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How we survived abduction and scams in India: part 2

For part one of our tale in India, click here.

Dustin and I woke up after five hours of sleep to the smell of just how fishy last night had been. As rattled as we were as the night happened, the scammers had preyed on our fatigue and frustration so well that it took until that Tuesday morning for the gravity of it to settle in.

The driver we bought with our package tall, slender man named Ali. He was scheduled to take us to see the Taj Mahal at 1:00 pm with a personal “tour guide.” At this point, though, we were unwilling to deal with anyone who was part of the scam that Dustin told him I was violently sick and we had to stay in. The closest we ever got to the Taj Mahal was a side entrance that we passed at 4:00 am the night before.

We stayed in our hotel on that Tuesday with the door locked. Our crucial stroke of luck was the WiFi in the hotel room. We spent hours contacting people we knew from the response security team that our company works with, as well as company managers, tour coordinators, and even friends and family members. Most of the guys we knew from response security were traveling and couldn’t respond, but luckily we were in touch with one man, Pat, who stayed on his email the entire day.

Here's the hideous view from our hotel room. Rubble adorns the left side while a homeless family with unclothed children took up residence on the right side.

Here’s the hideous view from our hotel room. Rubble adorns the left side while a homeless family with unclothed children took up residence on the right side.

Pat confirmed our suspicions about how dangerous of a situation we were in, and told us not to get in a car with Ali. He gave us a phone number for the US embassy and instructed us to ask the embassy for a government-approved vehicle to the airport. However, we found that we couldn’t call landlines in India through Skype and we weren’t about to ask the front desk of the hotel involved in our scam to use their phone. Pat sent us an emergency email line for the US embassy while he contacted the embassy himself.

Despite the urgent tone in the emails we wrote, the embassy only emailed back three hours later. The email said the embassy was very experienced in this kind of scam and that they’d send a representative from the Tourism Police. They gave us the phone number of the representative — despite us saying our phones were not working — and informed us that the police were only 300 meters away, so it shouldn’t take long.

In the meantime, we had no food in the room and were not about to go outside. Just outside our window was a mess of rubble, stray dogs and rats, and a family who had taken up residence under a stretch of fabric resembling a tent. Everything we read online warned us not drink the tap water, so we boiled water in the room’s kettle to drink. We didn’t eat for over 28 hours and drank nothing but hot water in a hot room.

We could have used a nice meal, though. We certainly had enough adrenaline burning. In the hours it took to hear any response from the embassy, I started sending messages to my sisters telling them how scared I was, how long it was taking for the police to come pick us up, and if they didn’t hear from me again within 24-48 hours to start calling authorities.

Finally, as the sun starts setting, Dustin’s phone picked up a roaming signal. He immediately called the US embassy, which he learned had closed by that point. So much for helping Americans in an emergency.

Then Dustin calls the police contact the embassy gave us. The representative from the police said no embassy had notified him — thanks again for the prompt response, US embassy — but he’d be there within a half hour. Even so, the sun had set at this point, making the whole scene spookier.

The police came on time and the front desk called our room. Dustin went downstairs alone, but not without bringing a six-inch kitchen knife from my suitcase in his pocket. There was no peephole on our door so Dustin gave me a distinct knocking pattern to identify him. I had no idea what might have been happening downstairs, so I spent around 20 minutes alone in the room panicking for his safety. Luckily, I still had Pat to calm me down via email.

After agonizing in the silence for what seemed like much longer, I heard the distinctive knock and let Dustin in. The man we contacted had come with another policeman and showed Dustin their badges, so Dustin decided to trust them. The police asked if Dustin would like to file a report, but Dustin told him we just wanted reliable transit from the police back to the New Delhi airport.

The police took down the license and registration numbers from Ali. Then, the police coordinate transport back to New Delhi — with Ali. Even though the police knew Ali was in on the scam and Dustin begged for government-approved transport, the police insisted that Ali was the closest driver available. The police said that if anything happened, they already had Ali’s information, so we had nothing to worry about.

Dustin adhered to the theme of the whole Indian incident: he had no choice but to accept.

Over the next 30 minutes, we emailed security response asking for advice, but we already knew Ali might be our only chance to leave. I messaged my family again with everything that had happened and told them to look for a message within the next day or two confirming my safety. I knew I was leaving Pat and everyone else on a cliffhanger, knowing we couldn’t update them until hours later.

After savoring the last Internet connection we had for 14 hours, we swallowed our nerves and returned to the Ali’s car.

The next part of this story is the scariest part of the whole incident. One red flag after another popped up during the four hours back to New Delhi. I dozed for an hour or two, but here’s everything I can remember that made my skin crawl.

