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Feature photo by DBarefoot. Photo above by debaird.

Travelers can do certain things to be ready should the worst happen while abroad.

FEW PEOPLE KNOW what their lives are worth. My life was worth about $45, a credit and bank card, a new phone, an old watch, and a new iPod.

Bryce, Katherine, and I took the night bus to Quito so we could make the Ecuador vs. Bolivia soccer game Saturday afternoon. In the neighborhood of midnight, the bus was hijacked by 6 or 7 robbers.

This is the darkest part of foreign travel.

With a man waving a gun in the air, you tend to forget any premonition of heroism and simply follow what he tells you to do. As my friends were being interrogated, my heart rate was at the breaking point. Some men had to be made examples of, and as the cold metal pistols thudded into flesh, one man screamed out for his mother.

Bryce was pistol whipped and then taken off the bus.

Bryce was pistol whipped and then taken off the bus. Then Katherine was brought up and though she was shaky and on the verge of tears, she held it together with strength and courage that I can’t begin to understand.

I couldn’t see much because I didn’t want to risk being beaten for looking up. A slap on the head told me it was my turn. I opened my bag and showed them the contents. They stood me up and took me off the bus where two men were waiting to frisk me.

Travelers Are Targets

When you travel, no matter where it is in the world, you are inevitably a target for potential thieves. It’s easy for thieves to pick travelers out of a crowd, what with their big bags and looks of bewilderment.

That night on the bus was something out of my control, and yet there were ways in which I was able to limit my vulnerability. Luckily, some of these words of wisdom were passed on from a security representative from the U.S. Embassy in Quito. Because of his skill and professionalism, he was also able to help us through the aftermath of that night.

Photo by .m for matthijs.

What To Do If Tragedy Strikes

If you find yourself in a situation like a bus hijacking, realize there is little you can do. As it’s happening, do exactly as you’re told and follow what the locals are doing. If they put their hands behind their head, do the same.

You shouldn’t hide anything once a robbery has started, because if you’re caught, you could be in big trouble. Chances are you’ll be frisked thoroughly, and if they see that you’ve held out, you could face some consequences. Is the iPod, wallet, or camera really worth getting hurt?

One of the most important things to remember is that you don’t have to be a hero. There’s no shame in keeping your head down and doing as you’re told.

After the Incident

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to call home immediately. You will be hysterical and so will your parents or other family members. It’s much better to contact your Embassy first, and wait to call home until after you’ve calmed down.

Always have the number of someone at the Embassy to call, and memorize it. If your papers are stolen, you won’t know how to get in touch, so always have at least one number memorized.

Photo by debs.

Carry Only the Essentials

If you’re just arriving or leaving a country, you need to have your passport on you, but if you will be in the area for a while, stow your important documents in a place where they will be safe. You don’t need to carry your passport everywhere. As long as you have two good photocopies of your information page and visa, you should be all set.

This also goes for bank and credit cards. You should never walk around with a card unless you’re positive you are about to use it. Have cards photocopied so that if they are stolen you can get them replaced faster.

Money in a Foreign Country

You might want to have more cash on you to avoid bank fees from local ATMs, but leave most of it in the hotel. Especially if you’re in a developing country, you shouldn’t need more than $20 a day. Walk around with only what you need, but also make sure you have at least something on you.

As a foreigner, robbers won’t believe you if you’re actually broke. Make sure you carry some change too so you can hand over something if you’re out of bills.

As a foreigner, robbers won’t believe you if you’re actually broke. Make sure you carry some change too so you can hand over something if you’re out of bills.

Most importantly, never flash your money around. Only take it out when you need it. If you think an ATM is sketchy, don’t go to it. Trust the ones with guards or the ones inside a building more than the ones in the street. Cover up the pin pad as you type in your numbers, as there have been inside scams with security cameras.

Most likely you’ll want to carry around a camera, but never leave it around your neck. This is asking for trouble. Keep it somewhere you can access it, but try to hide it under a jacket or shirt. It might be uncomfortable, but keeping it out is unnecessary and dangerous.

