Posts Tagged ‘scam artists’

Monday night I presented Project 1 from the Entertaining Speaker manual. The objectives were to (1) entertain the audience by relating a personal experience; and (2) organize an entertaining speech for maximum input. The timing was 5-7 minutes – with a 30 second grace period.  I cut about 300 words but presented very much in a storyteller fashion and ended up included some of those bits. Duh, I ran out of time before stating my conclusion.

Talking to Strangers

Madame Toastmaster and fellow toastmasters when I explore a new city or town I wander around on foot and spend time soaking up the atmosphere in public squares and outdoor cafes. I observe, absorb and engage with my surroundings. One of the things I’ve noticed is that strangers are more apt to talk to me when I’m travelling by myself. Sometimes they initiate a conversation and other times I do.

Now, I talked to a lot of strangers when I was backpacking in Mexico and South America. I met many travellers and many warm, friendly, curious locals. There was one day though where my encounters with strangers were a bit strange.

I had been travelling for a little over two months when I reached La Paz. I arrived late in the afternoon and the next morning I was off to explore the Witch’s Market. I was walking around taking things in when someone with a southern US drawl called out to me. Now, when someone starts talking to you in your native language the natural reaction is to turn and look but I had read in my Lonely Planet guide that you have to be very wary in this market. I didn’t look. He continued to call out, “Hey are you an American?” “Can you help me. I really need your help.” It sounded like he was above me and about 50 metres away. It didnt’ make sense for him to be centering me out. I felt like prey. You know how an animal tries to make itself look bigger when its threatened. Well, I pretended I was German. Sometimes it’s better not to talk to strangers.

A couple hours later I was sitting on a bench in Plaza Murillo. It’s the main square and full of people and pigeons. A woman sat down beside me and we started chatting. She said she was a tourist from Mexico and showed me her passport. After a few minutes of small talk she asked if I would take her picture by the cathedral. We were facing the presidential palace. I turned my head and looked over at the cathedral. There were fifty or so people sitting on the steps. She could have asked any of them but I said ok.

We walked over and she said she wanted to be photographed inside. We went inside and she handed me her camera. She moved towards a dimly lit area. By this point I was getting a little annoyed. I was fidgeting with her camera which seemed to be broke. My photographer instincts were saying this spot had no reference to the actual place. My gut told me something was wrong.

At that moment a man approached us and said he was a tourist police. He showed me his ID. He said it was illegal to take pictures in the cathedral and asked for our passports. She immediately handed hers over. I told him that I didn’t believe him, that I’m not carrying my passport and that even if it were true it was irrelevant as I had not yet taken a photo. My Spanish wasn’t great and neither was their English. He persisted and insisted we go to my hostel to get my passport. I walked out of the church with them and I headed directly over to the guards at the adjacent congress building.

I tried to explain to them that this couple were about to rob me but I didn’t know the Spanish words for thief or robbery or scam artists. While this was happening the tourist police fled in an awaiting car and the tourist disappeared. There was no point pursuing this. The guards couldn’t understand me and the thieves were gone. I left the square and headed for my hostel.

I was about a block out of the square and the woman came up beside me again. She was still pretending to be a tourist. She feigned surprise about her accomplice being a criminal. I asked her why she wasn’t upset about someone driving off with her passport. She finally understood that I knew she was part of the scam. The car with the fake police officer came up beside us.  I didn’t see it and was startled but she had signalled to him to let it go. He handed over her passport and said he’ll let us off with a warning this time.

You never know where a random interaction or conversation will lead. Most of the time, talking to strangers is a pleasant diversion. Just observe, absorb and engage in the moment. … Madame Toastmaster.

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(Mid-February 2009)

La Paz has a population of about 1.5 million and it’s the world’s highest capital at an altitude of 3660 metres. I arrived on February 13th, got a dorm room at the Hostal Republica, former residence of a former president, walked around a bit, took in the atmosphere at nearby Plaza Murillo and wondered why all the shoeshine boys and men wear masks.

The next day I started exploring. I visited the museum and took in the views from Iglesia de San Francisco and followed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour. I gawked at the llama foetuses and was enchanted with the charms in the Witch’s Market. While I was taking photos someone with a southern US accent repeatedly tried to get my attention and, mindful of my guidebook’s scam warnings, I ignored him and pretended not to speak English.

A couple of hours later, back in Plaza Murillo, I was subjected to another scam attempt. This time it caught me off guard. A woman sat down beside me and we started chatting. She said she was a tourist from Mexico and asked if I would take her picture in front of the cathedral. I looked over and was about to suggest she ask one of the many people on the steps but the conversation was pleasant so I said sure. Once at the cathedral, she wanted the picture taken inside and chose a dimly-lit section that provided no indication of being in a church. I was having trouble with her camera and no longer interested in helping her out. At this point a man approached me and flashed an ID badge stating that he was a tourist police officer – I realized I was the target of a scam.

He said taking photos in the cathedral is illegal and asked us for our passports. The “Mexican tourist” complied and I responded I wasn’t carrying mine, it was irrelevant as I had not yet taken a photo, and that I did not believe he was the police. They were not going to give up that easily. He insisted we go to my hostel to get my passport. I walked out of the church with them and approached the guards at the adjacent Legislative Palace. As I tried to explain to the guards that this couple were about to rob me, not knowing the Spanish words for “thief” or “robbery”, the fake police officer sped off in an awaiting car. The tourist just walked away. Unable to communicate my message to the guards I continued on my way. On the next block the tourist came up alongside of me. I told her I knew it was a scam and she feigned surprise. I asked her why she wasn’t the least bit upset about having someone drive off with her passport and again indicated I knew she was part of the scam. Then, the fake police officer drives up beside us, hands over her passport and says that he’ll just leave it at a warning this time! I wasn’t frightened by this encounter but I was astonished! I did feel a little uneasy later that day when I went to use an ATM – with guys lurking nearby I opted to wait another day.

The next day I ventured out again. I visited the Museo de la Coca. Andean people have been chewing coca leaves for about 4,500 years and the museum is an interesting place to learn about the social and political history of coca. For instance, the church banned the leaf believing it interfered with the conversion and conquest of the Indigenous people but then retracted the ban when it was realized the slave labour force were more productive when they were able to chew the leaf. In addition to relieving hunger, cold and altitude discomfort, the leaf has a spiritual meaning for Andean people. Wealthy nations used coca to develop cocaine.

I also headed over to the free Museo de Etnografia y Folklore. The museum has an eerily exhibited collection of masks and a good collection of textiles. I strolled along the colonial Calle Jaen and walked around Parque Laikakota. And, I caught a glimpse of Mt. Illamani early in the evening.  I had almost forgotten about it!

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