On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Being on the road…again and again…is to invite some scam artists who see every stranger as a possible mark. You don’t have to go out of your way; they most often make it their business to get directly into yours. Some scams are elaborate and complex; often carried out by those who believe that by setting an enticing trap, the effort will yield a worthwhile payoff. This memoir does not pretend knowledge of, or a personal recollection about grandiose scams, but merely an amused reminder about one or two of those witnessed by a peripatetic Footloose Forester whose sojourns took him to places where small-time hustles took place daily.
On one occasion in the city of Bombay, India, the Footloose Forester met up with a Canadian journalist who was enjoying a long holiday from his post in Toronto. We probably met in the lobby of a very, very inexpensive hotel; that scenario is unclear at the moment. The remembering part begins one bright afternoon at about quitting time, while we were walking on a sidewalk opposite the gate of a factory. We took note of the mêlée of workers pouring through the gate of the fenced-in perimeter. It seemed curious to both of us that a young man walked directly across the street and immediately engaged us in conversation. He knew we were not local, based on our clothing and Caucasian features.
The conversation was brief. Curiously, he said that he would like to chat with us at length over a few beers that evening; and then invited us to his apartment. It would be his treat. He gave us the address, one that happened to be easy to find. When evening came, we went to the street and the building he had described. He happened to be right there, waiting for us in front of the building. Pleasantly, he said that he was happy to see us; and if we would wait just a few minutes, he was going to pop into the corner market to pick up the beer; then we could all go up to his apartment. The market was only a hundred yards away, and we could see by the lights that it was still open for business.
After a few minutes, he was back, but without the beer. Sorry he said, he didn’t have enough change to make the purchase. If only we could lend him 10 rupees (the equivalent of 50 cents), he would give it back when we got to his apartment. The Canadian offered him the 10 rupees.
We chatted about Bombay and travel, in general, as we waited for the Indian to return. As the minutes passed we kept glancing toward the corner market, expecting to see him around the corner with a sack of beer in his arms. Three minutes turned into five, and seven minutes turned into ten. Finally, with a sheepish grin on his face, the Canadian chuckled and announced that we had been scammed. A 50 cent scam that took all afternoon and part of the evening to hatch.
Another petty scam was all about getting a free meal. In much of West Africa, and in some places in East Africa, some hotels provide a continental or buffet breakfast for their guests. At the end of the meal, someone from the dining room staff simply approaches your table with a chit; and asks you to provide your room number, and sometimes also asks for your signature. The completed chit is then kept with your other hotel room bills, to be settled at check-out time. This is a piece of cake for anyone who is bold enough to supply false information, because the settling of accounts may be days hence.
In one variation, the scammer walks in from the street, sits down for a meal, and then writes your room number on his chit. This happened to the Footloose Forester in Dakar, Senegal. He also saw it happen to others in Uganda.
Even with his own legitimate signature, the scammer chooses a room number for a room that he knows is presently occupied; either yours or someone else who comes into the dining room and plops the numbered key on the table while they eat. In many places in Africa, the old-fashioned hotel room key is large, with a prominent number pasted on a wooden or plastic medallion. The scammer checks to see who is exposing a key, so that the next attempt might be someone who is still at the hotel the next time around. Scammers take notice of room numbers on the keys and match them with faces, if they have the chance.
What about money-changing scams? They are all too common. The Footloose Forester had to wise up early on when attempted scams were foisted on him by "official" money changers in Jakarta, Indonesia; Bujumbura, Burundi; and even at the airport in Hong Kong.