People often ask me the standard questions about world travel, like “What’s your favorite place you’ve ever visited?” I’ve answered that one a million times. But I really love when someone asks me a really good question…a different question…and I get to tell a story that I haven’t shared much. This week I got one of those questions.
“Have you ever been in some type of danger while traveling to remote countries?”
The answer is yes. Luckily, not many times…and out of the 47 countries and six territories I have set foot in, I can count all the encounters that I felt were “threatening” on just one hand. Three events to be exact. And by the grace of God, I escaped each encounter unscathed…while gaining a “story” to tell each time. Here are those stories.
1) The Gangsta Frenchman
I was wrapping up my tour of the Guyanas: Dutch Guyana (now called Suriname), British Guyana (now just called Guyana), and French Guiana (still called French Guiana). It was a fascinating tour I put together by myself. The Guyanas, by the way, are three very interesting and different counties perched in the northeast corner of South America–where the languages are Dutch, English and French, respectively…and no Spanish–how crazy is that? Anyway, I’ll write more detailed blogs about The Guyanas later…it was one of my favorite and most interesting and “off-the-beaten-path” trips I had ever taken. Absolutely fantastic.
So yeah, how I almost got my ass kicked… my stop at French Guyana was the quickest of the entire trip: only about six hours. We take U.S. flight schedules for granted–most major cities have hundreds of flights in and out every day. But Cayenne, French Guiana–only a handful. I was coming from Suriname and was only able to see French Guyana if I flew in and flew out the same day–otherwise I’d have to stay three days, and my schedule just didn’t allow. If I wanted to see French Guiana on this trip, my only choice was a quick flight in and out for lunch. And when would I make it back to this remote corner of the continent. I was already here, I’d make it work.
I should’ve taken it as “an omen” when I had to wait outside the airport for over an hour for a cab because there was a full on “gasoline strike.” I was getting nervous that I might not even get to leave the airport–there was not a taxi in sight, and no one, I mean no one spoke any English. And by the way, if you don’t leave the airport, it doesn’t “count” as visiting the country.
Anyway, I finally got into town and had a great lunch at a cool, very authentic French “brasserie,” then spent the next two hours “exploring” downtown Cayenne. It was awesome–totally looked like “France,” plopped down on the edge of the Amazon, next to the sea. They even used Euros, and all the license plates were official “France” plates. I admired all the classic French architecture as I strolled through the streets of Cayenne on this lazy Sunday afternoon. I made my way to a grassy park on the edge of the sea and then turned around to head back to the center of town where I’d find a taxi back to the airport.
All of a sudden the clouds rolled in, thunder boomed, and it almost instantly got very dark for daytime. Another omen? Yes.
And while the streets I was walking were quaint and charming, I couldn’t help but feel a little eerie being the only one on the street–that’s never a good sign. Maybe everyone was taking a siesta? It didn’t feel right.
All of sudden, my mood lightened as I stumbled upon a pile of “things” in the street. A radio, a chair, a fan–all in pieces, just sitting in the middle of the street. I quickly assumed that some poor bastard must have been “caught cheatin’!” This was just like in the movies–where the angry girlfriend throws all his personal belongings straight out the window, on to the street. I couldn’t help but chuckle. I quickly whipped out my phone and snapped a few photos for Instagram–this was going to make a great post! What a poor chump that got caught and had all of his stuff ruined by a woman scorned!
The only problem was, that “poor chump” was standing just feet away from me, as I snapped away, taking pictures of his belongings and giggling like a school boy. And he wasn’t happy. I spent the next three minutes talking my way out of a fight. And there was no one around…not a soul. Just this dude and me, and he was pissed!
He kept asking why I was taking photos and who I was–like he was a member of the KGB catching me “spying” on the Kremlin. Dude wasn’t even that big–and he was wearing flip-flops…but he also had a teardrop tattoo below his right eye. Yeah, that kinda freaked me out.
