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Drugged and robbed in the Philippines

A smiling, bleary-eyed Filipino approached me as I gaped at clunky Manila Cathedral. He greeted me bashfully, his face slightly jowly, his eyes bloodshot as after a drunk. The well-scrubbed lad with him of about ten grinned timidly, sporting new ill-fitting jeans and shirt seemingly carelessly chosen from a store rack, his freshly clipped black hair cow licked and resistant to combing, like a lad in The Little Rascals. The man said, “I am a merchant marine,” as he flashed an I.D. card, “and don’t have enough time for my son, so I brought him here to help him write a good school report.” He said they’d traveled from their home town on the coast south of Manila and showed me a photo of his wife and children. How sweet, I thought, how endearing, a father trying to compensate his son for his extended absences. He asked sheepishly whether I’d like to walk around historic Intramuros precinct with them. I gladly acceded, happy to saunter along with such a polite local man and his well-behaved son. He introduced himself as Raul and his silent, smiling son as Toto.

As we walked along the hulking Spanish walls, Raul inquired about my hotel in Manila and my occupation. When he heard my occupation, his eyes lit up and he cried enthusiastically: “Since you teach at university, would you like to see the oldest university in Asia, older than Harvard?” I said I would, savoring this opportunity to interact with locals so soon in my visit.

Exiting the crumbling walls, Raul hailed a clanging motorcycle taxi with covered side-car, known as a tricycle in Manila. The three of us crammed into the side-car, a space barely big enough for two. Our diminutive transport forged into the teeming traffic, immediately vying for space with cars, full-size buses and dazzling Jeepneys, sheet-metal adaptations of WW II military jeeps, extended in length to carry perhaps twenty passengers, garish circus wagons painted in oranges, greens, blues and yellows and comically bristling decorative horns and mirrors. Our driver’s eyes darted nervously left and right as we careered along, his face resembling a demon puppet in traditional Philippine theater.

Raul instructed our driver to pull over when he spotted a square stone tower peeking above a copse of trees. “There is world-famous University of Santo Tomas,” he exclaimed, pointing with chauvinistic gleam. “Now, would you like to see a cheap place where out-of-town Filipinos stay when they visit Manila?” My initial impulse was to insist upon seeing the university first but acquiesced, figuring I could return later, pleased to have a Manila resident show me places I might otherwise miss. Diffident Toto held onto his frozen smile, saying nothing, perhaps only able to speak Tagalog, I thought.

We reentered the whirling maelstrom, traveling in a new direction farther than we’d come, eventually plunging into a squalid, sprawling slum, an underworld of shanties thrown together from tin, scrap lumber, cardboard and tarpaulins. Badly nourished denizens festered apathetically in the tropical humidity. Descending deeper into the foul warren of corrugated tin hovels, Raul directed our, now smirking, tricycle driver to reverse directions several times, going up streets and then back, turning at corner after corner, until I was completely disoriented. I figured Raul had lost his way.

We halted at a tin house no more or less wretched than the others, entered a dimly lit, low-ceilinged ten-foot-square room and sat on plastic chairs at a plastic table, the miserable room’s only furnishings. Raul produced snacks, two bottles of warm San Miguel beer and glasses from a backroom, opened my beer in front of me and poured it in my glass. He returned holding a chunk of ice, and as he leaned to drop it in my beer glass, I felt it would be churlish to object to my gracious host trying to make amends for warm beer and so didn’t say the addition would be an abomination. We sat at the table chatting about Manila and its people, Toto remaining quiet. In my last recollection of being in the dingy room, I felt woozy and stood unstably while a friendly, wizened woman, whom I hadn’t seen before, soothingly massaged my stomach and began to undo my trousers, urging me to follow Toto’s example and lie on the floor. In my altered, dream-like condition, the reassuring witch’s unseemly actions weren’t alarming – trial and error must have proven the wicked effectiveness of using a genial crone and an innocent child on previous credulous patsies.

My next memory was of being stuffed in my groggy condition into the backseat of a taxi at night, an alarmed Chinese cabby recoiled as if watching a horror film, surmising my plight. The next thing I remember was awakening to the blue-gray light of dawn filtering into my room at my pensione. I tossed in my bed, foggy and bewildered, clutching to my chest my unzipped money belt normally worn under my jeans, never before removed by anyone but me. I languished in bed in my street clothes, I gradually piecing together what had befallen me. I felt so, so naïve, so green, so foolish. I had traveled solo in the developing world for over twenty years by then, never before being shanghaied. I was off my guard, lulled into complacency, wholly disarmed by the father and son ruse. The lad was indubitably a street urchin ordered to smile and remain silent for a few pesos, possibly playing Raul’s role today, having learned from the master. In retrospect, I’d ignored clues so patently obvious, violating a cardinal rule of solo travel: be on guard more in a large city than in the countryside and especially early in a journey.

Who knows what substance “Raul” dropped in my drink – perhaps the ole knockout drug choral hydrate — rendering me initially unconscious, followed by an ambulatory zombie state facilitating being conducted to a taxi and — though I didn’t recall it — up to my second story room in the pensione. I’d witnessed the same consequences in Ayacucho, Peru, where crooks spiked a traveling friend’s drink during a rendezvous he kept to score ganja: he conked out; the villains fleeced him and later walked him robotically back to our hotel.

As my mind began to clear, I determined my damages: Raul had absconded with my traveler’s checks and a modest amount of American cash, kindly leaving behind my passport, Philippine pesos and my nuisance-to-replace paper airline ticket, all having black market value. (Only later could I admit that Raul was a benign scoundrel in leaving those valuables and in not inflicting physical harm as — it horrified me to visualize — I had lain unconscious on the floor of the contemptible tin hut.) Humbled, barely composed, I showered and then stumbled down to the desk clerk, who exhibited no surprise at my story, directing me to the “tourist police” to obtain the report needed to replace my stolen traveler’s checks.

After a late breakfast of strong kapeng barako coffee and pandesal buns, I proceeded to see these tourist police, located at the Philippines Department of Tourism rather than the police station. An understanding plainclothes officer, with a bulldog face, listened to my story and asked me to wait while he prepared an ativan (theft) report. Officer Manapat’s report filled in details I didn’t tell him but which did indeed happen, the police knowing the brazen routine verbatim. When an American Express clerk later replaced my stolen checks, he blithely remarked: “Some tourists are too foggy to come to our office until two days after being drugged.” All in the ordinary course of business.

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