Travelling with anxiety leaves you feeling a little more wary of strangers than your average backpacker. It also means you check your bag is zipped up a trillion times a day, check your passport is still in your pocket every three minutes, and you usually arrive to airports, bus stops and train stations waaaaaaay too early.
This was me during my time in Peru. However, by the end of my second week there, after surviving my journey across the Atlantic, making friends, and really getting into this whole solo backpacking thing, I began to relax. I began to feel more and more confident everyday and as I stepped outside my comfort zone, I also began to let my guard down.
Soon it was time to make my way to my next destination– Santiago, Chile. I began my day in Arequipa, South Peru, and after a long day of travelling by bus and crossing the Chilean border (which is a whole other story for another time) I arrived at Arica airport in Chile, ready for my midnight flight. After 12 hours of travel, I had made it. All on my own. Yay.
But what do I discover?
My flight is delayed till 2am. Boo.
Arica airport is teeny tiny and there was literally nothing to do, not even any wifi, all I could do was sit in the bar, so I did. I had some food. And some wine. Went for a wander. Returned for more food. Then had a little more wine. You get the idea – lots of wine.
By the time boarding opened up at 1.15am, I felt dead. My 6am get up, plus the stress of the border crossing, mixed with the crippling boredom and the red wine – I wasn’t quite feeling human and I was desperate to get to a bed. On the plane I was in-and-out of sleep and I actually nearly cried when the hostess forced me to wake up and sit up right for landing. I just wanted a bed. And that’s when I realised I hadn’t pre-warned my hostel that I would be arriving early hours of the morning. Dam it!
You see, Hostels aren’t like Hotels. Whilst some have 24 hour receptions, most don’t. Most don’t allow check-in till certain times and they lock the front doors at night. I didn’t want to find myself locked outside on the street at 5am, so I decided I would just treat myself to a night in a hotel. At least that way I would have my own room and bathroom and could chill for a few hours.
After picking up my rucksack from baggage, I fought my way through the army of smartly dressed cab drivers all fighting for my attention, so that I could make my way to a cash point to withdraw some Chilean money.
I followed the signs to the other end of Arrivals for an ATM and I was so tired and dazed, I didn’t even notice a guy waving at me until he was right in front of me. I focused my eyes on him, he wore jeans and a t-shirt and held a sign that had ‘CAB’ written on it.
“Cab?” he asked. Anxious worrier me would have politely declined, got her cash and returned to find a taxi driver who look a little more, erm, licenced. But new confident, out of her comfort zone me (who was now also moonlighting as tired and dishevelled me) decided to just go with the flow.
“Yes,” I mumbled, “I just need to use this ATM.” I could feel him lingering behind me, but I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated by him at all. He was about my age, maybe younger and seemed quite friendly.
“Okay, I’m ready.” I said grabbing my money and turning towards him. “Could you take me to a Holiday Inn?”
“The Holiday Inn is just there.” He pointed out the airport window and he was right, it was right in front of me.
“Oh” I laughed, but then felt guilty for wasting his time. “Lo Siento, Gracias,” I said as I turned to walk away from him and get myself in a big giant snuggly Holiday Inn bed.
“You have a room booked?” He had a strong accent but his English was great. I shook my head. “Because it $140 for single room.”
$140!! I can not afford that. That is almost a week’s budget! He must have noticed the panicked and disappointed look on my face.
“But I can take you much better hotel, nice place, $40 for night.”
I hesitated. “No thanks, I’ll…” but he cut me off, not without laughing first as if he understood that I was a little unsure.
“I am cab driver, I just want to help you get a room at good price, I can take you to a good hotel, I promise.”
I was so tired. Exhausted. And I did not want to spend more time than I should faffing about in the airport just because my anxiety felt like overreacting like it always does. It’s normal to feel paranoid and anxious about getting in a car with a stranger, I told myself. You’ve been brought up with that mentality. I shuffled from foot to foot. But your backpacking now. You have to take risks and trust strangers. You can’t run away from every cab driver.
“Si, that would be great.” I told the guy. He lead the way to an escalator and we made our way up to another floor. I did question this, because we seemed to be heading away from where all the other taxi drivers had been hanging out and pestering tourists.
“Don’t worry,” he chuckled “there is another floor of cabs upstairs.”
As we exited the airport and I felt the warm air hit me like someone had turned on a hairdryer, I noticed a line of cars all parked up on the side. He walked me to a big black family type car that was parked at the front. It had blacked out windows. And for some reason I didn’t question that.
