Philippines 2019 – mishap in Manila

I am in the Philippines for one and a half months, taking advantage of a break from teaching to try to develop projects with colleagues at the University in Quezon City, on the outskirts of Manila.

Last week, I was the victim of a “tourist trap” while I visited Manila. It cost me quite a bit, but it could have been much worse. I decided to write the details for myself, but then thought I would share my experience. I am probably lucky to have been the victim of criminals with some sort of morals, but being drugged and robbed is not fun. Imagine a “Hangover” type scenario: you wake up somewhere you have never been before, feeling incredibly dizzy and disoriented, and have no recollection at all of what happened past one point in the evening. On the bright side, there were no tattoos or tigers involved, my body seems to be in one piece (I have all my teeth) and I should have the results of my medical exams this week.

One week later, I have recovered physically, and probably mentally to some extent (though I think I won’t be as trusting as I was before, in particular to “sweet old ladies”). I can even see comedy in some of the events that have happened. I hope this read is informative and entertaining!

The day had started well: I have a studio in Quezon City but decided that, to make the most of Manila for the weekend, I should book a hotel in town for Saturday night. I did, and I made my way to Manila through my first Jeepney ride to Cubao (I may write another post about the Jeepneys at some stage), followed by a pleasant train ride to Recto, just east of Chinatown, which was my first target (I had designed a broad itinerary using the insightful Lonely Planet guide).

I visited the bustling Quiapo market with colourful stands selling things as diverse as fruits, vegetables, colourful eggs and fishes, car and tractor engines, and loudspeakers whose power was demonstrated at the sound of techno music. There was a mass in the church so I couldn’t see the Black Nazarene, but the sight of the gigantic church with hundreds of attendees was spectacular enough.

I walked to Chinatown and stopped at a small restaurant for lunch. I shouldn’t have asked the waitress for advice.

“What’s your favourite?”

“I love oyster cake, it’s one of our specialties”.

“Ok, I’ll take one”.

“We also do noodles, do you want some?”

“Yeah sure, let’s go for noodles”.

“Any dumplings? That’s also one of our specialities”.

“Er… Ok, let’s have some dumplings”.

I therefore assumed the portions were small, but they were not! And those who know me know that I don’t like to waste, and that I have quite a large appetite. I ate the delicious seafood noodles, managed to eat the dumplings, and probably ¾ of  the oyster cake. How do you make an oyster cake? It looks to me that you take around 30 oysters and some spring onions, and make a huge omelette with that. It’s heavy, incredibly gloopy and sticky, and it really tastes of oyster (this element is important for the rest of the story). I thought I was going to die. It cost the price of three meals, which is not much there, but I thought I’d save on dinner because I’d certainly not need any.

I then visited Chinatown’s Binondo area, which is one of the parts of Manila that had best survived the assault of WWII (which means a few buildings survived rather than none – most of Manila was flattened). There are a few pre-war buildings with beautiful designs, including the 1938 Calvo Building which houses a museum including “a trove of pre-WWII photographs and memorabilia”. The photos of Manila in the aftermath of the war are heart-breaking. But today, this area is victim of another assault, as most of the buildings with less than five storeys (including the ones that survived the war) are being torn down and replaced by giant, soulless 30+ storey skyscrapers. Admittedly, some of these old buildings are very poorly – climate is not kind to cement here. But some areas just look like they have been bombed, except that development is the cause. It may bring a better way of life for people? I will let the future judge…

I then walked towards and around Intramuros, the fortified part that is at the heart of the city and was flattened during the war. Some buildings have been reconstructed in a beautiful way, so there is an interesting mix of designs including ancient to the 70s. The traffic in and out of the port nearby is insane, as containers come and go, distributing goods across SE Asia.

