Once a upon a time I escaped a dangerous scam. True story. This is how it happened…
Arriving in La Paz
It was late Sunday afternoon when our bus pulled up in front of what looked like an office along a row of tiny stalls in an old part of town. I expected a busy terminal with vans and taxis lined outside ready to take weary travelers to their next destination. Instead I saw an empty street. I had no idea exactly where I was and I felt a little worried.
The Gringos started to file out of the bus and I followed suit. I saw the American I chatted with back in Copacabana and we made small talk as we waited for our packs to be unloaded. All this time I noticed that most of the passengers have gone their own way. I wondered how they knew where they were and how they would get to where they were going. I thought to ask the American to share a cab ride with me but I decided against it. So I let him go his way.
It had been a 9 hour ride from Puno, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia. Believe me planning this part of my travel itinerary is not as easy as booking flights to tenerife from manchester. I was finally alone on this leg of my trip and I wanted to savor traveling solo. So the last thing I was in the mood for was small talk. Besides I spotted a cab coming down the street. Unfortunately, someone beat me to it.
That’s when the taxi driver approached me. He was an old guy- about late 50’s- with thick eyeglasses and a white baseball cap. I asked in broken Spanish if he knew how to get to the hotel and he said yes. I was pretty pleased and all I could think of was having a nice hot shower in my room with a private bath! He took my large pack and I followed him to his cab. All the while I was fussing around with my other bag making sure I had what I needed- money, directions and my Spanish phrase book.
We drove around deserted streets. It was Sunday night and people were inside their homes. I recalled observing how Bolivia was a far departure from a very sanitized Peru. It was gritty and it was poor. Gazing out the window I saw the city of La Paz climb up the mountains. Here the poorest live in the highest altitude and the richest in the lowest center of the city where the air is also rich.
Uhm, we were suppose to head down?
That last thought made me realize that the hotel was suppose to be close to the center of town- DOWN. However, we were weaving UP through winding streets. The route did not pass any of the main roads nor did we encounter other vehicles. Something smelled VERY fishy. Was he taking me the roundabout way so he could charge me extra? I looked at where the meter was supposed to be and it wasn’t there.
Before I could ask him where we were going he turned into an alley and suspiciously reduced his speed. I was hoping it was because we were lost and he wanted to ask for direction or that we were near the hotel.
A man got into the cab from out of nowhere
As we slowed down, a man in a leather jacket and dark sunglasses shouts and stops the cab. The stranger came close to the window where he proceeded to flash a wallet with an ID on it. Then in one quick movement the man opened the front passenger door and jumped inside the cab.
Blood rushed to my head
The taxi driver and the stranger became engaged in conversation. I did not understand what they were saying but it seemed the driver was asking the man what he wanted. Before I could process what was happening the stranger turned to me and spoke in a demanding voice. He again flashed what looked like a badge. I felt my heartbeat speed up.
Soon demanding turned into loud and aggressive. I still could not understand what he wanted from me until I heard him say a couple of words: policia, pasaporte, documento and deportacion.
I WAS BEING SCAMMED!
Ding ding ding ding! Alarms were going off my head. I suddenly flashed on an article about a tragic fake police scam and kidnapping which happened in La Paz. The pieces of the puzzle began to fit. I knew the fake cop was making me hand over my passport and god knows what else. I also knew that the cab driver was part of the whole modus operandi. The b@star$ made me his mark and delivered me to this sleazy man!
It was a very surreal moment which I had to recover from. I needed to act quickly. In a firm voice, I repeatedly said NO when the fake cop insisted on handing over my passport. I also checked to see if he carried a gun or some other type of weapon.
I had never been so scared in my life.
I jumped out of the cab
Once I was sure he had no weapon I jumped off the cab. My eyes searched for an escape route. I spotted a small store down the alley with a person standing outside. I took one step forward then hesitated. I remembered my big pack in the trunk of the cab. I stood for a minute debating on what to do. For some reason the cab driver got out of the car opened the trunk and handed me over my backpack.
I ran so hard
After that, I ran so hard and never looked back. I reached the small store and asked if they had a phone I could use. I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t want to ride another cab. I thought maybe the hotel could arrange for someone to pick me up. Alas, the store had no phone. I almost asked for walking directions to the hotel but it was getting dark. I did not want to risk encountering anything else.
I felt so lost I wanted to cry.
I sucked it up
But I didn’t. I sucked it up like big girls do. I took stock of my surroundings. From a distance there appeared to be a main thoroughfare with traffic and pedestrians. I walked over and confirmed what I saw. A couple of cabs passed by. Then one with a dome light and painted signs on the car pulled to the curb. I glanced inside. It had a radio and a meter. It seemed legitimate enough so I went in with a silent prayer for an uneventful ride.
It was dark when I finally got to my hotel (by the way here are other budget accommodations in La Paz, Bolivia). The first thing I did after I checked into my room was to lock the door and put a chair against it. I was a cowering mess but I was so relieved to get through the whole thing in one piece.
I was lucky to have escaped a dangerous scam.
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