Nothing expands your horizons like travel. Meeting new people and experiencing different cultures is one of the best ways to learn about the world we call home. Sometimes however, traveling can lead to some truly dangerous situations that’ll probably have you second guessing that upcoming all inclusive vacation to Mexico. I mean let’s face it, a staycation with Netflix is probably a lot safer than trekking through Africa or partying in Europe. But for those travelers who can’t get rid of the travel bug, here are the thrilling stories that will remind you to stay vigilant the next time you head out abroad.
30. Korean Clubs Can Get Pretty Wild
I made the mistake of being a inebriated foreigner in a club in Seoul. After getting thrown out (fair enough, not a big deal), one of the bouncers, the short tubby one, decided he didn’t like me and started pushing me as if to fight me. I kept backing away and he kept after me, pushing me and taunting me. Being sufficiently aware that fighting a bouncer was bad, I was doing my best to back away, and we were well away from the club entrance, so he really should have left me alone, but eventually I looked behind me and saw that I was about to get backed up into some cars, and I didn’t want him to get the first punch off. So as I backed up, I put up my dukes, backed up a couple more steps, then let fly a punch right into his mouth, which he stepped into.
At that point the adrenaline fuzzed up my memory and all I know is the other bouncers came over and tackled me and held me until the cops came. I went along without resisting, satisfied that I got off a good punch in self defense. Of course, if you’re not Korean and you get in a fight with a Korean, then you’re at fault and you will lose no matter what. But I got lucky since there was an audience who apparently let the cops know what happened.
After hanging out at the police station, unaware of what was going to happen, a girl, I guess from outside the club, came in and yelled at the officers in my defense, but they shooed her away. Eventually a translator came by and explained that I wasn’t being charged, and that they wanted to know if I wanted to press charges against the club. That seemed like a hassle, and I was going to be going home in a couple of weeks, so I declined. I think part of what helped me is that I never admitted to punching the guy, but instead I maintained that I only defended myself. Lesson learned, never get wasted at a club in a foreign country, especially when the bouncers are all mafia thugs who are beyond the law.
29. Sometimes Men Don’t Get The Picture
When I was in Indonesia, I was walking from my guesthouse to grab some dinner one night, and a group of 4 men started catcalling and yelling what were probably inappropriate things at me. I just ignored them and walked very quickly into the nearest building, which was a department store type place. They followed me in and I was trying to just ignore them hoping they’d leave. I figured I was safer in a public, well lit sort of place. They grabbed me and I spun around and started screaming at them (in English, so they probably didn’t understand, but I reckon they got the feeling). They laughed, but eventually left. The worst part was all the people in the department store, including other women who were working there just giggled when they saw this happening. These men probably could have dragged me out of the store and no one would’ve done anything… I left Indonesia the next morning.
28. Mistaken Identity
My dad used to be a professional photographer. He was one of the types who would do anything for a good photo. Anyway he’s in Mexico on a business trip. During some time off, he rents a car and goes outside the city looking for good pictures. He sees some young children playing in the street and starts taking pictures of them.
A few minutes later, men and women start shouting and running toward him. He jumps back in his car but they surround the car. More villagers arrive. Soon there’s a mob around his car. They’re screaming, beating on the windows and trying to overturn his car.
Moments later police arrive and he’s arrested…and in doing so they probably save his life. They take him to the station and interrogate him. He tells them he’s just a photographer from America taking pictures as a tourist. Obviously he’s as confused as you can imagine and scared.
The police believe him and then tell him that a gang/cartel has been in town taking pictures of children and then kidnapping them. The villagers thought that he was part of the gang.
27. Being A Kid In Nepal Is Rough
Rural mountain road in Nepal. A little girl (maybe 8 years old) tried to jump in front of our car.
Before I even realized what was happening our guide jumps out and starts yelling and trying to catch her.
Guide told me that parents sometimes encouraged young children to jump in front of cars in order to get some sort of settlement money from the travelers.
