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