I kept a steady eye on his hands the whole time, thinking at any minute he’d whip out a blade and try and cut me. I tried to smile and kept insisting I was just a silly tourist taking pictures, but he kept asking “why?” I wanted so badly to reply, “Cause your shit all over the road is funny dude–you got busted!” But I was trying to avoid dying that day.
I continued to steadily back away while trying to calm him down and apologize. I’m no punk, but you do not want to get into a fight in a foreign country–even if you win–not worth going to jail in a sketchy country. It’s just not worth it. I would’ve missed my plane, been stuck in Cayenne for days…remember, that’s the place where Papillon happened. Watch if you don’t know.
So yeah, I did everything short of “running” away–my ego wouldn’t let me punk out like that…but I got a pretty good “backwards jog” going, as I tried to get homeboy to mellow out. We finally parted ways after him telling me in a very threatening tone that he’d “be looking for me later,” while I thought, “Good luck, dickhead–I’ll be on a plane in two hours and you’ll still be stuck here with all your broken shit!”
I turned the corner and when I was out of his sight, only then, I hot footed my ass outta there, sprinting into the center of town. I was back in a cab and at the airport twenty minutes later, happy to be the F outta there. It was real, French Guyana!
2) The Trinidadian Crackhead
Ironically, my episode in Trinidad happened on the same trip as French Guyana. Trinidad was my last stop before home. I flew into the capital, Port of Spain, checked into my hotel, and was off for a walk downtown before sunset.
Well I don’t know what I was thinking, but I did not do my research. As much as I loved most of my Trinidadian experience, downtown Port of Spain was not the business. I pictured a “downtown” like most touristy Caribbean islands: maybe a row of lively bars and restaurants, with Jimmy Buffet blaring from the patios and old white people drinking fruity drinks and doing the Conga. But my walk through Port of Spain couldn’t have been more different. Almost nothing was open–everything seemed to be shut down and caged up–sealed up and unwelcoming. Maybe I just walked down the wrong street, but I couldn’t find anything that resembled a restaurant or souvenir shop or even a store open for business. Just an industrial looking area for blocks and blocks.
Trouble came when this homeless, cracked-out looking dude started following me trying to get my attention. I’ve learned over the years and many trips that the best thing to do is to not even acknowledge strangers that bother you. Once you open up a conversation with someone shady, usually nothing good ever comes of it. Just keep walking, don’t even make eye contact.
Well this didn’t work with this guy. He got louder and closer. And louder. And closer. I was on guard and ready to protect myself if I needed to, but “escaping” the situation if possible is always the smartest thing to do. I crossed the street, and sure enough, he did too–chasing right after me. Then the names started. Apparently, I was a”racist” because I wouldn’t entertain this fool’s request to chat. F word this, F word that, it continued. He called me every name in the book. White devil. Cracker. Son of a bitch. He looked like he was on some serious drugs.
Finally, a restaurant–closed to the public for a private event, but I didn’t care, as I ducked in quickly and suddenly realized I was in the middle of Bill’s “retirement party,” according to the festive banner and balloons. The crackhead new better and did not follow me in. I hung out inside the restaurant and celebrated with Bill for a few minutes before heading back into the streets to try to find a way back to the hotel. I couldn’t find a cab to save my life, and ended up speed walking back to my hotel, luckily without bumping into JJ McCrackhead. What a dick that guy was. Would I have gotten into a fight? Who knows, but it was uncomfortable as hell.
3) The Mobbed Up Taxista
I was in Asunción, Paraguay for a few days and felt I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to cross the border and get a stamp in the passport from Argentina; I mean, it was right there! Crossing into Argentina by land proved to be much more of a hassle than I ever imagined, and once again, lack of proper planning and research seemed to do me in.
