That Time I Got Covered in Human Shit (and Other Travel Scams)
There’s really no words to adequately describe how it feels to be doused in human shit.
Appalling? Of course.
(Those last two get closer to nailing it but they’re still an understatement.)
I had been walking away from Quito’s main square, Plaza de la Independencia, after taking a few snaps, when it happened.
I wasn’t even two minutes from the square, and still very much in a buzzing area in broad daylight, when I felt a splash of something hit my head, back, and right arm from behind.
Instantly, I knew the deal. The “Liquid Scam,” where you get doused in some mysterious substance and a “Good” Samaritan rushes to help clean you up (and robs you of your valuables — in my case, my DSLR — in the process).
I looked to my left and saw a small, impeccably dressed old man, perhaps in his 70s, in a gray pinstriped suit, scamper across the street.
A split second later, a tall man with long dark hair sidled up to me, telling me in Spanish that I must have been christened by a bird. Laughing, he thrust his arm above his head to indicate from where this apparently pterodactyl-sized creature had dumped about a mug’s worth of crap on me.
Without saying a word or reacting, I quickly crossed the street and ran back to my hostel to clean up. My priority was to get away from these two men as fast as possible, and get this horrendous smelling red-brown sludge off me. I eventually realized what it was when the initial shock wore off and the unmistakable smell of human shit engulfed me. I alternated between gagging, crying, and blind fury while running home.
I guess, in a way, I was lucky. I wasn’t hurt, I didn’t get robbed, and I still had my camera. The only real victim was my favorite pink singlet, which obviously went straight in the trash. I must have washed my hair at least 10 times.
Ironically, just two days before Poo-Gate, I had picked up someone else’s Lonely Planet while on a boat in the Galapagos, and turned to the scams page. It warned in Ecuador to be wary of the liquid scam, but it warned of condiments, ink, or pigeon poo mixed with water as weapon of choice. It never warned of human shit.
Regardless, I knew what had happened and exactly what to do because of the decision to pick up that guidebook. Had I not known, I probably would have let that guy with the long dark hair help clean me up. I probably would have handed over my camera bag, which was also covered in splotches of crap, and I probably now would be taking pictures with my smashed up, ancient iPhone 4 instead. However, I knew, and I ran, and I can be thankful for that.
This unfortunate incident made me think about how it pays to be prepared for the (literally) shitty things that can happen when you travel.
Scams don’t just happen in Ecuador. Or South America. They also happen in the US, Australia, China, France, Italy, Russia, Tanzania, and just about any other country you can think of.
If you’re headed off on an adventure, it’s important to do your research and know what tricks to look out for in your destination.
Here are some common scams around the world that are worth taking note of.
The Gold Ring Ruse, Paris
Some say you haven’t really been to Paris if no one has tried this on you.
According to insurer World Nomads, a scammer will approach with a gold ring and ask if it’s yours. They will then tell you to keep it.
If you do, the scammer will demand their share in the find. If you don’t, you’ll still be hit up for money, so that the scammer can buy lunch, a train ticket, feed his kids, etc.
In the worst case scenario, an accomplice will pickpocket you during the exchange. If someone comes at you with shiny things that obviously aren’t yours, don’t stop, and definitely don’t engage with them. Keep walking.
The “Temple is Closed” Trick, Thailand
Official-looking guides will approach you in the street, warning, quite convincingly, that whatever tourist site you are trying to enter is closed (holiday, maintenance, strike, etc), but they are happy to take you on a private tour somewhere else.
Lonely Planet warns that this happens usually at Wat Pho, The Grand Palace, and Khao San Road in Bangkok. I fell for this outside The Grand Palace on my first trip to Thailand a decade ago, and was taken on a tour of every other temple, and half a dozen silk and tailor shops instead.
Ignore these guys and check for yourself at the main gate. This scam is most prevalent in Thailand, but common throughout Southeast Asia in general.
The “Just Need to Check Your Credit Card Details” Con, United States
A CNN report warns that this increasingly common scam involves hotel guests who receive a phone call in the middle of the night from someone claiming to work at the front desk. They will say there is a problem with your credit card and ask you to confirm your number.
The scammers are banking (pun intended?) on you giving out your info over the phone while half-asleep and confused.
Hang up and ring your hotel’s front desk to ensure the request is legit (once you properly wake up).
The Teahouse Scam, China
One of the biggest scams in China is the overpriced tea ceremony.
The Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website warns that travelers are being approached on the street and invited for a drink at a nearby teahouse for a number of reasons, including to practice English.
“Afterwards the tourist is presented with a vastly inflated bill and is not permitted to leave until they pay the bill by credit card,” they warn. “Physical violence, including serious assault, and credit card skimming or duplication has occurred.”
There’s also a possibility of being drugged and robbed. If you want a real teahouse experience, book it through an agency or your hotel.
The Victorian Government has warned that job seekers on working holiday visas should watch out for scam emails, advertisements, and websites offering fruit-picking jobs for an up-front fee. The ads target backpackers looking for seasonal work and often include “free” accommodation.
Travelers have handed over hundreds of dollars to later find the job, or the farm, doesn’t exist. Thoroughly research anyone promising jobs before paying them.
The Lube Job, East Africa
This scam involves travelers driving through small towns in East Africa.
A “Good” Samaritan will approach your car and warn that your wheel bearing is leaking oil or has some other issue. Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler explains in this Travel and Leisurereport: “In fact, the bystander has just sloshed a cup of oil onto your wheel, and tells you there’s a garage around the corner that’ll fix your problem.” Your Good (actually very Bad) Samaritan and garage owner will share the profits of the pointless repair.
Be wary of anyone claiming there is a problem with your car and then offering to help you fix it.
Despite what happened to me in Quito, I plan to return.
One of the greatest tests for any traveler is striking the balance between being safety conscious and too closed-off to all the incredible new experiences around you.
Sure, I’ll be on the lookout for tiny old men in pinstripe suits, but I’ll retrace my steps through the city’s colorful streets and eat that weird but amazing quinoa gelato I found in the Old Town again.
Be smart about scams and educate yourself about what could happen. But also be aware if a bad encounter is negatively coloring your view of the people or culture you came to experience. Keep your mind open.
And, most importantly, accept that sometimes when you travel, shit just happens.
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Have you ever been the victim of a scam while traveling? Share in the comments and help warn other travelers!