May 28, 2017

Travel and Skepticism: On a Ride Not Taken

Timeless wisdom…

Do you park your brain in neutral when you travel?

Indie travel really pulls you out of your element and plops you down wide-eyed in a new and strange place. More than ever, this is the time when you need to be alert to your new surroundings, not buried face-first in your smartphone… well, OK, in just about every country you visit these days, you’ll just look like about a 100 other people walking down the street starring at their phones.

A healthy dose of street skepticism can serve you well traveling. We’re skeptical of the used car salesman and the political candidate vying for our vote, and we shouldn’t forget to pack our skeptical tool kit along with our swim trunks and extra SD cards before hitting the road. And it might even save your collective tail, or at least save you from getting in a jam in the first place. We’re on the road in Morocco now, and reading Maria Konnikova’s book The Confidence Game brought back some memories of times we were very nearly had.

Here’s a case in point story:

We were traveling in Ecuador, staying on the edge of the city of Quito with a friend. It was a day like any other on the equator: cool temps, and a high altitude with air thin enough to induce a spontaneous three-beer buzz. Not the best climate for critical thinking on the fly. Our typical travel day consisted of hailing a taxi, haggling a price, and heading to the city center, day packs in tow. Our host was impressed; she told us that no other guests she’d had dared to strike out and explore on their own.

All was well. We’d been downtown in Quito before, and knew our way around. We saw some sights, then settled in for lunch and a few brews.

Great day, right? Well, we were walking up a busy pedestrian walk after said lunch, when a man excitedly ran up to us and grabbed my arm, pointing at my backpack. A gray goo dripped off the pack on to the cobblestone street.

We had no idea how it got there. It’s strange, how you try to quickly place a new piece of information into your daily narrative. Did I lean up against a painted wall? Sit the bag down in the mysterious goo? Or did it fall from above?

It was then that the man said his friend could clean it off, and began to rush us towards a nearby alley.

My alarm bell went off. “Don’t go with him,” I told my wife, as we broke away and picked up our pace. Suddenly, the streets didn’t feel safe. We ducked into the nearest available taxi without even bothering to haggle out the fare and raced home.

Later that evening, our host confirmed our suspicions. This ruse was most likely a ploy to get us off the streets and out of sight of the roving police patrols to do who knows what to us. Our host had told us that many expats in Quito had been robbed this way, or worse. At best, we probably would’ve been relieved of our backpacks and several thousand dollars worth of camera gear; at worst, we’d heard tales of thieves holding one person hostage while the other is taken to an ATM machine to empty out their account…

But our trip went on and we had a great time, all because of a split second decision.

The ‘paint on the backpack’ is an old trick with a thousand different variations. One person literally ‘marks the mark,’ and another steps in to save the day. As old as it is, it works, and tourists are still out there falling for it.

We’ve learned our lessons the hard way. In the Philippines in 1989, we let our attention slip just for a moment, and got in a trike that took us the wrong way. I should have known there was trouble as soon as a second guy hopped on the back of the trike and started fast-talking. I was lucky that day; I walked away six dollars lighter, with an emptied out wallet.

Much worse things happen in the Philippines, including loss of life. What’s ironic are the stories you hear of people getting taken in rigged card games, who actually leave, pull out more cash, and come back to lose more (!)

We prepare for the worst, bar-hopping with an extra 10$ to get home tucked in out shoe, or a few hundred dollars cash in our money belt. We also wear a hidden waist pack with all of our uber- essentials, including passport, Ids, and credit and debit cards. We could lose everything else, and our trip could still continue using just these.

We know that our ‘skeptical-armor’ doesn’t make us invulnerable, but helps. Recognizing that we’re fallible, and that any one of us can get taken for a ride helps keep us on our toes. Have fun, be vigilant, and live to travel another day.

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