If a pregnant American woman approached you in a dangerous foreign city, professing to have been robbed of her money, passport and plane tickets, would you offer her assistance?
Being a nosy reporter as well as being a little wary of such sob stories, I questioned her deeply about her situation. The answers about her life held water and I was genuinely convinced that she needed my help. All she said she wanted was “some money to buy us food until we can get cash wired from home.”
Unless your heart is a compassion-free zone, the answer from most would be yes. For me, helping this woman in need, or con-woman as she turned out to be, was an experience even more eye-opening than traveling itself. I had just arrived in Belize City in Central America and had left my hotel when I was approached by a woman asking for help. She was American, had blonde hair, freckles, was heavily pregnant and was the only white face for seemingly miles around. She looked lost, tired and desperate. “Are you OK?” I asked her. She obviously was not OK and subsequently launched into her tale of treachery. So her story goes, “Lara” as she called herself, and her husband “Mark” were in Belize for a week on holiday. It was meant to be their dream holiday — their last holiday of freedom before their child was born. Being good Samaritans themselves, the couple invited two penniless German girls into their hotel room for the night to give them a place to stay. When Lara and her husband awoke the next morning the Germans were nowhere in sight, along with the Americans’ passports, money and small backpack. The hotel they were staying at was not sympathetic as the couple had flaunted hotel rules by bringing back two unannounced guests. So Mark and Lara had no money, no place to stay and no one to turn to. Mark went off in search of an Internet café to e-mail home for help while Lara had taken to the streets to find someone who could lend them some cash. Enter sucker, err, I mean me. Being a nosy reporter as well as being a little wary of such sob stories, I questioned her deeply about her situation. The answers about her life held water and I was genuinely convinced that she needed my help. All she said she wanted was “some money to buy us food until we can get cash wired from home.” “What about the U.S. Embassy nearby,” I suggested. “Can’t they help you?” She told me they were partially closed and that they could only provide new passports in a day or so. “What we need is some cash to tide us over until someone back home replies to our e-mails and wires us some money,” she said. Could I turn my back on a pregnant American who seemed totally sincere? No way. I couldn’t sleep at night if I turned her away. So I reached into my pocket and found $25. I then offered to pay for accommodation and dinner for Lara and her husband if they came to my hotel, which she accepted. I drew her directions and confirmed I would meet them there at 5:30 p.m. She smiled, thanked me and then asked me to leave. Apparently her husband was the jealous type and would get angry if he saw her with another man. Not wanting to cause her even more trouble I left her alone in the street and went on my way. As luck would have it, my wanderings took me past the Belize City U.S. Embassy. Sure enough, part of the embassy was closed as Lara had told me. Still curious, I stopped in and asked why they had failed to help a young American couple from Utah who had been robbed of everything. The guard at the embassy had never heard of them, let alone allowed them into the grounds. How very strange, I thought. Back at my hotel I awaited the arrival of Mark and Lara. While contemplating the situation over a beer I began to poke holes in her story. Why wasn’t she wearing a wedding ring? How did they pay for their replacement passports at the embassy without cash? The plot thickened. By 9 p.m. it became awfully clear that they were not coming, so I sent an e-mail to the address Lara gave me. To this day I have had no reply. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that a “thank you” card is not forthcoming. Looking back, I can think of numerous occasions in Indianapolis and other cities where people have tried to scam me and I have simply brushed them off. Yet when you are traveling this dishonesty hits home even harder. It’s not the loss of money that annoys me. Rather it was the appalling disregard for the unwritten traveler’s code: that silent agreement to help out other travelers in need. Frequent NUVO contributor Mark Wembridge is traveling Central America this winter.