Best Tour Ever?

Cheryl and I recently spent a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.  We had chosen to stay in a former small fishing village, now growing in popularity with European tourists.  With few North American visitors, there was little English spoken, something that appealed to our sense of adventure.

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Adventures came from unexpected quarters.  An aborted snorkel trip had led to our befriending the French family who ran the dive shop, and we had joined staff at their home for a gourmet seafood meal.  We’d also put our travel technology to the test.  A family health emergency at home had Cheryl trying to manage doctors’ care and hospital transfers remotely, spending hours every day sitting by the pool on her iPod skype-to-phone connection.  Maybe the stress still won out:  she spent most of the second week knocked out by a nasty bug.  After a week of house calls at the small family-run hotel, the patient was old friends with the doctor.

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

On the last day of our stay, I insisted Cheryl treat herself to a massage.  The stomach bugs had canceled a couple of tours so we had a cushion in the budget.  Meanwhile, I spent the morning wandering around town with my camera, taking in the sights.  The air was warming, the sun was growing hot, and I was enjoying the rhythm of the place.  Pretty girls said “hi” in passing.  Everyone seemed happy.

A young man joined me with a friendly “Hola” as I was strolling up the street.  How was I enjoying his country?  He mentioned he was one of the security guards at our hotel.  I couldn’t place him – there were a couple of shifts of each day – but I didn’t let on, and we continued to chat.  I was happy for the chance to practice my Spanish, and he seemed willing to humour me.  He asked if I liked fishing, and said he had a cousin who could give me a deal on a fishing trip.  I smiled.  We’d been declining similar offers all week, and fishing wasn’t my thing anyway.

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

He talked a bit about his family, and told me he was worried about his baby son.  A doctor had just told his wife that the baby wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and that she needed to start supplementing with formula right away.  He wanted to get some today, but he didn’t have the cash.  He asked if I’d be able to lend him the money and he could pay me back at the hotel that evening when he got paid.  I thought to myself that I’d likely not see the money again, and immediately felt guilty.  I reasoned that I wouldn’t mind contributing a few dollars to a struggling family.  Our short stay in their town had shown us that many here got by on very little.  I told him I could help him out.

He thanked me and suggested the easiest thing to do would be to buy the formula together, and I could pay the store directly.  He knew a store up the street a bit where the prices were lower, but he was concerned they were about to close for siesta.  He quickened his pace considerably explaining that he knew the shopkeeper and it really would be the best place to go.  As I tagged after him, we continued to talk about some of the things we’d done in the past couple of weeks.  Struggling with more complex Spanish, I told him of our own medical challenges.  A couple of times, I suggested we could stop at another store, but my new friend appeared to dislike the thought.

Out for a stroll on Main Street - what will you see?

Out for a stroll on Main Street – what will you see?

By then we’d left the part of town frequented by tourists.  I suspected that a local on a security guard’s salary would find better deals in the less upscale neighbourhood.  Just as I was about to ask how much farther, we arrived at a small grocery store – with the metal shutters down.  My companion let out an exclamation, then asked a boy sitting out front something I didn’t quite catch.  “Good news!” the distraught father said, “My friend is still inside.”  He knocked on the side door, and it opened to admit us into the dimly lit interior of the closed store.  The shopkeeper behind the counter said hello, and the two men exchanged a few words.  The young security guard asked for the formula and the shopkeeper went to the shelves and brought back a box that looked like it would last until the baby was weaned.  I felt an unpleasant taste in my throat.  While I was still recovering my equilibrium, a case of disposable diapers appeared on the counter beside the box of formula.  At my urging, the bill was quickly calculated, and the shopkeeper held out his hand for the equivalent of about sixty dollars.

At that moment, the growing unease I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the last twenty minutes asserted itself.  I saw I’d put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.  Here I was in a part of town where tourists didn’t go.  I was inside a shuttered store, with two young men, both of whom now looked surprisingly burly.  The young boy outside was probably a lookout.  The young “father” had suddenly grown shrill and demanding – I had promised to pay for the milk, after all.  I was definitely past my physical prime, and with no fighting skills to speak of.

The candidate's message: a much bigger scam?

The candidate’s message: a much bigger scam?

My priorities changed rapidly.  My overriding objective was to get back out on the street.  Giving up sixty dollars to ensure my escape seemed a small price to pay.  I didn’t even blink when the young man grabbed the extra bills from my hand as I was paying the shopkeeper.  Pushing open the door, I burst out into the bright sunlight, stepped over the boy, and high-tailed it back down the street even faster than we’d come up it.  As the shuttered shop fell behind me, I counted my losses, about $75 all told.  I imagined the milk and diapers going back on the shelves.  I wondered how many times they’d been “sold”.

The next day, as Cheryl and I were taxied out of town, we passed the store, now open.  I briefly considered stopping and raising a scene, but figured nothing worthwhile would come of it.  Besides, they’d played a good game and won.  We continued on to the airport without interruption.  Losing the money had been one thing.  The blow to my pride and self-confidence had been much worse.  How had I let myself be taken in?  “I don’t know what you were thinking!” said Cheryl.

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

With a bit of perspective, the money ceased to bother me.  In fact, I came to think of this experience as just one more “tour,” an educational one this time.  The price of $75 was the norm for the higher-end tours in town.  I had to admit that this was the most memorable tour I’d had in the two weeks!

