Thank You to the Militant Who Stole My Car!

Derek Bangladesh, India, Travel Tales 179 Comments

Truth be told, we human beings often don’t understand the true value of a particular moment in our lives until well after that moment has passed. Yet we often forget this undeniable fact in our quest to immediately categorize every interaction and event that occurs, so that we may quickly embrace the positive and discard the negative.

Lately, I’ve reached the conclusion that every single goal I’ve achieved, hurdle I’ve overcome, step of progress I’ve made and lesson I’ve learned, would not have been possible without the mishaps, pain, disappointments, struggles and ‘mistakes’ I’ve dealt with along the way. In other words, I would not be where I am today without those moments that I was once so quick to label as ‘negative’.

The following true story is an example, albeit an extreme one, of why we should openly accept every moment, both the seemingly positive and the seemingly negative. The truth is, there is ALWAYS hidden value in every moment of life. It just might take us some time to discover it.

Vikram Stole My Car…

In late 2002, I lived in Los Angeles for two months. I really didn’t know too many people there and ended up hanging out with my new friend Vikram most of the time. He was a nice, trustworthy guy, quite humorous and overly generous and always full of positive energy. So, when I decided to leave LA, I was more than happy to sell my car to him for a ‘friend’s price’ of $3000. Vikram paid me $500 up front and promised to send me the rest of the money after receiving his next paycheck.

I left Los Angeles and I never heard from Vikram again.

A Plan is Hatched…

Vikram was from the Indian town of Shillong, the capital of the remote northeastern state of Meghalaya. It was a place he spoke about often, usually when referring to his family or while reminiscing about his four best friends who had formed a popular jazz/reggae band.

So when fifteen days passed without any word from Vikram, and with my anger growing each day at the thought of losing $2500, I began to wonder what his family and friends would think about his actions. I envisioned myself being magically teleported to Shillong and having a little chat with Vikram’s mother.

‘Wouldn’t that be nice,’ I thought. ‘Actually, it would.’

Two weeks later, with the style of a secret agent and the mentality of a bounty hunter, I flew to Bangkok, where I spent one week preparing for my mission. Unlike most agents, whose preparations include intense weapons and martial arts training, I passed the time with visits to Buddhist temples, nightly foot massages, buckets of pad thai, the occasional Singha beer and wandering through local markets.

And then I flew to Dhaka, Bangladesh. The reason I chose Dhaka as my entry point was due to Shillong’s location. The town is a 24-hour train/bus journey from the closest Indian international airport but only a three-hour bus ride from a remote border crossing with Bangladesh. Besides, I had never been to Bangladesh, so the decision was easy.

The Consequences of a Warning Ignored…

I landed in Dhaka at 2:00am and quite frankly, my mission did not get off to a good start. As soon as I walked out of the airport, I was literally kidnapped. Sure, my guide book had warned that “if you arrive in Dhaka after sunset, remain in the airport until sunrise” but guide books are full of so many useless warnings that I simply ignored it.

Here’s what happened. I was approached by a crowd of fifteen taxi drivers, all yelling and tugging at me, wanting me to choose them to be my driver. Eventually, I chose a middle-aged man who knew a handful of English words. He grabbed my backpack and led me through the parking lot to his vehicle.

I jumped in the back seat, welcoming the quiet. Unfortunately, the quiet lasted for two brief seconds, when the doors opened and four more taxi drivers entered the car. And then they locked the doors. There I sat, wedged in between two burly, unsmiling Bangladeshi men, with a driver and two more suspicious looking individuals sitting in the front seat. At first I wasn’t too worried, until I realized that nobody seemed to care where I wanted to go.

Here’s a quick summary of the following two days:

  • I was forced, under the threat of physical pain and having all of my belongings taken from me, to pay out a total of $130 USD to the five men in the taxi.
  • I was taken to an unmarked building located in a hidden alleyway in the middle of a massive slum and locked inside of a small room with a paper-thin mattress, disgusting squat toilet and more cockroaches than I care to share a room with.
  • The following morning I was picked up by two of the taxi drivers and taken by car to an unmarked ‘hotel’ where I was again locked inside a small concrete room.
  • At 10:00am the following day, the man I had originally chosen to be my driver returned with a ‘friend’ and immediately demanded that I pay them each $100.
  • By this time, I realized that these people had no idea what they were doing so I simply refused to pay and we ended up just staring at each other in silence for about thirty minutes.
  • The two men brought me to a bank and demanded I take out $500 USD. I went inside, pretended to talk to the teller and then informed the men that I was unable to access my account.
  • They brought me back to the ‘hotel’, told me to get my backpack and to return immediately to the lobby area.
  • I grabbed my backpack, ran down a side hallway, out a back door and into the streets of Dhaka.
  • I then went for some lunch.

