This isn’t necessarily the truth, but this is how it occurred for me.
In March of 2009 I was travelling with film crew of 6 people when we arrived in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. It was quite a long trip and some family members of the expedition leader had come to visit us and so we were celebrating. As the evening progressed we all split up and I even got separated from my best amigo. A little before midnight I found myself alone in the street and considering heading back to the hostel where we were staying. Still craving excitement I ducked my head into a bar I was passing and happened upon another member of the crew, Axel.
Axel was always looking for a party. On more than one occasion during this expedition he would drag me along on what seemed like his only mission in life. On those occasions that I acquiesced we always seemed to end up in unseemly company. One time in Guatemala he had insisted that I come meet some new friends he had made in the bar of the hotel where we were staying. I walked into a room and was immediately accosted by an extremely drunk and significantly larger man who had already puked on himself. He yelled right in my face and his breath was making me nauseous. The man was clearly temperamental and so I quickly excused myself.
On this night Axel was hanging out with a group of young Mexicans. There were a number of attractive young ladies, a couple of very large, stern looking men, and one average sized handsome young man who appeared to me the ring leader. He introduced himself as José, who spoke fluent English as he had studied in England. Axel explained to me that he had just made some new friends and that I should stay and party with them. Then, he said José was really cool, and that he was the son of somebody important in the local drug cartel, and the two large men were his bodyguards. Axel explained that José had put Roofies, or date rape drugs, in the ladies drinks. Alarm bells began to ring very loudly in my head, and I questioned Axel on the intelligence, or lack of it, of staying. I told him that I would be leaving right away and that he should come. He told me again that he thought everyone was cool and all was fine and that he was staying. I’ve learned through experience that reasoning with an intoxicated person is somewhat pointless. I gave up my plea and left alone.
Feeling awake I went to search for others in my crew. I wandered for a bit and found no one. And now, well after midnight, I decided to walk home as I enjoy the quietness of the streets at night. I rounded a corner passing the bar from earlier and I saw Axel and José struggling over a bottle of booze. The bottle flew into the air and smashed on the street, and in an instant Axel was knocked to the ground, and José was kicking him in the torso and head. With no time for thought I reacted. I charged and hit José hard with a full body blow and he went sprawling fast. He stood up and glared at me menacingly, his hands, arms, and face bloody from the impact with the sidewalk and street. He lunged back at me.
Suddenly, the Police were upon us, yelling in Spanish and tackling both of us to the ground. I never heard them but perhaps they had witnessed the whole thing. The police were reviving Axel, putting handcuffs on the José, and holding me against the wall. Although I have traveled in South & Central America, and Mexico I am not a fluent Spanish speaker, but when immersed in the language I get by very well. I could hear José telling the police that he had purchased an expensive bottle of alcohol. He said that Axel and I had attempted to steal the bottle from him, and then together ganged up on him in a fight. “Mentirosa! Mentirosa! Mentirosa!” Liar, liar, liar, I yelled. A Policeman promptly told me to shut up. After a few minutes the Police said they didn’t know who or what to believe and asked me if I wanted to take this issue any further. I said, “No,” and that I just wanted to get my friend home and be done with the whole thing. They took the handcuffs off of José and we just kind of walked away.
Axel was shaken and confused, but not too badly beat up. I was furious and I knew I needed some time and space to decompress so I put him in a cab back to the hostel. I was super charged up with adrenaline from the altercation and wide awake. I decided to walk it off.
I didn’t get far before I ran right smack into José sitting on a park bench. He seemed unusually calm give what had just occurred. He began to explain that I was lucky to have run into him as he was just calling his friends in the Cartel, but that I could solve the issue right now. He and Axel had split the cost of a very expensive bottle of alcohol, $150. All he wanted was his half, $75 USD, and he’d have no reason to call his friends. I told him there was no way I was paying him anything. Then he said quite simply, “Axel told me the hostel where your crew is staying, and the vehicles you are driving. If you don’t give me $75 USD, I’ll send my friends over and have Axel and the rest of your group killed.” I was flabbergasted. You have to be kidding, right. I attempted reasoning with him. I was just protecting my friend, who you were kicking in the face by the way. You’d have done the same if it was your own friend, right. And, not to mention, I told the Police we should just let it all go and forget about the whole thing. So, you are not in hand cuffs or at the Police station right now because of me.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said.
Then I looked him in the eye and said, “Honestly, you’d have a bunch of people killed over $75. Human lives are really worth that little to you?”
In one clearest moments of my life, he looked right back at me and said, “Yes,” without hesitation or emotion. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
I am a peaceful man by my nature, almost to a fault, but in that moment I felt a violent rage welling up inside of me.
“Fine,” I said, “if I pay you $75 USD, then we’re square? All is forgiven and you’ll leave us alone?”
“Yes,” he said. And I believed him.
He offered to pay for a cab we had to take to the nearest ATM, and I made the cab driver wait while I withdrew the equivalent of $75 USD. Before I handed it over, I reiterated that the matter was concluded. And then we parted. I took an extremely long walk back to the hostel where I laid in bed unable to sleep.
Axel reimbursed the money to me the next day, and he left the crew about a month later. I continued onward for quite a while with more noteworthy adventures and incidents. I’ve traveled alone, with a companion, with a rag tag group of misfits, and with a professional film crew. I don’t consider Mexico or Puerta Vallarta inherently dangerous or any more so than Chicago or Denver where I currently reside. I knew that Axel was a magnet for questionable company. I also can’t stop my own response of helping and protecting when someone I know and care about is in trouble.
It doesn’t matter whether you are traveling abroad or walking down a familiar street in your own city. Choose carefully the company you keep and your travel mates wisely. If someone or something seems like a bad idea, then it probably is. Trust yourself and your instincts. I won’t travel with anyone that I can’t trust again. Yes, life happens. And “bad” things can happen to anyone at any time. But don’t put yourself in that situation on purpose. Traveling is already tough enough without having to babysit adults and pay for the consequences of their actions. I was lucky that day that José’s bodyguards weren’t there and blessed the Police happened upon us at the most appropriate timing.