1. The time I was pick-pocketed in the Roman metro
I was packed into a crowded carriage on the Roman metro during rush hour, and as the train pulled into a stop, a young gypsy girl – maybe 16-years-old – pulled up her shirt, flashed her boobies at me and started shouting. For some reason, this did not register as odd to me. I stared at her, dumfounded and mesmerized. “Europe = awesome!” is all that I can remember thinking.
The girl then leapt from the train and disappeared into the crowd accompanied by another young girl as Romans shouted at her vociferously. The passengers were animated and agitated, speaking to me in Italian with flailing arms and excited voices, you know, the way Italians always talk to each other whether they are buying a loaf of bread or arguing about football (soccer).
I had no idea what was going on and I was oblivious as to why the girl flashed me. Did she think I was cute? Is this a customary greeting in her province? I exited the train and walked out of the station.
I reached into my left pocket for my map of Rome to get my bearings and realized my map was missing. I checked my other pocket and my Roman Lira were still there. I then put two and two together – Girl #1, the flasher, created a distraction while girl #2 pick-pocketed me. All the Italians in the train carriage were excoriating the little thieves and trying to tell me what was happening.
They only got away with my map which left me temporarily confused as to my whereabouts, but really the joke was on them. She showed her boobs to me for nothing!
Total loss: about $2
2. The time I was swindled by two Cuban touts
This one is the most embarrassing, for it illustrates my naivety as an inexperienced traveler more than any other.
I’d been in Cuba about 5 minutes and was walking in central Havana when two chatty young men approached me. I’d heard over and over how friendly and open the Cuban people were, so I took the boys up on their offer to show me a mural of Che in a nearby neighborhood. Afterwards, they invited me to have a drink at a bar overlooking the sea on the Malecon. They both ordered $4 mojitos, which is 40% of the monthly $10 wage of the average Cuban, and I ordered a $1 beer. As I sat there drinking with them in the warm Caribbean sunshine, the friendly young Cubans tried to sell me on an assortment of services they had on offer, ranging from Cuban cigars to Cuban whores. I realized that these were some seriously shady characters.
I declined all their offers and abruptly asked for the bill, which was brought over by an imposing, humorless server who demanded that I pay for everyone’s drinks. In hindsight, I should have refused to pay for them, but I forked over my dollars and got away from the shady touts as soon as I could.
I saw the touts a few days later prowling for naive tourists and I decided to mess with them. I told them we should have a drink sometime so they could return the favor and pick up the tab. They avoided me after that.
Total loss: $8
3. The time gun shots were fired in Antigua, Guatemala
A white Volkswagon Beetle pulled into the intersection and a young Guatemalan man jumped out and tried to wrestle the backpack away from a tourist who was walking by. I was standing on the corner with my friend Kyle in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, watching the events unfold. The tourist resisted, the would-be-mugger pulled out a gun and from close range fired two shots at the tourist.
Instinctively, I took off running while looking back over my shoulder. Kyle ran the other direction. The thief-cum-shooter jumped back into the Volkswagon and sped off. The tourist got up, examined himself and began to hastily walk away – he was miraculously not shot. Tourists and locals spilled out of the bars and restaurants and the street filled with nervous chatter as they were trying to ascertain what had happened.
I have no idea how the shooter missed from such a close range, but we were not interested in hanging around as we knew the police might arrive anytime, and the police in Guatemala, like the thieves, are to be avoided.
I can’t say that I was almost shot or robbed that night; however, a few weeks before I was out with some friends and a German girl asked me to walk her home as it was late. We headed out of the city center and proceeded further out of town than I’d been in Antigua and up on the road to Jocatenango. I felt very uncomfortable about where we were headed and I understood why she wanted someone to walk her home.
After I left her safely at her place, I began my solo journey back down dimly lit streets. I encountered a group of about 15 tough looking young guys who were in a circle smoking cigarettes. I puffed out my chest and gave a hearty “!Buenos Noches! to the young men and several of them turned to me and reciprocated with friendly Holas and Buenos Nocheses.