I then arrived at Rizal Park, south of Intramuros, which is dedicated to Philippine hero Dr Jose Rizal who was executed on this place in 1896, at the age of 35. He had a pretty remarkable life, and I will just copy an excerpt from the Lonely Planet guide: “in his short life, he managed to speak 22 languages, found a political movement, write two novels, become a doctor in ophthalmology, and gain recognition as an acclaimed artist; he was also a world traveller and a fencing and martial-arts enthusiast. While in exile, he discovered two species of frog and lizard (both named after him), and he won the lottery”.

The park is very nice, and there is a memorial dedicated to Rizal, including bigger-than-life bronze statues commemorating his life, and ending with the execution scene, which I found poignant. The park itself is incredibly busy with thousands of tourists. It was around 16:00, I was thinking about slowly walking to the Malate promenade that offers views over Manila Bay and is on my way to the hotel. I will visit museums and Intramuros properly tomorrow.

This is when I was accosted by a lady, probably aged 50-60, and her younger brother. They were from Cebu, one of the Philippines’ 7000 islands, visiting Manila. She is a kindergarten teacher, spoke very good English, and all of us were in a similar mindset: “it’s hot, we’ve been walking all day, let’s take it easy and relax for the end of the day”. After some pleasant chat, I said I was going to the Promenade and they said they’d be happy to join.

As we were looking at the view and chilling out, the lady said she had a lady friend from Cebu who was living in Manila, who offered to go and visit the Bamboo Organ Church in Las Pinas, 5 km south. That was one of the attractions on the Lonely Planet, and we still had plenty of time. I remember thinking “what could go wrong?” I realise afterwards I clearly lacked imagination at the time, as far as “what could go wrong” was concerned. I said “ok, maybe, let’s just see when your friend arrives and we can decide”; traffic was horrendous at the time.

The lady came with a friend in a car. She was around the same age, very elegant, looking very respectable, spoke perfect English, and this is when I fell in the trap. I joined them and we drove south. We stopped at a small shop to get drinks and snacks for the evening. I don’t like beer so bought two Tanduay Ice bottles. It’s like Smirnoff Ice, one of these sweet refreshing drinks with 5% alcohol (which come in 330 ml bottles). They also bought some. I paid for it, which may become important later. I opened my bottle and drunk it on the way to the church. They offered me snacks but I refused, as I was still blotted from my enormous lunch.

We arrived at the church where there was a mass, and it was very nice indeed. A pretty unique church in a unique setting, and yes the organ is made of bamboo (and it sounds like an organ). The second lady was full of historical facts, which was great! They then said “5 minutes away, there is a place where they make and sell traditional Christmas lanterns, would you be interested?” I said yes, and we were back in the car. I opened my second bottle and started drinking, as it was very hot. We arrived there and it was enchanting indeed! The whole street was lined with colourful little workshops making and selling their own Christmas decorations! At that point, I felt very privileged, being able to witness all these with true friendly and generous Philippine people.

They said I should buy a lantern for my studio, and I thought “why not?” I saw a beautiful one for ~£15, but I rarely have a lot of cash in my wallet so I had to get some extra notes from inside my passport which was inside my rucksack. Because I grew up in Nice, I have learnt to be suspicious, so I tried to hide, but it was hard to do that in the shop. I must say at that point that this attitude of always being on my guard paid off until that evening, as I had never been robbed before!

I took my lantern and we got back in the car. Time to go back! I finished my second Tanduay Ice, we stopped at a petrol station, and… I woke up the following day at ~8 am in a hotel room.

My memories of what happened immediately next are very blurred, but I was dizzy, had a massive headache, and was completely disoriented. I checked myself and my belongings: my two RBS cards were gone, as was my phone and the cash in my wallet and in my passport (~£50, as I never have too much cash on me, fortunately). On the bright side: I still had my wallet and passport, and it appears I am in the hotel room I booked. However, I hadn’t checked-in before! How did I get there?

I went to the bathroom and realised I had been sick on the floor and bathroom mat – all my senses identified the oyster cake. So, the first thing I did was clean the floor and the mat! It is interesting what one does when in shock. I think I then had some paracetamol, a shower. I put my things back together, checked out (all very blurry), went to the street, I think I ate and drunk something from a shop, and then I asked directions to the police station. People were very helpful and there was one around the corner.

