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

Last 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]

Medellin then and now

Medellin, Colombia isn’t the way it used to be. Once known for its drug cartels and their inordinately vengeful wars that regularly victimized citizens of the city as well as travelers, Medellin has gone under, well, the knife, in more ways than one. The city’s makeover has made tourists from across the globe feel more welcomed and has brought peace to locals who know what it was like back then. ‘Back then’, a phrase Colombians don’t use lightly, but do use frequently. Since Escobar’s reign of terror, Medellin has reclaimed itself and is now better prepared than ever to brave what’s to come.

No one would have considered Medellin a tourist destination 10 years ago. It simply wasn’t. Hundreds of lives a month were being lost in the city at the hand of relentless drug wars then and the city was dubbed ‘The Most Violent City in The World’. The city sculpted into the Andes was avoided by travelers, and for good reason. Locals at the time could barely call Medellin a home and many were being driven away from their houses, encumbered by fear, and forced into Witness Protection programs or other forms of hiding because they ‘knew too much’. With the waters being so treacherous for locals, foreigners felt even less at ease and found themselves targets in the unforgiving battles for territory taking place, battles headed up by drug-lords who had more sway than city officials back then. When Escobar was killed in 1993 (or when he killed himself, reports vary) and the two drug-lords that stepped up in his place, leaders of the Cali Cartel, were finally brought down, Medellin’s districts were ceded with this trio’s vanishing and the city needed an emergency recovery plan. That plan has helped make Medellin traversable today.

Medellin’s makeover began within. City officials rallied and conjured up support from nations far and wide, raking in investment money for the city chunk by chunk. Citizens bound together and formed a bit of a union, a promise to rebuild their city and keep out the bad. They joined forces while unblinkingly awaiting the support that eventually came from around the globe. With foreign aid, a devoted community, and a powerful drug-lord out of the way, the city had promise and the building was underway.

During a recent trip to Medellin, I walked through places that were monumental in the city’s development.
%Gallery-113677%The public library sits atop a hill, silky clouds from the mountains slither between the modern structure’s sleek twists and turns. The attention-grabbing building was placed smack in the middle of a neighborhood in Medellin once known as one of the worst. Still neighbored by poverty-stricken homes that steadily climb the mountainside, the library was placed intentionally, just like the high schools. The idea was to positively influence children who only had seen the worst.

And the plan seems to be working. Babies born into these neighborhoods become children who frequent the library with their parents or teachers and those children become industrious teens who attend high schools that have perks, like running water in some cases, that they never saw at home. These teens, of course, become better-rounded individuals more capable of considering the colorful expanse of possibilities for their future.

In a further attempt to improve this area of the city highly affected by the pain of the past, Medellin installed its metro system in such a way that it runs straight through this same district. The city’s subway isn’t too unlike the subway system in New York City. Trains arrive at and depart from even cleaner stations (no eating on the metro in Medellin) and commuters flip through their iPods and books while eyeing the bright advertisements in their peripheral. What’s unlike New York City is the cable car portion of the metro system.

These cars ascend into the clouds that roll off the Andes. They are pulled gently and at such an elevation, it’s not difficult to see what those investing in Medellin see: a beautiful sprawling city tucked into a lush valley, hungry for the chance it deserves. For just 70 cents, passengers are slowly raised up the mountainside. The ride is serene and the to-be destination on the top of the hill is even better: a massive city park that will eventually be available to everyone for hiking, camping, and other outdoor recreational activities. But for now the cable cars provide opportunities for those living on the hills beneath. The opportunities provided? Jobs mainly.

Without proper roads or means to travel on those roads even if they did exist, many people born into these neighborhoods have found themselves a part of a cyclical depression, one that carries over from generation to generation. The cable cars have made it possible for employable residents of this area to not only find work throughout the city, but to actually mobilize.

The dedication to Medellin extends beyond cleaning up dirty neighborhoods. The campaign, in fact, has been widespread. From the loft-like Brooklyn-esque Medellin Museum of Modern Art to the towering Botanical Gardens, the city truly survived a nightmare with the power of a dream.

I attended the annual Christmas lighting ceremony–a celebration that unites the city with the holiday spirit. I watched as locals enjoyed the fantastic displays of light and water and I couldn’t help but suspect the locals were cheering for something far beyond the engineering of man-the potential of man. And if any city ever had potential, it’s this one.