26. Football Truly Is The Most Beautiful Game
About 6 years ago I was in a small town in Poland for a two week work project. There’s nothing to do in this town, so I decide to take the train to Krakow for the weekend. As I get to the train station, I notice a large group of police are gathering near the station in full riot gear. About half have these gnarly metal batons, the other half have shotguns. Despite the riot gear, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency. I wonder if they’re getting ready for a training exercise, or perhaps they’re going to take a train to a neighboring city to help some situation.
I continue on to the train platform and wait. About 5 minutes before the train is to arrive, all of the police line up on my platform. Now I’m starting to get a little worried. I’m hoping they’re not going the same place I am. Is something happening in the direction I’m heading? Should I stay?
The train pulls up, and now I see why the police are here. The entire train is packed with what I assume to be soccer hooligans (they were all wearing black and green with a soccer club’s insignia on their jackets) from a neighboring town. Wasted as can be, hanging out the train windows, yelling at anyone within earshot, throwing bottles, etc. The police were all there to keep the hooligans from causing too much trouble before letting them all go on their way.
For whatever reason I decide to still get on the train. I get on, and start looking for a place to sit. The entire hallway is full of the wasted hooligans yelling at the police and throwing things out the window. I see an empty room and decide to duck in before seeing that there’s a hooligan passed out covered in his own vomit (I’m assuming it was his own, you never know). The next room down had a middle aged couple and a couple of old ladies, and thankfully there’s an empty seat, I get in and shut the door before any of the hooligans notice me.
Fortunately they all got off at the next stop, and all was well (as far as I know), but that was one hell of an experience for my first time taking a train in Europe.
25. Isn’t That What Taxes Are For?
I was visiting a friend in East Timor back when it was under UN mandate. I was doing some tourism on my own (well, with driver and interpreter/guide) when villagers stopped us at an improvised road block in the middle of their village. They were masked and waving machetes around. They asked for a one dollar “donation” to “repair the road” as they made a point of putting the blade of their machetes a few centimetres from my face. I told my driver to push through – I was not getting coerced into paying anything. They threw stones and waved their blades. I called UN police and they apparently sorted things out, because by the time we drove back through that village the next day, the roadblock was gone. So nothing had happened, but looking back, it could easily have got far worse.
24. Who Watches The Watchmen?
I was in Lobitos Northern Peru on a surf trip. I decided to walk back to my place from where some friends were staying across the very open and arid area. It got very dark and at some point and I couldn’t see much. I saw people coming towards me from all angles but too close to avoid. Next thing there was flashlights in my face and a guy appeared with a shotgun in my face. I dropped to my knees and put my hands up and called ‘tourista’… Just as quickly they left into the night. I was left shaking wondering what the hell happened. Turns out the camp had been attacked two weeks prior by bandits that had stolen everything from everyone at the surf camp at gunpoint. These guys were the ‘security’…
23. Just A Normal Day, Nothing To See Here
France, about 10 years ago. Me, a pedestrian, standing at the traffic lights, waiting to cross the road. The lights turn red, one car which was driving a little bit too fast stops abruptly which makes a motorcyclist behind it hit it very, very slightly. You could see the damage, but it wasn’t anything I would really complain about, a minor scratch on a car that was already some years old. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, the biker gets off his bike, takes off his helmet; the driver of the car gets out, too. They yell at each other, the driver screams and both engage in a fight. In broad daylight. In the middle of the road. They punch each other, the driver throws an uppercut, the biker kicks the other guy in the shin… this goes on until the traffic lights turn green again, both get back in/on their vehicles and drive off as if not a thing had just happened. To this day I can barely comprehend what I watched while none of the other pedestrians around me seemed to care… that was France for me.
22. Learning A Second Language Is Very Helpful
My best friend and I were on a train in Switzerland. We were getting off in just a few stops so we sat on the fold-out seats between the carriages when a couple of wasted Swiss guys come out from one of the carriages to use the toilets. They were checking us out and start speaking in German to each other. They must have heard us speaking English and thought we didn’t understand them, but my friend speaks German and all of a sudden she starts looking really terrified, but she wouldn’t tell me why until we got off the train. Apparently they were planning on getting off at whichever stop we got off at and were going to grab us. They even started arguing about how to go about it. The argument gets so intense that one of the guys smashes his bottle into the floor sending shattered glass flying. Luckily, when we got off the train, her step-dad was waiting for us and the guys got scared and got back on the train. I’m glad she didn’t tell me until later to be honest. I would have panicked.
