‘I had travelled through over 40 countries by myself before I became a victim of crime. I’d backpacked all over the world and never even been pickpocketed. Then one night in Peru that all changed. I’ve heard stories about express kidnapping but you never think it will happen to you’…
Today’s post is a guest post from travel blogger Kirsty at World for a Girl, who experienced being kidnapped in Peru. Teacake Travels is a safe place for women to share their travel stories; ALL of their travel stories. This post is here to inform, educate and inspire us all to go forth and venture, even in the face of these life-changing experiences. Thank you Kirsty for being so open, honest and brave.
My Express Kidnapping Story: What to do and how to heal
It took place 11 years ago. Of course, I know this. Every year, I remember it. The memory has faded but it won’t disappear. Although it was traumatic and has changed my life in so many ways, the experience also taught me some important lessons.
Here’s my kidnapping story with ideas of what to do and how to heal.
Express kidnapping happens (a lot)
I was kidnapped in Arequipa, Peru. It was an express kidnapping. At the time, I didn’t know this. I thought I was going to be killed. I thought that I’d be held captive for months. Thankfully it was short. I was released the next day and I am still very much alive.
Today I’m sharing a story about kidnapping and hope.
In the West, kidnapping is the stuff of action movies and detective dramas. Unfortunately, in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, kidnapping rates reveal a real threat and anyone can fall victim of kidnapping. Before that night I didn’t even know what express kidnapping a girl was.
What is express kidnapping?
Express kidnapping is one of the more popular types of kidnapping and happens when a tourist or wealthy local is held captive until either their bank accounts have been emptied or their relatives have paid a ransom.
Victims are usually released unharmed.
The motives for kidnapping are usually financially driven and not violent.
Search on the internet and you will find tales of tourists being express kidnapped from Mexico to the Philippines to Fiji. The statistics about kidnapping aren’t well-known but not uncommon.
I was released less than 12 hours after being taken captive by a taxi driver and his accomplices. I lost money, credit cards, clothes, my camera, electronics and thousands of dollars worth of travel cheques. Nothing was taken that was irreplaceable. For that I am eternally grateful.
Choosing not to fight back doesn’t mean you’re weak
I don’t know any self-defence techniques. I should but I don’t.
I definitely didn’t know any at the time I was kidnapped. Even if I had, I was blindfolded and my wrists were tied together. A single defensive move from me would have been a risk too big to take.
There were at least four men involved. My odds were very bad. They said they had a gun. I don’t know if they had a gun. They probably did. I’m glad I never found out.
With hindsight, I wish I had known some self-defence moves BUT I wouldn’t have used them. There was no point in my ordeal where I can see a window for self-defence, without violent and dangerous repercussions.
Inner-strength is a powerful resource. Training in martial arts teaches you not just physical skills but mental strength as well. The ability to keep calm in dangerous situations. You learn how to draw on and nourish your own inner-strength. That would have been so useful to me.
The local police might help you but your Embassy will
Local police have certain agendas, especially when it comes to kidnapping cases. There may be language barriers. There may be a level of misogynism. The police I first spoke to seemed bored by my case until they learned that I’d been assaulted. This sudden change in interest has always made me feel uneasy.
The court case, over a year later, ended up with the conviction of some local Peruvian gang members. I have no idea if these men were really behind my express kidnapping. I know that from the start the police were out to get this gang. I will never know if the right guys were charged with kidnapping.
Your Embassy will have an agenda too. Mostly to get their citizen to safety without causing an international situation or too much media coverage. If you are a victim of kidnapping, these are things that work for you. Even if the police do not want you to contact your Embassy, contact them. Someone, somewhere will know how to help you. Whether it is kidnap, sexual assault or worse, your Embassy will have procedures. They will help you if they can.
Be honest and get ALL the medical care you need
If you have been injured you must go to hospital. You just go.
If you have been sexually assaulted, you need medical help too. You may be in denial but you must go.
With the right help straight away, you can get the morning after pill (to prevent pregnancy). You may also be able to get PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis medication) to help prevent you from HIV infection. This will probably only be available in larger cities and must be started within 72 hours of being exposed. This is serious stuff. You do not want your rapist’s baby and you do not want a life-threatening illness. Seek medical help as soon as possible.
And of course…
Never travel without travel insurance
When I think of the aftermath of the kidnapping it is in black and white. For three months, I wandered around in a grainy sepia bubble. Not really engaging with the world. Not feeling a full range of emotions. My 26th birthday passed in a grey haze.
There was counselling but that’s not really my sort of thing. The medication given to me in Peru was giving me hallucations. So I went into hospital departments I hope I never have to go to again. They changed the medication. Physically I healed quickly. Emotionally I healed slowly.
Healing is a process. Like grief, there will be different stages and different challenges along the way. You may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. You might not. You will heal in your own way. In your own time. But you will heal.
The aftermath is lonely, hard and long but it does end
A few days after I landed home in the UK, an Israeli backpacker was murdered by a taxi driver in the city of Arequipa. The news hit me like a lead bullet.
