I first wrote about the Otto Warmbier case more than a year ago, as it was an object lesson concerning the perils of Americans traveling abroad. However, many people only recently heard of the young man, who died just days after being returned to his parents’ home in the US after more than a year-long imprisonment in North Korea. This is a tragic case, and given the amount of press it has received, as well as the fact that summer is prime vacation season, I am reprinting this very important blog… wishing everyone happy and SAFE travels.
You can read more about this case and other international incidents in Chapter 10 of my book, “Seeing Life Through Private Eyes“.
Many years ago, I traveled through Turkey with my wife and two other couples as part of a large tour group. On our last day in Ankara, we made sure to be outside lined up and ready to go on time, as we absolutely had to be at the airport several hours before our flight left for Istanbul.
The tour director had just finished a final headcount of passengers when the hotel manager, accompanied by uniformed police officers, boarded the bus and announced that one of the guests had stolen the small plastic shoehorn from their room.
“Whoever stole the shoehorn, announce yourself and turn it in now!” No one moved. “Do it now… or we will search every passenger and piece of luggage on this bus until we find it!”
As someone who had traveled to more than 125 foreign countries for my work as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and in private practice as a private investigator, I hoped I could defuse the situation a bit.
As someone who had traveled to more than 125 foreign countries for my work as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and in private practice as a private investigator, I hoped I could defuse the situation a bit. It was a lot of drama for a piece of plastic that could not be worth more than a quarter. I raised my hand. “Did you steal the shoehorn?” the police demanded. I rose to my feet.
“No, I did not, but I understand you are upset, and rightly so. Could I repay you for the cost of the missing shoehorn so you don’t have to go to all this trouble?”
“Sir. Sit down and shut up. Immediately.” OK, OK. I got it. I sat. The authorities were going to get that shoehorn. That bus wasn’t moving.
Miraculously, the stolen shoehorn quickly “appeared” on an empty seat, though no one claimed responsibility. After a long conference, it was decided that the police did not need to investigate the matter further and we could proceed to the airport. We all breathed a sigh of relief as the door shut behind the officers and the bus pulled into traffic.
I hadn’t thought of this incident in years, but was reminded of it when I read about Otto Warmbier in the paper this month. Warmbier is the University of Virginia student who was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in North Korea after stealing a promotional poster from his hotel room. There was never any doubt he did it; he was captured on videotape taking it down from a wall. It came out at his trial that someone from his church group at home put him up to bringing home this souvenir.
I have no doubt Warmbier is a bright young man, attending as he does a prestigious university, but he’s certainly lacking in street smarts and travel sense. Did he not read up on the country he was visiting? Did he not happen to notice the cameras everywhere recording his every move? American officials have denounced his sentence and are working frantically to secure his release and I hope they succeed soon. This man is not going to do well there.
I have seen every possible variation of the “ugly American abroad”.
As someone who has traveled extensively around the globe, both in an overt and covert manner, I have seen every possible variation of the “ugly American abroad”. I urge travelers to have some humility and manners. Follow the rules. Be a good guest. This is a stark reminder of what can happen when you don’t! Many foreign countries are delighted to teach Americans a harsh lesson when they get the opportunity. North Korean authorities paraded Warmbier in front of the cameras, humiliated him, and joyously tried and sentenced him. Hopefully, they are feeling somewhat satisfied by the show and will now let him go.
I have visited foreign prisons all over the world. Trust me, “Locked Up Abroad” is a pretty fairy-tale. Americans have no idea of what the reality of prison life is in, say, a Turkish, Thai or Brazilian prison. I suppose we were fortunate to be given briefings by the State Department on customs and culture of the countries we visited for work.
If you must satisfy your itch to backpack in Afghanistan or tour North Korea for fun, at least do some homework. Remember: you are not pulling pranks at your fraternity house in Virginia, so please act accordingly.
How businesses can avoid being shamed by their corporate spokespeople.