21. Be Sure To Check The Local Laws Before Leaving Home
When I was 8 my family went to South Africa. We are Norwegian and were going because my uncle owns a vineyard there. When we landed and went through security they stopped on my then 4 year old sisters passport, and started arguing. There was a law we did not know about which said your passport had to be valid for at least 3 months after we left. My dad and the security ended up arguing for hours. Eventually my uncle ran straight through the entire airport and they kept on discussing. Around 12pm (we had arrived around 9) they decided they were done and wanted to send us back, so they put us in a cell in the airport, to wait for the first flight back.
We ended up sitting in the tiny prison like room with a for 12 hours, having the ladies who were cleaning mock us for being the first white people to sit there. I don’t really remember much else than being really scared and crying a lot. Luckily for us my uncle has some contacts, so he managed to establish contact with the Norwegian ambassador in South Africa who got up and made a new temporary passport for my sister (at 3am). I cannot describe how happy I felt walking out of that airport and feeling the hot air.
20. I’ve Seen This Movie Before
I was in London for the Olympics, was standing alone waiting for my friend to come out of a shop, and a young cute guy approached me (I’m a young female, people tell me I’m attractive) we chatted for a while, he managed to get out of me that I was travelling and waiting for a friend and (idiot me) I told him I didn’t have a mobile phone. We kept chatting away, eventually my friend turned up (also a young lady, she’s definitely attractive). And he walked with us as we shopped for a while, and mentioned a party… Invited us along, my friend looked curious about it, but I told him we had somewhere to be tonight before she could say anything. Thankfully I had seen the movie Taken and had spoken to a Frenchman a couple of years previously who’d told me it’s entirely true, happens all over Europe and that the government hushes it all up. Anyway the guy kept inviting us to the party and I kept declining. He got bored, and left us. When my friend came home (to Australia) and watched Taken she nearly died. It was almost word-for-word what happened in the movie.
19. Always Pay The Police
Moscow; I accidentally spoke English without an accent loudly while wasted outside a club. Two officers, knowing I was foreign, threatened to jail me for being wasted in public, so I “paid the fine” up front after explaining my flight was the next morning and playing scared. It cost me about 1000 rubles (30 USD), but I realized then that I was a long, long way from home and the legal system is not the same.
18. I Just Wanted Some Tacos
In 2005, a couple friends and I went to Tijuana Mexico for a day of shopping and cheap tequila. I got lost trying to find my way back to the border and ended up in a dangerous part of town. A cop car pulls me over and out gets 4 men, not in police uniforms and carrying large rifle machine gun looking things. All four of us girls are trying not to lose our cool when they just start screaming at us in Spanish. They’re yelling for us to get out of the car but we weren’t moving fast enough for them. They rip the doors open, pull us out, push us to our knees on the side of the road and start digging through our car. We all thought we were going to die that night. They just stole everything worth anything from our car then hightailed it outta there. We were very very luck to have left with our lives.
17. Emergency Carpool
A friend of mine was living in Italy and working as a nanny. She was on the train on her way home and noticed two men staring at her. She had her mobile phone in her coat pocket and was holding onto it. Next thing she feels a hand reach into her pocket and hold onto her hand tightly, attempting to restrain her. As the train stops she somehow manages to get out of his grip and run off the train and up the stairs to street level. The men get off the train after her. She sees one come up each set of stairs (there were two sets leading up to street level) and follow closely behind her. She sees a woman stopped in a car on the street talking on her mobile phone and jumps in the passenger side of the car and pretends to talk to her like she knows her. The woman looks at her blankly and stunned. The men see and keep walking. She then explains the whole story to the random lady in broken Italian who drives her home…
She has no idea what the men planned to do. But can safely assume it wasn’t good.
