Updated on June 11th, 2020
“One of the hazards of travelling is ‘putting yourself out there’ & challenging your comfort zone. I had a few incidents on my last trip where for different reasons, in both Cuba & Antigua, I ended up spending my first night in a police station. I hasten to mention that neither were my fault, but distressing none the less.”
Havana, Antigua, New Orleans & Barcelona
One of the hazards of travelling is ‘putting yourself out there’ & challenging your comfort zone. I had a few incidents on my last trip where for different reasons, in both Cuba & Antigua, I ended up spending my first night in a police station. I hasten to mention that neither were my fault, but distressing none the less. It made me reflect on many incidents over the years & I have devised a few key points if you don’t want to end up in the same predicament!
What do you need to know?
1. Don’t break the law
I’m hoping this is an obvious one but given the nature of this post, I felt it was important to point out from the start. If you are a visitor to foreign shores do not break the law in any way shape or form!
2. Don’t use illegal taxis
When I arrived in Havana airport in April 2018, my trip had been organised by the yoga retreat I was visiting. I had arrived a day earlier & they had arranged for me to be picked up at the airport & taken for my first night to a casa in a nearby town. I had been to Cuba before (See my First Timer’s Guide for more info), travelled alone & stayed the whole time in Casas Particulares (basically a room in a family home) so I had no issue & was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the experience. I was arriving at midnight, so very aware I would be tired.
Compared to my first visit, the arrival at Havana airport was fairly quick & relatively efficient (first time around I had waited 2 hours for my luggage). By the time I left the airport, it was 1am & I was ready for my bed, so pleased to see the sign bearing my name as I exited the building. The guy who picked me up spoke minimal English & my Spanish was a little rusty. He knew where he was going, I knew it was about a 40-minute drive to my casa & was already fantasizing about my bed.
We loaded my gear into the car & I settled in the back, just as my driver & his friend were approached by a policeman. As I waited, the discussion got heated & the officer took out his notebook which made me start to feel my bed was still a little way off! Eventually, my taxi driver got back into the car & followed the police car around the corner. There, he took all my bags out, put them by the side of the road opposite the airport entrance & told me he would be back for me, “Stay there!”. Then he drove off!
“I was confused, bewildered & tired, while the police officer was clearly keen to explain something to me & went to find someone who could speak English. He returned with another taxi driver who informed me that the guy was an illegal taxi & was not allowed to pick anyone up at the airport. The police officer needed to see my passport. I was very reluctant, but he assured me that I wasn’t in any trouble. As he took down my details I felt uneasy.”
This new taxi driver then said that my first guy wouldn’t be back as he wasn’t allowed to enter this area of the airport, but he could take me. I didn’t want to abandon all hope, but I just wanted to get to bed. Then I realised that I didn’t actually have an address. It was 1.30am & all I had was a phone number of my contact at the retreat. The taxi driver tried to call her but to no avail (unsurprisingly), so I was left with no option but to get into the car with them as we all traipsed off to the police station to get the address of where I was staying from the driver who had been taken there!
As we arrived I saw my guy sitting in the station & he immediately came over, apologised, told me to get out & pulled my bags from the car. An argument then ensued with my new taxi man which seemed to be settled by the exchange of money & he drove off. As I sat on my bags outside the police station I was assured by my original guy that all was good, I shouldn’t worry & we’ll be going soon.
Ten minutes later he was correct & we finally got moving, via another argument in the street (I think this was the airport taxi controller) & a very apologetic phone call from the lady at the retreat.
By 3am I was tucked up in bed – safe & sound. Thankfully, after visiting Cuba before, I understood the beautiful chaos that this country brings! When I arrived at the retreat the next day, I was greeted with a big hug & a huge apology. Apparently, they always use the same guy & this has never happened before. If you’d like to read more about my time at Mhai Yoga – see my previous Blog Posts, 7 Days of Self Discovery – Part 1 & Part 2
So, to avoid having issues like this in future, don’t use illegal cabs, especially from the airport & definitely not in Havana!
3. Know the rules & stick to them
Again in Havana, on a night out from my yoga retreat, we had a great evening at some of Havana’s key nightspots – Fabrica De Arte Cubano (art & music) & Club 1830 (for a bit of salsa). Heading home, we all piled into a taxi (one of the big old American cars as per usual, & always a treat).
On the way back, we were pulled over to the side of the road by police. It turned out that with 5 of us as passengers in the car it was too many. We left the taxi driver to negotiate & were shortly back on the road again.
“It was actually the 2nd time for that visit to Cuba that I had been in contact with the police & it made everyone slightly wary about getting in a car with me!”
4. Don’t drink & drive
It was my first night in Antigua & when I arrived at my accommodation to be met at the bottom of the stairs by a couple asking “Are you here for the party?”, I should have had an inkling of how the evening was going to progress. My accommodation for the first four nights (& also the whole 3 weeks I was in Antigua because I was enjoying myself!) was Pineapple House, which I found on Airbnb & instantly loved!
The party was in honour of Classics Week, as part of the annual Antigua Sailing Regatta, more specifically for the yacht ‘Columbia’. I felt awkward at first crashing the party so was planning to leave my stuff in my room & then head to the harbour to check out my new home.
“As I was on the way out I was spotted by the owner Libby, I had a drink shoved in my hand & spent the rest of the night meeting lovely, progressively more drunk people as the night evolved.”