He swung open the door at the back and I threw my big rucksack on the far seat, then my little backpack in the middle and then I hopped onto the seat closest to me and he slammed the door closed behind me. But as I looked up, I saw that there was already a man in the drivers seat. Ooops, have we gotten in the wrong car? But the driver didn’t even look at me. Before I even had time to register it happening, the other guy had jumped in the front passenger seat and the car was pulling away from the curb at super speed, the tyrres screeching, causing me to swerve onto my backpacks as I stared up at the two men who began speaking to each other in Spanish.
Two men. There are two of them. Why are there two of them? What kind of cab needs two men up front?
“Hola” I said to the driver but he completely ignored me. “Why do you both need to take me?” I asked, my voice now a mere croak in comparison to what it had been just 30 seconds before.
My friend from the airport responded. “I told you, I take you to nice hotel.” His tone had changed from light-hearted and friendly to a terrifyingly, uninterested attitude.
Maybe it’s like a fancy concierge system, I hoped. “Can the driver not just take me?”
But he didn’t answer.
“Where are we going?” But no response. “What hotel is it?” I quizzed.
“Sorry, my English not so good” airport guy replied. So now his excellent language skills were now ‘not so good’?? His dark tone terrified me and in that moment, my heart stopped. I realised how stupid I had been to get in this car. To say I ‘felt sick’ would be an understatement. The biggest, tightest knots formed in my stomach. I could actually feel my heart beating in my throat. My mouth went dry and I felt all the colour drain from my face.
Are they kidnapping me? Are they going to sell me into sex slavery? Are they going to rob me? Rape me? Kill me? What if I’m about to be drugged, abused and tortured? Why isn’t the driver speaking? Why does he look so shifty? Why does he look GUILTY? Oh God, what if I never see my family again? How do get out of this car? Why did I say Yes to this guy??
These were all questions and scenarios running through my head at a million miles an hour.
And yet what did I do?
Nothing. Absolutely Nothing.
I know I should have just opened the door and jumped out the moving car, that would have been better than whatever they were going to do with me, right? I should have left my bags and made a run for it, bags and items were no longer priorities or resembled any importance. Maybe even just roll down a window and scream for help.
But my body was frozen. Not one part of me could move. I don’t think I’d ever felt fear like it. You know how you get the fear sometimes, like when you miss the bottom step and for that teeny tiny moment that you fall you feel it – I had that feeling, only it wouldn’t go away. A permanent fear of horror and it had me frozen, glued to the car seat.
In my head I began playing back every stupid step I took from the plane to this car. Every single step had been made by me. I could have gone to the Holiday Inn. I could have turned down his offer of a hotel. I could have walked away when he told me we were going upstairs. But I didn’t. I’d been so stupid. I’d avoided listening to my gut. And at 30 years old, I’d basically broken the promise I made to my Mum when I was a little girl to never ever get in a car with a stranger, no matter what nice favours they offered.
My silly delayed brain began to notice and question things that I should have questioned earlier. Like why wasn’t he dressed like the other Cab drivers? Why had he been skulking alone by the ATM? Why were the windows to the car blacked out?
His phone rang and he began speaking Spanish to someone. After he hung up he mumbled something to the driver. I looked out the windows, it was pitch black out but I could see we were on a motorway. Not exactly a place I would want to roll out of a car action movie style – not that my body could even move. I wondered if we were actually going into the city or if they were driving me out to some woods or desert. His phone rang again and more Spanish conversation took place. Maybe if I had paid close attention I could have tried to decipher a few of the words, but my panicked mind was racing 100 miles an hour!
A third phone conversation took place. This time I plucked up the courage to ask about it.
“Who keeps calling you?” I said trying to sound as calm as possible.
“My boss.” A lump formed in my throat as my mind conjured up images of a Chilean gangster, a nasty man who kidnaps female tourists and sells them as sex slaves. “He has hotel room for you.”
We were now zooming down streets now. I could see trees and buildings. We were definetly in the city. At one point I saw a fountain and what looked like a park, there was a long strip of trees. There were other cars on the streets and I wondered if I rolled down my window super quick and shouted, if any of them would help me.
I need to get out this car somehow. I need to get out. How? How do I do this?
I honestly would have preferred them to drive me around in the car all night. I was just terrified about what would happen when the car stopped. What would happen then? I didn’t want to know what came next.
I’m going to have to fight them off and I just don’t have the strenght, I don’t even have anything sharp on me, I’m going to…
“We here now.” The car pulled up and slowed down to a stop outside a small building. I looked outside and sure enough it was a hotel. I couldn’t believe it. Where they actually dropping me off? Was I about to be free?