16. Not My Kind Of Drive
My sister and I were travelling on a local bus, through the mountains of Morocco, at night, while it’s raining. As I’m dozing off, I hear a funny noise and the bus starts sliding backwards. When I look out the window, we are so close to the edge, that all I see is some rocks, 100 feet down. Luckily, the bus stops, and some people get out, give it a push, and off we go….up the mountain that is.
15. A Casual Nepalese Riot
I was living in Nepal during the highly suspect massacre of the royal family. I was stuck in my house for three days listening to some serious rioting going on outside. Someone set a bridge near my house on fire. The boredom got to me in the end and I booked a bus ticket to the other end of the country.
Had to ride my bike through a hail of bricks to get to the bus pickup point, and enjoyed a relatively quiet and uneventful ten hour bus journey.
Walked the Himalayas, ate lots of dahl baht. Got Giardia. Saw some wonderful mountains.
When I returned Kathmandu was back to normal. Everyone was rather nonchalant about the whole thing. All the men had shaved heads, and it was all back to normal. The change was really rather eerie. It was like nothing had happened.
14. Don’t Take The Bracelet
I traveled to Paris when I was 17 with a group of students from my high school. We were told to keep our money packed away safe and to never talk to the street vendors, especially those who were making bracelets and putting them on tourists’ wrists. (These men make bracelets seemingly for free and then charge exorbitant fees once it is on your wrist, and if you don’t pay them what they ask they will threaten you or physically stop you from leaving the area).
I was paired with another young girl when we were traveling to the Sacre Coeur and a man approached us wanting to make a bracelet for us. We declined, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept bothering us and following us up the hill while we’re still saying no. At one point, he grabs my wrist and starts trying to work. I grab onto my friend, and he’s pulling me in the other direction. He starts screaming at me and pulling me harder and I’m not sure what to do at that point.
My friend starts screaming for the police and he took off. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to one of the other students who didn’t understand that the man was not going to let him leave without paying 20 euros. The student tried to leave but the man was threatening to follow him and kill him, kill his family, and do all sorts of terrible things. The student took a picture of the man and the man snatched his camera and took off.
13. Intoxicated Drivers Are Everywhere
This happened when visiting relatives in Malaysia. My aunt was taking us (me, my mum, my younger brother) for a drive around KL at night (it was around New Year’s so all these lights and decorations were up). When we were at a junction where we were to merge into the main road, she did so and crashed into an Indian guy (relevant) on a motorbike that came out of nowhere.
Seriously, he had been going extremely fast when the crash happened. We got out of the car to see if he was OK, and he was lying on the ground groaning, but there was no blood and he didn’t seem super-injured. We called an ambulance anyway, in case, and while we were waiting, lots of bystanders came up to see what had happened.
Some of these were other Indian guys who seriously looked like Tamil movie villains (bulky, pot-bellied, mustachioed, facial scars). They started heckling us, blaming us for the incident, yelling, swearing, etc. For 3 females and a 12-year-old boy, this was really scary.
They ended by telling us that if we weren’t Indian, they would have killed us.
Turned out, when my aunt went to the police station the next day to give details about the crash, the motorbike guy was fine apart from some bruising and had been super wasted and was very keen not to press charges or make her pay for his bike repairs.
12. The Vietnamese Motorcycle Mafia
My older sister and I were traveling together all through Southeast Asia last year. We were in Laos and wanted to find the fastest way to meet up with a couple of friends who were in Vietnam. We decided to hire a private driver to take us there. The driver explained that he could only drop us off at the Laos/Vietnam border and that there would be tourist buses at the border that could take us into the city.
When we arrived at the border we got out of the car and the driver drove off. My sister and I walked up to the window of the only person working, got our visas, and walked across. Immediately we noticed there were no buses, no hotels/shops, and no people around. It was around 5:30 and the sun was about to go down. All of a sudden we see a group of men approaching us on motor bikes. They surround us in a circle and one of them says in broken English, “Where you going? Need ride?” My sister and I look at each other and realize we have no other way of getting into the city. We tell the man where we want to go and he tells us the city is only 15 minutes away and that it would only cost us $12 USD to take us there. This all sounds great except when he mentions that my sister and I would have to get on separate bikes. We decline his offer, unsure of how else we’ll get to the city.