Talking to strangers, meeting people when we’re on the road, these are some of greatest pleasures of travel for us.  I’ve always tended to trust people’s motives until proven otherwise – and I don’t really want to change.  Cheryl doesn’t want me to change either, but she does wish I’d be a little less willing to suspend disbelief.  Frankly, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall for a scam like this quite so easily next time, so I spent some time thinking about how I fell for this one, and how I might train myself to heed the warning signs sooner next time.  I’ll share some of that next time, as well as some security tips from travel gurus.

I trust no one reading this will restrict their travels as a result of my story.  In over forty years, Cheryl and I have traveled a fair amount – and I’ve been in a few dicey locations – but all told, we’ve had very few problems between us.  A couple of pickpocket attempts, one successful one during the Munich Olympics.  I’m sure we’ve paid more than we should have for the odd purchase abroad.  In Costa Rica, I lost my electric razor to a “fisherman” – I’ve traveled with blades ever since.

Many years ago, while serving tables in a small town in Germany, I lost a hundred Deutschmarks to a winsome young German lass – almost $150 in today’s money.  I learned from the “polizei” that many other young lads in town had been fleeced during her short stay.  She knew her marks!

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul's first "tour" - still looks lovely as ever.  I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul’s first “tour” – still looks lovely as ever. I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

What about you?  Have you ever fallen prey to scams or other petty crime while traveling?

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11 thoughts on “Best Tour Ever?

  1. Darlene

    That is a great story Paul and I may well have fallen for the story myself. My purse was stolen in Barcelona while we were trying to give directions to the thief’s accomplice. (another lesson learned) I did get my purse back as a woman found it under her car. I had the card of our hotel in it and she called the front desk to let us know she had it. Everything, including our passports and credit cards, was still in it except my camera, some change and my red lipstick (??) I was only upset about losing all the wonderful pictures I had taken that day. My dear hubby suggested we retrace our steps the next day and he took all the same pictures with his camera. My insurance covered the cost of a new camera when we got home. It was a bad news/good news story. I imagine all travellers have them.

    Reply
    1. "No Pension, Will Travel!" with Cheryl & Paul Post author

      If the truth be known, we revel in our memories of travails survived. I’m glad your Barcelona episode wasn’t too bad. We heard so much about Barcelona pickpockets, we thought our precautions a bit paranoid – and we never saw a hint of pickpockets there (although we did in Paris.) Anyway, perhaps it was as well we were cautious.

      Reply
  2. hbolstler

    Great story, Paul, which I hadn’t heard before! And only a $65 lesson. I think we tend to over-worry in anticipation of these scenarios. I probably lose some great opportunities over fear of imagined consequences.

    Reply
  3. Marco

    We ran into a pickpocket in Barcelona. Janis and I were there with our friends Chris and Sheila and we were coming up the stairs from the train station. I was walking on the left side hanging on to the railing and a guy rushed up and tried to pass me on the railing side. He didn’t get my wallet out of my pocket but it was clear that was what he intended. My friends saw it and warned me in time to drop my hand to my pocket. At the top of the stairs he was hanging around and started heading back down. I pointed at him and shouted loudly, “Pickpocket! Pickpocket!” He looked pretty mad about that and hastily scrambled back into the train station.

    Reply
    1. "No Pension, Will Travel!" with Cheryl & Paul Post author

      Barcelona does seem to have a bad rap. I’ll post a couple of links we’ve found useful as part of the next post on avoiding scams. Being alert when you’re crowded by someone is definitely on the list. There are parallels between the pickpocket’s routine and some of the more complex plays.

      Reply
  4. "No Pension, Will Travel!" with Cheryl & Paul Post author

    Lot’s of reaction to this one. Here are a few comments received via email…

    “Great blog. You are very courageous to share and speak of the lessons learned, yet in the end be so upbeat and positive. I really like the perspective you have towards life. It truly is a classroom of adventure.” – S.B.

    “Great article – the difference between being a traveller and a tourist is embodied here. Sometimes things can go sideways for a traveller, but even then it makes for a great story afterward.” – S.W.

    “OMGoodness! What a story !!! You’re lucky you’re okay … my goodness … it really didn’t make me ‘laugh’ so much. You need to rethink what’s funny. This could have been VERY scary. Thanks for sharing.” – C.L.

    “I’m enjoying your travel adventures. This one brings up all kinds of opinions and attitudes in my mind. Being Libra, like you, I enjoy juggling the merits of contrary ideas even more than coming up with just one. The couple of times I’ve travelled to countries with huge poverty, I’ve realized how much even a few dollars mean to people there; so I feel more generous than I would with some homeless Edmontonian. It’s money well spent as opposed to ‘What a sucker I am!’ I think your accepting this man’s story is a demonstration of your sense of common humanity rather than gullibility. If the experience causes you to think twice in the future, that’s not cynicism, just a sign that you’re still learning. A plus at our age!” – L.B.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Avoiding Travel Scams without Avoiding Travel | No Pension, Will Travel

  6. Loca Gringa

    You got very lucky! This is a wonderful country, however, we have many predators here. When in a foreign country, particularly if you don’t speak the language, treat it as you would treat a swimming adventure. NEVER swim alone!

    Glad you are safe!

    Reply

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