Relieved, I walked the next few blocks to the edge of town and proceeded down the well-lit cobblestoned streets into the beautiful colonial city.
At that time, a white Volkswagon Beetle pulled up next to me and two guys started yelling at me. I had no idea what they were saying but it didn’t sound friendly. My pace quickened and I kept looking ahead as I hurried up the street. The car followed me for a block as the two young guys continued shouting unintelligible Spanish.
After a block, a group of noisy tourists stumbled out of a bar, carrying on an alcohol fueled conversation and a local man turned the corner on a bike and headed towards us. The car sped up and left me. I turned and ran most of the way to my guesthouse.
In hindsight, I am positive that I encountered the shooters weeks before I saw them try to mug the backpack-toting tourist. I had almost nothing of value on me the night they harassed me, only a few quetzals, so they wouldn’t have gotten much from me in a robbing. But they could have kidnapped me and extorted money from me or maybe just shot me for fun.
Total loss: my nerve. The next day after Kyle and I saw the shooting I began an overland journey to the United States through Mexico and I didn’t feel safe again.
4. The time I was extorted on the Guatemalan/Mexican border.
Two days after witnessing the shooting, I arrived at the dubious Guate/Mex border crossing at El Carmen, Gautemala, and found myself in one of the most hellish places I’ve ever been. There were shoeless kids playing amongst piles of stinking garbage in the street, stray dogs with protruding ribs ran amuck, and the polluted river – the border – was filled with swimming locals. We think of the USA/Mexico border as a lawless no-man’s-land filled with banditos, drug smugglers and thugs. I can attest that Mexico’s other border fits this lovely image as well, but to a more anarchic degree.
As soon as I got to the Guatemalan border post, a middle-aged man with good English, a crazy look in his eye and cheap alcohol on his breath latched onto me, “guiding” me through the posts and “helping” translate and assisting with money changers.
My “guide” spoke to me only in English, I responded only in Spanish, and I told him repeatedly and forcefully, often in front of border guards, that I wanted him to leave me alone. No one said a word to him or checked his documents as he followed me through all the government checkpoints and into Mexico. As I got in a cab to leave, he said, “Give me $5.”
“Why?” I protested.
“Because I helped you!”
“I helped you with everything!”
I tried to close the taxi door, but he held it open; I told the driver to vamos, but he didn’t budge. After a brief but spirited argument, I looked into the man’s eyes and saw evil. I envisioned him plunging a knife into my stomach and realized I should absolutely pay the man $5 and get the heck out of there. If the border guards were so apathetic, then the police might be just as lazy about looking for my body after it was cut up and discarded uncerimoniously in the jungle.
Total loss: $5
5. The time I was fleeced on the Mexico/USA border.
One would think I would have learned from my last border crossing. One would think.
I got into a cab at the Juarez bus station without agreeing on a price and when I arrived at the border, the cab driver said $20. I was so stupid to have gotten in the cab without working out the details first as there was no meter. I knew what the man was asking for, but I gave him 20 pesos instead and played dumb.
An argument ensued. We were yelling at each other as he was demanding $20 but I knew the price should be something like $5. We were right next to the bridge to the USA and I didn’t have any fight left in me. I wadded up the money, threw it at him and yelled come cuss words in English at him and walked away.
Total loss: about $15
6. The time a persistent tout on the Great Wall of China guilted me out of my Yuan.
As we started the six-mile hike from Jinshanling to Simatai along the top of the Great Wall of China, a friendly middle-aged Chinese woman latched onto us and followed us on our journey. She was one of the most tenacious touts we’ve ever encountered as she refused to leave us alone despite our repeated requests. All the other forgeiners in the group had an unshakable, pesky “guide” like us.
