Intense National Geographic Series, ‘Locked Up Abroad,’ Documents Inept Travelers

muleLast week’s arrest of diaper-wearing cocaine smugglers at JFK proved more laughable than horrifying to those not directly involved. Drug busts are in the media so often, we rarely pay attention to them. They’re certainly not something I care about.

Yet, I’ve recently become obsessed with a National Geographic show called “Locked Up Abroad.” I don’t recall hearing about this harrowing documentary series when it first aired in 2007, but it caught my eye about a month ago, during a late-night Netflix bender. It’s now in its sixth season on the National Geographic Channel.

Each episode profiles one or two subjects, most of whom have been imprisoned in developing nations. While a few episodes detail hostage and other kidnapping situations (Warning: if you’re at all easily disturbed, please don’t watch … nightmares are almost guaranteed), most involve drug smuggling gone awry.

As a die-hard adventure traveler, I find “Locked Up Abroad” absorbing (that’s not an intentional diaper pun) because it’s a real-life dramatization of my worst fears. As a solo female wanderer, I can’t help but worry sometimes about kidnapping or becoming an inadvertent drug mule, no matter how self-aware I try to be. Many of the episodes on “Locked Up Abroad,” however, involve people with the intellect of dead hamsters, and it’s hard to feel much in the way of empathy, given their greed and gullibility.Still, it’s hard to resist a good prison story, especially when it involves South America or Bangladesh, and pasty, bespectacled English blokes or naive teenage girls from small-town Texas. The psychology behind why these people take such enormous risks, and how they manage to survive in inhospitable and downright inhumane conditions is fascinating.

Perhaps I’ve just watched “Midnight Express,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Return to Paradise” one too many times, but I’ve often wondered how I’d fare in such a situation, and I hope I never have to find out. But documentaries like “Locked Up Abroad” are more than just sensationalism. They’re a window into our desperate, greedy, grubby little souls, as well as testimony to the will to survive.

For some reason, YouTube and National Geographic Channel video links are disabled or broken, so if you want to check out some footage, click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Svadilfari]

“Narco cinema” offers B-movie depiction of “life” in Mexico

Mexico is famous for many things: tequila, a glorious cuisine, gracious people, beautiful beaches, puking spring breakers. Unfortunately, in the last year, the beleaguered nation is getting more attention than usual for its vicious drug cartels. Although the violence isn’t directed at tourists, fear is a powerful thing. Tourism– especially in Baja-has dropped drastically, further devastating an already impoverished country.

But. In the last decade, talented Mexican filmmakers such as Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”) and Alfonso Cuarón (“Y tu mamá también”) have made a major impact worldwide, proving that new Mexican cinema is a force to be reckoned with. Unbeknownst to most of the global market, however, Mexico is importing something way more awesome than Gael Garcia Bernal flicks (you’re still my boy, Gael) and coke: narco cinema.

VBS.TV broadband television co-founder Shane Smith visited Texas, Tijuana, and Mexico City to explore the films inspired, and often funded by, Mexico’s drug cartels, a genre known as narco cinema. Smith went so far as to talk himself into a role as an extra in one film, after outfitting himself in the requisite endangered animal-skin cowboy boots, Western-style suit, and cowboy hat. Fledgling narcos might want to consider investing in designer Miguel Caballero’s bullet-proof clothing line.

Smith also explored the musical equivalent of narco cinema. “Narcocorridos” are often the basis for the films. They’re reworked versions of traditional Mexican Revolutionary songs, but if musicians get careless and sing in the wrong territory or about the wrong person, they get whacked. According to a source interviewed by Smith, there have been 25 musicians murdered in Mexico since 2007, most of them narcocorridos.

According to VBS, Mexico is considered the superhighway of drugs entering North America. It supplies most of the coke, meth, marijuana, and poppy derivatives consumed in the United States, and today the Mexican drug trade is a $100-billion-a-year industry. Approximately 30 percent of that is reportedly repurposed to bribe government officials and law enforcement.

Smith explains that drug culture has infiltrated Mexican society, from religion (there’s a patron saint of drug trafficking) and music, to film. Narco cinema came about in the 1980s, inspired by the B-movie tradition of the Mexican cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. The genre is Quentin Tarantino meets Sergio Leon: extreme carnage, guns, big trucks and hats, explosions, slutty women, and drugs. Because 82 percent of the Mexican population can’t afford to see mainstream theater releases, cheap, straight-to-video accessibility have helped narco cinema become increasingly popular. Mexicans of all ages now watch these films, as something of a national pastime. Better that than DWTS, I say.