Although Medellin’s crime rate decreased steadily in the years following Escobar’s fall, it should be noted that the crime rate has been on the rise again in more recent years. But before you rethink your Colombia travel plans, consider this: Medellin has dealt with worse. From abject misery to widespread hope, Medellin is better equipped this time around.

A good traveler is one who is always aware of his or her surroundings, and if you’re a traveler in Medellin, you need to be a good one. Follow the obvious rules of travel (don’t travel alone, don’t travel into dangerous neighborhoods, be weary of traveling at night, don’t carry valuables you can’t afford to lose with you, etc.) and you should be fine in Medellin.

And remember: the more support Medellin has, the better it will do. Already triumphant in its plan to take back the city, imagine the lasting transformation that will be cemented with increased support from travelers everywhere. When all is said and done, Medellin gives me hope for Mexico.

Mexico limits U.S. dollar purchases in bid to beat drug lords

Worried that your money isn’t green enough? Well, in Mexico, the contrary may be true. If you’re headed to Mexico this year, you’ll want to bite the bullet and exchange some greenbacks for pesos. New currency laws came into effect in parts of the country last month that limit U.S. dollar-purchases to $100 per cash transaction (the most a business can accept). And, some businesses won’t be able to take even your Washingtons and Lincolns, let alone your Benjies.

The effort is related to anti-money laundering efforts, particularly as they relate to the drug trade. Even at banks you’ll feel currency-related constraints, reports USA Today, where “the amount of dollars foreigners can trade for pesos at banks and money exchangers to no more than $1,500 per month.” This doesn’t compare to the limits out on the street, though:

In addition, the tourism board says, several Mexico states – most notably Quintana Roo, home to the major resort destinations of Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen – have imposed a $100 limit on cash purchases. And regardless of location, airlines at Mexican airports can no longer accept U.S. cash for checked bag fees or other charges, says Tim Smith at American Airlines.

But, you’re still good when you pay with plastic – the sky’s the limit (along with whatever your bank has imposed on you.

[photo by redjar via Flickr]

Good Deed Travel: House building in Mexico vs drug cartels

As the news stories about the drug cartels in Mexico have increased, I’ve been struck by the contrast between the violence I’ve heard about in cities like Tijuana and what I experienced one year ago–just an hour over the Mexican border past the outskirts of that city and its urban sprawl.

High up a craggy hill, up winding, steep roads, where shacks of pieced together boards and metals served as ramshackle houses, I was hopefully helping to make the life of one family better. The other 160 people I was with–ranging in ages from fourteen to early sixties, were also building houses nearby. For a week we worked in groups to build twelve simple, two-room adobe structures with concrete floors and solid, leak-proof roofs.


Last year, I wrote a post about what prompted me to do such a trip. This is a follow-up.

Although I didn’t go to Mexico this year, the trip did happen. A little over two weeks ago, more Mexican families were handed the keys to their new front doors. Afterward, the bus loads of do-gooders, mostly adolescents, waited to go through customs to cross back into the U.S. for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger in San Diego, a hot shower and a night at a hotel.

If their trip was at all like ours, the stories they told each other as they waited were not about drug trafficking, but about the families they got to know and what they accomplished in five days. They will have mentioned the pleasure they found from mixing cement, measuring and cutting boards, pounding nails, and laying out the roofing. More importantly, they will have talked about the connections they made with the Mexican families. What will have struck them the most is how the families were so generous, kind and, in general, happy.

These are the stories I heard last year. From what the people who go on this trip every year have told me, these stories are typical. I think it would be great if these stories ended up on the news once in awhile.

One of the criticisms that I have heard about the recent news stories about Mexico is that there is so much focus on drug trafficking and the brutality of the cartels that people are getting a lopsided, and not totally accurate view of the country.

It’s not that I think that by building one humble house at a time, people can change the world, but it’s a different version of the world. Mexico is also filled with people who are focused on having a quiet, decent life where their kids are safe.

Still, as we were driving from where we were based to the border, the closer we got to Tijuana, the more graffiti I noticed. The simple, calm beauty of the countryside gradually shifted to what I perceived as anger, particularly since most of the graffiti was on the outside walls that surrounded housing developments of the people who worked in factories.

The contrast between the scattered clusters of houses where we had spent our time, and these walls was striking. I was happy that we passed on through.

A year later, the images of Maria, her grandsons and her son who live in the house I helped to build are much stronger than that graffiti.