What Getting Kidnapped Taught Me About Traveling Aware

What Getting Kidnapped Taught Me About Traveling Aware

by Jessica Ure on

Like ‘love,’ ‘hate’ and ‘pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism,’ ‘kidnapped’ is a pretty big word. You hear about children going missing from playgrounds, aid workers being snatched by ISIS militants and ship crews being taken hostage by Nigerian pirates. But what about twenty something female backpackers being shanghaied by a gaggle of Filipino women? Didn’t think so.

Had I read the ‘Dangers and Annoyances’ section of my Lonely Planet I might have been a little more wary when chatting to a smiling Filipino woman, her ‘cousin’ with crooked front teeth and their seemingly adorable teenage niece. All three were well dressed, friendly and in hindsight, suspiciously friendly when told me they loved my long blonde hair in Manila’s Rizal Park. Whoever said flattery won’t get you anywhere!?

We got chatting, and instead of heading to the historic core of Intramuros as I’d planned, they convinced me to sit down at a street vendor and share some noodles. It never crossed my mind that a plate of greasy Filipino ‘bihon guisado’ could have thrown me into a three-day bender of drugs, karaoke and enduring confusion. The last thing I remember from that day is stumbling through a night market sampling mangoes, eating dinner in a slum and finally being dropped back at my hostel and put to bed by a fellow traveller who passed me off as drunk. In the morning I somehow managed to perfectly pack up my things and meet the ‘lovely ladies’ out front, as agreed. We jump in a van with a handful of men, and the ‘adventure’ begins…

Several hours later and we’re on a beach, sipping a Filipino favourite of cheap gin and orange concentrate. And unbeknown to me, a sprinkling of what I strongly suspect was scopolamine. Aka Devil’s Breath, a Colombian drug that turns you into a walking, talking zombie of sorts. I thought this was pretty much the extent of the snatch, with the ladies dropping me off on the side of the road later that night. Turns out, I was with them for two nights and three days. What happened in that time is a blur, with memories coming back to me periodically for about two weeks after we parted ways…

Flicking through my camera a few days later I see pictures of me and the group I didn’t know were taken. The strange thing is, I’m wearing three sets of clothes. And then it clicks. I was in a daze for longer than I thought. A few days later and I remember checking into a hotel room with a group of men. Another day, I turn a corner on a rented scooter and get a flashback to standing at an ATM and being urged to withdraw all the cash I can. For some reason which never fails to impress me, my intoxicated past-self had the intuition to input fake pin codes and lock myself out of all my accounts. Finally, the reason why none of my bank accounts had been working the night after they dropped me off became clear. 

It was a total mess, but despite the mental trauma and eventual embarrassment at being kidnapped by a trio of ladies, I did learn a few valuable lessons from the whole disaster…

  • First of all, as polite as it is to accept food from others in Asian countries, if I’m travelling alone and in a potentially vulnerable situation, my answer is now a categorical ‘no.’ As a tasteless, odorless and virtually traceless drug, it was all too easy for the ladies to lace my food with a sprinkling of scopolamine. So as well as being wary of edible gifts, I also keep a close eye on food and drink I’ve purchased myself. Ladies, you should all be aware of drink spiking while out on the town, so treat food spiking while trotting the globe with just as much caution.


  • Secondly, be incredibly careful what information you disclose to people. Before I was drugged, I openly revealed that yes, I was travelling alone. This made me an instant target. Now, I get to know people a little better before giving them the whole ‘travelling solo’ spiel.


  • Another big lesson was establishing a point of contact with a friend or family member. Checking in daily might sound like overkill, but for me the reality was that no one knew where I was, or if I was safe. I hadn’t even told my parents I’d landed in Manila. After I was taken I gallivanted around the country for three days, and only raised the alarm when I was shacked up in a miscellaneous hotel room on the other side of the island. A simple arrangement to check in with a family member of friend would have triggered warning bells, and at least given the police a place and time frame to work with had the situation turned nasty. BIG lesson.


  • It may seem a little obvious but travel insurance is a must. I only had a hundred dollars or so stolen in the end, with my passport, laptop and other valuables left untouched. I was lucky, as stolen passports can cost A LOT of money to replace! If I’d missed flights, lost all my belongings or encountered major medical issues I could have been thrown into serious debt.


  • Finally, I learnt to count my lucky stars. The whole experience left me in an emotionally delicate state for weeks, but what’s scarier is the thought of what could’ve happened. Rapes, murders, ransoms… I got away more or less unscathed, but I know others aren’t so fortunate.

Travel safe amigos!  


Jessica Ure

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