If you’re sitting at an outdoor café, always wrap a strap of your bag around your leg; this way a thief can’t just run off with it.

If you’re riding a public bus, turn your bag around and wear it on your stomach. You might look stupid, but this way you can see your personal items at all times. Always have your money ready for the bus so no one else sees how much you have.

Trying Not To Lose Perspective

Photo by Weidmaier.

For a long time that night we sat in silence, occasionally hearing someone come back to yell at us or tell us it was going to be okay. Suddenly, the man two over from me started to groan in pain. He’d been stabbed too many times in the chest and groin, and was bleeding to death. He got up on his knees in pain, and a few of us around him tried to help.

The robbers soon realized that they’d gone too far and needed to leave, and after a long period of silence, we knew we were alone. Slowly, we got up and looked around.

This is exactly the kind of thing my family warned me about. There have been moments in my life when I’ve wanted to die, or to disappear, just as most people have in their growing pains. But the beat of my heart and the fear in me told me that I wasn’t ready for it, and that life is a precious thing.

So now I have to move on. I’m not going to leave Ecuador. I’m not going to give up and hate everyone I see. But I have serious doubts as to whether I can trust the majority of people I see and don’t already know, and for that, I truly hate the robbers. At the bare minimum, I won’t be taking any night buses any time soon.

And now it’s just a matter of getting back on the horse and moving on with my life, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem.

Travel Safety

 

About The Author

Jon Brandt

Jon Brandt understands saving money while traveling, and is not opposed to living off of sandwiches for a week in Paris instead of getting gourmet meals every day.

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  • Tim Patterson

    So glad you're sticking it out in Ecuador Jon — it won't be easy, but I think it's the right call.

  • Tom

    Thanks for sharing this. It's my worst fear as a traveller and I can't even imagine how tough it's been for you to get over. The advice is really helpful and I"ll keep it in mind as I head to SA.

  • Hal

    Wow. I'd just like to echo the above comments. Very glad you made it out okay.

  • Turner

    I was wondering if you'd write up an article on this. Very useful.

  • Meaghan

    As an American living abroad right now, I'm so impressed by your courage, your ability to summarise a terrible incident and create a valuable resource for others and your dedication to remaining abroad. Best wishes and stay safe.

  • Gary

    Im sorry to hear about your experience… just went through something very similar in South Africa, twice in 2 weeks. Travel Safe in South Africa Tom!

  • Gary

    Im sorry to hear about your experience… just went through something very similar in South Africa

  • Stix

    Good to hear your ok, not that i know you but still good to hear.

  • Matt

    Im glad to hear you are fine. Great writing. Stick in there, good people are everywhere.

  • Julie

    Jon- Like Tim, I'm glad that you decided to stay on in Ecuador. I know the experience hasn't been easy for you, but I think this is one of those formative, powerful life moments that will be meaningful to you for the rest of your days, and if you'd have left, you probably would have looked back forever and wondered: What if I'd stayed?

  • Anon

    Sorry to hear about that. I was jumped by two punks while touring a site along the Mediterranean in Israel back in my college days. Worse part was that a bunch of locals and armed security guards hear my cries for help and just turned like they didn't see.

  • Erik

    There is some good advice in this post. I would add that having a copy or digital photo of your important papers in your email account (as a .zip file with password) is also a good idea, since you never know when you might lose everything. Oh, and my impression is that a lot of places, particulary in Asia are a lot safer than "the west" – even if scary things might happen it shouldn't scare people from going abroad. (Remember, most accidents happen at home! ;)

