Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2007

A SFPAn and frequent Chall pal, Gary’s first piece for our zine dealt with watching paint dry. Bet he’d
have preferred that to this.

How I Escaped my

Peruvian Kidnappers

Gary Robe

Art by Kurt Erichsen

OK, is that a melodramatic enough headline to sell this zine? I thought so. Yes, I got kidnapped during a visit to Lima. I wasn’t hurt or even threatened with violence, and I’m obviously here to tell the tale. It makes for interesting party conversation.

The obvious question you might ask is why a lone Gringo was doing arriving at midnight in Lima in the first place? I am an R&D chemist for Eastman Chemical Company, based in the company's corporate headquarters in Kingsport, Tennessee. As the only fluent Spanish speaker in my group it is a natural extension of my job to work on technology support and business development in Latin America. So in addition to my responsibilities for new product and application development, I get to travel across South America to promote the use of Eastman's line of raw materials for the adhesives industry. Before you get all jealous about me getting to sun myself on the beaches in Rio or explore the trackless Amazonian wilderness let me tell you Robe's First Law of International Business Travel; they don't put glue factories next to tourist attractions.

This trip through South America was planned well in advance since it required coordinating the travel of four Eastman people plus setting up customer calls in two different countries involving three sets of local distributors. As with most such trips there weren’t a lot of choices in making connections. I had to leave home on the morning of Sunday, April 2 in order to make sure I would be in Atlanta for the single daily flight from there to Lima. If I missed that connection, I might as well cancel the whole trip. I would then arrive in Lima in the late evening of the 2nd to be met by a limo service driver at the airport for transport to a hotel for a few hours rest. I would then make calls in Peru on the 3rd and 4th, then take a night flight from Lima to Santiago, spend two days in Chile and then return home on the night of the 6th. My flight leaving Tennessee was right on time, but the Atlanta-Lima flight was delayed for over an hour due to the plane not arriving on schedule. With the delay I arrived in Lima at 11:15 p.m. I was seated right next to the door of the plane so I was one of the first passengers off the plane. Normally this would be a trivial detail, but it plays in to later events.

The line at the immigration checkpoint was very long and very slow, so it was well past midnight when I hit the customs inspection station. I got another delay when I got flagged for inspection at the customs checkpoint. After passing the immigration and customs gauntlet I went through a first set of sliding opaque glass doors to a vestibule in which drivers were waiting for incoming passengers. This was where I expected to be met, so I carefully scrutinized all of the placards on display. My name wasn’t among them. There were also two kiosks in the vestibule area belonging to the limo services, also displaying passenger’s names. Once again my name wasn’t there. By this time I was wondering what to do when I saw a second set of glass doors open and a multitude of people waiting outside, again with signs. I figured since I hadn't been met by the VIP services my driver must be waiting out there, so I passed through. Outside the security wall there were dozens of drivers waving name signs plus several hundred traveler’s relatives expectantly massing in a typically Latin chaos. One-by-one I examined the names on display and didn’t find mine. To make sure I passed over the crowd three times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. No luck.

OK, I thought, now what? Well, in Mexico, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago there are taxi stands in the airport where one can purchase passage and pre-pay for the ride without having to pass cash to the driver. Lima should be the same, shouldn't it? That was the simple assumption that sealed my misfortune. Lima is different. I discovered later that aside from the high-class limo services (like the one that should have been waiting for me) there are no taxi companies in Peru. Every one of the city's taxis is an independent operation and every driver works for himself. At 1 a.m. on a Monday morning there’s no such thing as a safe taxi. Your only hope is luck of the draw and hoping to get an honest driver.

I searched through the Lima airport in vain for a taxi stand. Of course, as soon as I left the exit for arriving passengers I attracted a gaggle of “admirers” asking to help me with my luggage and if I needed a taxi. I instinctively blew these guys off saying that I was meeting a friend and didn’t need a ride. I walked through the airport, and even looked outside on the curb for a sign of a taxi kiosk, but soon discovered that there was no such thing. I then decided to head back to the reception area to check again just in case I had either missed my name or the driver was running late.

At the point I tried to cross back into the arriving passenger exit a man in a suit with airport security credentials hanging from his neck stopped me and told me I couldn’t pass back in once I had left the area. Being a naive obedient and gullible Gringo, I believed him. I told him that I was supposed to have a driver meeting me, but I couldn’t find him. The guy then took me around to all the meeting points outside the debarkation lobby once again, but no luck. Then he asked if I needed a taxi. I really didn't want to have a stranger call a taxi for me in Lima. I considered trying to call the hotel to find one of my colleagues. My US-based cell phone does not work in Peru and all the public phones in the airport required a local phone card. I considered buying a phone card, but had no local currency. It was after midnight, all of the currency exchanges were closed so I was out of luck on that front. Not seeing any other option, I relented and asked for a taxi. He then made a call and escorted me out to the queue.