Halfway through the hike, our tout turned to go back home and implored us to buy a book or souvenir from her. Out of stupidity, or guilt or sympathy, I bought a photo book of the Great Wall of China for about $10. It was a beautiful book actually, but it now sits somewhere on a shelf and hasn’t been read in six years. Plus I had to carry it for the next three months through Asia.
I didn’t have to buy the book or pay her, and by doing so I probably only encouraged her to harass the next tourist that comes along. But I felt pressured to buy something just to get her off my back.
Total loss: $10 (but I did get a book for it, so there’s that)
7. The time a dirty, sneaky taxi driver in Xian conned the Bells
A few days after the Great Wall of China tout, we did get truly scammed in Xian. There were a group of unofficial taxi drivers outside our hotel selling rides to the Terra Cotta Warriors about 30 min. drive from town. We agreed on a price with a driver, got in his car and took off.
After a short ride, we pulled off the road to a small factory making replica warriors. Initially we thought he was taking us shopping at a place where he could earn a commission, but we quickly realized the cheeky, thieving driver was claiming that this was our destination and that if we wanted to go to the actual warriors, you know, the world famous archeological site, we’d have to pay more. He played dumb, acting as if he were confused and thought we wanted to go to a warrior factory.
We were irate, and in hindsight we should have either A) agreed to his terms but then paid him the originally agreed upon fare upon arrival at the archeological site, or B) hailed a taxi and left him with no money. But we were in a strange area of Xian and we had a limited time to see the warriors, so we accepted his extortionate deal. I shouted some choice insults at him as I threw the money at him when we arrived, and we took a local bus back to town for pennies.
That guy was the shadiest of the scammers we’ve been victim to and if I saw that chubby little jerk again I’d like to punch him right in his fat belly.
Total loss: about $8
8. The Cambodia border visa scam
At the Thailand/Cambodian border there exists a brazen scam that ensnares any foreigner crossing there. (At least it did in early 2007).
A Cambodian visa on arrival costs $10. At the border, there were three government officials in the booth issuing visas and stamping passports, but they wouldn’t look up and talk to anyone. Right outside the booth are men, friends of the officials, who charge a fee to get the visas processed. One must pay them $10 and they will hand the passports to the border guards, who will then instantly process the visa and allow the visitor in. Without paying the bribe for the service of the “travel agent” it can take “up to three days” to get the visa. Therefore, everyone who comes through pays the bribe, submits to the screwing, and forks over some cash to the corrupt officials in order to get into the country.
You can try arguing like I did, but it is just a waste of time to do so.
I coined the term, “Scambodia” for the country. I hate those people at that border. Hate them.
Total loss: about $10 for each Bell, or $20 total
9. The time a crazy guy in Alaska almost shot me for
“CANTCHUREEEEED!” shouted the clearly deranged, reclusive mountain man. His words came at me enwrapped in a pungent cloud of stale alcohol from his breath and diesel fumes from his rusting pickup.
“What?” I replied. I had no idea what he said.
“CAN’TYOUREAD?” He said more clearly this time.
“Didn’t you see my no trespassing sign?”
I did see it, but I rode my bike past it anyway. I was quickly realizing this was a mistake. I was riding my bike on the Denali Highway about 15 miles from the town of Cantwell, Alaska. It was a glorious autumn day and I felt compelled to go down one of the many offshoots with posted NO TRESPASSING signs at the entrance.
About a quarter mile off the highway, I had hopped off my bike and was taking in the stunning view of the Alaska Range when a rusty, 30-year-old truck rumbled over a hill. I knew right away that this was not good. When one encounters a predator in the wild, one should not run. I waited until the truck pulled up to me, I gave my best wholesome smile, a friendly wave and said hello to the driver.
“I’m very sorry sir. I will go right now,” I told the drunk mountain man.
“That’d be a good idea-r,” he replied.