  • kc

    sorry i disagree. Jon, if you dont go home to your home where people look like you and act like you, your probably going to run into some more people who don't like you, either because your rich, or white or both people in certain parts of the world , for good or bad reasoning, want your head on a stick, so you can learn to defend, learn to watch, learn to hate (but only with wisdom, ignorant hate has a dead end), or you can learn to die, learn to be a victim just like you described, learn how to bow down and do what your told. What if you were trained to kill a robber? what if when he came on the bus you had a weapon of your own? what if you killed them? why dont you rob the robbers? because you dont train you dont care to train, does the life a victim really make you feel good? my point is that you could have killed all those robbers with a gun,sword, knife if you actually took the time to learn how and accend to predator instead of living out your pathetic life as a volunteer fucking victim. However, if you want to love love love and peace peace peace, expect your head and the head of your loved ones to be on a stick, because reality says humans are of evil nature and will continue to suffer forever, because they are ignorant, because one big chunk of humanity wants to take take take, and the other chunk (you) says we should all just roll with the bunches like pussies. My advise to you is to look up the word bushido. Learn to accept death, then you'll be able to stop it more than the next victim.

  • Ivonne

    Well… Everyone in Ecuadors knows that after midnight you don't take public transportation, not even a taxi!!! Unfortunately there is a lot of robbers that are on the prowl for foreigners and even for Ecuadorians. It is too bad it took an awful experience for you to write about my country.

  • Glen

    Simple answer…learn how to use a gun. Oh and don't live in some stupid fascist/socialist country that doesn't recognize the rights of people to protect themselves. case closed.

  • Me

    Another tip, photocopy all of your important documents and email them to yourself. That way if you lose the copies you are carrying, and you have access to the internet, you will be able to retrieve them in such an event.

  • j

    You are really naive. Let's see how much Bushido helps when YOU are the one getting stabbed multiple times in the stomach and groin.

  • Jordan

    So traveling abroad is a lot like taking the bus in Milwaukee?

  • K

    Hi Jon, As an ecuadorean, i am so sorry you got mugged. But as an Ecuadorean i also wonder, weren't you briefed by the consulate on the dangers of bus travel within the country? And then again …. NIGHT BUS TRAVEL????? There are certain things you should simply not do. For example, as a resident of NYC, i know that i should never, EVER walk around the Bronx after midnight wearing my suit (office wear). This screams victim as much as your whiteness screams tourist in Ecuador. Still, i wish for a day where this sort of thing would not happen, and commend you for sticking with it and continuing your adventure. Most of your tips make sense and can only help in a dangerous situation. But you forgot the most important of all: If you live like the locals, you take the same risks as locals. Best of luck. KC in NYC

  • ken

    Everybody on the bus was a coward, if they did a Flight 93 and fought back "AS A GROUP" they more than likely would have won. Yes, Flight 93 did win even though they died, b/c they were going to die anyway but they prevented the mission from being accomplished. I agree with KC, dont be victim. Bushido will allow you to at least fight for you life and determine the way you are going to die rather than let someone else decide for you. Your midset in a situation like this should be survival not cowardice. Consider the chance that it could be you that was stabbed. When you take that into account, your midset should be "I am already dead, how to I make it back to life", How? you fight back. What do they tell women/children that are abducted. FIGHT BACK, b/c if you go, you are lost, weak, project weakness and ultimately are a victim. Look at the animal world, they all fight back no matter what the odds, b/c they know instictively you can only live if you fight back. this is just my opinion ken

  • Anonymous

    Same thing happened to me on a bus in Illinois. I was a foreign student and took the bus along with other students to go from our town to Chicago. Suddenly the driver pulled over and one of the guys riding with us had a gun and started asking everybody (most of us the people aboard were asleep and didn't realize what happened) for money. The driver had the guts to confront him and pulled over nearby the police who got it under control, hand-cuffed him and took him out. Nobody is free in any country. I think you are missing the point. Buses are dangerous. They are used by low-income and poor people. The big mistake tourists make is using buses. Avoid it!

  • Sunsneezer

    I don't think this is such a good idea, Erik. ZIP files are not really secure. You can use a robust encryption program (still, nothing is uncrackable) and make the file as inconspicuous and misleading as possible. Otherwise, you are making anyone who hacks your email adress a tremendously useful gift!

  • Mark

    Oh good grief, look @ this loser. You did absolutely the right thing, Jon, as a night of a sorry attempt at heroism isn't worth the life of you or your friends. Good for you for having common sense and staying alive.

