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Whether or not they know their surroundings well, travelers should be wary of the dangers that could befall them. Tony Kahn and our producer, John Hoult, both have some harrowing stories about being held up far from home. John's tale takes place in Istambul, Turkey, While Tony's occurs in a closer country. It was a place he knows well...Mexico.

Holdups Far From Home

By Tony Kahn and John Hoult, 8/3/2001

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Recently, on a trip, my wife, teenage son and I met two of Mexico City's brightest young men. The first was a 26 year old pediatrician named Ignacio, who paid a house call to treat my son's ear infection. I never got the name of the second man. He was a shoe-shiner who approached us as we were walking to dinner on a crowded street.

Ignacio had earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and spoke fluent English. The shoe shiner told me he had never been to the United States, but hoped to some day and was picking up English as best he could.

The good doctor had the flawless technique and human touch Mexicans bring to everything. The young man on the street had been just as attentive to the welfare of my shoes, applying an extra coat of wax he said would last for months.

The Doctor, it turned out, was a member of one of Mexico's ruling families, who speak only to each other. The young man on the street had his own friends. While he worked on me, three of them, carrying identical shoe boxes, materialized out of thin air and started shining my wife's sandals and my son's sneakers.

The Doctor gave me a prescription for antibiotics and, after I reminded him to charge me, wrote me a bill for a little under forty bucks. When the man on the street finished shining my shoes, he stood up, dropped his shoe cloth and his smile, and, as his friends surrounded us, told me I owed him ten dollars - a shoe - or else.

I had heard that Mexico City's crime rate had sky-rocketed, and that countless hold-ups happened daily, often on crowded, well-lit streets. But nothing prepared me for the chill of a stranger's voice threatening me, my wife, and my child. Something made me reach for my side pocket where, earlier, I had slipped a weapon far more effective than a gun - two one hundred peso bills - the equivalent at the time of about twenty bucks. I shoved them at the thief and told him it was all he would get. Apparently, it was more than he expected without violence and, as his friends turned to surround him, we got away.

It didn't hit me till later, between sickening swells of rage and fear, how brilliant this little shoeshine scam had been, how cleverly contrived to take advantage of the cover of a crowded street. I realized how easily, given the chance, a man of such charm and strategic skill could have risen to the top of any number of legal careers.

Despite what happened to us we will continue to visit Mexico City and walk its streets. We have roots there. I lived there several years as a child and my son was born there. Next year, when we return, Ignacio will probably still be there and so will the man who robbed us, if he hasn't been mugged or murdered himself. The reason is simple - Mexico City is the only place to be for any Mexican eager to succeed. It is Mexico's New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Boston, Detroit, and Chicago all rolled into one. And if that situation doesn't change, this runaway experiment in overcrowding will continue to swell past its official population of 20 million to thirty million and more, widening the already tragic gap between its few haves and countless have-nots.

I hope the Doctor who treated us and the man who mistreated us never have to practice their considerable skills on each other, but the future of this gifted country may well depend on how smart its doctors and its thieves can be about leveling the playing field between them.


On the phone, I told Trish to bring cash. "It's hard to change traveler's checks," I'd said to her, "and they don't give you as good a rate as cash."

I met her at the airport outside of Istanbul just after 11. We hugged, then hustled to catch the last bus into town. We rode the twenty minutes into the city proper and got dropped far from the place we were staying.

I asked her if she wanted to to take a taxi. After days of hoofing it around Istanbul, I felt confident I knew the way. "Walk" she said, "It was a long flight."

Nearly all the shops were shuttered up for the night. The long blocks were poorly lit, but I didn't notice. I was walking with my sweetheart, catching up, oblivious to everything else.

She told me later that she'd seen it coming. A guy passed us in the other direction, she said, then swung around and started following us.

What I remember is reaching a street corner, a dark alley to the left. And this guy in front of us, tall and quite handsome, speaking quickly in Turkish. I, of course, didn't understand.

What happened next plays in my memory like a low-budget movie: all close-ups, no panning shots. Trish was on my left. I heard her say something: "John" or "Sweetie"...I don't remember the words, just the concern in her voice.

I looked down. The guy held a pistol; he motioned with it toward the alley.

Then, I did some things that were either very brave or very stupid. With my left hand I guided Trish behind me. I kept eye contact with the guy. And, I began to yell. Sure, I'd like to tell you that I Vulcan-pinched, or Judo-chopped this guy into submission. But no, I used the best weapon I had. I have a very loud voice.

"What?" I yelled, feeling a rush of adrenaline and stupidity. "What do you want?" Couldn't I think of something better to say? I shuttled Trish and myself out into the dark and deserted main thoroughfare, and kept yelling. The man disappeared down the alley.

A couple blocks down the other side of the street, Trish did what she always did best: She asked the sensible question.

"Was there something that made you think he wasn't going to shoot you?"

That's when I began to shake.

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