We start trying to walk away but the bikers try grabbing our arms and follow us. They try to haggle and convince us to get on their bikes. We see a garage door opened a few yards away and we head towards it. An older couple is watching television inside and we ask them for help. The bikers had followed us there and start shouting at them in Vietnamese. The couple looks at us in confusion and my sister and I realize they were probably trying to somehow persuade them not to help us. My sister then looks at the couple and says, “$70. Drive to city,” and points at the car sitting in the garage. The older lady shakes shakes her head in agreement and then looks at the bikers and shouts something to them in Vietnamese. The bikers try to convince us one more time to get on their bikes and start laughing. They finally realize there was no convincing us and they leave. We get in the car with the older couple and they start driving to the city. The scariest part is that it took over an hour and a half to get there when the bikers said only 15 minutes.
11. Kidnapping Isn’t Just For Kids
Not me, but a friend of mine got into a really dangerous situation while travelling in Taiwan.
This was around Taichung. There were four of them, Her with two other girls and one guy. Hopped in a Taxi and gave driver the destination. He goes the right way for a while, then abruptly pulls off into a side road. Still driving along, my friend asks him in Mandarin where the hell he’s going, since they’ve been to this place before and they know wherever they’re going now is not what they asked for. Driver says nothing, gets on the celly and speaks to someone on the other end in Taiwanese. No one in the car understood this language, the mystery was in how the driver figured this out since they were all Asian and could have easily passed for natives visiting home for the holidays. The car pulls into an open field, surrounded by trees in every direction with only a single house in the middle of it. He parks right outside, and it appears people were emerging from the building. Several of them. Driver pauses for a brief second, starts the car up again, and commences driving along. A few minutes later, the group find themselves on the side of the main road as the cabbie drives off.
What the three girls in the back of the car did not know at the time was that upon stopping outside that house, their fourth member sitting up front pulled out his knife and held it right above his knee. Making sure it was in plain view of the driver. Once the cabbie saw this, he started the car up again. No doubt realizing the dangerous situation he inadvertently found himself in. They never figured out what the driver planned on doing, but anything even close to kidnapping couldn’t have been good. Cabbie was reported to the authorities, but they left for the states before finding out anything further.
10. Always Listen To Your Tour Guide
So the summer before my fifth grade, my aunt and my uncle wanted to take me to Italy. I was so excited but being a small town American girl, I didn’t even imagine the poverty I would see on the streets of Rome. Literally you saw men left and right begging for money. To a ten year old, it was terrifying. But what really scared me was when we visited Vatican City. The tour guide was telling us to not look at the homeless people outside of the gates of the Vatican. So when we are about ready to go into the Vatican, I look over at a woman who was wearing a hat. It was in the middle of July so I thought it was weird. Then, in front of the whole tour group, she pulls off her hat and reveals a hairless, scabbed, beet red head to everyone. It was so terrifying to me that even when I think of it I still shiver.
9. No Dancing For Her
This was only a couple years ago. I went to the Bahamas (Nassau) with my family and some of my father’s co-workers to celebrate New Year’s. It was New Year’s Eve and we had gone to dinner at a place nearby and then walked over to the street where they would be holding Junkanoo (Junkanoo is basically a giant dance festival held in the Bahamas on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day) a couple hours early to get a good spot to watch from. I was pretty tired and upset because I was missing my fiance (the trip was a gift from my dad’s boss before we got engaged so no ticket/room to bring him) so I sat on the curb and was staring down the road in the direction the parade would come. All of a sudden I heard this odd cracking sound so I looked up just in time to see a woman’s leg come through a skylight from the rooftop bar above. She had been drinking and climbed over the guardrail to walk on the awning that shaded the tourists walking on the sidewalk below during the day. Because the first thing to come through was her leg the next thing that followed was her torso and because of her other leg still caught on the roof she was flipped upside down and came crashing down head first from about 15 feet up. I watched her hit the ground only 10 feet away from where I was sitting. I went into complete hysterics. My mom had heard the crack and turned around to see the woman laying on the ground so she thought someone had shot her (She told us this in the taxi on the way to the hotel) so she yelled to the rest of us, “We are leaving NOW! Come on!” and we all took off down the street. My sister finally calmed me down enough that I could tell them what really happened. We never got to see any of Junkanoo and I didn’t sleep until I was back home.
8. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Was in Rome with a group of friends, we knew that pick pocketing was a problem, so not a big deal. Except when we’re standing at this crosswalk area and we notice this guy literally reaching into someones coat and pulling out their wallet etc. The man it was happening to was across the street.
A women, probably trying to do the right thing, steps out into the street and within 30 seconds she is hit by an incoming vehicle. Two feet in front of us this woman is thrown into the air, over the hood of the car and back onto the ground.
I’ve never heard anything like a skull cracking, it is blood curdling. When she landed, she smacked the back of her head on the road, blood rushed out. I’m not sure what ended up happening to her, if she lived or died but the thief on the other side of the street got away.
So yeah, don’t mess with traffic in Rome. You do not have the right of way unless you are driving something motorized.
7. Sucks To Be A Mzungu
When I was 21, I lived for a brief time in Tanzania. While there I experienced several things that were previously foreign to me, particularly racism. As a white American female, I had never experienced racism first hand, but I got quite the taste of it in Africa.
Whenever I would go out, natives would try to charge me exorbitant prices, just because I was “mzungu” (white). They had no problem telling me that was the reason I was getting overcharged, either. I was living with a local family (a gentleman I had met in the airport hooked me up with them) and anytime we would go out as a group, I was given the bill. I’d be out with a group of fifteen people, ranging in age from 3 – 65, and they would give the bill for the entire table to me. When I ordered the same thing as the family members, kuku (chicken), I would be charged 2 or 3x the price everyone else was charged for it. I couldn’t even go shopping with the housegirl at the market, because they would charge her more for her association with me.
6. The One Time Getting Mistaken For A Local Was A Bad Thing
The most traumatic thing that ever happened to me was when I was about 7, my family was holidaying in Spain. We were staying all inclusive, whilst at the pool with my siblings, my (All inclusive guest) band came off my arm. and the caretaker snatched me out of the pool and ejected me from the hotel, screaming at me in Spanish. I was balling my eyes out. I had to climb the wall and run to my parents whilst been pursued by this angry caretaker. The most terrifying thing of my young life. After a very, very, very angry complaint from my Dad, it turns out he thought I was a local kid who had just snuck in to use the pool!
5. Stranger Danger
My cousin and her friend got taken off into the jungle in South America by three guys, robbed, stripped, then one of the guys went nuts and tried to drown her friend in a nearby river- the two other guys pulled him off and told them if they told anyone they would kill them.
Well naturally they told the next person to come along the road (a bus) and he told them to go away. The next people who came along brought them back into the village to the police station where a group of villagers went out hunting the three assailants.
4. Check Both Sides Of The Road Before Crossing… Especially in Ukraine
In Ukraine on a school trip. We were in Lviv. Went a block or two from our hotel to catch a bus. Right as the bus pulls up, an older gentleman starts running across the busy road (I think it may have been 4 lanes, was 10 years ago.) He almost makes it, and then is nailed pretty hard by a car. The older man goes down and starts clutching his hand. The driver gets out of his little Skoda and begins berating the injured fellow. A couple of people go to help the old man, mainly to get him off of the road. Somehow, he manages to get on the bus. I nervously watch him the whole bus ride. I can tell by the way he is sitting, and the blood on his hands he is not ok. I ask our nurse if she can help, she says that she sees that he is hurt and wants to help, but she can’t. I ask why not and she explains how she is there to ensure our wellbeing, and cannot leave to help him, since he likely needs to go to a hospital, where she would have to accompany him, and she speaks almost no Ukrainian or Russian so everything would take a long time to deal with and our group is on a tight schedule. That moment when I realized what she said was the right thing for her to do, but not the right thing overall. To make it worse, the injured man wasn’t getting help from anyone, even getting yelled at by women for not giving up his seat to them. The lack of empathy I saw that day coupled with not being able to do anything to help… it was a hard day.