There, I was met by very friendly and understanding policemen. Interestingly, when I told them the story, they showed me pictures of suspects. I instantly recognised the second lady on one of them, and then I’m pretty sure I recognised the first lady and her “brother” on other ones. The policeman said “this is their modus operandi, you are not the first one, and you’ve likely been drugged”. That made a lot of sense: I was drugged, maybe through my second drink. I blacked out, they took what they wanted, and somehow got me back to my hotel.

Because the incident started in Rizal Park, I was taken in a police car to the Rizal Park station. There, they thought I should go to the Manila central police station to make my statement, so they took me there in another police car. This is still fairly blurry but I am pretty sure that I visited five police stations in the day and travelled in three police cars, including one with blaring sirens to progress through traffic. Anyway, I got there and gave my statement while being fed cakes and Lucozade.

It was late afternoon, and the inspector then realised that the crime had been committed in Las Pinas, so I had to go to Las Pinas police station, ~10 km south, at rush hour! Even a police car would take forever. Worry not my friend, there is something called Angkas in Manila: imagine Uber, but on a motorbike! They booked me one, and before I even knew what was happening, I was on a motorbike for the first time in my life, being driven through crazy Manila traffic for nearly an hour. I think we reached 60 mph on some clear sections of the motorway. I also think I was still high on drugs because I really enjoyed the whole thing, maybe a bit too much! I distinctly remember thinking at some point “I’d pay good money to have that much fun”.

We got to the local police station in Las Pinas. A policeman was waiting for me. I explained what happened and they put me in a police car to the huge Las Pinas central police station. There, an inspector took my statement in great details. I was questioned and fed more cakes. I still had the receipt from the shop where I bought the drinks and snacks, and the inspector thought that’d be a good lead, as they had the address and time of purchase, and there are likely CCTVs there – they may even be able to identify the car as it is a petrol station! Paying for shopping (despite the insistence of the thieves that they pay) may pay off. The inspector said they probably took my phone to not be identified on pictures.

I must admit everyone had been incredibly kind and supportive throughout the day. They also probably thought I was a bit of a numpty. I imagine they thought I “asked for it”, somehow, as drinking alcohol in public (including cars) is not permitted in the Philippines. I didn’t know that, and they must have perceived that I was ready for a night of debauchery, or something like that.

When this was over, they told me to be more careful in the future, booked me a Grab taxi (like Uber here) and wished me farewell. I arrived home around 23:00 I think. At that point, I think I realised that I had been having the hiccup all day, maybe a side effect of the drug?

What a ******* weekend! But the night still had surprises in store.

I thought I should probably block my cards ASAP, so I got onto the online chat with RBS, who looked at my account and said they were going to go through recent transactions to see if any fraud had happened. It happened that on Saturday, at around 20:30, I withdrew around £500 in five transactions involving both my credit and debit cards.

“Ok, I didn’t withdraw that cash, these are the thieves”.

“Chip and PIN were used”.

“What?”

“Did you write your PIN number inside your wallet?”

“NO! The PIN number was only in my head!”

“Could they have seen you using your PIN code at a cash machine or when you paid for some shopping?”

“NO, I hadn’t used the cards for days, I prefer using cash because of the cost of international transactions!”

The implications of this were terrifying. I must have given the code to the criminals, or even withdraw the cash myself. And I had absolutely no recollection of that.

I then started looking on the internet, and I learnt about these drugs that, if well dosed, don’t just knock you out but supress your freewill and make you completely docile. See for example: https://www.nomadichustle.com/getting-drugged-in-colombia-scopolamine/. I also found this article, with someone who seems to have experienced something scaryingly very similar in Manila: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/asia-south-east-asia-islands-peninsula/topics/manila-scam-drugged-by-two-sweet-old-ladies. That was 6 years ago, maybe these ladies don’t age, or I’m not good at assessing the age of Philippines people (I initally told the police they were mid-40, then I thought “wait, I’m nearly that age now, and they were definitely older!”).