The Driver, who hadn’t spoken a word to me, turned to face me and held up a piece of paper with ‘$60,000’ written on it. $60,000 Peso’s was waaaaaaaaaaay more than my research had said a cab from the airport should be. I was quoted $12-15,000 online. But I didn’t argue. I didn’t even question it. I took out the money, my hand shaking as I counted it and practically threw it at the driver. I opened the door and dragged my bags out.
“Let me help you” airport guys voice, now light-hearted and freindly again, made me jump as he appeared at my side and tried to pick up my big bag. I snatched it from him.
“I’m fine Thanks.” I ran into the hotel lobby, which was silent, eery and empty apart from a girl sleeping at reception. It was dark and creepy. I didn’t care.
“Hola” I shouted loudly startling her. She opened her eyes and propped herself up. As she did my scary friend appeared behind me again.
“Here, I have booked your room in my name.” He said smiling, touching my arm as if to walk me over to the girl.
“No it’s fine, I can sort it.”
“But, room booked in my-“
“I’ll sort my room.”
“But I have reserve-“
“Go away!” This time I snapped, desperate for him to leave. I saw the girl look up and airport guy gave me an angry look.
Why is he insisting on checking me in? I just want him to get away from me, I just want this night to be over.
The girl and airport guy quickly exchanged words in Spanish.
“Do you know him?” I asked the girl, trying to send her a woman-to-woman signal that he was bothering me and to help me, but also double check she wasn’t in on his secret plot to kidnap me.
“Woah!” he shouted at me. “I just try to help you! That is all!” And with that he stormed out. Thank God!
I booked myself into the hotel for one night (even thought it was now nearly 6am and I was paying $45 for five hours in the room). She handed me my key, I noted down the wifi password and I ran off to my room on the fourth floor. The corridors were long, dark and the décor totally dated. As my exhausted body walked down with my bags in tow, I felt like I was being followed. I also felt alone and totally creeped out, like I was in a haunted hotel that had no other guests.
In my room, my anxiety and paranoia took over. What if the girl on reception was in on this? What if it was her job to get me settled into a room, feeling comfortable and safe and then she gives the men a key to my room? What if I’m snatched or drugged whilst I’m sleeping?
This may all sound cookoo, and maybe it was from being overtired, maybe it was all down to my anxiety overworking, but I was genuinely getting myself soooooo worked up about it. So much so that I took all the furniture, bar the bed, and used it to barricade my hotel room door – drawers, chairs, a bookcase! I decided to connect to the wifi so that I could try and facetime my sister, but the wifi didn’t work in my room. This scared me more.
I put the TV on, loud, just to have some sort of noise to fill my ears other than my own terrifying thoughts. I sat on the corner of the bed, fully dressed, with a pair of tweezers and my camera tripod as weapons, determined not to fall asleep. I would wait out the next hour or so until it got light. Then I would leave.
But I must have passed out.
The next thing I remember is waking up at 9am, the TV was still on. I was still in the room, unharmed. My bags were still there.
I looked out the window, it was a gorgeous day; the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I looked down and saw a garden with children playing in it and I could hear cars whizzing by and birds singing. It was like a different room, a different hotel, a different situation. Had the night before actually happened? Had my anxiety made the whole thing worse than it was? Had I made it all up in my head?
I decided to check on my currency converter what I had been charged for the cab. $60,000 Chilean Pesos turned out to be £50, when it should have been no more than £15. Yup, I had been well and truly scammed. Maybe that’s what these guys did – tricked naïve solo female travellers into cabs and intimidated them so much that they would pay anything to get out of the cab. It certainly worked on me.
With the added payment of the $45 for the room (that I spent a total of four hours in) I may as well have just waltzed into that Holiday Inn at the airport and got a room there and then.
I showered, checked out, stuffed my face at the free breakfast buffet (the one positive out of this disaster of a situation) and left the hotel to head to my hostel. But I left the hotel that day with my confidence kicked, my nerves back, my guard well and truly up and jumping head first back into my comfort zone. Those men may never have intended to harm me or kidnap me, maybe that was my anxiety making it worse for me, but either way I never wanted to be in that situation again. Ever. I learnt my lesson. Always listen to your gut.
After an incredible two weeks in Peru, this had been the worst way to kick off my Chilean adventure. I wondered if I would ever be able to recover from this experience and step back outside my comfort zone?