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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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Highlights from the Maldives and Cambodia

It’s 10 p.m. and I’m walking on a sand bank. Ocean water gently licks my ankles as small waves roll in from each direction. Each footstep in the sand leaves a glowing footprint of sapphire sprinkles — a visual gift left by bioluminescent phytoplankton in the shallow water. Above me, every star pierces the sky, each of them begging for my gaze.

The Maldives is an archipelago south of India, surrounded by nothing but the Indian Ocean. As remote as it is, trust me when I say that travel to this tiny country was worth it.

Ocean water overlaps from both sides of this sand bank on Kuredu Island in the Maldives.

Ocean water overlaps from both sides of this sand bank on Kuredu Island in the Maldive

And boy, was it a hefty travel day. From Taiwan my travel companions and I took three airplane flights, a seaplane, and two boats to get to our island.

Though we did spend one night in the capital city of Male, we took the unlikely route for 20-somethings and splurged on an all-inclusive resort on a private island called Kuredu. Since the conservative dress code in the Muslim country would have prevented us from fully enjoying the beaches, we opted for a stay at a private island. (I almost had a chance to tour the local Maldivian restaurants, but a violent stomach bug prevented me from doing much sightseeing on our last day.) Since we were so keen to dip our feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time and to see the bioluminescent phytoplankton, we inadvertently booked a beach vacation on an island teeming with honeymooners.

Even a novice traveler could see why it was such a popular getaway. Aside from the spectacular nighttime views, during the day the islands were a fantasy of perfection. Flying in via seaplane gave us a chance to truly appreciate the turquoise water that nearly lay still against the bone-white sand. From the plane we could see sandbanks lazily peeking through the brim of the water, creating several tiny islands whose bases you could see through the clear water.

But for me, the phytoplankton were the main draw. Other islands have phytoplankton that glow brighter than the ones on Kuredu, but even the dim twinkle we did see from the otherwise invisible creatures drew us back into the water every night. The phytoplankton emit the blue glow when they were agitated, so we stomped and splashed in the ocean in a silly, frantic dance lit by blue sparkles that was better than any blacklight dance club.

After a few days of visual bliss, it was time to fully rinse sand out of our hair and put on shoes for the first time for our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Yet trading scenes of overwhelming luxury to humble poverty overnight was a shock. We were eager to experience a new world, but none of us seemed quite prepared to the immediate, drastic change.

Our shuttle from the airport to the guesthouse was in a tuk-tuk, which is like a golf cart pulled by a moped. Tuk-tuks dominate traffic in Siem Reap and cabs were nearly nonexistent. In the open-air tuk-tuk shuttle, as well as the tuk-tuk we rode in over the next few days, we drove by some of the poorest “neighborhoods” around the area. We saw shacks and huts standing 50 feet from the side of the dirt roads that housed full families. Children 5 years old or younger wore no clothes, and many of them playfully chased malnourished farm animals or stray dogs. Dingy, 20-foot banners advertising local beers or Coca-Cola hung above many of the shacks. I’m not sure why those banners were hung in those personal homes; perhaps those companies knew tourist tuk-tuks drove by and may have paid (apparently not much money) to those families to advertise there.

We arrived in a more bustling, tourist-laden section of Siem Reap and checked into a lovely guesthouse called Seven Candles with a kind, helpful staff. Seven Candles is a short walking distance from the Hard Rock and the party-hearty Pub Street, where we ordered alligator-topped pizza and beers for under $10USD.

Of course, the reason we went to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat, and it did not disappoint. The Angkor temples were jaw-dropping in person and surprisingly different from each other.

Formidable stone statues of faces stared down tourists with selfie sticks.

Formidable stone statues of faces stared down tourists with selfie sticks.

Built during the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat is the most famous temple complex in the Angkor region and is the one featured on Cambodia’s flag. Although it is the most well-maintained, preservation and restoration didn’t occur until about 20 years ago. Graffiti coats sections of the ancient walls and sculptures and natural environmental decay is to blame for some of the crumbling statues. Even so, Angkor Wat has the clearest representation of what might have been the original form of the Angkor temples. It was first a Hindu and then a Buddhist place of worship, and the merging beliefs are etched into the stone murals.

My favorite section may have been the Bayon temple. Large stone faces of different Hindu and Buddhist deities and kings line this temple

— some only as tall as my shin, most one story tall, and others taller. It was built in the late 12th or early 13th century and has been augmented by subsequent kings, again blending different beliefs and styles. Perhaps it was my favorite because I liked the majesty of standing so close to such formidable structures, and I appreciated seeing the detail of age in the crumbling rocks so clearly.

One of the most popular Angkor temples is Ta Prohm, which is known in popular culture because it was the setting of a Lara Croft movie. Because of the centuries of neglect, the jungle consuming is this temple. Enormous, amorphous trees are growing over the structures underneath like claws gripping their prey. Crumpled piles of stone busts lie around the ground like an abandoned site of construction. Modern scaffolding is desperately trying to support some of the archways, but the awesome roots and vines of the trees make the plywood and aluminum supports look pathetic in comparison. Walking through Ta Prohm, even on the pre-ordained paths, felt like an adventure.

Enormous trees consume the crumbling temples in Ta Prohm.

Enormous trees consume the crumbling temples in Ta Prohm.

But one place without many pre-planned paths is Kbal Spean. Unless the other areas of Angkor, this is less of a temple and more of a collection of carvings. There were no plaques or clearly-marked paths other than the 15-20 minute trail hike up to the main waterfall. Without the museum-friendly plaques directing us, we felt like we were on a scavenger hunt to find any historical carvings. We slid through uneven rocks to hunt for Hindu carvings in the shallow stream beside us or above our heads on overhanging boulders.

On the last day of our Angkor explorations, our personal tuk-tuk driver, Iza — whom we hired via Seven Candles for around $10USD for several days — paused on the side of a road. There, we sampled local palm sugar cubes from women who sold them under tents. On the way back home, Iza let us connect our iPod to his tuk-tuk’s speakers and we blasted “Uptown Funk” in Cambodian traffic so thick we could touch the motorcycles beside us.

We visited the Maldives and Cambodia in the side trip, and pairing them together was an eye-opening contrast. The former is a perfect preservation of gorgeous natural beauty; the latter is an intense experience seeing neglected, crumbling remains of man-made religious structures. The Maldives resort of Kuredu was exquisite luxury (though the capital of Male was more humble) and Siem Reap, Cambodia was surrounded by poverty. Both were incredible experiences for strikingly different reasons. But certainly, the most eye-opening thus far was the Angkor temples in Cambodia.

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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Blog, travel


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