I think I understand now what the victims of the “rape drug” feel. What is terrifying is that it was not like: “oh, I’m suddenly feeling very sleepy, what is happening?” It was more like an ON/OFF button, and within seconds my mind was switched off, but I was still awake and doing things, dictated by the criminals. I hate to think about what else I may have done, and I have now decided to stop trying to retrieve my phone (which I was trying to locate with a Sony app, with no success). I just remembered the end of the three Hangover films, when they find the camera…

That would also explain how they got me to my hotel, because I hadn’t checked-in so they could have not followed me there: they must have just asked me! The policeman said they probably got someone (like a taxi) dropping me at the hotel. I have been told that the guard on duty at the hotel took me to my room, but I can’t remember when or how I got this information.

I just have a very very very faint, vague memory of something that may have happened while I was “unconscious”. I don’t know if this is true or just the result of my mind making up a story which I wish were true: I was sick. In the car. Oyster cake. If that is true, this car will never smell the same again! Somehow, that made me happy.

This was one of the scariest thing I’ve experienced in my life, but not the scariest because most of the scary facts came after the crime was committed. I am really annoyed at these people and I hope the police catches them, though most people here seem to have doubts about it – police have greater concerns.

What is very weird though, is that part of me is grateful to the criminals to some extent, in the sense that bringing the victim of your crime to a safe place after the crime is committed involves greater risk. They are clearly professionals, and they are criminals, but they took me back to my hotel room. They could have left me unconscious in the street. They didn’t take my wallet, just the two RBS cards, so I will be able to function with the two other bank cards I have. They didn’t take my passport, just the cash that was in it. And that is going to make my recovery much much easier!

What I have learnt is: criminals will go to great lengths to take what they want. As I said earlier, I have always been very careful and this is the first time I have been robbed. To achieve that, the thieves had to drug me. So, listen to your mothers: don’t talk to people you don’t know! And beware the “sweet old ladies of Manila”. I’ve always assumed young attractive women would be used to set such traps, but I was wrong.

In the aftermath of that, I must admit the level of support I received has been overwhelming (in a good way). From the University’s insurance provider first, who has been incredibly responsive and supportive. From our Health and Safety manager too. From my colleagues and friends here in Manila. From people on Twitter as well! And from anyone else I met here as a result of this “adventure”: the police, but also the nurses and doctors at the medical centre where I was examined. The people at the medical practice said they had never heard of anything like that, and that they felt sorry and ashamed of their country: “these are not our values”. They also insisted I should go on TV to alert the opinion and make the enquiry progress, because otherwise nothing will happen. I politely declined the offer, as I think I have attracted enough attention for now. All I want now is to move on and enjoy the rest of my stay.

My colleagues and friends here said that they will make sure the rest of the trip makes up for what happened. I also suspect I will be on a tighter leash from now on!

Everything we experience on a daily basis changes us. Some days are more transformative that others. The saddest part of this story is that I realised how easy it was for these people to take advantage of me. The result is that I don’t want to go out and meet new people anymore, which is one of the attractions of travelling abroad. I don’t want to go to unfamiliar places on my own anymore. My suspicion levels have been raised to maximum. Maybe it is a good thing. Maybe it will relax eventually. I don’t know, we will see.

I am staying in the Philippines until the end of the year. I have never really written a travel blog but maybe it is a good idea. Hopefully, the next stories will reflect better the wonderfulness of this country and its people (with pictures – once I have bought a new camera). Watch this space for more stories about Jeepneys, food and Honda Jazz, among others!

5 thoughts on “Philippines 2019 – mishap in Manila

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this Mikael.

    It sounds like a really scary experience that will take a while to process fully. Journaling is an incredibly helpful tool for processing difficult (and every day) events, so I hope you keep it up whether you share it or not 🙂 I hope you can be kind to yourself and not feel too many repercussions for the rest of the trip.