After a while, I got chatting to a couple of local guys, Larry & Mick, who then invited me to join them at a club. I had got on well with them & they seemed trustworthy. I had a quick check with my new best friend Libby, who reinforced that I was in good hands & the 3 of us were off. Larry drove & had a beautiful classic MG sports car convertible – very impressive, so the 3 of us piled in for the journey around the corner to Abracadabra (or Abra’s as it’s affectionally known).
In Abra’s, we had a few drinks & a good chat which was all fine until we decided it was time to go. They offered me a lift back home (I realised later we had only driven around the corner but I didn’t know where I actually lived!). As we were leaving it suddenly became evident that although he had been fine all night, suddenly Larry was very drunk. As we moved towards the car my survival instinct kicked in & I told them “Don’t worry I’ll walk, just give me directions”. Mick tried offering to drive but Larry was determined, so instead, he said he would walk me home & we said goodbye to Larry. As we moved around the corner we were expecting him to come past, but when he didn’t after 10 minutes we were worried & headed back to check he was ok.
“As we walked into the car park we could see why. Larry had accidently reversed into another car & the police were there (the police station was handily located next to the club). As we saw the police officer ask Larry to step out of the car, he instantly fell over.”
The officer was very reasonable & decided that for his own safety Larry should be held overnight in the cell. Mick & I asked to see him & make sure he was ok. It was my first experience of being in a jail cell (apart from the tours of Alcatraz, Robin Island etc) & the second time in a row I had ended up at the police station on my first night in a new country.
5. …unless your driver is a police officer!
Back when I was a student, I spent a summer waitressing at a kids camp in Maine. After this, a few friends & I bought an old Thunderbird car & some tents & drove down the East Coast to Florida. We needed to go back to Washington (Annapolis to be precise) for one of the girls to start a nannying job & decided to do a detour to New Orleans on the way.
On our first night out in New Orleans, we got chatting to a couple of guys who were attending the local university. One of them, Dave, was studying to be a sheriff. They offered to show us around over the next few days which was very appealing, as well as space on their floor to sleep on (instead of trying to sneak 4 of us into a hotel room). We were very impressed when we arrived to find he had a Sheriff’s car parked in his drive!
We had a great day exploring Oak Alley, a picturesque old sugar cane plantation which has featured in lots of films. In the evening they invited us to their student bar & we jumped at the chance of a bit of cross-cultural university experience.
“No sooner had we arrived than they ordered a pitcher of whiskey & coke & introduced us to their favourite drinking game – bouncing quarters into a glass & then nominating someone to take a drink. It turns out (surprise, surprise) that they were experts & had a great time pointing at one after the other of us to drink. A lot!”
Before too long we were all feeling very worse for wear & unable to continue the game. I decided to order something else, opting for a vodka & coke & was given a pitcher with a straw in it! Needless to say, the night progressed with us all drinking copious quantities. When it came to getting home, we hadn’t been at all responsible & had to go for the only option that was offered to us, Dave would drive our car back. Six of us piled into the old car, our drunk sheriff at the wheel & we headed home, thankfully safely. It’s not big or clever & as you can see above, I have thankfully got a lot older & definitely wiser!
6. Don’t get robbed
Unfortunately, with all the travelling I’ve done I have also accumulated numerous stories of having stuff stolen through the years. I’m sure I could fill a whole blog post at least, on advice that I’ve learnt the hard way. I’m also a believer that as soon as you relax & stop being vigilant, the universe has a way of reminding you not to let your guard down.
So, to continue the theme to not end up in a police station on the first night of your holiday…
I was in Barcelona with a girlfriend for a long weekend. We found a lovely restaurant for the first night of our trip in Plaza Reial, just off Las Ramblas where we were staying. As I usually do when travelling with friends we had initiated a ‘kitty’ where we both put in equal money & use this to pay for all our joint activity during the trip. Vikky had control of the kitty & to save us another bag with us we’d also put our credit cards into the purse.
“We were engrossed in dinner when we were accosted by a guy trying to sell us roses. When we said “No, thank you” he started shouting at us in Spanish. We were bewildered until 10 minutes later we realised our purse was missing. He had employed the classic distraction technique & basically stolen everything we had.”
Our hearts sunk as we realised how we had been duped & although we tried to look for him, he was long gone. This meant we had no money to pay for the dinner we had just ordered. As is often the case when you travel, we ended up finding out the depth of human kindness when we needed it most. The restaurant staff were amazing. We told them as soon as we realised & pointed out that we could not pay for the dinner we had just ordered. They were devastated for us & continued to serve us as proper customers, telling us to go to report it to the police & then come back & pay tomorrow.
So again, on the first night of our holiday, we were reporting our purse being stolen at the police station. We paid back the restaurant after a visit to the safe at our hotel the next day & several lessons were learnt:
- Never have all your money & credit cards on you at any time
- Always keep your valuables attached to your body, somehow
- Always be vigilant to where your valuables are & as my husband used to say…
- “Why do suspicious people always act suspiciously?” Be suspicious & don’t fall into the trap of being distracted.
What do you think?
Where have you had a run in with the police while travelling & what advice would you offer to others?
How do you keep your valuables safe during travelling?
What tricks have you seen used which all travellers should be made aware of?
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