Dim Sum Dialogues: The Chungking Mansions

This is Nadim.

Nadim is originally from Pakistan. He came to Hong Kong seven years ago with his wife and two children to find a better life. He tells me that he never envisioned his better life to be what he has today, but he’s happy, and enjoying moderate success selling mobile phones out of his shop.

The shop is actually a small stall, at most ten feet wide and four feet deep, situated in a maze of hallways perpetually bathed in dim fluorescent light. The stalls next to him sell a variety of cheap suitcases and even cheaper t-shirts and jackets. No one mentions the word ‘fake’, but it’s quite apparent that most of the items have emerged from a mysterious cloning lab in the heart of mainland China. Thirty footsteps down the hall brings you to the counter of a small Indian restaurant with fresh naan, thalis, curries, and samosas. Next to that is a convenience shop, stocked wall to wall with canned goods, bottled liquor, tobacco and candy. Ten more steps and you’ll be surrounded by head-high stacks of bootlegged Bollywood films.

Welcome to the Chungking Mansions.

The mansions are a series of five 17-story high blocks, connected by a two-level foyer with shops, food stalls, and currency exchange bureaus. On any given day an estimated 4,000 people live here, not including the backpackers that take advantage of an array of cheap guesthouses in the building, and the curious shoppers that wander through the halls. On a weekend, the five lines that form for the elevators in each block display Hong Kong’s multiculturalism at its best. Indian hawkers wait with their filipino girlfriends, young dreadlocked australians rub elbows with african women in brightly patterned dresses, and the chinese security guard carefully monitors the live CCTV footage that comes from inside the elevators.

Chungking, which means “great (and returning) prosperity” is just blocks away from the world-famous Peninsula Hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui, or “TST” district. TST’s waterfront property offers the best panoramic views of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline, making it some of the most prime real estate in the city. Yet the Chungking Mansions have avoided any signs of gentrification, and seem to be proudly surviving as the central hub for minority culture in Hong Kong. Moreover, it’s an important place of business – a living example of how a low-end globalized economy functions.

I stand outside the entrance to the building, chatting with one of the many touts that persistently offers tailoring services and “copy watches”. The favorite line among this crowd is “Hey boss, guess how much for a suit!”, with the occasional peddler that approaches us to offer a slew of drugs. The tout says to me, “See, you can find anything you need in Chungking Mansions. Anything from A to Zed – you tell me, I can find it within twenty minutes.” I consider testing his offer, but decline and watch as two young men struggle to maneuver four grossly overstuffed suitcases down the entrance’s steps.

The young men with the suitcases are most likely carrying mobile phones. Nadim told me that most of the business he sees is from wholesalers that buy these cheap phones in bulk, and take them back to countries like Kenya, Zambia, and Nigeria. Apparently, one fifth of all of the mobile phones in sub Saharan Africa have passed through the Chungking Mansions at some point – and 70 percent of Kenya’s handsets come from here. Serious traders come to the Mansions with money and a destination, and everything else is handled for them.

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The mobile phone trade might be cheaper across the border in Guandong, but the trading laws and security of Hong Kong are more appealing to the Nigerians and Pakistanis that can’t easily obtain Chinese visas.

The Chungking Mansions have even been able to resist interference from the infamous Triad gangs – but still have issues with gangs of different nationalities that spar with one another. One restaurant owner tells me “These guys that deal drugs back here think they are big time dealers, but really they’re nothing – they are very small time in the scheme of things.”

The building has a bad history of electrical fires and suspicious activity. Signs can be seen at bars around Hong Kong advertising the disappearance of a female backpacker in March, last seen at an apartment in the Chungking Mansions. In 1988, a fire broke out and killed a Danish tourist. A series of arrests in the 90’s spurred the management to install 208 CCTV cameras throughout the building. Of course, it’s really not an extremeley dangerous place, but travelers that stay here should be aware of their surroundings, and shouldn’t entertain invitations into private rooms within the building.

A group of retired Americans in full tourist garb passes by Nadim’s stand, the fluorescent lighting only making their pale skin stand out more against the rest of their surroundings. I ask him what he thinks about tourists here, and he responds “I think it’s good – I don’t think you can come to Hong Kong and not see the Chungking Mansions. If you come to this city, and you don’t see this place, then you haven’t really seen Hong Kong.” Nadim has a valid point, and for a place that’s been dubbed “Asia’s World City”, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of globalization in action.