Back in the UK safely snuggled up in my childhood bedroom, I was painfully lonely. My amazing, generous and loving friends and family had no idea. No one I knew had even been to South America, let alone Peru and its shanty towns.
It took a year. A year of newspaper clippings from Arequipa. Of Peruvian legal researchers emailing me almost daily. Of insurance claims and unhelpful traveller cheque refund departments. A year of living a secret life as a victim and a public life as an ordinary postgraduate student.
The aftermath of a traumatic event is not easy. Especially if you are handling it alone. The police can be difficult and unsympathetic. Some insurance companies will try and discredit your claims and ask probing (and disrespectable) questions. Court cases will drag on for months or even years. The punishments for kidnapping are hardly ever satisfying. Your friends and family will struggle to. I was lucky that one of my closest friends was trained in victim support. My parents were as broken as I was.
I remember the trial. From my bedroom in London. A trial by Hotmail Messenger. A trial that I was the key witness in. And I didn’t tell anyone. The process dragged on for 12 long months and then suddenly it stopped. It does end, I promise.
You cannot blame yourself
After surviving a kidnapping, I have replayed everything that happened that day a thousand times in my head. My hotel in Cusco being full, the bus being late and arriving after dark.
I’ve beat myself up about why I didn’t tag along with the boy I’d just met to Colombia instead.
Why I didn’t talk to other backpackers on the bus like I often do to share a ride.
I analysed every minute detail over and over, a common practice for victims of kidnapping.
How to avoid express kidnapping?
You can always follow the best practices as recommended by Alice Teacake – but do not blame yourself when unfortunate incidents happen. Sometimes you can do your absolute best and things will still not go to plan.
It’s not all about your clothes and alcohol
In my mid-twenties, I was someone who liked a drink and clothes that showed off my legs. On the night I was kidnapped I was wearing horrendous purple jogging pants, a baggy blue fleece and was stone-cold somber. No jewelry; no branded trainers.
I looked like a bedraggled backpacker. Nothing (apart from the fact that I was a Western tourist) screamed I have loads of money. I didn’t.
Booking ahead and communicating your plans
I’d booked a hostel in Arequipa in advance. I’d given the receptionist my estimated arrival time. I’d done everything by the ‘sensible backpackers’ book.
Use security devices
I had anti-theft bags and a good head of commonsense on my shoulders.
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All of these safety precautions still didn’t stop me from being the victim of a random crime.
It took me a long time to understand that nothing about that night was my fault.
Good things will grow from the bad. That’s the circle of life
The kindness of all the strangers who helped me in the first few days after my kidnapping story will stay with me forever.
The policeman who took me to his family’s home to sleep when he realised I was too tired to answer any more questions.
The Honorary Consul and his wife who took me under their wings and into their family.
The efficient and practical staff at the Embassy who took me to dinner in Lima as they didn’t want me to be alone in a hotel room.
There is so much more good than bad in the world.
Back home in the UK, more good things happened. When I flew home to recover, I got a temporary job working as a teaching assistant. That inspired me to train as a teacher leading me into a new and rewarding career.
Eleven years after the kidnapping, I’m still together with a sweet Welsh guy I’d met in Bolivia just weeks before. He returned to London. I was recuperating in London.
Would we be together if I’d continued backpacking in South America?
Would we have two fun and adorable children together?
I don’t know but I’m so glad we came together.
Good things will happen to you
You will grow, you will change and you will adapt.
Whether you believe in fate or coincidence, life will continue and morning is always just round the corner.
I cannot imagine a day when I stop travelling. A day when I decide that I’ve seen enough of the world and stay put. I have a bad case of wanderlust and no desperate, violent thieves in Peru are going to put an end to it.
After the events in Peru I started small. A trip to Sweden a few months later with a close friend. A safe place where at that time of year, it never grew dark. I built my confidence back up slowly.
I was back in South America four years later wild-camping in the Amazon rainforest and overlanding across the volatile Colombia-Ecuador border.
Despite knowing first-hand that the world can be a dangerous and violent place, I also know that for every person who does something bad, that there are ten people who will show you kindness, generosity and love. Now, I travel the world with my children. I know the risks but I also know however prepared and careful you are, disasters can happen.
The ordeal changed the way I see the world but not as much as the kindness of the strangers who helped me. It may have shaken my core beliefs but it has not destroyed my wanderlust nor my curiosity and respect for other places and cultures.
Do you need further help, support or advice?
If you are concerned about a British citizen who has or may have been kidnapped overseas, the Lucie Blackman Trust can provide you with support and advice.
You can also find your local British Embassy here.
I dedicate this post to the memory of Tamar Shahak, a female Israeli backpacker murdered by a taxi driver in Arequipa, Peru in April 2008.
Had you ever heard of express kidnapping before?
Have you or someone you’ve known survived an express kidnapping?
Do you have healing advice for other victims?
I’d love to hear more about your specific safety tips in certain destinations.