begun to doze off. The next morning we arrived back to the hotel at exactly the time all the others were preparing to go to the lectures. I had gotten a grand total of about 3 hours of sleep and was nursing a hangover. Meeting a half dozen raised eyebrows, I told them to go on to the lecture hall and I would catch up later.

The change of plane tickets had seemed like a great idea at the time. We did have a wonderful time at Panchos home. He and his wife lived in what amounted to a ranch, located high in the hills in an exclusive, gated resort area. How he managed to afford such a place on a newspaper man’s wages was not clear. Some rumors about connections to the drug cartel pervaded, but I never saw any evidence other than the unexplained high living style. One last time we ate and drank long into the night.

Even though stuck with yet another terrible hangover, I was happy to sit in the taxi headed for the airport. Happiness subsided as soon as we arrived and discovered the bad news. Avianca did not fly to Los Angeles on Sunday. The next flight to Los Angeles was Tuesday. We could not figure out what Lilliana had done, but there was some sort of communication error to say the least. Later we found that she had exchanged our flight to Los Angeles for one going to New York. She had figured that the two cities were both in the United States and that was close enough. For a while we were in a total panic wondering how we would get out of this problem of being stuck in the Bogota airport with what amounted to a two day layover.

All of our luck had not run out. At the lowest moment, Professor Ephram Barboza walked up to bid us farewell. He lived nearby and simply came over to say good by to us. He was not planning to rescue us. I was never more glad to see a friendly face in an airport. He confirmed the fact that unless we were will to shell out a few thousand dollars for another ticket, our best bet was to hang out in Bogota until Tuesday. By the time we had finished a pot of tea at Ephram’s home, Lilliana and Carminza had been alerted to the fact that we were still in town and enthusiastically began planning a new agenda for us. I am not sure to this day how I survived two more days of partying and beating on the sticks at two in the morning.