1st May, 2023
Those of you who follow me on social media will already know that I had a bit of a scary incident on a bus recently, and I have decided to give an account of what happened. This is not because I desire sympathy – not necessary; I was not harmed, and I managed to recover my possessions – but rather because I want this blog to reflect all facets of this journey I am taking. Also, to potentially help other travellers who might end up reading this. As a backpacker with over three years on the road under my belt, I am well-versed in all kinds of scams they warn us about, but this particular method they tried to use on me was not one I had heard of before.
It started when I got on the bus at Terminal Carcelen in Quito. I was heading to Ibarra as it is closer to Colombia, and I wanted to get a head start for my border crossing the next day.
Just as the bus was revving its engine, a man came to me pretending to work for the company. He sprayed some stuff on my hands (which he pretended was hand sanitiser, but I later came to suspect was something else), and then placed my bag in the luggage compartment above my chair before telling me to fasten my seatbelt.
I will preface what happened next with a little caveat; I was a bit foggy-headed that day as I had arrived back in Quito late the night before (having just come from the Amazon), so I was tired and not fully acclimatised to Quito’s altitude. But, a couple of minutes later – after the bus had driven out of the terminal – I suddenly felt a sense of unease. I realised that I had zoned out for a couple of minutes – almost like I had drifted out of my body a little – and now I had ‘zoned in’ again, I was feeling a bit disorientated. I blinked a few times to help clear my mind and noticed something peculiar.
The other people on the bus were not wearing their seatbelts. And some of them had their bags on their laps.
I turned around and looked up just in time to see the man in the seat behind me make a sudden movement. My bag was closer to his seat than mine now, and I immediately knew then that something was wrong.
I grabbed it to find it was fastened closed, but didn’t seem full enough, so I opened it to find that my laptop, camera, Kindle, and power bank were missing and immediately went into panic mode.
I asked the man where my laptop was – as it was obvious that he was the culprit – and he seemed to panic too. He pointed to the front of the bus and told me to go there. That my things were there.
I obviously knew he was lying, but I went to the front of the bus anyway – taking my bag and what remained of its contents with me – so that I could get the driver or someone to help.
But as I was walking, the man yelled at me again. He was now gesturing to the place underneath my seat, where I looked to find my laptop. I grabbed it – feeling a huge amount of relief to be holding it again – and then put it in my bag.
I then asked him where my camera was, and he – once again – pointed to the front of the bus only to call me back to tell me it had mysteriously ‘appeared’ underneath my seat.
I am not sure exactly how many rounds of this weird game of whack-a-mol we played – three, perhaps? – but I eventually recovered all of my things. As I was placing them back into my bag, the would-be thief talked to me. I didn’t catch all of it, and I don’t know if it was because of the altitude, the rush of adrenaline when I thought I had lost everything, or because his accomplice had possibly drugged me with that spray; but I was feeling very disorientated. I was just relieved to get my things back. From what I did hear, he was trying to gaslight me. Implying that it was someone else. That he had rescued my things. That I should be careful.
I knew he was lying, of course, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt scared. I knew by then that he had at least one accomplice – the man who pretended to work for the bus company and then vanished – how many other people were involved? At least ten people were sitting behind us. Why had none of them noticed what was going on? Why had none of them stopped him? Why were all of them – still – doing nothing? Was it because they were scared, some of them were involved too, or, did they simply not care?
I was very aware, during that moment, that I was a foreigner, and I was alone.
So – with all of these things going on in my clouded brain – I simply froze whilst clutching my bag. I didn’t want to sit down again because that would mean turning my back on him. I just stood there, watching him.
Eventually, he got off the bus, speaking some last words to me about being careful as he left.
It was after he left that I started to think a bit rationally again and thought to take some photos of him. I did so just in time to catch the side of his face.
And a few minutes later, I finally went to the conductor and spoke to him about what happened. I know I should have done this earlier – before he left the bus and got away – but I wasn’t thinking clearly or feeling my usual self. Also, whilst I can converse fairly well in Spanish now, it takes a certain amount of brain energy for me to hold conversations, and that was something that I didn’t have when I was feeling so spaced out and disorientated.
The bus conductor was somewhat sympathetic and got me to send him the photo I had taken. I am hoping that this means the people at the station will look out for him, and he will find it harder to target other people from now, but I don’t know how seriously they take these things in Ecuador. From what I have heard, I can’t even completely rule out the possibility that the conductor and bus company were involved too.
During the rest of the journey, I turned to some of my friends for support over Whatsapp, and almost all the ones from Latin America said the same thing when I mentioned the spray and how I was feeling.
Burundanga. Also known as scopolamine.
When you look up burundanga online, there is a lot of conflicting information. There are reports about police stations and hospitals recording people needing help after being spiked with it in their drinks, but in Latin America it seems to be more commonly sprayed in people’s faces during muggings and robberies; after which the victims either go into a daze or pass out completely. It is said to make you feel more passive and compliant if you stay conscious. There are also some wilder claims – such as criminals impregnating into paper and drugging people by handing them leaflets – and, finally, lots of sceptical first-world people giving their ‘opinions’ on whether it is real or not (whilst seemingly ignoring the lived experiences of thousands of people who claim to have been victims).
If you want my (unprofessional) opinion, here it is. I can understand why people would be sceptical about people being drugged by being handed pieces of paper – that sounds rather dubious to me – and there are yet to be any clinical studies on whether absorption of scopolamine in liquid form through the skin would be effective. I personally don’t see why the absence of studies makes some people feel like they can weigh in heavily either way though; I can only guess that they all feel very smart typing away at their keyboards whilst living in their much safer countries. Many substances are known to be absorbable through the skin, so it is possible.
And even if scopolamine is not absorbable through the skin, that doesn’t mean that spraying it at people is not an effective technique, as it can still be breathed in, and people touch their faces much more often than they think they do (around twenty-three times an hour on average, and I am guessing it is more when people are in stressful situations.)
And, finally, even if scopolamine is not as effective as believed, that does not mean that the criminals aren’t trying to use it, so watch out for anyone who tries to give you ‘sanitiser’.
I would say – from my experience of how I felt – that I was probably under the influence of something during this incident. I didn’t feel my usual self and continued to feel very spaced out and disorientated for the rest of the day. I am not entirely certain, as it could have been a combination of altitude and adrenaline, but I am lingering on about 70% sure I was drugged.
And, before any of you feel compelled to bless me from your fountain of wisdom; yes, I do know how psychosomatic symptoms work. I also happen to know my own body better than you do, and I think I know whereabouts I lay in the spectrum of suggestibility. Ta.
It is a shame that my time in Ecuador (a country that I am very fond of) ended in such a way, so I am trying not to dwell on it too much. I am unharmed, I managed to recover my things and learned some lessons.
I think one of the reasons that I let my guard down a little on this occasion is just how nice most of the people in Ecuador have been. The Pastaza region (where I have spent most of my time in Ecuador) is very safe, and people had warned me that other parts of the country are much more dangerous than they used to be. I did listen, but over the years I have gotten used to claims of how dangerous places are being exaggerated – and, if I never visited anywhere that people (and/or institutions) warned me was not safe to travel, I would have denied myself some of my richest experiences.
So onwards and upwards, I guess. The next day I got back on a bus again (clutching my bag much more carefully this time) and headed to Colombia.