Don’t get drugged (by someone you don’t really know!)
Henry, a British Council teacher in Venezuela in 1982 was travelling on a bus across Colombia. This was the big one. Two months exploring the cultural quilt of the Andes, from Quito to La Paz, and everything was in position for a great trip. He’d worked hard at his Spanish, read all the right books, and saved enough to avoid staying in flea pits.
The money, $3, 000, half cash and half dollar cheques, was mostly in his money belt. But Henry had learnt a few tricks in Venezuela, and so he had his passport fitted into a special pocket sewn into the leg of his jeans, just above the hem, on the inside.
Henry didn’t have to use buses, but he wasn’t due in Quito for another couple of days so he thought he’d see more of Colombia on the way, maybe meet some good people.
So there he was. Tough, safety conscious, amiable, talkative. And next to him on the bus was a small, friendly, middle-aged Colombian. They got on well, talked about politics, food, la vida dura, Venezuela vs. Colombia, and about rateros.
Henry’s neighbour was scathing about the low moral standards of the younger generation. It was all the fault of the cocaine traders, he said, for creating greed and envy, and for demonstrating that the legal work ethic is no longer sufficient in Latin America. But, he said, Gracias a Dios, we’re not all cast from the same mould. He produced a packet of biscuits, took one himself, and offered one to Henry.
Henry woke up 12 hours later, stiff and cold, by the side of the road. He had his T-shirt, his jeans – including concealed passport – a crippling headache, and nothing else.
His moneybelt, wallet, backpack, sports shoes, his friend, and the bus had gone.
Hours later, having begged the fare from some sympathetic europeans, he was sitting, dazed and depressed on another bus, when he saw a plastic notice that had been torn off the back of the seat in front of him. He picked it up and read, in Spanish, ‘Do not accept food or drink from strangers. ‘
That is one travel safety rule that Henry will never forget.
South America does not have a monopoly on street crime, of course. For example, bag-snatching by motorcycle pillion riders, the scippatori, originated in Italy, though now it’s a global caper, much favoured in Peru.
Ratero is the colloquial Spanish term for thief, literally meaning big rat. These two-legged rodents are rampant in many cities in Latin America – particularly Bogota, Lima, Cuzco, Arequipa, La Paz, Rio de Janeiro. Let’s not even mention Caracas. Generally they steal non-violently, picking a pocket, cutting a handbag or snatching a camera off a cafe table, but as travellers develop defences against these assaults, the rateros develop new systems of penetration.