    I think there is a lot of pressure when you travel to ‘experience the real thing’ and ‘get to know the local life style’ and ‘not just do the tourist things’. I definitely feel this pressure traveling for fieldwork to Morocco. But this is an example of how this can easily escalate into handing over complete control to other people – even if you know all the strategies for keeping safe.

    I’m quite strict with what I do in Morocco (especially as a young woman). Your story makes me feel less ‘fear of missing out’ and less like I’m being boring. But more that I am being reasonable and considering my (and my field assistant) safety properly. This sort of thing can happen to anyone, but I think it is easy to breeze over and forget that it does happen when you’re doing the ‘boring’ health and safety/insurance paper work.

    I think this is a really important message for field geomorphologist, which like mental health on fieldwork, isn’t widely spoken about. So thank you.

    Best wishes,

    Madeleine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words and your comments!
      I’ve always enjoyed sharing my experiences, and was considering “journalist” as a career in my “things I could do after my PhD if I don’t manage to become a lecturer” 🙂 I guess I’ve always enjoyed teaching too.
      I realise telling the tale in this case also allowed me to process part of the trauma, which is interesting in itself. I may keep going, in particular if the people response’s is positive!
      I think we are privileged to be able to do things that “tourists don’t necessarily do” with our jobs, and that has always been an attraction for me. Maybe that is the “journalist” part of me speaking: I’ve always wanted to document what people rarely see, and the richness of nature and humanity beyond these tourist sites. But it takes extra care and more preparation. I’ve never felt pressured into doing it: I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed it, and in most cases the response of the people I’ve met during these experiences all around the world has been incredibly positive.
      Interestingly, this incident happened in the top tourist site in Manila! Of course I had mishaps while on fieldwork or in not touristic place, but nothing as serious as that!

      So yes, plan carefully, and try to work with local colleagues and trusted people when you go abroad, that would be my main piece of advice. And be careful in touristic places!
      Thanks again!

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    2. By the way, I also wanted to add that we shouldn’t feel pressured when travelling, in particular when travelling to countries that function very differently from the one we live in. Going there is a challenge enough, and we’re experiencing our fair share of pressure without even travelling these days. Travelling as a young women can be particularly challenging in some countries too, I completely acknowledge that.

      All these precautions and health and safety procedures seem sometimes unnecessary, until an accident happens. It takes a few seconds for your life to be turned inside out, in particular if you are far away from home. On our last trip to Nepal, we were walking along rice paddies when a large snake crossed in front of us. Our Indian colleagues identified it as a king cobra based on the description. They said they are quite common in rice paddies, and they won’t attack unless feeling threatened. Accidents are rare. But they occur (mostly when people harvest the rice apparently). If you are bitten by one of these, you are dead.

      So yes, try to not stray too far out of your comfort zone, surround yourself with reliable people, take care of each other, and fill in your paperwork! The health and safety forms help you consider the potential situations that may arise (though I must admit I hadn’t considered “old ladies” as a hazard before going), and I was very happy to have printed the insurance form with the relevant phone numbers!

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  2. Interesting story Mikael. Something similar happened to me many, many years ago in Bangkok; I won’t go into details here but in my case it involved significant memory loss, loss of passport (but interestingly not money or any other valuables), and – I think – some concern for my personal safety from the perpetrators in the sense that I was not beaten up, or left on the street, and was taken to a hotel room …. I was young (21) and a bit foolish but I would not say reckless. Despite considerable world travels since, nothing similar has happened to me again. This may be luck rather than judgement, as these criminals can be very sophisticated. In your case, I think it all hinges on how they managed to spike your second drink, which I think is what you suspect happened. At what point could they have done this?

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    1. I’ve been re-analysing the end of the night in a lot of details, as you can imagine, and the only moment I can think of is when we went to see the Christmas lanterns. Because we drove only for 5 minutes, I hadn’t finished my drink and left it in the car, with the driver. When we came back in the car, I finished that drink and lost “consciousness” shortly after…

      Like

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