  • E

    I lived in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro) for one year and was robbed three times during that time (twice with knives, once with a gun). I was more lucky than you though as I didn't experience any violence like you did, and I therefore have a slightly different perspective than you do I guess. I think the most important advice is: Cooperate. In a situation like this, the adrenaline flows high and everybody are jumpy. Act calm and friendly (yes friendly), and you give yourself a much better chance at getting out of the situation unhurt. One of the times I was robbed, I was stopped at gunpoint on a beach when I was out jogging. I didn't bring anything but a fake watch worth $2 and the equivavalent of an $1 bill. I realized that was a mistake as soon as I was stopped, but explained that I had left all my money at home and apologized repeatedly (!) for this as humbly and kindly as I could. It ended with him letting me keep my $1 bill (not the watch though), showing me a safe passage off the beach to avoid being robbed again and a handshake. In South America, there is a good chance that you are being robbed by somebody who don't have many other options. They are robbing you to be able to provide for their family. It is also quite common, and business like for many of them – they are only interested in your valuables, not hurting you. In Brazil they (jokingly) say that half the Brazilians are busy robbing the other half – that is not far from the truth, but in most of the robberies, nobody are hurt. It's just business. Being robbed still affects you to some extent. I didn't mind the first two times, but the last time was just outside my home in an area I felt I knew and where I felt safe. That made me much more uneasy, and as it was just days before I left Brazil, it left me with a sour taste in the mouth. That's what bothers me the most actually, because I really love Brazil and Brazilians. Oh and to e.g. Glen and a few others, you sound quite American. You do realize that the murder rates in the US are way higher than in any socialist country I know of? If I had a gun when I was robbed with knives, I would be dead now (no doubt in my mind) as I didn't see them coming (and I had eyes in the neck at that time) and they outnumbered me. When I was robbed with a gun, there was only one guy giving me slightly better odds. But he had the gun out already and therefore the upper hand, giving me maybe a 20% chance of surviving. That is not counting the friends (with guns) that I believe were watching from the shadows.

  • mike

    What a hate-filled thing to say. Your main problem, kc, is that you think that you can prepare for things, that you have control of your life and nothing can ever hurt someone who has the right preparation. You are sadly mistaken. We have so little control over our lives that the world can quickly become a scary place, and when we go to a nation and culture we dont understand, it can get even worse. I don't really know how good you are with a gun or sword or whatever, but if you were very near sleeping on a bus at night, and suddenly 7 armed men ran aboard screaming and waving weapons, you wouldn't react like a trained samurai, you would probably deficate yourself. If you had any weapon but a gun you would have been immediately shot, and if you had a revolver, shucks. Not enough bullets.

  • george

    holy smokes dude, grow a sack. i once doing some volunteer work in tanzania and this dude came out to me out of nowhere, looking like he was gonna rob my ass. luckily i was strapped with a blade, so i was able to slash his throat. turns out he was just a panhandler, but whatever dude. not worth the risk. it's a cutthroat world out there, literally. defend your ass and always look over your shoulder. what if that beggar was actually a robber? i wouldn't be blogging right now. take a self defense class and get your mind right. i know of a few good dojos if you're in need. holla.

  • Ellen

    @E- Well said! The machismo flowing through some of these comments is pure idiocy. Perhaps if they took a step back they would realize that violence only breeds more violence; it doesn't solve anything. And apparently, from what I can tell from George, it can occasionally kill perfectly innocent people who aren't trying to rob you, but trying to make an honest living. And to Jon, I must reiterate the feeling of confusion- I traveled to Quito last year and one of the first things that I was told was to never ride the bus alone or after dark, and definitely never carry anything valuable. I'm sorry no one relayed the message to you and your group. Hopefully your story will reach a few more people and possibly save a few travelers from unneeded trouble, not deter them from future explorations. Good luck!