Shillong, Here I Come!

After Dhaka, I moved eastward, spending a most bizarre two and a half weeks making my way towards the border. I encountered a street fight between the male passengers of my bus and the male passengers of another bus, a near-deadly riot in a cinema, not one plate of edible food, police brutality in broad daylight and endless pleas by Bangladeshis for visa-sponsorship to the USA. I also had to deal with elderly prostitutes following me around, swarms of mosquitoes and violent monkeys and nearly killing a small boy by accidentally running over him while riding a bike. To state the obvious, it was a challenge.

When I finally arrived at the remote border crossing, I was of course not at all surprised to discover a gunfight taking place between the Indian and Bangladeshi armies. What I did find surprising was the sudden display of hospitality, as a temporary two-minute cease-fire was declared, allowing me to cross the border without fear of receiving a bullet in my neck.

A few hours later, I arrived by local bus into Shillong. It was time to track down Vikram’s friends and family and kindly ask for their assistance in helping me retrieve my money. The next morning I began my search, a search that ended up taking all of thirty minutes. The first person I asked, a man selling CDs in the market, knew exactly where Vikram’s band member friends lived. Twenty minutes later I was knocking on the door to their house.

Time to Meet and Then Say Goodbye to the Family…

They were a most welcoming and friendly group of guys, immediately inviting me in and even asking me to join them on a short trip across town. Oddly enough, they were headed to the home of Vikram’s family to drop something off for his brother. And so, as luck would have it, I soon found myself sitting on a sofa speaking with Vikram’s mother.

Unfortunately though, I never got a chance to bring up Vikram’s $2500 debt. I did have a chance to take a peek in Vikram’s room, where I chose not to steal as much as I could stuff my pockets with, despite my strong desire to do so.

Ten minutes after our arrival, the local news station issued a warning. A two-day strike had been called by a local student union group. Although this might not seem alarming at first glance, an Indian ‘strike’ requires that all businesses close down and that nobody be allowed to go outside. If you are seen on the streets, chances are you would be shot by the groups of student union members marching around demanding better treatment by the government.

The band members quickly devised a plan and without hesitation invited me to join them yet again. I said goodbye to Vikram’s mother, telling her I would visit again once the strike was over. I was not about to give up on my money that quickly.

After a quick stop at the mayor’s house, where we drank beer and smoked Afghani hashish on the rooftop while the shirtless and highly intoxicated mayor rambled incoherently about the lack of cheese in Shillong, we left the town and drove out into the middle of nowhere.

The plan was to spend two days camping at a remote lake some 5 hours away from Shillong until the strike ended. And that’s exactly what we did, along with swimming, canoeing, playing pickup games of cricket with local Khasi tribal villagers and spending a lot of time sitting around the campfire, talking and playing music. And it was around the campfire that I learned some more about Vikram.

Vikram? Prison?

It turned out that my good old pal Vikram had spent time in a Calcutta prison for smuggling weapons into India. He also joined a powerful and violent militant group during his incarceration before managing to escape from prison altogether. He briefly visited friends and family after breaking free and then fled the country. He hadn’t been seen in over 3 years.

All I kept thinking was, ‘I had seen him, every day right there in LA. And the bastard owes me $2500.’

As I heard more tales of Vikram’s suspicious behavior and links to organizations known for bombings and indiscriminate killings, I was shocked that I had failed to notice anything out of the ordinary during our friendship. In fact, shouldn’t it have seemed odd to me that Vikram often wore black jeans, a black jacket and black military boots, in the middle of the Los Angeles summer? In fact, now that I thought about it, there was nothing else that Vikram resembled more than a convicted militant prison escapee. Damn. That doesn’t say much about my ability to choose friends wisely.

During the five-hour drive back to Shillong after the strike had ended, I was furious with myself for not having read the signs and for allowing myself to be tricked into trusting Vikram. ‘Just look where that friendship has led me,’ I kept repeating over and over.

Where Did My ‘Friendship’ With Vikram Lead Me?

I certainly would have been $2500 richer without him. I also wouldn’t have had to trek around the world, spend a week in Bangkok, bravely escape from my inexperienced kidnappers in Dhaka, explore the beautiful tea plantations and jungles of eastern Bangladesh, cross a remote border crossing during a gunfight, meet and become friends with a popular and wonderfully talented Indian band, smoke hashish with the mayor of an Indian state capital, spend two days camping at a breathtaking lake where local tribal people had never seen a foreigner before…and I wouldn’t have decided to spend an additional six months exploring India.