In about five minutes the taxi my savior called arrived. It was a station wagon, maybe 10 years old with the word taxi painted on the side. The driver asked where I was going and I told him the name of the hotel and the section of the city where it was located. He said he knew where it was. I asked if they could take a credit card or if I needed to convert some dollars into Peruvian Soles. The driver he could take the credit card. When I started to get into the back passenger seat the driver said, "No! Sit up front with me!" I didn’t think a lot of it because I often get chatty taxi drivers who like to interrogate a Spanish-speaking gringo visitor, so I got in. The taxi started to pull out and then stopped again and a second man jumped in the back seat. “Oh, well, I’m screwed now,” I thought as we pulled out of the airport.

Once the second guy got in I knew that I was taken, and started to think about how to get out of the situation. I happen to be a Second Dan Taekwando black belt with extensive extra training in street-style Hapkido fighting techniques. My martial arts credentials are not just for show. My Dan degree is certified by the World Taekwando Federation governing authority at the Kukkiwon headquarters in Korea (Certificate no. 05926522). I have twice qualified for the US Taekwando Union tournament in Olympic-style full contact sparring. I have sparred with national champion-level opponents 20 years younger than me. I don’t claim to be a greatly talented practitioner of martial arts, but I can hold my own in a street fight. One of the great things about martial arts training is its complete invisibility. There's no way to tell that the 50-something somewhat pudgy White and Nerdy type guy sitting next to you knows how to yank your arm off and hand it back to you in under two seconds. That at least gives me the element of surprise in a bad situation. If they had just known how I was thinking about doing them Grievous Bodily Harm these guys might have driven me to the hotel and only overcharged me for the ride. On the other hand, if I somehow tipped my hand they might feel obliged to escalate the encounter with hidden weapons. At this stage of the game my job was to stay cool.

The driver was no problem. I could just reach over with my right hand and yank his right hand off the steering wheel. As I straightened out his arm I would pop his elbow with my left hand. That would at least dislocate the elbow and possibly break it. At that point the guy wouldn’t be doing much more driving that night. The problem at that point was twofold. The first problem was tactical. What could I do about the guy in the back? Since I didn’t know if he was armed it would be the epitome of stupidity for me to take out the driver without incapacitating Amigo-In-The-Back. My best move would be to backfist him in the face with my left hand on the follow-through from breaking the driver’s arm. The problem was that I didn’t know if I could reach him in one movement and if I managed to land the blow if it would be decisive. The second problem was strategic. Even if I managed to subdue both driver and Amigo ITB, I would be lost. In Lima at 1:30 a.m. With a taxi and two broken and bleeding "taxi drivers" to explain when I flagged down a policeman. Visions of the Lima jail at sunrise went through my head. No, unless they showed a sign they were getting violent it wasn’t in my best interest to attack.

As we pulled onto the main highway of Lima the driver chatted about some of the landmarks of the city and asked about where I was from and how long I would be in town. After a few minutes came the question I was anticipating. “How will you be paying us?”

I replied, “I have US dollars and a credit card.”

“Oh, no.” said the driver, “We can only accept Peruvian Soles. You need to get some.”

“OK,” I said, “Just take me to the hotel, I can get them to convert my dollars and I can pay you whatever you want.”

At that point the driver turned the radio on loud and left the main highway. Without explaining what he was doing we started across progressively darker and more deserted roads. As the neighborhoods got rougher-looking I got progressively more nervous. I didn't want to give too much of my mental state away to my abductors by asking dumb questions like "Where are we?" and "Where are we going?" The answers to those were obviously "In our power" and "Somewhere worse." We finally came to an ATM on a lonely, unlighted street.

“Get out and use your credit card here to get Soles,” commanded the driver.

I wasn't about to leave the car on a dark street to approach a cash machine. Even if my abductors meant me no immediate harm, I couldn't be sure of anyone lurking in the shadows near the ATM waiting for someone to withdraw cash. Even more, I couldn't really use my credit card to get cash there. My corporate card has no PIN assigned, so it is useless. I decided this situation was too much out of my control, so I balked.

“No, I’m sorry but I can’t do that. Look here. This is a corporate credit card. It is not authorized for cash withdrawals –– only credit! If I try to use it here the machine will just eat it. There is no PIN for this card.”

“Don’t you have another card?” the driver suggested.

“No this is the only one I have,” (I lied –– I had personal cards I could have used, but why did they need to know that?). “Just take me to the hotel and I’ll get you money.”

The taxi then took off again and the driver and Amigo ITB discussed the situation. Finally they called on their cell phone for their boss to talk to me. I explained that I couldn’t use my card in an ATM and I would just have to go to the hotel. “No, let me talk to the driver,” said the voice on the other end.



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