This is a tale of letting my guard down, trusting seemingly kind people and ending up being drugged and robbed. Six days later, all is fine, but some hard earned lessons were learned.
I arrived in Manila on Thursday and immediately encountered its infamous traffic as the taxi took nearly 2 hours to drive the 6 miles from the airport to my Airbnb in one of Manila’s most upscale areas, Makahati, and the Gramercy Residences. It is the highest building in Manila at 76 floors and its neighbour, for better or worse, is the Trump Tower.
On Friday, I decided to avoid the traffic and walk the 7 kilometres to the old part of Manila, Intramuros. Armed with Google Maps, I made my way towards the Bay of Manila, passing through wealthier and poorer neighborhoods, where the sidewalks were jumbles of broken concrete, poles were threaded with electricity stealing wires and clothes hung out to dry at every window.
Tuk-tuks and scooters were the transport of choice, along with a uniquely Filipino vehicle – the Jeepney – an elongated Jeep adapted after WW2, plying set routes as mini-buses throughout the city. In Intramuros, I stopped at the 15th century San Agustin Church and walked through Casa Manila, a museum made up to mimic wealthy 19th century Manilian life during the height of the Spanish colonial rule. After having walked around for 5 hours, I indulged in the Manila equivalent of Uber, called Grab, costing $5.00 for the 45 minute ride back to the Gramercy.
Saturday morning came and I was feeling far less ambitious in terms of walking, so I went to the nearby Salcedo market, a weekly food market offering both Filipino and foreign dishes. It was too early for lunch, so after walking through the market, I left and walked down Makahati Avenue to see its sights.
They turned out to be pretty slim, unless non-descript skyscrapers, bank buildings, 7-elevens and the Filipino equivalent of KFC, Jolibee, are to your taste. I started back toward the Salcedo market. Midway there, a 60 year old Filipino lady brandishing an umbrella to protect her skin from the sun asked me if I knew how to get to the Salcedo market. I said I was going there and we could walk together. She introduced herself as Gina and said she was a chef from the Ilocos province, visiting Manila for a few days with a friend whom she was to meet at the market. Gina said she had 15 grandchildren and one grandson and showed me his picture on her phone. Gina had married at 15, had her first child a year later, but had been widowed for 10 years.
We arrived at the market and sat down. Gina said she would ensure I had proper Filipino food and brought over both a mango and a cucumber drink. I chose the mango, refreshing in the Manila heat. Gina brought other Filipino dishes, including barbecue pork and chicken skewers, rice wrapped in banana leaves, chicken adobo and empanadas. Soon her friends, Sazzann and Baya arrived; Sazzann was 67, but Baya was much younger. They both introduced themselves as business women. Sazzann had a mango farm in Ilocos while Baya bought clothes cheaply in Manila and resold them in her hometown.
The ladies indicated they wanted to go to a cheaper market that sold clothes and asked if I wanted to join them. I’m not a shopper, but I thought, hey, why not have an authentic experience in Manila with some Filipinos. We caught a regular bus and went to the Baclaran market, where hundreds of umbrellas make up the stalls.
Clothes and lots of other things were for sale here at very cheap prices. Gina bought a hand held portable sewing machine for her granddaughter’s birthday and Baya bought some earrings but that was it. It was hot and noisy and the ladies said it was time for a beer and a Jeepney ride. They asked if I wanted to join them and I said yes. Baya took our picture inside the Jeepney.
We stopped at an open restaurant/karaoke bar. Gina said her two nieces were going to join us – they were close by and liked to practice English with a native speaker. Meanwhile, Baya bought some drinks: San Miguel beer for them and a Tanguay for me-it tasted like a Smirnoff Ice but with only 5% alcohol and rum rather than vodka based.
Eventually the nieces joined us, alcohol started flowing freely and the karaoke began. I’m not a singer, but Gina loved to sing – lots of Carpenter songs and Bonnie Tyler’s Straight from the Heart were a few I remember. The nieces said they were both studying business administration in local colleges and seemed like nice girls but there were warning signs. I asked to friend them on Facebook, and they said sure, but later. One of them asked to see the pictures I had taken and spent a long time looking at them on my I-Phone. More food was ordered, more drinks appeared and there was a lot of singing (but not by me). All seemed well.