You see where I’m going with this…

What was the better deal? Having the $2500 in my bank account or embarking on an unforgettable, life-changing journey across the Indian-subcontinent?

To me, there is no decision to make. The answer is all too clear.

In Conclusion…

We cannot afford to view the disappointing moments of life as wholly negative. We should embrace them, sure, as difficult moments, but also as potentially positive life-altering experiences. Had Vikram not stolen my car, I would never have ended up in India at that point in my life. And if you’ve read my “Why Every Traveler Must Visit India” post, you’ll understand how important a role that first trip to India played in shaping who I am.

Opportunities present themselves to us all the time, but if we automatically discard our disappointing and regretful moments as useless impediments to our progress, we just might miss out on a great deal of what life has to offer us.

By the way, I never did bring up Vikram’s debt to his mother. Actually, I decided it wise for me to leave Shillong the morning after returning from the lake. I didn’t need a powerful militant organization after me. I could barely handle a group of five taxi drivers.

Let me know if you agree with this perspective. Have you lived through a difficult period of time or extreme moment of disappointment that you were eventually thankful for and which had a lasting positive impact on your life?

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Comments 179

  1. Rob

    Hey Earl,

    Three years ago I left a 750i BMW with a “friend” who sold it within three months to a wrecker. He had promised to pay $4000 for it but never did. I came to the conclusion that trying to extract the money out of him would do more harm to me than him, and let it go.

    At the time I was homeless and had traveled north (in Australia) looking for work. Eventually my need for somewhere to live resulted in my buying a 35′ ferro-cement yacht, which I’m restoring with a view to seeing the world. If I’d become involved with court cases I would have been trapped into staying in Melbourne this never would have happened.

    I’ve saved far more than $4000 in rent since that happened, and in December was invited to go to NZ with a new-found yachtie friend on his 40′ steel cutter. The experience was amazing.

    Stuff happens. How we deal with it determines our future. Yes, to an unemployed and homeless guy $4000 was a lot of money, but at 61yo my time is worth far more than that. Love your blog man, keep up the good work!


  2. Karthik

    How can anyone escape a kidnapping and then calmy have a meal> u had no apprehensions/fear that the taxi drivers may choose the same spot as you for lunch and then stalk and kidnap you again. ?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Karthik – If you’ve been to Dhaka, you’d know that wouldn’t happen. It is by far the most densely populated, crowded city I have ever been to and the chances of running into those guys again was extremely slim.

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  4. Near

    Is this for real? I hope it is. When I was 10, I went to Bangladesh to meet my family. While I was a boat traveling to a rural village, I foolishly left my laptop open in an unlocked room to do my business. I came back to see someone get out of my room. I screamed, ran just as another 10 year old would do and got my parents. They returned to find my laptop missing. Coincidentally, once we got to my grandparents house, I noticed the same man milling around the house. Then, my grandfather introduced him to us as a generous neighbor who often offered mangoes to his neighbors much to my shock. Immediately, I shouted “He’s a thief.” My parents then conversed with the man who apologized and gave us back the laptop. Your story Earl certainly bring back memories. Great share!

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  7. Sara W

    Wow! What a simply amazing experience! I love how you can take what could have been an emotionally scarring event and see the positivity in it. Thankfully the taxi drivers weren’t too dangerous! And also, it’s great that brought you to India for your first time! Sometimes bad events give us good things in return.

  8. Vincent Vanzetti

    I love this post. Aside from being an engrossing and darkly humorous account of highly dangerous situations, it offers an extremely important lesson. Amazing job reframing the loss of $2500 as the price of the adventure of a lifetime.

    So many times while traveling, I’ve been cursed my bad luck, bad decisions, or bad planning. Yet while life is inevitably composed of ups and downs, sometimes the downs lead directly into the ups, as you point out here.

    I cursed myself for missing a bus in Thailand and throwing my plans out of whack, only to be seated next to a beautiful woman on the next bus with whom I spent the next several days. I arrived late in a small town in Turkey to find the lone hotel full, only to end up at one of the best homestays of my life. I cursed getting ripped off by an Egyptian horse guide, until we crested a desert hill and I saw the Pyramids in all their glory for the first breathtaking time.

    Some situations are more difficult than others, but there is nearly always at least one possible positive spin.