  • Zeven

    Ignorant to think you understand a situation you weren't in. Even more ignorant to compare it to flight 93. They won even though they died? I can accept that, despite the fact that they couldn't have been SURE they were going to die. But the night bus in Ecuador is not equivalent. Analyzing the situation is the smartest thing you can do. Sometimes that analysis will show that you have a marginal benefit to risking your life (e.g. you're going to die anyway), other times it will say that the risk does not outweigh the probable consequences. Robbers don't often want to kill you, they want to rob you. Once they commit a murder it becomes a much larger crime, something they probably don't want to deal with. The point made in the article is: when you're faced with a man who will most likely only hurt you if you don't give him your camera, you might be best off giving him your camera. If the locals aren't inclined to stand up to the situation, you might read that as a cue that these people might KNOW better than you what the criminals are capable of. The psychological factors of an individual scenario are very important and unique to a case. Even trained officers know that it's about being ready for an opportune moment. If you don't get that moment, you aren't really prepared for it. Getting your stuff taken doesn't mean being a victim in the greater sense. The robbers could be victims of poverty. You could be a victim of grandiose delusions of roundhouse kicking robbers down like bowling pins. You can be a victim of naivety, bravado, a lack of humility. Your idea of what a victim is takes into account losing possessions, but not causing injury to yourself or others even! Try and take down one robber, maybe he shoots wildly and hits a scared little kid next to you? It's funny how you say your mindset "should be survival not cowardice" and yet somehow you think respecting the power of a gun in your face is not survival. They tell women and children to fight back because someone is ALREADY trying to HURT them. A robber mostly wants your STUFF. We don't take all our cues from other animals for a reason, we have advanced cognitive faculties that allow us to weigh the pros and cons of making an action (whereas my family's tiny toy dog will pick fights with large guard dogs). If you've trained to engage and disarm, then you might be confident enough to pull it off, if you're acting solely because you're afraid of being a coward, then you're really just being a selfish fool. Accepting that your death is inevitable is not the same thing as inviting death. And, while it's a great pastime to ponder "what would you do if….?" most people are very aware that your response to the question is not the same as your response to the situation when it occurs. If someone ever threatens your life (I hope not) and you don't take them down or fight back, don't feel like a coward, just be glad you're still around to feel anything. I agree that we shouldn't let ourselves be victimized, but that's often a state of mind. Being robbed didn't make me feel like a victim, it made me feel angry, then spastic, then I started to laugh about it. Ultimately I felt like I had experienced something unique, something to learn from, and I was glad that I was around to learn from it.

  • justforfun

    Sounds like you should take the self-defense class. Then maybe you could defend yourself without slashing innocent people's throats in a knee-jerk reaction? Must've taken a big "sack" to not feel bad about that. Stick around and justify it to the police or did you run? Despite my tone, I think your response was perfectly righteous there….hell, I'll go off on anyone that tries to come up behind me quietly, but you say "what if that beggar was actually a robber?". I counter with: what if he was a passer-by who noticed you dropped your wallet and was trying to give it back to you? Someone you know who was sneaking up on you as a joke (unacceptable thing to do, I think, but people do it)? What if it was a police officer grabbing you to tell you something and you instinctively slash his neck? You probably wouldn't react like that in the USA, so part of it is probably race-based fear (no, I'm not calling you a racist, it's something you have to deal with as a foreigner a lot). You're applying general rules to specific scenarios without regarding all the other ways it could play out. You could be a big, burly, military badass for all I know, but then YOU should know that many people wouldn't be as capable as you. If the day ever comes when we can all defend ourselves and no one takes it lying down, there probably wouldn't be many robbers left…but we'd have a whole lot more murderers. And in the end, some people are just more selfless than you. They'd rather take the risk of getting hurt than hurt others or cause injury to innocent bystanders. That's one of our choices as individuals. If you can't understand that, it doesn't mean you shouldn't respect it. For every person that needs to grow a sack, there are a hundred that should expand their perspective.

  • Lee

    Dwight Schrute, is that you!?

  • C

    Pretty sure the extent of kc's international experience is watching euro-trip with his frat buddies. Carrying a gun, sword (?!) and sometimes even a knife is a bad idea when traveling and can get you into plenty of trouble. Being some sort of vigilante in a situation like that, as with most situations, will only get yourself, or worse yet, others hurt. Anyway, I can't really believe that this guy could be so ignorant so I suppose this a "troll" or whatever it's called.