About 4 PM, one of the nieces asked if I wanted to join them on a shopping trip to the biggest mall in the Philippines, The Mall of Asia. As it had been on my To Do list, I readily agreed and the 6 of us climbed into a Grab taxi. Oddly, we stopped at a Jolibee for more food, which I declined (I was full) and then more alcohol came out. We had been in the cab for at least half an hour, which was again odd as I could see the planes landing at the airport and knew the mall was close to the airport. I asked what the hold up was – why weren’t we at the mall yet………..
The next thing I remember I was walking back from a bank close to my Airbnb on Sunday about noon. I had tried to withdraw money and couldn’t remember my PIN so I got a message on my phone from the bank saying it detected fraud and I had to call the bank. I walked back to my residence, so unsteady on my feet that I tripped on the sidewalk, ripping my new pants at the knee. A passerby saw me and helped me up, then walked with me the 2 blocks to my place. Try as I might, I have no memory of anything after being in the cab on Saturday, not where I slept that night or what prompted me to go out to the bank that Sunday.
As the fog in my head started to clear, I took stock of the damage. It didn’t take a genius to figure out I had been drugged, probably with Ativan, also known as the date rape drug, but aside from a bruised knee when I fell and a heavy head, I felt physically fine. I still had my I-Phone and my purse, but looking through it, I noticed by debit card was gone, along the equivalent of $80 in pesos and a note about my PIN on my US dollar Visa card. In retrospect, it was a pretty stupid place to leave the PIN. My Canadian $ Visa was still there; that was the one I had been trying to withdraw cash from when my memory returned.
A few days later, I still have no recollection of anything between 4PM on Saturday and noon on Sunday. I asked the building’s security to review the CCTV to find out when I came home and how but have no results yet. I also had a strange note in my pocket, partly in my writing saying “you stole 10,000 k from me” (the equivalent of $250) and a cab’s license number in writing I didn’t recognize.
When I checked my bank accounts, 10,000 Philippine pesos had been withdrawn from my US $ Visa account. I quickly cancelled the account (and CIBC said they would reimburse me the funds since it was fraud and I was a good customer) along with my debit card. To date, nothing untoward has happened with my Canadian $ Visa card and I can only assume they either missed it or ignored it if I was unable to give them the PIN. They left me with my passport, health care card and driver’s license, far more considerate than the pickpocket in Riga. I suspect they made sure I got back to my residence. Other internet posts I have since read say this is the norm as they hope if not too much is missing and you end up back at your place, you won’t go to the police.
On Monday, I went to a local walk-in medical clinic to learn more information about the drug. It cost only $12.50 to see a GP. She advised of the problematic warning signals to watch out for – seizures, shortness of breath and excessive sleepiness past two days. She also offered to arrange for a toxicology exam so I could determine exactly what drug I had been given. As I did not seem to have any lingering symptoms, I declined but I did go see a neurologist to discuss the potential symptoms as well, This cost $29 and I had to wait half an hour for an appointment. Whatever issues I may have with the criminals in Manila, their medical system was a treat.
I also decided to go to the police station and make a report. Unfortunately, the officer seemed completely uninterested until I told him I had photos of the culprits. Although the nieces had erased the photos on my camera roll, I had sent some photos to my son and brother and they had not been deleted. The police officer took a picture of the thieves and another of the note with the driver’s license, but wouldn’t let me fill out a report. As I couldn’t remember where the theft had occurred except near the airport, he concluded that it was outside of his jurisdiction and he couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it.
It’s been 6 days since and all is well. Part of me wants to contact Grab and find out if the license number on that paper is theirs and, if so, to see if they have records of who called the taxi. But I have decided against it. I have to let this go and chalk it up to a bad experience which could have turned out a lot worse. I am out $80 but am completely healthy and like to think a little wiser about being victimized by scammers. Although I had heard about scams like this, it was always young people in bars at night, not grannies in popular food markets. Sadly, I will be more reluctant to trust locals. I will also be adamant only to drink from bottles I have seen opened, never let my drink out of my sight and never share food with anyone, no matter the culture.
When I told my father what happened, his reaction was to return to the safety of Canada. I didn’t even think of doing that for a second. I have loved every adventure, positive or negative, I have encountered in the last year. Being drugged and robbed was definitely not a highlight, but it will give me endless stories. And despite its ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the Jeepney ride, the karaoke singing and the Tanguay drink with the grannies.
Next post: I Shall Return, said General MacArthur, but I probably will not.