I peddled my bike furiously, cruising over the potholed and rutted dirt road and back out to the Denali Highway and off his land. The man followed after me and pulled up next to me on the main road. I had hoped he would pass me by, but he pulled up and rolled down the passenger side window to talk to me.
I really thought I was going to die. It would be hard to find 12 people in central Alaska who would convict a man for shooting a trespasser and that was IF they found my body. I had a very bad feeling about everything – and that feeling was justified.
“You know, people round here will shoot a feller for jumpin their gold claims,” he said. At that time, I realized that he had a rifle laying right next to him.
I apologized profusely as I hoped and prayed that a car (witness) might pull up.
The man talked at me for about five minutes, with every other sentence being a veiled threat on my life and the next being an offer of kindness.
Crazy Drunk Mountain Man Dude: How would you like it if I drove my truck into your yard?”
Me (Jeff): I probably wouldn’t like it.
CDMMD: You need a ride into town? It is an awful long way away?
Jeff: No, I’m good.
CDMMD: You know people round here will shoot someone for trespassin’ on their land.
Jeff: So I’ve been told.
I don’t think I’ve ever had so much adrenaline coursing through my veins. When he first pulled up to me, I really thought about taking off running into the woods but I had to assume that the man practices shooting his gun while drunk and is probably just as accurate intoxicated as he is sober. Eventually he drove away, presumably to the nearest liquor store.
Total cost: I haven’t ridden my bike down the Denali Highway since.
10. The time a swarm of kids nearly robbed us in Egypt
We were in central Aswan walking in broad daylight and we decided to take a short cut through a residential middle-class area to get to our hotel. There was nothing to suggest we were turning into a dangerous neighborhood.
We’d made it a few blocks off the main road when we were approached by a few kids asking for money or treats or pencils, but that number quickly grew to about 30. The kids, like zombies crying out for brains, started yelling BACKSHEESH! BACKSHEESH! BACKSHEESH!. Kids were pulling on our arms, grabbing at my backpack, reaching into our pockets. Kristi and I yelled at the kids to stop, but they only became more aggressive, more ravenous for backsheesh. It was like a scene out of a Stephen King novel.
We turned to retreat from the neighborhood and a kid pulled the zipper on my daypack, opened the bag and nearly got my camera out. I started yelling angrily at the kids, and I thought we might have to start fighting them. My plan was to punch one of the bigger 10-year-olds in the face to get the action started.
An elderly, diminutive woman came out and yelled at the children, but they were all larger than her and paid her no attention. As we were struggling to break free of the zombie-urchins, a local man ran outside and started shouting at the kids, screaming at them to get away. Most of the feral pack of kids took off, but about six especially ferocious little monsters kept at it until the man chased them away behind a torrent of Arabic shouting.
The local man apologized profusely, as I am sure he was a little embarrased by the behavior of the children in his neighborhood.
Total Loss: we now have a terrible fear of kids in groups of three or more.
11. The time my bag was pilfered in Guatemala
My luggage didn’t arrive on the plane on my 2nd trip to Guatemala in 2009. When it turned up two days later, I was delighted to find out that it had been pilfered. My electric razor, cologne and toiletry bag were missing.
Total loss: $100
12. The time I fell for the “Baby Con.”
The only time that I know of that I fell for a scam in India. You can read about it at “A Tale of 3 Indian Touts,” one of my 1st posts on this blog.
Total Loss: $2
So there you have it. I’ve never been victim of a violent mugging or encounter, I’ve never had a camera or backpack stolen, and I’ve only lost a known $220. I have no doubt overpaid for tuk-tuks and taxis all over the world and I’ve no doubt been taken advantage of at times that I am unaware of.
But I have also had correct change placed in my hand after almost every transaction. I’ve been the recipient of countless acts of kindness and generosity. The world is a safe place overall for travelers, just be careful out there, especially if a white Volkswagon Beetle pulls up to you in Guatemala.
Have you ever been robbed while traveling?