“Twenty thousand togrogs.” the Mongolian cabbie said reaching his open palm back over his shoulder without as much as a glance in my direction.
I gaped forward in flabbergasted awe, knowing full well I heard him correctly. His price was comically inflated, almost 300% more than the normal price for the short taxi ride.
“Why so much?” I asked putting as much stern tone into my Mongolian as I could muster.
He finally looked back at me, sizing me up with a stony glare. “Because you’re a foreigner.” he scoffed shaking his empty hand in front of me. “You’re different.”
With one hand on the door handle I slapped down the bill closest to what I thought was a fair price, staring down my dishonest cabbie as I did so, swinging open the door and slamming it behind me, moving quickly away from the car into the Ulaanbaatar night.
Two years of living and moving abroad will teach you that not every national is welcome and open to you exploring their country. Some seek out your bright eyed optimism for a new place and a new culture, they take advantage of your open mind and unfamiliarity with the host country to get into your head and ultimately your wallet.
Hundreds of miles and a summer later, me and a travel companion, Jessica stood staring at a poster in a Beijing hostel. “Watch Out For These Scams” the poster toted. Everything from brazen pickpocketing to elaborate schemes were highlighted. One of the more convoluted being where mock college students approach you inviting you to practice English with them. They take you to a local tea house, rack up an enormous tab, you’re forced to pay the bill, leaving you broke and confused while the would be students and tea house owner cackle in the back room, divvying up your cash.
Later, not five blocks from our hostel we stood alone at a street corner waiting for the crosswalk to blink green.
We spun around to meet our greeters. A young Chinese couple had materialized right behind us.
“Where are you guys from?” the hip girl, in her denim skirt and slouched hat asked.
“America.” We both answered slowly.
“That’s cool.” The boy said with a smirk, his tone precise and practiced. He covered this up by burying his hands deep into his cargo short pockets and relaxing his posture. His laid back attitude suggesting he used the slang “cool” all the time.
“We study at university.” the girl chimed in, hoisting her purse up on her shoulder. “We would really like to improve our English.”
The boy nodded in agreement. “If you’re not busy would you come have a conversation with us?” He took his hands from his pockets and pointed across the street. “We could go have a cup of tea and just chat.”
Now it was mine and Jessica’s turn to smirk. AH HA! I wanted to scream, we’re on to you sneaky kids! Instead we politely declined and thankfully removed ourselves from the conversation as the light finally changed. Still, I felt as though I had just thwarted a world class high stakes heist.
Hours later, we stopped for a bite to eat at a street side restaurant. As we dug into our meat and rice Jessica let out a laugh and pointed out the window with a chopstick. “Look!” she said with a chuckle. Sure enough, there was our hip college couple, working a corner, hurriedly following every non-ethnic Chinese person down the sidewalk in hopes of “practicing” their English.
Hundreds of more miles and that same summer me and Jessica stood on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal in the far east of Russia. As we exited the mess hall after a dinner of fish and borsht we were cut off by two youths.
“Excuse me.” A tall dark haired boy said. “My name’s Peter, do you two speak English?”
We both admitted that we did.
“I help at a summer camp on the island. Students come to learn foreign languages.” His smaller brown haired and blue eyed companion just nodded, letting his older friend do the talking.
“Our assignment is to find foreigners to come and speak with us.”
Me and Jessica exchanged skeptical glances.
“If you aren’t busy could you meet with us later and help us practice our English?” He looked at us expectantly, his shorter friend just smiling up and listening.
Put on the spot I stumbled around in my head trying to think of an excuse why we couldn’t comply with the seemingly innocent request. As I struggled to think of a way out I eyed up Peter and his side kick. He brushed his black hair back with his hand, nervously waiting for us to answer. They seemed different. Innocent. Genuine. I glanced sidelong at my companion, pleading with my eyes for a valid excuse. She just shrugged at me.
“I guess we could go to your class.” I answered, defeated.
Peter’s face lit up and his short companion finally broke his silence with a smile, “Thank you very much!”
“Please meet us here at 8 o’clock.” Peter added, then with a wave they both trudged off down the path.
Between dinner and our 8 o’clock appointment me and Jessica wrestled with actually showing up. Was it all an elaborate ruse? We’d seen and heard of a lot of travel scams, were we about to fall prey to one? It all smelled too familiar, could it be a twist on the trick we averted in China? In the end we remained true to our word and showed up at 8 o’clock in front of the mess hall. Peter was there, nervously combing back his hair with his hand. When he saw us a smile cracked across his lips.
“Thank you for coming.” he said, relaxing his hand from his jet black hair. “Please follow me.”
I looked around. “Where are your students?” I asked warily.
“Hmmm” he put his finger to his lips, considering, choosing words. “We will go to them.” He nodded assuringly, “They are waiting.” He gestured forward with his hand, suggesting we begin walking.
Nervously I fell into step behind Peter, shooting Jessica a guarded look. We moved away from the guest house. Passed the outdoor gazebos and hangouts of the other visiting tourists. We weaved through the tiny wooden housed town of Olkhon. Finally, we funneled between derelict fences that separated the local people’s small yards. Onto a wooden foot path so narrow we were almost walking heel to toe. As Peter moved farther ahead I became more nervous. In the tight space between the fences I felt vulnerable. My imagination went wild, a trap door suddenly opening beneath us, swallowing us into the realm of “Two Missing American Tourists”. An enormous burly Russian man suddenly blocking my path, picking me up and shaking me by the ankles until all my Russian rubles, American check cards, and photo IDs came tumbling from my pockets.
Right when I was about to object to walking further we stepped out of the corridor into open ground. Along the cliff shores of Lake Baikal blankets were laid out upon the wild grass. Children of all ages crowded around the blue cloth, their eyes wide with curiosity as we approached.
As we knelt on the blankets the kids erupted with questions and chatter. “I’m Katya.” A little girl with long blond hair said. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Justin.” I introduced myself.
“What’s your favorite animal?” she asked, ruffling her checkered dress with her hands as she spoke.
“Hmmm..” I tapped my lips pretending to consider. “I like penguins.” I answered.
“Penguins!?!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
“Do you like action movies?” A little boy asked. Sitting cross legged in black parachute pants, his clothing rustled as he shifted on the blanket.
Trying to think of a likely movie we’d both seen I nodded. “I like the Lord of the Rings movies.”
His face lit up and he sprang from his sitting position into a crouched squat, his swishing pants announcing the theatrics.
“Precious! My precious!” he growled, holding up an unseen treasure. His Golum impression was startlingly convincing.
As the sun set behind us over the glassy sheen of Lake Baikal and into the eastern mountains of Siberia we talked with the students. Laughing, sharing interests and disinterests, talking about life in America and life in Russia, where we’ve traveled and where we want to travel. As darkness threatened, the children reluctantly said goodbye and crowded around us for a photo. Peter crouched with the camera, lining up the shot and brushing back his hair before snapping the picture.
The lesson all this has taught me is to have some faith in people while traveling. Negative experiences with no-do-gooders can drive us into paranoid reclusion. We end up trusting no one and labeling some of the most spectacular corners of our planet unsafe and unwelcoming for the foreign traveler. By no means am I saying to meander about throwing caution to the wind and jaunting across countries care free. Absolutely stay vigilant and be aware of what to look out for.
Traveling is inherently risky, it’s part of what makes it so liberating and fulfilling. Trusting only in yourself or your TripAdvisor approved tour guide could lead you to miss out on some of the most precious and rewarding experiences of exploring the world. Give people a chance to prove that they can be as genuine and hospitable as you want them to be. The small connections you make in this way could end up being the most memorable moments of your whole trip.