I thought I was being kidnapped!!

I thought I was being kidnapped. Obviously I wasn’t since I can write about it.

First the back story

Through an online community called Couch Surfing I attempted to find places to stay for my first nights in Guatemal City while I figured out transportation, and at my destination, San Pedro la Laguna, while I figured out long-term lodging. Keep in mind I know damn little Spanish.

So through various dialogs with a few people I came up empty as far as finding couches to sleep on. However, one person who I believe to be in the Peace Corp offered to arrange a seat on a tourist bus (minivan) for me that would meet me at the airport and take me to the village of Panajachel on the shore of Lake Atitlan, 90 miles and 4-6 hours away due to road conditions from which I would take a ferry across the lake to San Pedro. For just 25 dollars!! Awesome, right?!?! Remember the $25, it’s important as my paranoia unfolds.

Well I thought it was awesome. Then I realized I’m accepting a ride from a stranger in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I’ll be packed like a long-term tourist, i.e., I’m a target!

So I asked some basic question for my own motivated self-preservation. Like, will that van be marked as a commercial vehicle, what’s the driver’s name, how will I know I’m going with the right person?

Also, in the back of my mind I remember reading something about a tourist bus would cost about $120.00 to a similar destination on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Do you sense my building paranoia yet?

There were no solid answers from my couch surfing compatriot, who by the way, portrays herself as a twenty-something female. The van may, or may not be marked. The driver will be unknown because they work in rotation and whoever is up, is who I get, but I’ll know him because he will be holding a sign with my name on it. Oh, a sign, EXCELLENT, that ought to have a company logo or something on it, right? The other semi-sound advice was that there will be other tourist like me in the van, Hakuna Matata, right… what could go wrong here?

My day of arrival, Monday April 8th, 2013. Anxiety level – a little high

After navigating my way through Customs and Immigration I find myself at the arrivals curb facing a crowd of hawkers offering rides and/or holding signs. This crowd of hawkers was being kept back from the doors by barricades and police (or security, not sure which). I was expecting to see lanes at the curb like the airports in the States, Europe, and Qatar, for picking up arrivals, perhaps a lane for taxis and tour operators like what I thought my driver was. Anxiety may have ratcheted up a notch at this point.

As I scan for my name I see professional signs, such as recognizable hotel names and the like. Then I see  MY NAME… on a piece of white paper, maybe written with a Sharpie. Not exactly a professional sign, now is it? What to do? What else was there to do but introduce myself?

The drivers name was allegedly Armando. He unceremoniously crumpled up my sign and tossed it in the bin. (There goes the only possible physical forensic evidence at the scene of my abduction? Assuming they use forensics and finger prints in Guatemala. I found peace in the possibility there would be video surveillance at the exit doors).

I was expecting that perhaps another sign would appear, though I don’t know from where, for other passengers. Instead, Armando begins walking away. Thinking (hoping) I was the last to arrive and the other travelers were already in the van waiting I follow, and we talk, sort of.

Armando is not fluent in English, and as I said previously, I know damn little Spanish and none of it is very useful outside of a tourist bubble. To be clear, I hope my Spanish can approach Armando’s English in the time between now and July when I leave Guatemala.

So as we walk away from airport exit I ask where the van is. I’m told, “this way”, as he motions up the driveway/ramp leaving the airport.

“Are there other passengers?”

“Two more”

“Ah, and where are they”, expecting to be told in the van, but that would be too much to ask, would it?

“Antigua”, I’m told. Well, Antigua is perhaps an hour away. Anxiety ratcheted again.

“I was told there would be other passengers.”

I don’t recall the conversation through the fog of my near panicked mind, other than it’s just me and Armando to Antigua where two more, yet to be identified, people will join us. Passengers or accomplices, I know not. Then Armando makes a call on his cell phone. I have no idea what he said. Other than I heard “The Senorita” a couple of times. Paranoid me associates “The Senorita” with Elizabeth the alleged Peace Corp volunteer whom I coming to believe is the master mind of a kidnapping ring specialized in Spanish language illiterate gringos – people like me!

We’ve walked for a few minutes and are approaching a street. In my mind I’m expecting a panel van with no windows, the driver of which Armando just spoke with, to pull up to the curb fling open the side door and nab me!

Instead, we crossed the street, j-walking and dodging traffic. I see a parking lot ahead, across another street and a fine location for an abduction it is. We pass that lot and go to the next where the van is supposed to be parked.

At this point Armando has been carrying one of my bags since we started up the ramp leaving the airport. My main bag is on my back. My only real escape option is to drop the bag from my back and flee like mad toward the airport, hoping that I can run faster than my would be assailants and cross two streets of traffic as if I was the frog in the video game “Frogger”. Not a good option, but my best.

We get to the lot with the van in it. It’s a small lot, about the size of suburban building lot back home and no clear view to the street. Even better for shifty dealing than the first lot. There’s a toll gate with a cashier in it. Good, I don’t think I’ll be mugged here, unless he’s an accomplice in case things go south for Armando in the struggle for my goods? Also, the van looks very similar to some I’ve seen of commercial web sites while I was planning this little trip of mine. However, there were no commercial signs on this van, nor many of the vans on the web sites. Do I get in, or bail? Well of course I get in, where else would I go?

And we’re off!

Just so I wouldn’t be totally bewildered I mapped direction before I left home. It looks like a pretty straight forward route (http://goo.gl/maps/TID6n). Head north from the airport, go east on the Pan American Highway.

It was not as advertized. Armando did so many twists and turns that I had no idea the route we followed. At one point he actually drove around a block, literally around a block! I look at him from the passenger seat in the front of the van, hold my left palm facing up, make a circular motion on my palm with my right hand and inquisitively say, “circles?”

His reply while chuckling and bobbing his head, “Yes, circles.”

And paranoid me starting thinking again. Guatemala city is pretty densely packed, or at least our route was. And there were many alleyways and lots and lots of gated drives. I don’t mean with fences, I mean solid gates that you can’t see through.

Remember his phone call. This was it. We are going to turn into one of the open gates. The Senorita, that’s Elizabeth if lost track, will turn out to be an over weight middle aged balding crime boss, and not a bright eyed 20-something Peace Corp volunteer. And my life will be changed for ever!! My goodness, maybe I can just stroke out and be done with this.

Needless to say, paranoid me has an over active imagination

The ride was uneventful to Antigua where we picked a newlywed couple, Clay and Marisol, who were honeymooning. Marisol is a Guatemalan and met Clay in Florida, I assume while attending college. The couple had a lengthy courtship, one year of which Marisol spent at a culinary school in Paris. Our paths have crossed a couple times since arriving in Panajachel. Nice couple, I wish them the best.

In hindsight

The block that we drove around I later figured out was a make shift roundabout. It was in a dense part of the city with narrow streets and making a proper roundabout just isn’t feasible. Left turns across oncoming traffic aren’t allowed. So to go left you have to make three consecutive right hand turns.

biz-card-armando-ordonezArmando Ordonez is an upstanding businessman and manager of “Katok Atitlan Travel” in Panajachel and I can wholeheartedly recommend his service for transportation and tours. And I’m not getting any kickbacks of any kind for saying that.

I have not yet met “The Senorita”, err, Elizabeth. By all appearances she does in fact seem to be a volunteer with the Peace Corp and is working with a medical group in the villages around Lake Atitlan. Or, she’s a really crappy crime boss. If our paths ever cross I will post a full report.

Thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings. Please let me know what you think in the comments.