Nearly a quarter million American students embark upon study abroad programs each year, and while most programs result in positive experiences and an expanded understanding of our world there are many study abroad programs that have a much grimmer and more costly ending. A 2010 article titled 7 Student Travel Nightmares paints a gruesome and vivid picture of how study abroad programs can go terribly wrong. From kidnappings to abandonment to murder cases, students have experienced an array of security disasters that have left families broken, higher education institutions writing big checks, and diplomatic agencies in a scramble. No country is without its share of security threats, no city is 100% safe, and no student is immune to becoming the victim of a life-threatening situation.
In the last three articles of this series, “Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, I have candidly discussed my own experiences while studying at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. While I enjoyed many unforgettable times in Moscow, I also encountered many experiences that were quite un-enjoyable and unforgettable. At the conclusion of my last article, I left you all at the beginning of what I now call my ‘Taxi-Cab-Kidnapping’ story. I would like to tell the rest of my story, and I sincerely hope that by telling it some student will think twice about the seemingly insignificant decisions they make while studying in a foreign country. Because ultimately, when studying abroad things can go wrong and if they do it happens very, very quickly.
When the Unimaginable Happens
At first I could not believe that I was in a situation with an unknown attacker attempting to hurt me…again. Looking back, it seemed like a joke — surely this man knew that I had already been robbed, and surely he was just trying to ‘make a funny’ by driving me to the middle of a remote location before beginning his physical attack. In the moment, however, I had no time to think about the sincerity of his actions, I was simply in response mode, otherwise known as survival mode. As the driver of the taxi continued to wrestle with me for my purse (while driving down a deserted road mind you) I fought back, pulling and tugging on my purse. Without thinking, I punched the man directly on the right side of his face. Despite the likely weak punch I had delivered, he was even more mad and began to swerve down the road as all his attention was focused on forcing me to surrender my belongings. We were exchanging curses, grunts, and hits when all of a sudden the strap on my purse broke, leaving me with the body of the purse in my hands. We both stared at each other wondering what would happen next and at that exact moment, whilst still driving at a significant speed, the driver leaned over, opened my door, and kicked me out of the moving vehicle.
I would never recommend jumping out of a moving vehicle unless absolutely necessary…it hurts; however, this undoubtedly saved my life. Had he not ‘given up’ and kicked me out of his car I would likely be in a much, much worse situation than I am today with only road rash scars reminding me of this incident. After rolling down the embankment, I came to rest in what looked to me like the Siberian Forest.
My body was racing with adrenaline as I frantically searched for my purse and phone. Finding it lying in the leaves, I quickly called my friends back at the ex-pat restaurant in the heart of Moscow, hoping they could give me some direction as to what I was to do now. Not having any idea where I was, it being pitch black, and with absolutely no one around the only advice they could offer me was to stick my hand out in the road and wait for another ‘taxi’ driver to come. Yeah, right.
That is exactly what I ended up doing though, and eventually a foreigner came by and offered his services. This man from Pakistan actually knew some English, and reluctantly, through tears I asked him to take me to the nearest metro station. To this day I can see how I made one mistake after another, including getting in to that car with that man from Pakistan. Yet, despite all the risks and messy parts of this situation their was a silver lining. There are good people in the world — this man drove me straight to the front door of my building, offered to let me use his international phone to call home, and refused to take my money for his services.
My wild, could-be-a-scene-in-a-movie evening came to an end as I settled in to my dorm room to assess the damage. Besides some serious road-rash, I was alive and well.
An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure
The worst part about the night that this all happened, is knowing how simply it all could have been avoided. On the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Safety and Security for U.S. Students Traveling Abroad” webpage the above quote about prevention is featured. Prevention, as a practical security maintenance and conflict avoidance policy, is not something that is to be minimized: experts agree — prevention is the best policy. Knowing prevention is the best policy, however, and enacting practices for preventing and minimizing security risks as a study abroad student are two entirely different things. Nearly all of the lessons I learned from the unfortunate circumstances I encountered while in Moscow could be understood as lessons in taking the proper time to prepare for and prevent risk.
For example, preparing for the realities of Moscow crime would mean keeping my arrogant attitude in check, listening to the warnings of my friends and family, and actually taking the advice listed on the U.S. State Department’s page about being careful of people who seem overtly friendly. Or perhaps I could have prevented hundreds of dollars of theft by leaving my valuable in a secure location in my dorm building; I also could have saved myself from a dramatic, near-kidnapping by never traveling alone and choosing to not become too comfortable. I could have, I should have, and I would have changed so many things about my time studying in Moscow — not only to experience a more enriching learning environment, but also because being the American girl that has her valuables stolen, is attacked at a piano bar, and narrowly escapes a taxi-cab kidnapping attempt is downright embarrassing. Not to mention, I helped to fulfill nearly every stereotype that many Russians have about ‘ignorant’ Westerners being unable to handle the harsh realities of Russian life.
Throughout this series I have been very honest about my own shortcomings while studying abroad; at the risk of sounding too self-critical, I was indeed wreck-less and arrogant.
As a result of my disregard for my own security, I walked right in to the schemes of criminals and exposed my self to unnecessary security risks. To the students who are planning to travel to a foreign country in the near future, or to the parents of those students: I survived these attacks narrowly and I know it could have been worse. Please take your security seriously — there is not an international task force ready to swoop in and save the day…that only exists in Hollywood. Please plan ahead — you will thank yourself later (and save yourself some serious money.) As the old saying goes, “Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance”. And finally, please go study abroad. In spite of all the mistakes I made, I would encourage anybody who has the opportunity to enroll in a semester abroad program of some sorts. Choose to be wise, but seize the opportunity to get out of your own little world. As always, be safe!
Author – Anna Johnson