    The last line of Alexander Pushkin’s short story “The Stationmaster” touches on this idea:

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Vincent – I often believe that there is always a positive spin to every negative situation and usually, it just depends on our own attitude towards life and our ability to avoid letting one tough moment have a long-lasting effect on us.

  9. Chelsea

    “I then went for some lunch.” … ha ha! Earl, you crack me up. Wow, I was absolutely glued to my computer screen reading this blog post. Incredible story. This is the kind of stuff that happens in movies!

  10. Jeremy Branham

    Wow Earl, this is a fantastic story with an awesome message. One of the best travel stories I have read.

    You could have told this awesome story and ended it and that would have been enough. However, there was a lesson you discovered in your trip to Bangladesh and India. I am not sure many people could have done that. You saw something bigger than this story. Maybe you are another Paulo Coelho 🙂

  11. Chambrey@VolunteerTravelTips

    Way to stay positive and calm in a crazy situation! Have you seen Hotel Transylvania? That’s kind of what this reminds me of, sometimes when you’re traveling you don’t realize how much danger you’re in so you’re not as scared. Glad you stayed safe and calm throughout this.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Chambrey – I actually watched Hotel Transylvania when I just flew to the US from South Africa a couple of weeks ago. I like how you put it…I certainly had no idea how dangerous the situation could have been (I assumed it was not so dangerous at the time) and as a result, even I am surprised at how calm I was able to remain.

  12. Rockyra

    I really enjoyed that story Earl and couldn’t stop smiling at each new turn of events. I have no strong desire to travel to Bangladesh in the near future but if I do end up in Dhaka after dark I’ll remember to wait for the sun to peak over the horizon before venture out. 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Rockyra – Good call…and it might be a better idea to organize an airport pickup before you arrive as an extra level of security 🙂

  13. Simon

    I love this story! So determined to get your money back or just tell his mum haha! I’m sure at the actual time of happening it was the worst thing to ever happen. But those kind of stories make the best ones.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Simon – I still have no idea why I was so intent on showing up there but I certainly am glad I did in the end!

  14. Olivia

    I am 22 now but when I was 19 I had cancer. When I was first diagnosed I felt like it was possibly the worst thing that could have ever happened to me. I don’t think much comes close to a possible death sentence. I cried for four hours straight and couldn’t believe that I had ever let little things ever get me down in life. Why did I care so much about this or that before I was sick? When I was perfectly healthy. Health is one of the biggest blessings a person can have. I have been in remission for almost three years now. There are millions of things I learned from that experience. However, the most important was taking advantage of life when it is in front of you. I am blessed because from a young age I have learned never to sweat the little things and to go after what I want with no fear. Because I was sick I have taken more risks in my life then I would have before and I find joy in the most simplest of things.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Olivia – Thank you for sharing your story and there is certainly an important lesson, if not the most important lesson in life, in your words. I can only imagine what your journey must have been like so far but I am happy to hear about your current situation of being in remission. Let all who read your comment stop for a moment and remind ourselves that living life to the fullest is not something that we should put off for even another day!

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  17. Katie @

    1. I spent about 30 minutes searching for the full kidnapping story on your site since I first saw it reference when I stumbled here from… somewhere… Twitter?

    2. I am sitting here with the silliest grin on my face upon discovering that your kidnapping story was a blip – a blip! – in a much larger and even more bizarre tale.

    3. You traveled from LA to a remote town in India (probably costing you over $2500 when all was said and done) just to tattle on someone?

    Consider me a new fan. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a better example of living in the moment. 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Katie – I am happy to have you as a fan of the site! And I’m actually back in India right now, contemplating paying another visit to Vikram’s family in order to try once again to retrieve my $2500!!

  18. George

    Hi Earl,

    I’m the kind of usual citizen working and wasting his time (Money) by not travelling. One of the main reasons are the insecurities out there, I know it can fasten our learning curve but can you open my eyes on what’s motivating you going everywhere ?

    I’m just having a hard time accepting that I can feel safe when not being in a Socially Stable society (Who really has one after all …). All the drama I hear at the news does not make me wanting to travel to a lot of places 🙁

    Have a great day,


    1. Earl

      Hey George – My main motivation is the people…it’s the fact that I can meet and interact and learn from new people all over this planet that I would never have met had I not traveled. And to me, that makes all of this traveling completely worth it. I don’t even really care which country I visit these days as there are people to be met everywhere and even a simple conversation with a stranger is more rewarding to me than seeing one of the wonders of the world!

