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. 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.
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
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.
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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.