NOTE: I want to preface this post by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with Stacey Addison and hoping that the nightmare she is currently living in comes to a swift and painless end. What I’m writing below are my general thoughts on a variety of different areas.
UPDATE ON STACEY’S SITUATION: She was released from prison on East Timor on Christmas. She is still without her passport and is still in East Timor but people feel the steps are finally being taken to secure her permanent release home.
Recently I read an article on CNN about an American traveler who was imprisoned after taking the “wrong” cab in the tiny Maritime Southeast Asian nation of East Timor. There’s obviously a whole lot more to the story but it basically involves this: Stacy Addison was crossing the border from Indonesia into East Timor. As is the practice in many developing nations, taxis are shared (what? you think you can have a taxi to yourself when a driver can squash in four more bodies and make more money) and thus was the case with Addison. Along the way, the other passenger asked to stop at a DHL office and local police acting on a tip from Indonesian authorities stopped the taxi carrying Addison and others. Upon searching the package, the police found that it contained methamphetamine. The owner of the package and everyone else in the taxi were arrested, even though everyone was a stranger to Addison. Drugs are a scary business in any country, but drugs in a developing nation where you are the foreigner, well, they’re that much more scary. After being held for a couple of nights, Addison was released. However, she was not permitted to leave the country. Following her release, she was jailed once more without any explanation where she has been ever since. She’s apparently going to serve as a witness for the prosecution, but because of the amount of time it takes for a case to go to trial, she could be detained for up to a year. A year in an East Timor prison. United States consular and embassy officials are meeting with East Timor officials.
I’ll admit, I’ve shared taxis with strangers before in a foreign country. For a grand total of two weeks while studying abroad in Costa Rica, I was interning at a local orphanage. While I was living in the capital of San Jose, the orphanage was more than an hour away, deep in the heart of the Central Valley. What this meant for me was that it involved taking two buses to get to, one from San Jose to a small town, and then a second from a small town that to a road where I could walk to the orphanage. In short, it was a major pain in the ass and I absolutely hated it. I don’t remember all of the details but one of the days I went, I must have just missed my second connection and so, along with some other locals who were waiting, I piled into a taxi with them. They were all complete strangers to me, but being in rural Costa Rica, where public transportation is undependable, and many people do not own cars, your choices are limited. I was 19 at the time, I stood out for the foreigner that I was, and yet I didn’t think twice about doing this. Sometimes traveling to developing nations, you literally “do what you have to do.” On my recent trip to Peru, I traveled in many private cars. Although I was with a traveling companion, it was still just us and a driver, who was a stranger. Although hotels had always arranged the travel, these drivers didn’t work directly for the hotels, which contacted drivers as a courtesy to their guests. No, you can’t live your life worrying about “is something going to happen to me if I do this,” and yet, stories like Addison’s make the worry and paranoia that much more real. And the fact that during the drive from Ollantaytambo to Cusco our driver was stopped by the police at a random checkpoint and made to get out of the car was for us a frightening couple of minutes (we were in the middle of NOWHERE Peru). Sometimes there are reasons for fear.
In the developing world, I’ve only done one “land” border crossing. It was from Costa Rica into Nicaragua, an area that is rife with tensions at all times since the two countries have many ongoing and historical spats stretching back decades. It wasn’t frightening since thankfully it was during the day and I was with a group of people I knew, but it was definitely intimidating and nothing like I had ever done before (if you think of the border crossing from the United States to Canada and compare it with something in Central America, you’d laugh). Likewise, an all too common theme of “around the world travelers” (Addison has been traveling around the world since January of 2013) is that they’re budget conscious and frugal at all times wanting their dollars to stretch as far as they can. Not that I could ever see myself traveling from the Indonesia border into East Timor, but if I were in a similar situation, I would have paid enough that the local driver wouldn’t have wanted to pack another person in. Some borders in other countries are best thought of as “unscrupulous and unsavory.” No, Addison could have never known that one of her taxi companions would be a drug smuggler and yet when traveling, never trust someone you don’t know. Never put yourself into a situation that could spiral into a “Brokedown Palace” scenario (the movie starring Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale-if you’ve never seen it, do) within minutes.
When I travel, I put my trust in the people I intimately know and the situations I have arranged personally-flights, hotels, tours. While I have always loved meeting new people on my travels and chatting with them, that’s all it ever is-pleasantries. I would never change my plans, I would never do something I hadn’t been planning on doing (obviously I’m referring to something more than grabbing a meal or visiting a tourist attraction) with a complete stranger. Maybe this sounds cold and mean of me, but in the type of society that we live in, you can’t one hundred percent entirely trust everyone you meet. While most people will be like you (i.e. armed with good intentions), there will always be someone who is not. I would never stop traveling for fear of the unknown or paranoia that something will happen to me, but Addison’s experience is a sobering reminder that no matter how savvy and careful a traveler you think you are, you need to be that much more so.