3. And That’s Why You Always Take A Cab
During university, I went on an education-sponsored trip to Singapore. Everything was amazing until the last night. We went to a club that was a bit of a trek from the hotel. I ended up being way too sober to continue partying so I hightailed it back to the hotel with my boyfriend. Everyone else stayed behind but eventually split up at last call to catch cabs and such.
A guy and a girl from our group decided in their intoxicated state to walk back from the hotel. They somehow, in some weird way ended up wandering into the Singapore port. Keep in mind, the port is the livelihood of Singapore. They didn’t even realize it until a port authority car pulled up and told them they’d give them a ride to their hotel. They were friendly about it so they hopped in. What happened next was insane…
I get a call to my room at 4 am and someone in very broken english is asking if I knew these two people (I was sharing a room with the girl). First I thought it was a prank by a friend but then I freaked out when I started asking if they’re okay and this really eerie laughing was heard on the other end. They wouldn’t give me their name or location. That gut-dropping feeling when you realize it’s not a joke and something is seriously up.
Turns out the port authority arrested them, turned them over to their version of the state police and were accusing them of being spies who had scaled the walls of the port to gain intel on trade. Both of them were separated, interrogated, guns were pulled on them in order to get them to fess up. They were taken to the walls of the port and forced to explain how they scaled them. One cop told one friend that the other friend had already confessed, so they might as well turn themselves in too. These people were totally wasted when I left them a few hours before. I could only imagine the sobering fear…
It took the rest of the group and the hotel front desk staff hours of calling to finally locate where they were in the city. Luckily, we had met a super successful businessman/lawyer living in Singapore, but from our hometown, a few days before. We called him up and asked if he could help us. He went to work on it. 12 hours later with the threat of our government getting involved in the mess, they finally turned our friends over to us. We got out of there pronto.
We think someone messed up their job at the port that day, left a gate opened and rather than admit fault, they would get these young students to take the fall. Thankfully, neither of them gave up because god knows how insane their punishments are over there.
Moral of the story? Take a cab.
2. When You Stumble Into The Wrong Bar
After a big night out in Brussels I started walking back to my hostel/hotel. I was staying in the worst part of the city so things were already a bit sketchy since it was probably around 3am. As I came into the neighborhood I was staying in I passed a small bar with muffled music coming out of the door. I couldn’t see what the scene looked like but thought “hey, why not”. As soon as I walked in I realized that I might have just made a big mistake. It turns out that this was the “Congo” bar. Now I’m a 6’2″ blond guy who doesn’t typically feel small in a room, but I felt tiny. There were about 40 guys(no women) all from the DRC and these were some BIG boys. Immediately when I walk in a guy grabs me slams a class in my hand and fills it from his beer bottle. I think these guys were just thinking that I was either crazy or had some big cojones.
Anywho, we start slammin’ ’em back when I notice a huge guy on the other side of the bar staring at me like he wants to eat my children. We make eye contact and he just starts screaming at me in Congolese. Immediately everyone focuses on this one-sided exchange and the bar quickly splits down the middle. The guys who were giving me beers, there were about 8-10 of them, start screaming back at this guy, who’s now been joined by his buddies. So little 22 year old me is sitting there while 20-30 giant central African dudes are just screaming at each other in this 20′ X 30′ bar, not a word of which I can understand. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m the topic of conversation. Finally the guy who started screaming at me left and things mellowed out, but for a while there I really didn’t know how things were gonna turn out.
1. A Really Expensive Car Ride
Over Christmas holidays in 1996 or 1997 (can’t recall exactly), I was traveling with my family on a cruise around the Caribbean. One of the stops was Guatemala, which had been caught up in a civil war for decades. Still, there were all kinds of assurances it was safe now, so very few people were concerned.
One of the excursions offered was an all-day trip (12 hours) to Tikal to see the Mayan ruins. I’d previously taken a couple of anthropology classes in college taught by a renowned Mayan scholar who had been part of the excavation, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see them for myself. I booked the day trip by myself — my family made other plans. The tour ended up being a small group — maybe 20 of us total — from the cruise ship. We were to take a chartered flight from the coast and then a bus to the ruins. We had a local guide and translator.
