Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2007

 

Continued from...
How I Escaped My Peruvian Kidnappers

Gary Robe

Art by Kurt Erichsen

After some discussion the taxi took a new course and started roaming the city. Some time later we pulled into a gas station. “Give me your card and passport,” asked Amigo. “They can run a voucher on your card here and give us the cash we need.” Riiiight.

Not seeing another option, I handed over my credit card and passport and let them run a charge slip. They brought me a couple slips of paper to sign –– nowhere showing any amount that was being changed or the name of the business. I signed like an obedient Gringo should and we pulled out of the station. They didn't even give me a copy of the receipt. Of course by now we all knew that this was a shakedown, so why pretend that anything else was happening? We repeated this ritual until the card wouldn’t run any more.

At no point were my kidnappers threatening. They were friendly and chatty and pointed out places I might want to visit. They asked if I liked pretty girls and if I wanted to meet some. They knew a place where they could fix me right up. They also pointed out casinos and nice bars were we could all go for a drink if we wanted. I explained sadly that it was now 2:30 a.m. and all I wanted to do was go to my hotel and sleep a few hours before going to work in the morning.

After my credit card gave out the driver said we were going to the hotel in 15 more minutes. I tensed again because this was the really dangerous part for me. What were they going to do with a passenger they had just ripped off? Dark alleys and sharp objects started playing through my head. Instead, the driver actually took off on a new direction and the quality of the neighborhoods started to improve. After about 10 minutes on our new route the taxi’s motor sputtered and died. The driver ground the starter for a while and then he and Amigo ITB got out, raised the hood and scratched their heads. At the time this didn’t seem very suspicious, only a perfect continuation to an already memorable welcome to Peru. The taxi had, however, stalled right in front of the main gate of the Lima University –– an awfully conveniently describable and public location. Two minutes later, miraculously (if one was inclined to believe in miracles at this point in the game), another taxi pulled up and asked if we needed help. My kidnappers transferred my luggage to the second car and shook me down for a $10 tip “for their trouble!”

In retrospect I see that the breakdown was a really a set-up. Since they now had everything they set out to get from me they now needed to get away from me, they were just being polite about it. They could have taken me to some out of the way place, tried to rough me up, and taken my wallet passport, clothes and anything else that caught their eyes but that would probably have been too provocative to escape notice by the authorities. They must have had a cutoff switch somewhere in the car so they could stop at the pre-arranged point to hand me off. The second driver did actually take me right to the hotel. He was even trying to be a legitimate taxi and even gave me his card if I needed transport again. Once at the hotel I paid him generously just to watch his guilty reaction. I hope he choked on it. I bolted from the taxi and the bellman retrieved my luggage. Since I had arrived so late, at least I got a room upgrade for my troubles! The first thing I did was to call Citibank to cancel my credit card.

This was a much more difficult ordeal that it should have been. I called the number on the back of the card and got a recorded message that this number was out of service at Citibank and gave me another number to call. I called that one and gave the operator my card number and explained I was calling from Lima, Peru, I had been kidnapped and that I needed to cancel the card. She then asked what kind of account this was and I told her I it was a corporate card. “Oh,” she replied, “this number is only for personal cards.”

“OK, give me the number for Corporate cards.”

“It’s 1-800-……”

“No," I interrupted," you weren’t listening! I’m in Peru –– I can't call an 800 number!”

“Oh, let me see.” … wait 5 minutes… “The number you need is 1-904, etc.”

So I call the third Citibank number of the morning. Ring, ring, “Hello, Citibank.” I go through the ritual again. “I’m sorry sir, this number is for Business Accounts, I can’t help you with Corporate Accounts.” “OK, what’s the number for Corporate accounts?”

“It’s 1-800……” Lather, rinse, repeat. So I call the fourth number and am put on electronic on hold for 20 minutes at 3 a.m. I then re-call the last number and go through the ritual again.

“Sir! I just talked to you a few minutes ago!” was the frosty reply, "This number is not for Corporate Accounts!"

“Yes, but the number you gave me just kept me on hold for 20 minutes!”

“Well, sir, you must be patient. They can get busy over there sometimes.”

“At 3 bleepin’ o’clock in the morning? You gotta be kidding! I want to talk to your supervisor!”

“That won’t be necessary sir, just call this number, 1-904- etc.”

This was a different number than she gave before, so I finally got the Gosh This Guy Actually Has A Legitimate Emergency number.

As I explained my situation to the person handling Citibank Corporate accounts –– not Personal or Business accounts mind you –– she said, “Oh, yes, you do have several charges here!”

No duh.

“Out of curiosity, madam, was there any kind of security hold on that account before I called?”

“Oh, no sir. The system only flags suspicious transactions.”

“So three $150 charges at Lima, Peru gas stations within 90 minutes are not suspicious?”

“No, sir, I really can't comment on what the system would flag as suspicious.”

I will say that Citibank was quite efficient in that they had a new card waiting for me when I reached Santiago.

At that point I was still shaking, but I decided to brush my teeth and try to get a few hours of sleep before going to work. I got my shaving kit out of my laptop case to get my toothbrush. When I opened it I noticed something strange. My cordless razor wasn’t there. With a sinking feeling I opened my laptop case and found that all there was left was a couple bottles of water that Amigo ITB had left for ballast while he had cleaned out my bag of everything that looked valuable. That was why the driver had kept the radio blaring. He was covering the sound of Amigo stripping my computer bag.

They took my laptop, digital camera, razor (kind of funny because its case was broken and I had almost replaced it before leaving), power adapter, modem cable, Ethernet cable, memory stick and laser pointer. I was really bummed about the 2GB memory stick because it was hidden in a side pocket and carried my hard drive backup.

At this point I was rather philosophical about the whole incident. I got through it intact, with only material losses. I really regretted losing all the years of data stored on the laptop, but the computer has a power-on password, Windows has another password and the memory stick had yet another password, so there was no way any of those devices would be of much use. Yes they got my camera and a 1 GB SD card, but I had just downloaded all the pictures I had on it, and they didn’t have the battery charger or download cable so the camera was pretty useless in itself.

I didn’t end up in a vacant lot in a Lima slum beaten, wounded, or dead. I didn’t get disappeared into the mountains and held for ransom. These were possibilities going through my head as I took my early morning tour of Lima. Oh, sure I could have given then a surprise Taekwando demo if they had turned violent, but if it had come to that I didn't foresee much good coming from resorting to martial arts. I’m also wiser now.

I now travel with an International cell phone. The company provides them for the asking, but until I had this problem nobody had ever told me they were available! I have to turn it in every time I return and any numbers I’ve stored will be purged, but at least I can contact colleagues and hotels if needed.

I had succumbed to something I have feared for years –– overconfidence. I thought I knew the drill for the place I was going. Actually, I had never arrived by myself in Lima before. I had always been traveling with a companion who took care of the ground transportation. On top of that the Lima airport has been renovated since my previous visits, so I was actually arriving into terra incognita. It would have been better if I panicked, gotten semi-hysterical and gotten the attention of the actual airport security. They would probably have been able to call the hotel for me, or directed me to the right place to meet the limo driver. When contacted the next day the limo service claimed they had a driver waiting for my and they were searching for me until after 2 a.m. when the hotel indicated I had arrived. I suspect that I exited the plane and cleared customs more quickly than they judged possible and didn’t have the sign out soon enough. If I'd had five minutes more delay in the immigration line I might not have had this adventure.

The next morning over breakfast I told the story to the horror of my colleagues. I then called Eastman Security in Tennessee to report the theft of the computer. I assured them I was whole and hale and that the laptop was properly password protected so it would be virtually impossible for anyone to access the hard drive. The power-on password was coded into the drive itself so nobody could plug it into another PC with an unsecured BIOS and access the data. The man I talked to asked me for a contact number so that if security wanted to get more information they could call me back. I gave them the number of the hotel but explained that I was going to work in 15 minutes and wouldn’t be back until evening.

In the evening we returned to the hotel there was a message slip under my door telling me to call the Eastman help desk. I called and began to explain the situation when the guy on the other end interrupted me with “Oh, you’re the guy who got kidnapped in Peru!”

I was taken aback since it had been about 10 hours since my first call and this fellow had to be on the second shift. That meant that my tale of woe must have carried over at shift change! “Yeah,” I answered cautiously, “Am I that famous up there?”

“Oh, yes,” the technician replied, “You’ve been the hottest topic of conversation we’ve had for days!”

I asked what they needed from me and all they wanted to know was where in Chile to send my replacement laptop via DHL. I explained that I wasn’t going to be in one place long enough for them to track me down and that they could catch up to me with new computer on Monday morning when I got back to my office.

After two days of visiting customers in Peru we took a night flight down to Santiago. The limo service that missed me on my arrival gave me a free ride in to the airport as recompense. That was a nice gesture, but I would have preferred for them to have been waiting for me upon arrival The driver had instructions to only take me in the car, but I asked our Regional Director to ride with me since I really didn’t want to ride alone. We had a nice conversation about the business and travel security in Latin America on the way. He was thankful that I wasn’t bitter about my experience and had pretty much taken the incident in stride. I admitted that I was pretty nervous about it, but I wasn’t going to let it deter my enthusiasm for working in the region.

I have since returned to South America twice since this episode and have not had a single problem. Traveling abroad is a wonderful experience that I heartily recommend to anyone with the means and curiosity to do it. I am a seasoned traveler. I've visited five continents and most countries in Europe, Asia and South America. If you get the opportunity I say, by all means go, but keep these guidelines in mind:

Know where you are going. The Newark airport can be just as dangerous as, say, Lima, if you aren't careful! The local visitor's bureau or your travel agent isn't necessarily going to warn you of trouble spots. Websites like Lonely Planet and US State Department can be invaluable resources in finding out the scoop before you land.

Don't travel alone. If I had a traveling companion, even a total greenhorn turista from the Tennessee hills, I would have not gotten the "Millionaire tour" treatment in Lima.

Sleep on the plane. Predators pick on weakened prey. If you arrive exhausted, you won't be thinking clearly. If you can't sleep on a plane, at least learn some relaxation techniques so you don't arrive under stress.

Have names and numbers in your hands. Have a hard copy of hotel reservations in hand. You are most vulnerable as you arrive. It is essential to be able to contact someone you know and trust at your destination.

Have an International phone card with you. Unless you are paying for international service your cell phone is an excellent paper-weight once you leave the US. Have some way to tap in the local phone net that you can rely on before you arrive.

When in doubt, look for a uniform. A uniformed official is less likely to do you harm than someone in plainclothes. Notice I say less likely –– not unlikely. Official corruption in many foreign countries is so rampant it is not prudent to put much trust in local authorities. In an emergency, though you are better off approaching a uniform than a suit. The exception to this rule is if the only person in uniform around is carrying a machine gun. These guys are NOT tour guides, and are likely to be unreceptive to helping a distressed tourist.

Don’t get cocky. I’ve flown a lot of miles and have had to get extra pages added to my passport. I thought I had seen it all and got fooled by my own overconfidence. It’s a great, interesting world out there and most of it is worth seeing. I certainly won’t fall for the same trap again, and I hope I have more respect for the other traps out there I haven’t stepped in yet!

 

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