  19. anna

    My difficult experience was the catalyst to put me on the path to traveling. It was something I never thought I would get through and then my husband suggested a trip to Denali. I’d traveled before but finding such joy after that period in my life, I knew it was time to make the change and make travel my focus. What a great post. So glad my friend suggested your site!

    1. Earl

      Hey Anna – One trip can certainly change everything! And welcome to the site by the way, I’m glad you’re friend suggested it as well!

  20. Jessica Shaw

    🙂 This story really made me smile!! Not only that, but I’ve had a crappy time recently and it’s hard to look for the positive sometimes, so it’s kind of relevant (and I chose this post randomly, glad I did). Not only is this encouraging and a positive message that applies to my life right now, but it also puts things in perspective – AT LEAST I’VE NOT BEEN KIDNAPPED!!

    You’re life is incredible.. Your story-telling is inspiring, I just want to be like you! I’m so glad I’ve discovered this website, really inspiring and helpful. And funny 🙂 Won’t be telling my Mum about this though, she’d chain me to the radiator

    1. Earl

      Hey Jessica – Haha…now you can imagine how I feel every time I come back to the US to visit my family. I always fear they will tie me up and never let me leave again after reading about my adventures 🙂

  21. Erin Walton

    Wow. Wow. Wow. I don’t know if I’d be so calm under the pressure of spending the night with a roomful of cockroaches and some pissed off taxi drivers. Whenever I find myself in an unusual travel situation (mine have so far *and touch wood* been more surprising than potentially life-threatening), I do tend to pinch myself mentally and think “HOW did we get here again?” You have to embrace the surprise…and play the game. But maybe stay out of border-crossing gun fights! Thanks for a great read!

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  23. Kanja

    You just gave away a Hindi movie Drop this in a producers office when you are in Mumbai after your “welcome to India tour”. And good luck with the tour!

  24. Chelsea

    Have you ever read the alchemist? You’re the boy, only living in real life. You’re inspiring because not many people think this way, thank you.

  25. Will

    Wow. Crazy story. The Alchemist is a great book – sounds a lot like your journeys in distant lands. Glad you made it out alright after being kidnapped!

    1. Earl

      Hey Will – It’s amazing that it worked out the way it did…could have been a lot worse I guess. And The Alchemist, great book indeed.

  26. Adam

    wow – incredible story. Im leaving for India and then onto Bangladesh next week oddly enough. Thanks for the tip about the cab drivers!

    1. Earl

      Hey Adam – Enjoy your trip! And you’ll be fine over there…as long as you don’t walk out of any airports in the middle of the night 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – I agree fully. When I think back to that experience, the money part doesn’t even cross my mind.

  27. George

    You may be the only person that can break being kidnapped down into bulletpoints, and still see the whole thing as a positive experience. An absolutely amazing story that everyone should read. Some of me wants these experiences but most of me is just terrified. Very inspiring.

    1. Earl

      Hey George – Haha…after so many years of travel I’ve learned to just accept and deal with any type of situation, no matter how crazy be! And as interesting as I found this kidnapping experience to be, I certainly don’t wish it on other people…so I’m happy that you’ve yet to experience something similar 🙂

  28. Sergio Felix

    Hey Earl,

    I don’t know if you get this a lot but have you seen that “Hangover 2” movie in which a group of guys make a mess in Thailand prior to some wedding?

    I thought those were incredible funny and entertaining stories but those are MOVIES and after reading YOUR story in India well… let’s just say I think your adventure was even better than that movie haha wow!

    I’m pretty shocked you still remain in one piece after so many adventures man, I think you seriously have some Jedi mind powers.

    Simply beyond AWESOME.


    1. Earl

      Hey Sergio – I definitely don’t get that a lot, but I’m glad you found this story to be as entertaining as a movie! And I wish I had some Jedi mind powers. I think it’s really just my calm nature and the fact that nothing surprises me anymore that gets me through all these situations and enables me to see them in a positive light (usually).

      Thanks for reading Sergio!

  29. Someday I'll Be There - Mina

    Have you read the Alchemist? Your last paragraph reminded me of the last couple of pages of the story! It’s not about whether you found your ‘money’ where you wished you’d find it or not, it’s about the journey on how you got there (makes any sense?:P)

    1. Earl

      Hey Mina – I have read the Alchemist, a few times. And that is one thing I firmly believe in…making sure that we enjoy that journey because it is on the journey that we experience the life-changing moments and when we meet all of those wonderful people out there in the world 🙂

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    1. Earl

      Thanks Nicole…I think after several years on the road you learn to take things as they come and try to stay relaxed at all times, even during the craziest of times!

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