“Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump.” – W. C. Fields
I’d like to consider myself a rather intelligent guy with some diverse life experience. However, there are some mistakes and lessons that I had to repeat over and over until learned them. Defects of character, fear and sheer emotions of the moment tend to override common sense some of the times.
One of the first cardinal rules of travel that was pointed out to me after the fact was:
“Never go upstairs anywhere during your travels with a native local unless you absolutely know and/or trust them.”
Fool me once, shame on you.
In 2007, I went to Cuba as my first solo trip. Prior to this, I had always travelled in the security and comfort of friends or family. During my first night in Havana, I was approached by a friendly, tall and physically imposing Cuban man named Sergio who spoke very good English. With me, looking like a lost tourist, he asked if I needed any help. After discovering that I was from Canada, he mentioned that he had friends that lived in Toronto. As I had just arrived in Havana a few hours prior, I was rather hungry and Sergio wanted to take me to a great Chinese restaurant nearby. (Of course, a Chinese guy always wants to eat Chinese food… that’s for another post.) I’m generally rather shy and introverted. Wanting to break out of this and embrace this new experience as a solo traveller and meet new people, I agreed to join him.
My first thought as we entered the restaurant was that it looked more like a tavern than a restaurant. Dark and smoky. No food to be seen anywhere. Only local Cubans swilling alcohol. As we headed to the steps to go upstairs, I had a sneaking suspicion that this was no Chinese restaurant.
As soon as we sat down, Sergio called over two pretty Cuban girls to join us and introduced them to me as his friends. He quickly suggested that I buy all of us a drink as we are now “friends”. Anxiety starts to set in on me as I look around for an exit from the upstairs. With my adrenaline starting to run, I couldn’t quite figure out how I got upstairs in the first place. I agreed to buy the drinks hoping to buy myself some time for my brain to slow down so that I could focus.
Next, the two girls started to aggressively paw and grope at me like sexual piranhas. It was like trying to play patty cake with an octopus. Then I felt a hand start to move into the front of my pants which I had to quickly stop because I was wearing a money belt with a wad of cash hidden under my waist line beneath my pants. Sergio then propositioned me sex with these girls for money.
Sergio the friendly local guy was now Sergio the pimp. What to do now?
With the onset of panic, I thought through my options. Could I just make a run for it? I’m about 5’11’ and about 160 lbs. Sergio easily had 40 lbs on me and a couple of inches taller. Running was not an option, I thought.
What if I succumbed and went with one of the girls? Just get it over with and get the hell out of this situation? As I played out this scenario in my mind, I soon realized that this was a bad idea as well. For this trip, I decided to wear paper underwear. Yes, they make paper underwear for travellers (makes for less packing).
The image of me with my pants at my ankles, wearing paper underwear and sporting a money belt full of cash could only lead to worst scenarios I thought.
Next idea please…
Luckily, I had a brief moment of clarity and hustled up to the bar to pay for the drinks and try to make an abrupt exit. If a physical altercation ensued, then I’d deal with it if I had to cross that bridge. The price of the drinks were a bit inflated, but not outrageous (about $7 USD per drink). After paying, I quickly looked for the stairs that led downstairs. Before I knew it, Sergio blocked my path. He was taller than I originally thought as I was staring into his neck. He puffed his chest and demanded 5 dollars from me so that he could buy milk. There was a part of me that wanted to say no to him on principle. Where this momentary burst of machismo came from, I’m not sure, but I gave him the $5. As the saying goes: “Discretion is the better part of valour”.
Walking away from that “Chinese restaurant”, I thought: That was crazy. I’ve learned my lesson and will know better next time. How wrong I was.
Fool me twice. Shame on me.
In 2008, I visited Southeast Asia with my friend Tom for 5 weeks. Our third stop on the trip was Bangkok, Thailand. Tom had travelled to Thailand before and befriended a local Thai lady, Pan who was to act as our tour guide one night. At one point we found ourselves walking around the infamous red light district of Patpong. Just saying “Patpong”, you know what you’re in for. The name just gives birth to anything salacious and gaudy.
While in Patpong, we were quickly approached by one of the many street touts offering to take us to one of Thailand’s infamous “Ping Pong” shows. Perverse curiosity got the best of me and Tom and the three of us followed the tout to a nearby building. As we walked up three flights of stairs in the dark, I had this sense of déjà vu. As we entered the dark and smoky show lounge, I was expecting to see pretty young ladies to perform this “Ping Pong” show. Instead we were greeted by a lineup of transsexuals that look liked quarterbacks in drag.
Since my friends were light drinkers and I myself gave up the drink many years prior, we ordered 3 Cokes. We were then quickly approached by a number of the performers there in quick succession to buy them a drink. As we refused each one of them, they would leave their empty glasses on our table. After sitting for about only 5 minutes, the waitress hands us a bill for about $100 USD for 3 Cokes! As we disputed the bill, the bar manager comes over – a stern looking, Thai woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a black business suit and sporting a dagger like stare. The manager explains that we bought drinks for all of the performers and points to the empty glasses that were previously left on our table. Our friend Pan pipes in and addresses the bar manager in Thai.
Suddenly, the manager is screaming at us. My fight or flight instincts kick in and I start scanning the room for the exits but not remembering how we even got up here. I see a couple bouncers in the bar and prepare myself for the proposition of something more dubious. Pan interjects again and after of few more minutes of discussion, she tells us that all we will have to pay 300 Baht (9-10 USD) – 100 Baht for the drink and 200 Baht for a cover charge. Pan said she told the manager that her brother was in the army and that he would be called down to settle matters if the bill wasn’t made more reasonable. Apparently, having a brother in the military carries some weight in Thailand. Thank God…
At this point, I just wanted to get out of there, but my friend Tom, being the value shopper that he is, wanted to stay for the rest of the show and promptly asked for a ping pong paddle to partake in the show. Enough said.