After I was dropped off at the border by my taxi I soon discovered that I needed a visa in advance to enter Argentina. This wasn’t the case the last time I visited, so it really caught me by surprise. Luckily there were two local gentlemen who were kind enough to “help” me out. They walked me to a couple different counters and thirty minutes later I had a visa and was on my way into Argentina. But they wanted a tip. No problem, I thought, as I slipped $15 bucks into the older guy’s hand. But he wanted more, and insisted on $50. Get the f*ck outta here, man…you’ll take the $15 and enjoy it, I thought.
Only problem was, as I walked into Argentina expecting a line of official taxis to greet me and whisk me into the center of town, there were none. This was one shady-ass border crossing. I soon realized that tourists did not use this crossing…at all. Just locals and cargo trucks. And there was no where to go. Just an industrial looking road with no businesses or shops anywhere, no kids selling churros, nothing–this was not like crossing into TJ.
My two “helpers” were still attached at my hip, with no taxis in sight. I told them I needed a cab and they ushered me towards something that maybe “looked” like a taxi stand, and into the only car waiting there–an old, beat up, 1980’s Peugeot–all while becoming increasingly more aggressive, as they insisted I fork over larger tip. I reached in my pocket gave them a $20 as they started beating on the cab yelling for more. We were off, and I was relieved, although the car felt like it was missing a wheel and could explode or careen off the road at any moment. What a horrible car, but I was just glad to be outta there. Relief.
On the way into town I asked how much the ride would cost and dismissed the cab driver’s answer of “$150,” as an error, or figured he was talking pesos. But when we arrived it was clear: this asshole expected $150 US dollars for his 1.5 mile trip into town. 1.5 miles! I was floored and told him he was full of mierda.
“I could take flight for less money,” I exclaimed. “I am not paying more than $20 for a four-minute taxi ride!”
“This isn’t a taxi,” he replied. “This is a chauffeur service.” What a crock of BS!
We argued back and forth for a good five minutes, as I tried my best to use my peripheral vision to scan for a police officer. But I didn’t see any. And I quickly realized this little town named Clorinda was super shady. The kind of small town where everyone knew each other, where strangers stuck out, and probably were not welcomed. The taxi driver, who looked to be Indian and in his twenties, started talking about the mob, and how “they’ll come for me and kill me if I don’t collect the money.”
I held strong and insisted there was no way I was handing over that much money to him, but soon reality sunk in and I realized that paying him was probably the smartest thing I could do. Clorinda wasn’t exactly a town you could “disappear” into. It was obvious that I would be watched and noticed wherever I was in this town, and I still had to get back to the border crossing and back across to Paraguay. But it was almost dark. I would have to stay the night. It wasn’t worth being stabbed for $150. I finally begrudgingly gave in ad shoved $160 into the guy’s hand. He thanked me and left.
I felt uneasy the rest of that day in Clorinda. I swear I was followed at least once. I had an okay meal at one of the only restaurants in town and checked in to what was labeled the nicest hotel in town, which would be considered a dump in the U.S.
I was up early to get the hell outta Dodge, this time crossing back into Asunción via the Paraguay River on a rickety wooden boat. I know what you’re thinkin’: “Now that sounds safe!” But considering the alternative, I was happy to have another option besides that shady land border crossing where I might run into Abbot and Costello again. I never thought I’d feel so safe arriving into Asunción, which at least was populated with professionals and included visible law enforcement officials. No offense to Argentina: Buenos Aires is amazing, but stay the hell outta Clorinda, there’s nothing there to see!
Don’t be Scrurred
Bad stuff happens everywhere. A café in Paris got shot up by Isis bastards. An office in San Bernardino was hit by terrorists. Don’t be afraid to travel and see new places. You aren’t safe anywhere in 2016; you might has well get out there and see the world. Use every day common sense and street smarts. Don’t carry a ton of money, don’t walk around sketchy places after dark, try to travel in groups if you can. Learn from my mistakes above, which for the most part was simply poor planning and lack of research. The world is an amazing place with so many interesting lands to see and people to meet. Be safe. And go. Just go.