It’s all good, right? I consider myself a seasoned traveler, having been to several countries in Central America and Europe, so I wasn’t all that concerned. Even so, I packed some extra cash and my pepper spray (this was before 9/11, so travel was a lot different) and kept up situational awareness.
So 7am my small group of white, privileged tourists — in my mid-20s at the time, I was the youngest by far — pile in a bus and head off to the airport for our flight to the ruins. No one in the group was all that concerned, but I had alarms going off from the get go. I wasn’t chatting with the group but was watching the world go by outside the window. We go through slums (okay, this is a poor country…), we go through several military checkpoints (um… okay, there’s been civil war…), we get to the “airport” — really, a glorified landing strip — which is surrounded by military.
I keep my observations to myself, as no one else commented. Maybe they didn’t notice the guys carrying weapons lining the runway, and the anti-aircraft guns all over the place. Or the fact that besides our chartered plane there were no other planes around except old military ones. We had to hand over our passports once we were on the plane, and one government official took them back to the hanger where they were passed around.
I give myself a little talk, telling myself I’m overreacting, things are cool. So what if I’m a young single woman traveling with strangers in a country that just signed a peace treaty? That’s when I see our tour guide / translator hand over a huge wad of US currency and get the nod to leave. Everyone settles in and we take off. Two other planes take off right after us, and escort us for a good bit before turning around and heading back. Well, okay then.
The flight was uneventful, as was the bus ride to the ruins. I notice a lot more payments exchange hands between the various military / government looking folks along the way, along with the different locals that would stop the bus at different points. Meanwhile I’m looking at my fellow tourists, and not a one has clued in to all the goings on.
I start hanging out with the tour guide, Joe, and chatting with him in between stops and bribes. He’s a really cool guy, had moved back to Guatemala after attending school in the US because of the peace treaty. I casually mention all the stops and he tells me to not worry, he’s got things covered. And then he shows me his handgun under his jacket, and the other guns and ammo in his backpack, along with a wad of US currency I’ve only ever seen in movies. And tells me that while I’m pretty, I’m not the blonde hot type that might get “taken”.
Yeah. Okay. I’m cool. And never so glad to be a chubby plain chick.
We get to Tikal, which was amazing, and more than I could have hoped for. A monkey decided to follow me around to steal the tie I had pulling my hair back. Nothing much happens, other than several of the group making a big deal about the heat, the fact they had to drink beer out of a bottle — seriously people, do you want to get a crippling case of diarrhea? — and the food was “authentic” and not the full spread they have on the ship. My god, tourists are the worst.
The trip back was similar, except now it was getting dark and not only us were on the bus. We had an escort for most of the way. According to Joe the guide, they were local militia who wanted to make sure that the rich tourists were safe from the government military. Apparently the military were the ones to worry about, as they were underpaid and liked to grab groups for ransom, rape, whatever. It seems this trip was a bit more expensive than usual, as there had been an “incident” before Christmas. Oh joy.
Joe and I chat the whole way back, and he tells me how he’s impressed I noticed how things were, and how stupid all the others acted, being so clueless of their surroundings. He said he noticed two of them get pick-pocketed and he didn’t say anything because they deserved it. He told me about growing up in Guatemala, being sent to family in America, and how he wanted to make Guatemala beautiful again.
We get back to the landing strip / airport for our chartered flight back. Again, more exchanges for safety, and we are off. Again, we have escorts, this time on the plane with us. It’s a little disconcerting to see machine guns casually propped up on the seat next to someone.
All said and done, it was a great trip, and honestly I doubt few would have noticed anything. But when you are a single white woman traveling alone, you learn to pay attention. And the things I saw on that trip were eye opening, to say the least. I’ve never seen so many guns, so much money exchanged, and so many potentially iffy situations outside of movies. And yeah, I’m a sheltered American, so maybe this isn’t all that scary or intense. For me it was, because it was such a stark contrast to the rest of the trip — the luxury of the cruise ship, the white privilege, the general cluelessness of what things are like locally.
The experience changed me. Hopefully for the better.