The Ugly American: How to Keep Your Ignorant Ass from Getting Kidnapped in Colombia

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As a travel expert, my best advice against getting kidnapped while vacationing is to avoid Colombia. According to travel stats, Colombia has the worst kidnapping rate of any country in the history of forever. In fact, it is four times worse than the country that comes in second, which is Mexico.* But people regularly ignore my advice, probably because tickets to Bogota are so cheap—what with the kidnapping risk and all. Take my friend Steve and his brother, two adorable young blond specimens who look loved by their family and therefore very ransom-worthy. They’re leaving to vacation in Colombia soon, probably never to be seen again. I’ve put together this list to help protect their ignorant asses:

1. Don’t look like you work for a multinational company or a foreign government. Instead, say you’re a nomadic street performer, and don’t forget to dress like a dead hobo.

2. Never pay for anything with your credit card. The Colombian gangs have insiders at banks and retail stores who can alert their co-thugs of a juicy prospect. It’s best to look sad and pay for things by emptying your pockets of pennies and sediment right onto the counter.

3. Claim you’ve lost contact with your family if your taxi driver, hotel clerk, cashier, etc., makes even the most casual inquiry. Here is a sample script: “I am unmarried and diseased with no family, having been abandoned at birth and raised in a cave by feral cats.”

4. Don’t wear expensive jewelry. In fact, don’t wear any jewelry, not even the ankle bracelet crocheted for you out of dental floss by your sister’s kid. It’s a flag that someone loves you, and if someone loves you they would sell their car to keep you from being held hostage in a spider hole for a few years.

5. Don’t travel on the highways. The majority of kidnappings are done by rebels in the countryside. So don’t travel on the highways. In fact, don’t even travel past the airport. Just turn around and take the next flight home. Seriously.

6. Don’t drink in bars. I know this is impossible, but it bares mentioning.

7. Don’t hire a hooker. Colombian prostitutes are all, every single one of them, contract workers for kidnapping cartels.* Here are some of the kidnap-worthy qualities in their clients they’re paid to be on the look out for: Speaks English, is groomed, wears a watch, has a cellphone. See? I’ve just described everyone in your college biology class.

8. Don’t talk to anyone. In fact, it’s best if you just gesture wildly like an over-medicated mental patient. Even better, act like you’re possessed by a demon. Most South American kidnappers are religiously superstitious and afraid of insane people. It also helps to put fish in your pockets and smell terrible.

9. If you get kidnapped, and you will be, remember that duck tape around your mouth can be easily removed hands-free just by using your tongue to saturate the area with saliva. It slips right away, believe me, I practiced on my adolescent daughter.

10. If you get thrown into the trunk of a car, and you will, look for the Day-Glo release handle. Since 2002, all cars are equipped with these interior release handles in answer to the increasing popularity of abductions and all. If you’re in a later model car, look around for the jack and use that to pop open the trunk.

11. If you’re bound by zip-tie handcuffs, thank your lucky stars, because it’s a snap to get out of them. Literally. Just raise your arms above your head, elbows out, then whip your arms down quickly toward your torso while pulling your wrists apart. They snap off like party favors.

12. Don’t wait for someone to rescue you. You’re just as likely to die during a botched rescue attempt as you are of old age waiting for your family to come up with the ransom money. Don’t lay around like a wailing bag of bacon fat. Take some initiative.

(*Probably not true. But still)

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, coming out in June. Follow her on Twitter.

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