  1. Ali was never at ease during the ride. Within the first few minutes, Ali admitted he was confused why we were rushing back to the airport because I was “sick” because Tourism Police had come earlier. Dustin told him “our security team” had advised us to do that, hinting that we had support on our side without being too aggressive. We that Ali knew we were onto his scam and we couldn’t tell what his next move might be.
  2. We had barely left the immediate area around our hotel when bumper-to-bumper traffic engulfed us in the initial rush hour. Passengers and drivers of other cars brushed against my side of the car and I’m not convinced the door is locked. Dustin kept his hand on a kitchen knife he was hiding against his thigh while gripped the door handle, ready to keep it shut should someone try to open it. All the while, Dustin made confident small talk with Ali. Whereas we were bleary-eyed and flustered on the way to Agra, Dustin was cool and collected on the way back, proving that we weren’t ready to be exploited again.
  3. Ali stepped out of car during heavy traffic and left the car running and doors unlocked. Apparently, he was only checking the open gas tank (on my side of the car) that a motorcyclist had tapped to let him know it was open, but I was convinced he was ready to throw me out of the car.
  4. The most nail-biting moment was when Ali pulled over in the middle of the highway, turned off car and popped the trunk. Dustin quickly tried to ask what was up but Ali ignored him and silently walked behind the car. Then, he stands there for a few seconds, staring at the trunk, before shuffling through our suitcases. My first thought was that he was about to toss our luggage out the trunk. Dustin, however, was convinced Ali was retrieving a gun. Finally, Ali straightened up and changed from a light-colored long-sleeved shirt into a button-down, short-sleeved white shirt. When Ali returned, Dustin forcefully put a casual tone in his voice and asked Ali again what he was doing. Ali mumbled something about how he’s required to wear a white shirt into the airport terminal. We don’t know if Ali pulled over to do something else on that highway and changed his mind, but even if he didn’t, changing shirts mid-ride on a highway seemed like a bogus excuse.
  5. Ali’s demeanor was telling. He jumped slightly every time Dustin rustled through his bag, since he was sitting directly behind the driver. At one point we caught Ali quickly turn his head to the back seat when Dustin’s water bottle crackled.
  6. Between moments of small talk, Ali made several phone calls. We couldn’t speculate how many people he needed to chat with at that time of night other than to tell his potential cohorts, “I changed my mind; I’m taking the tourists to the airport after all.”
  7. Dustin was tracking our car on GPS and was watching to see if Ali followed any of the possible directions he had downloaded from Google Maps, including shortest or quickest routes. About 45 minutes from our destination, Ali veered away from the airport. As soon as Ali ignored the sign that read “Airport Road,” Dustin pointedly said, “You missed that turn, didn’t you, Ali?” When Ali learned that Dustin was tracking him, he became defensive. He said he knew where the least traffic was and that we should trust him more than GPS. When he missed another important turn and Dustin assertively pointed it out, Ali became worked up. His voice raised as he said, “You’re my responsibility. You’re my boss; ignore whatever happened before you met me. I’m going to take care of you.” Dustin says, “Alright. Just get us to the airport, Al, and we’ll tip you well enough.” The roads he took us on were alleys, dirt roads, and barely two-lane streets.
  8. Ali pulled over again, car running, doors unlocked, without a word. He stopped the car yet again to pay a toll for what we think was a state tax. The toll booth had hand-written text and men in casual clothing.

We did, in fact, make it to the New Delhi airport. Dustin generously tipped Ali $40 USD. After all the money and stress these scammers had put us through, I protested. However, Dustin wanted to prove to Ali that even if he meant to put us in a more dangerous situation, Ali ultimately got us back safe, and Dustin wanted to reward him for that. He wanted Ali to know that whatever the circumstances, choosing to do the right thing is still better than scams and deceit.

We arrived at Indira Gandhi airport just after midnight but our flight wasn’t until 10 a.m. So, we slept overnight in the airport with air conditioning cranked uncomfortably high. We took turns sleeping so we could watch our luggage and sharing the only warm clothes I had

Since we arrived 10 hours before our flight, we couldn't check in to the airport. We took turns sleeping and sharing whatever warm clothes we found.

Since we arrived 10 hours before our flight, we couldn’t check in to the airport. We took turns sleeping and sharing whatever warm clothes we found.

brought. Finally, things started looking up; we had a 17-hour layover in Singapore, giving us a chance to leave the airport and see the country briefly before eventually landing in Bali.

Initially, we had planned to see India before sightseeing in Kathmandu, Nepal from April 23-25 and then exploring Myanmar. However, in our rush to get out of India, we canceled the rest of the trip and booked a flight to Bali, Indonesia, so that we could meet up with friends from Disney there.

The India incident cost us a couple thousand dollars between the scam and canceled flights, but it was worth it. Because we were forced to fly to Bali immediately, we barely escaped the devastating earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal. In fact, I would probably still be there as I publish this blog, unable to call or fly home — assuming I’d be unharmed.

Call it fate, call it luck, or call it fortuitous coincidence. Whatever it was, the horrible trouble we had in India was worth it because we’re both safe and sound now.

If anybody deserved some R&R at this overhanging rock bar in Uluwatu in Bali, it was us.

If anybody deserved some R&R at this overhanging rock bar in Uluwatu in Bali, it was us.

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Posted by on April 30, 2015 in Blog, travel

 

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How we survived abduction and scams in India

I’m an experienced traveler. I haven’t been a risky one, sure, but I’ve seen the whole range between glitzy and sketchy. And with my Disney on Ice tour, I’ve been required to attend security briefings and learn safety precautions for travelers every few months.

