It doesn’t pay to panic
It was a set-up.
The young man hobbling towards us on crutches seemed to be eager to help. He appeared to be harmless. He didn’t look like a card-carrying member of the local mafia. On the contrary, he was friendly. He smiled. We forgot that the bad guys rarely look bad. He spoke in broken English with a charming and delightful accent. Surely, here was someone we could trust. Someone who was happy to help out a handful of tourists who couldn’t speak the language and were looking for the local McDonald’s restaurant.
It can’t be far away. Maybe we should ask someone how to get there. Hey, that guy over there speaks a little English. Why don’t we ask him?
If is fair to say that friendliness is what we expected. We had read the tourist pamphlets which, of course, all tend to say the same thing no matter where you plan to go on the planet: “Everyone in Death Valley, etc. is so friendly.” From all the advertising you would think that the “friendlies” had taken over the world. So as our new friend quickly offered to guide us to the golden arches, we all followed right along. And for some reason an image of a group of young sheep now comes to mind.
Boarding that bus was our first mistake.
On an earlier occasion, I had been approached late at night in a dimly lit bolshevik bus station by three large men in trench coats. I kid you not. They offered to personally drive me to the capital city in comfort. How nice. Why wait for the bus when I could go right away – all alone – with them? One unarmed and presumably rich North American with three guys who were probably packing Uzis. In a moment their sleek car looked about as comfortable as a coffin. I wisely waited for the bus and lived to tell you this story.
But, on this occasion, getting on a bus was a bad idea. It would take us some place we did not want to go.
Believe me, visiting McDonald’s is something you might look forward to much more than you now realize; that is, if you are far from home and living, say, in Eastern Europe. For many people from North America, such an outing serves as a faint reminder of home. It is something familiar when everything around you seems so strange. It triggers memories. Warm and happy memories. It gives you a sense of belonging. You feel safe. It makes you think that maybe your old world still exists.
But as we were looking forward to our happy time at McDonald’s, the bus drove steadily towards the edge of town. Where did all the people go, I remember wondering, looking out the window. One minute we were standing in a bustling tourist area and the next it felt like we had been dropped into a desolate scene from the movie Dr. Zhivago. Strange. And who are we supposed to pay here, I thought as we traveled along. We tried to pay but nobody was willing to take our money. Not yet.
I can still see Leah standing there with her money in her hand, looking for somebody, anybody, to give it to.
Our guide wasn’t much help. Where did he go anyway?
And then people started yelling. Yelling and pushing and crowding and more yelling. People seemed angry – unusually angry. Somehow I eventually got the message that we North Americans had committed what appeared to be close to a capital offense: We had boarded the bus without tickets. Of all things! Lithuanian friends (the real kind) later informed us that this can be quite serious. But we didn’t know. We didn’t know how the system worked. The young man and his friends knew we didn’t know. And now, we were trapped.
After awhile the bus stopped, the door opened, and we were all hustled out onto a run down and empty street. If we had been on a ship it would have been much like walking the plank. As I watched the bus drive away, I quickly evaluated our situation and concluded that now would be a good time to panic. Things did not look good for our team. I did the math: There were at least 8 of them and only 4 of us. Not good. Most in their group where men; most in our group were not. They knew exactly where they were and we had no idea.
And they were not happy. The yelling and pushing continued. We were in trouble. Big trouble. Nobody would ever know if a few more tourists disappeared on their way to McDonald’s. It was all part of the plan to make us afraid and get us to pay up.
I am proud to say that my little wife was still ready to take them all on and personally deal with this injustice. For we were clearly getting taken advantage of. But I encouraged her to remain calm.
Resistance, we found out, was unnecessary because today was our lucky day. Rather then spend the next 10 years withering away in a Soviet prison, all that was required of us was to pay a large fine in cash to the appropriate authorities (i.e. them). What choice did we have? Lose a rumble with the goon squad or part with our money? What will it be? Decisions, decisions. It occurred to me that I might be able to whack one of them upside the head with my camera. But unfortunately I only had one camera.
The sober reality is that it could have turned out much worse that day than it did. In the end, all they wanted was our money. Then, they quickly walked away leaving us standing, stunned, and still trying to figure out how to get to Ronald’s famous restaurant.
We made it there eventually.
In case you were wondering, I tell this personal story today simply to encourage you that it really doesn’t pay to panic. Your career situation may not look very good. Hope could be hard to come by. But still, try to remain calm and think clearly. Don’t do anything rash or ridiculous. Please…don’t panic.
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