As someone who travels frequently, I thought I was aware of most of the pitfalls of visiting strange lands. But the guidebooks can't tell you everything. As it turns out, one of the downsides of aspiring to be an international man of mystery is that sometimes people will try to kill you. Take last August, for instance.
My brush with the angel of death happened in Moscow. I was sitting blowing bubbles in my drink at a bar. Russian women can be extremely glamorous, and the one I met that night certainly was. Tall, with long red hair, and legs that went all the way up, she said her name was Alexandra, and she asked if she could sit down and have her drink at my table. Being a natural flirt and world-class charmer, I grunted my assent.
As the night wore on and the Diet Pepsi loosened my inhibitions, Alexandra made her move.
"Do you like me?" she asked.
"Um, I guess."
"Would you like to take me back to your place?"
"Um, not really."
Understandably disappointed, she left and decided to try her luck with someone else. Meanwhile, I finished my drink and went outside to take a taxi to my hotel.
When there were no taxis in sight, I set off for a main thoroughfare where I could more easily flag one down. Without warning, I began to feel sickeningly dehydrated. There was no place open to buy water, so I continued walking, becoming increasingly confused and disoriented. Feeling I was about to pass out, I accosted a shopkeeper who had just closed his kiosk, throwing him a U.S. $10 bill for a tiny bottle of water. I finally found a taxi and arrived back at my room at about 3 am.
And that, as they say in cheesy novels, is when things got interesting. While trying to find my bed in a room whose only furniture was a bed, I lost consciousness. I awoke some time later to see a black dog peeling a banana. "Have a banana," he said. Other vivid hallucinations followed. The only thing I can be sure really happened was that someone knocked on my door at 4 pm the next afternoon.
"You should call an ambulance. You look terrible" was his advice. For $100 U.S. I could be picked up and taken to the American Medical Center. Being of Scottish ancestry, I left my hotel and headed instead for the 20¢ subway. As I rode the escalator down to the platform, I fell asleep and awoke at the bottom. On the train I fell asleep between stops, and only seemed able to stay awake for minutes at a time.
I staggered into the Medical Center and, for the first time in my life, the sight of an American man excited me. That is, until I was told I'd have to pay $1,000 U.S. a day to stay there, and that since my pulse was below 30 and I might die, I might want to consider it as a serious option. So I did.
While being pumped with expensive fluid and monitored for the next 48 hours, I was able to work out what had happened to me. I had managed to survive a brush with a poisonous Black Widow. My drink had been spiked with a drug used to treat high blood pressure, in a hydrochloride compound. In this case, it was used to stupefy an unsuspecting male for the purpose of robbing him.
While most people think of the "mafiya" or police corruption when they think of crime in Russia, there is more to the problem than can be seen on the surface. In the transition to a capitalist economy, the social safety nets that Communism provided have been torn away. Russians under Communism were notoriously good at innovating around the constraints of the system, and these skills have transferred well to innovative criminal activity.
In Alexandra's case, she latched onto the truism that foreign men and their money are soon parted. Unlike prostitution (another social problem that has spiralled out of control in the decade since the collapse of the USSR), Alexandra's improvisation on the theme involves robbing foreign men of their (usually U.S.) dollars. That the method often results in serious illness or even death for the victims of the crime matters little.
And these are not isolated incidents. The American clinic I attended revealed that around 40 men a year are admitted for poisoning like mine. The good news is this: I lived. The bad news is that a profession like Alexandra's has the potential to be quite lucrative. And for an unwary tourist, potentially fatal.