I keep retracing my steps of every decision I made since I landed in New Delhi, marking every slight misstep and blaming myself for where I could have gone wrong. What I haven’t let myself believe yet is that once you’re trapped in that kind of dangerous situation, it’s like swimming underwater, reaching for the surface while strong current pulls you back in.

And that’s why my time in India was so bone-chilling.

My boyfriend, Dustin, and I booked a hotel in New Delhi for a few nights. We planned to take the train down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal on Tuesday, which is almost four hours away.

We landed in Indira Gandhi Airport Monday night around 9 p.m., though it felt like midnight since we had just come from Indonesia. We didn’t see any open taxi stands inside the airport, so we step outside to find a government-approved taxi stand. Immediately the hustle-and-bustle of the airport swarmed us and several men tried to take us to their taxis.

We waited in line for one taxi kiosk; the person up front said there were no more taxis for the night, so we went to another taxi kiosk. While we had been waiting in line, a man with salesman smile, faded jeans, and flip-flops hassled us and asked if we wanted a taxi. Dustin said no, we’ll wait for the taxi from this stand. When the woman at the taxi kiosk — who wore casual clothes and no uniform — lazily said there were no more taxis for the night, we reluctantly agreed to go with this man.

This driver, Kumar, drove us along for about 15 minutes and stopped at a dimly-lit, barricaded side street. He got out, left the car running and the doors unlocked, and talked to a man sleeping on the street.

Well, that’s promising.

Kumar came back and said the roads are blocked to our hotel because of a Hindu festival. Then, Kumar took us to an “information center” — aka, part two of the scam. The man at the information center spoke to Kumar in their native language for a bit and then confirmed to us that the roads were indeed blocked. Dustin asked to call the hotel we booked to pick us up, so the man made a phone call. He gave the phone to Dustin and Dustin asks the man on the phone to confirm what nights we had booked originally. The man on the phone evaded his questions, hurriedly said, “No, there’s no booking!” and hung up the phone. Obviously, this mystery man on the phone was not involved the hotel we had reserved.

The information center man told us the only hotels open in the area were expensive, 5-star hotels. We promptly told him those were out of our budget and asked to go back to the airport.

Kumar then said, “I can take you around the outside of the streets to your hotel and try to find you a smaller one.” We have no choice but to get back into the car with Kumar.

Kumar stopped the car for a third time, this time to talk to a tuk-tuk driver. He said the tuk-tuk could take us on the roads to our hotel that are too narrow for his cab. We pleaded again to go back to the airport, but Kumar insisted that this tuk-tuk is the only way. We reluctantly load all of our luggage into the tiny tuk-tuk, and after we paid Kumar about $15 USD, we never saw him again.

The tuk-tuk driver looked about 50 years old, had a white beard and a turban, and barely spoke English. This man drove us through frightening streets of decrepit buildings, stray dogs, and men either sleeping on the streets or glaring at us as we drove by with our large suitcases. One particularly nightmare-inducing alley echoing with wails and howls made Dustin lean forward and say, “Sir, please do not go down that street.”

He didn’t have to, though, because another man with an intense stare under a thick brow met our tuk-tuk at the beginning of it and said, “No women tourists allowed.” Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice.

Our tuk-tuk took us to another information center with a peeling “Government of India” seal on the front door. For a government building, though, it had fairly late hours of operation as it was after midnight when we got there. There, sat a desk across from a man with a soul patch and long, wavy hair. This man had a calm face with no smile; there was no reassuring grin, but without a salesman smile we briefly dared to trust his sincerity.

Again, we begged to go back to the airport and the man plainly said that we couldn’t at this time of night. (Indira Gandhi airport is open 24 hours). He brought us water and chai coffees in a suspicious attempt to calm us since we barely hid our skepticism and frustration with the night. Long story short, this scammer would not let us leave until we spent 44,000 rupees (700-800 USD) for a new hotel in Agra. The package also included a personal cab driver.

Before we left the “government” office, we visited the restroom. We were told we had to go together, so I held the door from the inside and peered through the cracks in the wooden door to watch our luggage. The restroom was a hole in the ground with feces, mud, and mold caking the walls. The sink was brown and had no running water. This was our last stop before we got to Agra.

The older tuk-tuk driver had been waiting over an hour for us to pay him. We paid him his fee of about $1.50 USD and he left.

This new driver, Ali, embarked on long ride to the new hotel. At this point we had been awake for 24 hours and, as much as we tried to stay alert, we began to nod off. When we arrived at this new hotel, more homeless people lingered near our car, fighting stray dogs snapped at our heels as we got out of the car. The hotel looks clean enough so we give up and spend the night there.

This is not the last we see of Ali, though. For a recap on the scariest parts of the adventure — featuring the US embassy, the police, and a knife — stay tuned for part two.

Because of the whirlwind of events of that day, I obviously did not have time for photography, so I apologize for the lack of photos in this blog post.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Blog, travel

 

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