As we walked out of the bar and back into the neon lights of Patpong, I thought to myself, “I definitely learned my lesson this time.” Wrong again, as time would prove out.
Fool me three times. I’m such an idiot.
In 2010, my travels brought me to Shanghai, China. The city is quite mesmerizing when first arriving. The sheer volume of people and frenetic pace at which the city moves at is quite overwhelming. Shanghai makes my hometown of Vancouver look like a quaint little suburb. The city seemed to display a schizophrenic bravado to it. Everything from the shopping and entertainment to its mega structures were brash, bold and in-your-face.
For my first night in Shanghai, I decided to head down to the famous Walking Street of Nanjing Road. I tend to think I have the sensibilities of a 3 year old as I easily got swept away with Walking Street’s bright neon, loud activity and race car pace. With my head on a swivel taking in my surroundings, I was easily marked as a tourist. I was soon approached by two young women who introduced themselves as university students from Nanjing visiting Shanghai on a short holiday. Their English was proficient and were able to carry a conversation quite easily. They asked if I wanted to hang out with them as they had recently arrived in Shanghai as well. I agreed as meeting new people is one the experiences that I enjoy most on my travels.
As we walked, one of the girls that I found particularly attractive seemed to take a shine to me. Flirtation ensued. This is the kryptonite of most red blooded males. Without realizing it, my guard was now completely down. This is what happens when the baby batter moves from below my belt line up into my brain. Like the bold title that starts this portion of the post: “I’m such an idiot”.
Next was a suggestion of grabbing some dinner. I was hungry and agreed. Despite Walking Street being a tourist trap, I figured the pricing was still cheaper than what I’m used to back home and offered to take the girls out for dinner. One of the girls led me to a building and said, “There’s a good restaurant up here”. In retrospect, how would she know how good this restaurant is, as she was supposedly a newly arrived tourist like me? These thoughts of logic don’t enter my mind as the only thought occupying my mind at that moment was the hope of experiencing carnal knowledge by midnight.
We went up two or three sets of escalators and walked across the floor to an elevator. The elevator doors open into quite a rather nice restaurant. As we start eating dinner, the girls order shots of whiskey to make a toast. I no longer drink alcohol, so I decline. The flirtation started to come at a faster rate from the girl of my affection. This helped to fog my already hazy judgement. Minutes later, the girls order a second round of whiskey. Now, an uneasy feeling starts to grow in my stomach. As the girls attempt to order a third round of drinks, I felt like someone tossed a bucket of ice water over me. My brain snaps out of the cloud that it’s been in for the last hour.
I now remembered my friend warning me of this scam as he experienced this same scenario in Beijing while taking a couple of girls out for “tea”. As panic ensued, I quickly asked for the bill. The bill was roughly a whopping $600 USD! I quickly refused to pay and the manager was brought to strong arm me. As in Patpong, another stern looking middle aged woman, with her hair in a bun and a black business suit. In tow, was a young henchmen that would probably looked more in place in a triad group photo than working in a restaurant. There must be some sort of playbook for these scams in Asia: a tough Mamasan accompanied by a henchmen.
As with the previous incidents, with emotions and adrenaline running, I had difficulty in locating the exit. Also, how did I get up here? What floor do I take the elevator back down to? And how many flights of escalators after that? This is the biggest handicap to being led upstairs in one of these scams: Loss of bearings and location.
I simply couldn’t pay it, as I wasn’t carrying that type of cash on my body. I told them to call the police so we could sort it out. Then I thought, what if the police are in on this scam too? In the larger cities of China, like Shanghai and Shenzhen, I always get this sense of “Wild Wild West” where anything goes. After arguing about this for about a half hour, I was simply exhausted.
I just wanted the ordeal to all end.
After a quick calculation in my mind, I suggested paying 1000 RMB (Roughly $150 USD at that time) on my credit card. Depending on what all the booze was priced at, I figured the bill should be roughly half that and they would make a little extra on this scam. An extra 500 RMB was keyed in as I went to sign the credit card. I had no fight left in me by this time and just processed it. Also, I figured that I could call my credit card company to get them to revoke the charge later. However, when I got back to the hotel, I called my credit card company to explain my situation. Despite being very sympathetic and understanding, once the charge had been signed off and processed, the standard course of action was to discuss the charges with the vendor to have anything changed. In the end, this whole ordeal was chalked up as a $200 lesson.
The next day, I went back to Nanjing Walking Street and it seemed like I had a new set of eyes. I could easily spot the many girls working this “tea scam”. The girls always work in pairs and they seemed to be everywhere.
Of all three incidents in this series of scams, Shanghai bothered me the most. Not just in a monetary sense, but more in the sense of pride, probably due to the fact that my ego was bruised a bit more on this occassion. For me to fall prey to this scam, I really had to be talked into this one more so much more than the other times.
Through it all, I came to realize 3 things:
1) Make an honest assessment of my character and personality. Look hard at what makes me tick. I had to concede to the fact that I could easily fall prey and be overwhelmed by my own base desires; lust in the case of Shanghai and greed on other occasions.
2) Take responsibility for my actions and choices. If I was hoping for an easy one night stand in a foreign country or wanting to explore the seedy underbelly of a city, I will most certainly expose myself to more fraudulent situations. I reckon to think that if I wanted to go see a temple or the zoo, the probability of getting scammed would drop significantly.
3) Be gentle with myself. I’m human: mistakes and bad choices is a part of living sometimes. Learning from my mistakes is also a part of living.
Have you ever been scammed or defrauded on your travels? Would love to hear your experience.
“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.” – Sherlock Holmes (The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier)