I was just reading a blog post about some millennials’ most embarrassing travel moments. All-in-all, not that interesting… at least from a real traveler’s perspective. Maybe they just need some years and some miles to understand what true ’embarrassment’ is!
It got my wife and I talking about the moments we have had over the years that definitely qualify as ’embarrassing’… As she pointed out, spending time in any place where the native language is not English forces a good traveler to live in an almost constant state of low-level embarrassment. You are never really sure you are extoling the tastiness of the desert offerings – or telling the waiter that you need to heave your meal into the toilet (okay, perhaps a slight exaggeration!)
For us, we find moments where we inconvenienced, underestimated or were just plain wrong about other people to be considered ’embarrassing’. For instance, when the iPhone 1 had just been released, my wife was one of the first adopters of the new device. We had already boarded the plane in Chicago when she realized that she had left it charging in the Admiral’s Club. The captain came on the PA system to announce a maintenance delay of 10-15 minutes. When my wife asked if she had time to run back to the club, the flight attendant asked the captain. The two were notably impressed with my wife’s technology choice and agreed that it was worthy of holding the plane if she did not get back before the maintenance was complete. As she was walking off the plane, the maintenance guy handed the certification paper to the captain who turned to my wife and said… “hurry!” Having an entire airplane full of people waiting because you forgot your phone is not one of those feelings you want to have every day!
For myself, I immediately think of the evening when I flew into Quito, Ecuador and got ‘kidnapped’. While this is a problem in some countries – Ecuador included – I still recoil from thinking about how I acted that night.
The ‘new’ Quito airport is located well outside of the city, about an hour away from the central business area. Lengthy and expensive cab rides are the norm, often including the cab driver turning to you and asking for toll money. After my long flight from the US, I climbed into a curbside cab and settled in for the long ride. I had heard stories of cab drivers extorting you for as much money as you could withdraw from the ATM and then dropping you in a remote part of town, but I assumed that was ‘something that happened to other people’. After all, I am a seasoned world traveler and would NEVER let that kind of thing happen to me! Hah!
The driver asked where I was headed and in broken, tired Spanish I told him the “Hilton Colon” – one of the large hotels in the CBD. Certain that he understood, I began texting my wife to let her know that I had arrived in Quito and was headed to the hotel.
As we approached the toll booth, the cab driver exited the main road to a smaller, residential street. He looked in the rearview mirror – seeing that I had had noticed his change of route – and in broken English said something about a ‘shortcut’. This was nothing too out of the ordinary as Latin American cab drivers often feel nervous about asking businessmen for tolls and rather than pay them out of pocket, take an alternate route. However, it did check my first ‘out of the ordinary’ box. When enough of those boxes have been ‘checked’, I start to get concerned. In short order, MANY boxes got checked!
We headed deeper into a residential area, making turns seemingly with a route in mind. The driver watched me intently and noticed that I was getting visibly concerned about where we were heading. By now, it was apparent to me that we were not headed over the mountain into town, but were twisting and turning through a lower-end, working class neighborhood well outside of Quito.
He made a call to someone and started talking in a hushed voice, so I could only make out bits and pieces of his conversation. I did make out a few words that seemed to be directions to a ‘rendezvous point’. Every cab driver in Quito knows where the Hilton is, so there should be no reason to need directions… boxes were being checked quickly now.
My wife had not picked up when I called her, so I made a screen shot of my GPS coordinates and texted them to her with an obtuse note about “..if anyone is looking for me, start here!” I checked my wallet for available cash. I had about $200 with me and thought about how I could leverage that to get me out of any problems. I had been told by my local business contacts that typically these ‘kidnappings’ were usually a matter of a few hundred dollars, and I wondered if that would be enough.
We had been wandering about in the residential neighborhood for more than a few minutes when we came to a dark, dead-end street. This was it. I readied myself for whatever was about to happen. I thought about the things I had read, heard and seen. “Don’t put up a fight.” “Be as passive as possible, don’t escalate the situation.” The driver anxiously looked in the mirror and said something to me in indecipherable Spanish. Inside, I kicked myself for allowing such a stupid thing to happen to me. I should have known better.
Every box was checked. I was in trouble and I knew it.
Frantically, I texted my wife. The driver made another ‘hushed’ call on his cellphone. I looked for the ‘bad guys’ to come out of the darkness.
In a deeply apologetic tone, the driver said, “lo siento…” – “I’m sorry”. You should be sorry, you are turning me over to your thug friends!
He put the cab in reverse. I wondered if he had second thoughts – or had simply gone down the wrong street to the ‘ambush point’. Boxes, once checked, are hard to uncheck. We drove around for a few more minutes when we came to a square with a crowd walking about. These were the first people I had seen since we exited the main road, and I thought about how to ask the driver to stop and drop me off. Before I could generate the Spanish words, he sped up and we were off. My texts to my wife were coming fast and furiously now. I was heads-down, trying to let her know where I was… and were we seemed to be going.
Suddenly, the driver turned into a parking lot. He smiled and got out of the car. Again, I readied myself for the inevitable. He came around to the back door and opened it. Am I supposed to get out? What is the protocol for being kidnapped? Then I noticed him smiling. You evil man, enjoying what was about to happen… to.. me…
It was then that I noticed where we were. The driver gleefully pointed to the sign that said “Hotel Colon”. Again he apologized… my heart sank.
He had misunderstood me. I was thinking the worst of this poor man…seeing the worst that I could in him. For his part, he was thinking he had angered me by not knowing where my hotel was…getting lost along the way. I felt so humble. He had no idea why I was smiling at him so much… and I started laughing loudly. I am quite certain he thought I might be insane.
“Senor, lo siento… esta HOTEL Colon. Yo necessito HILTON Colon!”
It was only a short cab ride directly to the Hilton – he knew EXACTLY where it was. When I got out, I shook his hand vigorously, and tipped him VERY well on the already expensive fare. He had restored my faith in humanity – if only for a few moments. It was well worth the price.