CALI, Colombia— I have a dream. It's not particularly noble, but it is fabulous: I want to be the first married man to go on The Bachelor.
My wife, bless her patient soul, doesn't try to dissuade me. Mostly because she doesn't have to. I'm sneaking up on middle age with a gut that beat me there by five years. I have what could kindly be described as a dad bod, without the excuse of fatherhood.
But I'm here to tell you dreams can come true. My countless hours of watching TV finally paid off last month when, through a series of happy coincidences, I got invited to go on a single men's tour to Colombia led by the self-proclaimed "world's largest and most successful Latin introductory agency," TLC Worldwide.
OK, so it's not reality TV. But it's the next best thing: a tour that brings a small group of U.S. bachelors to Colombia to compete for the hearts of 120 eligible women. It was the moment I've been quietly preparing for during 19 seasons of The Bachelor.
So with a sudden spring in my step, I folded my nicest shirts into a suitcase, kissed my wife on the mouth, stuck my wedding ring in my sock drawer (just kidding), and boarded a flight to Cali, Colombia to find a bride.
The twilight of an industry
I wasn't just going to Colombia to fulfill a dream — and not really to find a new wife, as I made clear to my current wife and everyone else who inquired. I mostly wanted to witness the waning days of the international matchmaking industry.
Single men's tours started decades ago in Latin America, as part of the then-burgeoning mail-order bride industry. Men who wanted to take a closer look after thumbing through photos in a catalog paid roughly $1,000 to go on a weekend-long party trip to Latin America to meet the women in person. But the tours started to slow once the mail-order bride industry began to implode.
The rise of the internet in the early aughts started to bring a swift end to the era of catalog love as online dating sites, social media, and hookup apps made it easier and faster for people to connect online. Uncle Sam also cracked down on the industry, as new visa regulations and privacy laws made it harder for men to bring home foreign fiancées and for the mail-order business to sell women's addresses and personal data.
Now all that's left of the once-thriving mail-order industry in Latin America is the TLC single-men's tour, and even that is a shadow of its former self.
"I used to do five tours a year before the internet and Facebook and all that shit," said Houston native Bruce White, owner of TLC Worldwide and the granddaddy of single men's vacations to Latin America.
For 23 years, White has been running tours to Latin America, leading North American bachelors on trips to 18 cities in seven countries, including such dicey spots as Tegucigalpa. He claims his tours have resulted in some 5,000 marriages and have a success rate no worse than most conventional paths to wedlock.
As recently as a decade ago TLC used to run bimonthly tours to half a dozen cities in Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Mexico and Peru. An average tour would bring a planeload of 120 smiling men to Latin America to search for love in a thickly-perfumed room of 1,000-plus women. TLC’s success was so immediate it spawned copycat tours from half a dozen knockoff marriage brokers.
Then the U.S. government slapped the industry with the 2005 International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, a series of new restrictions to fiancée visas that were enacted in response to two foreign women getting murdered by their American partners. New government regulations, along with the internet's encroachment on the catalog business, was a staggering one-two blow that put an end to most mail-order bride operations.
Today, White is the last man holding up the collapsing industry in Latin America, though a few other companies still run similar operations in Russia and Asia. Unmoved by a changing world, White is defying tectonic shifts in business models, dating trends and society's tendency to frown on older American men looking for younger brides in the global south. His tours are now lucky to draw 20 men and 100 would-be brides — a fraction of the volume he was doing in his heyday 15 years ago.
"This will never be like it was. Our best days are gone," White told me. "But we're not dead yet."
And that was a good thing for me, because it gave me a chance to fulfill my dream of becoming The Bachelor. At least sorta.
'Brucisms' for the single man
The similarities between single men's tours and The Bachelor are striking. It made me immediately curious as to how the TV version could be so popular, while the real-life version is generally scorned as sleazy and strange.
Consider these events from our three-day itinerary:
- On Friday and Saturday nights, the bachelors attend cocktail parties with a roomful of marriage-minded women, assembled in a ludicrously favorable ratio of 8:1.
- During the day the men go on private dates with women they meet at the parties and smile at them through stilted conversation facilitated by a human translator or a wildly-imprecise cellphone app.
- Then there's the "final rose," or, more accurately, the "final pool pass" — a coveted invitation the bachelor gives to one lucky lady to attend the final poolside limbo-bikini-dance-party extravaganza.
There was no way I was missing that.
On arrival day, White — our very own Chris Harrison — took the gentlemen aside for a talk filled with helpful aphorisms to help us succeed in finding love. It was my first chance to size up the competition.
At 39, I was the youngest guy in the room. There were 20 other men, most of whom, I surmised, were in their late 40s-60s. Some said they had been married multiple times, while others were veteran bachelors. It was an interesting mix of pencil-pushing middle management types and rugged outdoorsmen — a coal miner, a lumberjack, and one guy who looked like he just dead-lifts weights all day long. Many of the bachelors were from states I've never had reason to visit.
About half the guys had been on a TLC tour before, and one guy was back for his tenth time searching for love — or something like it. More than one bachelor had been married to a Colombian woman from a previous trip, but was once again single and ready to mingle.
I paid close attention to White's pro-tips, or "Brucisms," as he calls them. Here are some highlights:
"Remember, you're here to meet women; that's what we do. You should be meeting two to three women per hour."
"Have fun, be yourself, meet girls…You're not going to experience rejection like you do in the U.S.; you're going to meet women who are prettier and younger — ones you wouldn't even feel comfortable approaching in the U.S."
"Pay attention to body language, eye contact. Does she touch the back of your elbow when you're talking?"
"Remember, you're gentlemen, not ATMs."
"A lot of us are low or moderate-maintenance types. Look for the wallflowers, the type that won't try to change you or fight all the time."
"Don't get engaged on the first night. This is a wonderful opportunity. Keep moving, keep meeting ladies."
"Everybody wants a beautiful wife. But the bottom line is y'all need to have things in common. There are lots of really nice, humble girls looking to get married, with low mileage in their 30s."
"Don't date your translator."
And finally, "remember, you guys are a reflection of the U.S."
With those words of advice, I was ready for the first cocktail party.
A video posted by Tim Rogers (@bajopatas) on Jul 8, 2015 at 12:30pm PDT
You can't spell 'caliente' without Cali
The socials, held in the hotel's second floor convention room, started slowly.
The women — all of whom were invited to the parties after registering on TLC's companion site, caballeros.com — presented their IDs, got photographed from all angles, slapped on a sticky name tag, then entered the party hall to dutifully find a seat among the rows of metal chairs, which gave the party the feel of an overcrowded waiting room at a state health clinic.
The men, many dressed in jacket and tie, stood bashfully along the walls, making strained small talk with their personal translators while scanning the room in search of an amorous twinkle.
I smiled winsomely to show everyone how friendly I am, then repaired with haste to the bar, smiling and nodding as I went.
The women ranged from comely 20-year-olds in the full flush of youth, to grandmotherly sixtysomethings who looked like they took a wrong turn off the elevator on the way to bingo.
I was particularly intrigued by what appeared to be various mother-daughter combinations; so I approached Ofelia and what turned out to be her niece, 23-year-old Solange, who probably wouldn't have a problem finding a date under any circumstances.
Ofelia, whose last name need not be mentioned, told me she first went to a TLC party 16 years ago, met a gringo and got married happily ever after. Now she wanted the same for her niece, who seemed to agree with the plan.
"I see that my aunt has a very solid marriage, and the way that her American husband treats her is very different from the way that Latino men treat you," Solange told me. "I'm looking for a solid relationship, and to me age doesn't matter. I'm just looking for a guy who's hopefully not older than 40."
Solange said she'd rather go to a TLC party to talk to men in a safe environment than try her luck meeting guys through social media or dating apps. "How are you going to go out on a date with someone based on a chat or an app? That's too risky."
Other young women — many of whom traveled for several hours by bus to come to the parties — echoed the desire for security, maturity and stability in a relationship.
"I don't like to date men my age; they're very immature," said Alejandra, 23.
"Colombian men are unfaithful and lack ambition," blurted 29-year-old Lorena when I asked why she traveled for two hours to come to the party. "I hope to meet a guy here who is interested in me and wants to start a serious relationship. Hopefully nobody older than 45."
The men, too, said they came on the tour looking for more than a one-night stand.
"Growing up as an African-American, traveling wasn't big in my family because my parents were super hardworking and couldn't afford vacation," said James, a former break dancer from Seattle. "Now that I'm older and more comfortable, I want to travel and see the world. This is an opportunity to do that, and I'm trying to take advantage of it."
But did James come to find a Colombian bride? "I believe things happen for a reason. I'm keeping all my options open."
I, alas and alack, wasn't keeping all my options open. By the second night of partying some bachelorettes started inquiring about my wedding ring. And one of the translators told me that some of the women, apparently still unclear about my status, thought I was weird for not asking any of them out on dates, or at least trying to collect phone numbers. My faux bachelorhood was coming to a sad end.
The truth is, I found bachelorhood exhausting. I'm no longer accustomed to the hours kept by single men. Two nights of partying had done me in. By the time the final rose ceremony pool party started, I was too tired to limbo. I longed for the connubial comforts of a lazy Sunday in bed with my wife, watching reruns of The Bachelor.
I perked up momentarily for the bikini contest, which was as delightful as promised. But I was ready for bed by dinner time. And with no marriage proposals at the pool party, there was no reason to stay awake any longer.
A video posted by Tim Rogers (@bajopatas) on Jul 7, 2015 at 5:09pm PDT
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
So what did I learn from all this?
First, the tour I was on seemed pretty innocent, especially by 2015 standards. In fact, the entire thing was a touch old-fashioned and a bit stiff. But it was certainly more chivalrous than online flirting, and less objectifying than Tinder.
Most of the people I talked to — men and women alike — seemed to be there with some seriousness of purpose. They were looking for love, or companionship, or something in between.
But it wasn't just about sex, which is available everywhere in Cali in the form of brothels and massage parlors.
"Nobody needs my services for sex," White said bluntly. "Why pay a grand to go on this tour when you can arrive at the airport, jump in a cab, and go straight to a whorehouse?"
White says some guys get the wrong idea about the tour, but he tries to weed out the "shitbirds" in phone interviews before anyone signs up for a trip.
"The guys on this trip are old souls and kindred spirits who don't want to settle for mediocre," the Texan said. "They want to try something new."
Indeed, most of the guys on the tour were pretty ordinary — some painfully so. And some had such conservative views on the world that I found myself staring mindlessly into my beer after about five minutes of conversation.
"We were once considered bad boys for doing this, but we're conservative with traditional values. And that's what we were all along," White told me. Then he started giving me his take on civil rights, feminism and Americans conspiring against God, and I stared blankly into my beer.
The mail-order bride business probably isn't making a comeback, and the single men's tours may also be on the way out. But the industry's demise isn't because the matchmaking system doesn't work, White insists.
"It works, but no one wants to listen. They only want to shit on it," he said. "But really this is a no-lose vacation. You get away from work and get to relax with beautiful women, good food and dancing."
What more could a bachelor want?