In ninety-nine interactions out of one hundred, courtesy will carry you as far as you need to go. A warm smile and a pleasant demeanor will drop guards. It will endear you to strangers. It will open a world of possibilities that simply aren’t there to those who are brash, curt or downright rude.
But sometimes, being polite isn’t alright.
In August of 2019, I stood outside a busport in Buenaventura, Colombia. I had just been warned that the city lives at the edge of the FARC-occupied jungles on the west coast, and that the city is responsible for nearly 50% of all drug exports from Colombia, meaning the cartels have a massive presence. FARC and the cartels have a checkered history and often butt heads, violently. And then, of course, it’s geographically removed from the rest of the country, and that unfortunate positioning (coupled with the militant occupation) has compounded into something of a government neglect. To this day, the city is one of the world’s most dangerous. I was terrified, and I had six hours to kill - and to let my fear fester - before my bus.
Danger seemed to lurk in every corner. Cars slowed down to look at me. Men yelled at me from across the street. I’m a 6’1 white guy, after all. I don’t exactly blend.
It was in this moment - with my hands shaking and my eyes darting - that I heard a voice behind me. Feminine and warm. Polite and courteous.
“Can I ask you a question?” said the voice, and I turned to find a petite woman. Mid-40s, kind eyes.
“Of course,” I said, because that’s what I would always say. That’s what I’d trained my brain to do in moments like that. Because polite is usually right.
I sensed a certain amount of condescension from her immediately. My initial assumption was that she saw a man in his late twenties clearly out of place and felt a need to warn me that I shouldn’t be here. But her English was just too good. No one I’d met in Buenaventura spoke a word of English, and this woman was fluent, with only the softest accent.
Any alarms that hadn’t already activated in my brain certainly did a moment later, as she deftly maneuvered the conversation into a pitch. Her and her brother had taken such an interest in the sporadic, infrequent tourists in Buenaventura that they had decided to start a tour company together, she explained to me.
“People think our city is dangerous,” she said. “I want to show them how we live here.”
I politely declined. I have a bus to catch. She persisted. I declined again.
Her eyes went cold. She pulled her phone from her pocket.
“Calling my brother,” she said, willing from her eyes any remaining charm she could muster. And then, into the phone (and in English, so I could understand), she said the following: “His name is Will. He’s from New York City. Purple shirt.”
And then she just… walked away.
The glass broke. I read the signs right from the very moment she spoke, but I let my default function override my intuition. That wasn’t among the ninety-nine interactions in which I should have been courteous. That was the one interaction in which I should have bolted.
If you operate like me, and you find yourself defaulting to a sort of false courtesy with strangers - especially those who have no business interacting with you - there’s only one piece of feedback I can give: trust your gut. The minute those alarm bells go off, get the hell out. You might offend a stranger with genuine, positive intentions. You know what? That’s alright. Because you also might save your own life.
I sacrificed the opportunity to be smart that day. Sitting like a duck in a mostly-empty bus terminal, I regretted every second of that interaction in the hours to come.
But I’m still breathing. I’m still here.
Join me tomorrow for this week’s episode of Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells to learn what happened next.