Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

There were two boxes of cheese, one for the Colombian President, one for his deputy. "What if customs don't like it?" I said. "You can smell it a mile off. Then what will we give them?" "It's fine, we're going to be met airside and whisked through all that bollocks," said the director, with confidence.

In the end, we weren't, but the boxes teetered on top of the trolley of camera equipment and sailed through the x-ray machine when the time came. Dangerous cheese was evidently quite low down on the list of things they were looking out for.

There was no one holding a sign at arrivals, but I detected the faintest of nods from a group of four men. I grabbed the cheese from the trolley, which disappeared in a different direction, and we were led to a dusty 4x4 with tinted glass. I squeezed right in the middle with the cheese on my lap.

The man in the front was looking around a lot. So was the man behind me. I noticed as we pulled sharply away – narrowly avoiding a nasty shunt between a bus and a taxi a dozen yards in front of us – that the man in the front, who was chewing gum, had a pistol drawn and his finger was on the trigger. He nodded at me in the cool way that only someone holding a loaded gun, wearing shades and chewing gum can. I tapped the window. Bullet-proof glass. "Is that effective?" I said, nodding at his weapon. "They're not very accurate, are they?"

Someone translated. He reached inside his jacket, pulled out an Uzi and grinned. I'm not sure if that made me feel better, or worse.

The car was full of people, glass and steel, and the driver was careering along the carriageway at the limits of its performance. If his foot wasn't on the accelerator it was hard on the brake. No one wore a seat belt.

Every time we came to a standstill, which, if the driver could help it, wasn't very often, the armed guards were more vigilant, opening doors to peek out or wave a car out of the way with a gun. A strong smell of cheese pervaded the urgency. Indeed, there was far too much sensory information available in that car. I've had armed guards before, but I've never seen them so vigilant.

It's funny, but you get used to it very quickly. Initially it's scary, but fear is only something that exists when you have nothing else to think about, and there was plenty to think about. All the way to the Vice-President's office in the morning, our contact, Guillermo, calmly read the morning paper.

The Vice-President's office was a haven of peace and flowers. I liked that guy. He liked the cheese. The box had taken a battering, but it was still presentable and smelled ready to go. "This is wonderful!" he said. "Did you make it yourself?"

"That's quite a long story," I replied.

"You must tell me," he said. "It is my birthday next week. We will have this cheese on my birthday and you must come." "I'd be delighted," I said.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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