  • george

    i was kidding, folks. i know jon and was merely mocking some of the ridiculous comments earlier in the thread. i have nothing by the utmost respect for panhandlers. jon, if you're reading, it's goldberg. please disregard my earlier comment! jon, save me!

  • Justruss

    I don't believe kc has been anywhere outside of his imagination. I can imagine the kind attention one would receive while carrying a sword. Carrying a gun while traveling is exceptionally stupid as the penalties associated with having a firearm are extreme.

  • Jenny

    I need my mace.

  • aya

    So glad you're okay, Jon! It must have been very difficult to write about this experience, but thank you for doing it. Hopefully some other travelers can use your advice to avoid this situation.

  • VagabonderZ

    Buses are used by low income and poor people? That's a rather grand generalisation. A lot of people (myself included) make it a conscious choice, not related at all to financial situation. And I have to argue with your statement that its a mistake to take buses. How many travelers have taken buses and trains in foreign countries and NOT been assaulted or robbed? If you had the stats and figured the percentage I am pretty confident 99.99% do NOT have a life threatening experience. This is fear mongering. Sure, taking a night bus in Ecuador was perhaps a bad decision (as attested to by the Ecuadorian) but you can't just say DON'T EVER TAKE BUSES. That's just ignorant.

  • brian from nodebtwor

    Wow…Jon's case is an extreme one. I don't think he could have done anything differently. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can't plan for everything.

  • voralak

    Thanks for sharing this – can't imagine that it was an easy thing to do. Hope you are doing okay.

  • Julio Tello

    I run a travel service which brings students and adventurer's to Peru, none of them have ever been robbed simply because you have to know some basic rules: 1. Travel in large groups and don't wear your jewels 2. always look like you know where you are going. if you are lost go into a restaurant or cafe and look at your map and ask for directions. 3. Do not travel at night unless you know the driver, passenger and have all doors locked. Or are taking a high end bus company non stop to a location. avoid public transportation at night. 4 blend in with the locals, try studying local styles and dress down if you have to. 5. Never show how much money you are carrying, keep it in coins. have a friend watch your back at atms. 6. Unless your superman do not fight back, you are always outnumbered even if you think you are not. 7. learn some first aid you could save your own or someone else's life. 8. study the language religiously, the less accent you have the more others think your are local and broke. hope this helps. you did the right thing, i hope the guy who got stabbed is alright. The robbers will always get whats coming to them, it's the universes way, let it take care of them. if you want to be the hero learn first aid, attempt to memorize the face of your attackers and any vehicle ids.

  • Jean-Michel

    BE AWARE! There are things you should be aware of, just like you wouldn't take a bus late night in the upper part of NYC. Wherever you'll be there will always be risky situations, more or less dangerous. The only effective way of preventing from being trapped in some life threatening situation, is to be the most informed as you could be. ASK the locals, talk to them, or even better be accompanied. Forget about the travelers book, they're never gonna tell you about such things, their goals arent to scare people. Because when you're in a high jack situation, it's already too late… Good reaction Jon, but i believe there were ways you could have avoid puting your life in danger, simply by being more informed.

  • Jean-Michel

    hijack* =)

  • Pinx

    Now thats a place you really need to be careful!

  • Pinx

    I can bet your an American!

  • Pinx

    Very well said! I've been in the same situation with (believe it or not) Pirates! Sometimes giving up some small materialistic things to save your life is a really small price to pay.

  • http://U pacific_waters

    Considering the legal system in Ecuador I’d think twice about carrying a gun. It’s not that easy to get one and if you are stopped with an illegal one during the frequent police stops of buses in certain areas life could take some unpleasant turns. Give them your cash and consider yourself lucky. I never take the bus in Ecuador. Everybody thinks it’s a great adventure but pick pockets abound and depending on the area, so do robbers. A friend of mine was held up at gunpoint across the street from the Swiss Hotel in Quito while cops stood across the street watching. The coast is infamous for robberies at night.

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