Boarding Pass

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the July 2009 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Cruising along the Antarctic Peninsula aboard Voyages of Discovery’s MV Discovery. Photo by Debi Shank, ITN

Welcome to the 401st issue of your monthly overseas travel magazine, the magazine YOU help write.

While you’re warming up your keyboard to report on your most recent trip, here are several chilling news items you may want to know about.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, the US Consulate General warned visitors to practice extreme caution when taking taxis in the area. There have been several incidents in which passengers were threatened with guns, driven from ATM to ATM and forced to withdraw money to hand over to the drivers and their accomplices.

It even happened to people picked up in upscale and tourist areas, including the boardwalk Malecón 2000 and outside the San Marino Mall in Urdesa.

Suggestions given — whenever possible, call a radio-dispatched taxi rather than hail one on the street. Radio-taxi companies can be found on the website

If you must hail one, before getting in the cab, take a good look at the driver and write down the make and model of the car plus its license plate number and text the info to a friend.

Never enter a cab if the driver offers to take you to clubs, bars or anyplace you did not ask to be taken.

In the May issue I reported on the rampant robberies of commuters in traffic jams and the killings of scores of bus drivers in Guatemala. In April, authorities in Guatemala City made it illegal for more than one person to ride a motorcycle. It was too easy for a gunman passenger to attack and then escape on the motorcycle in dense traffic.

In Melbourne, Australia, in March, five men were charged with stealing almost a million dollars after attaching skimming devices to bank automatic teller machines.

An ATM user would insert his card into the slot of the skimming device, which had been placed over the card reader on the front of the ATM. Information on the card would be gathered by a magnetic reader while a strategically situated pinhole camera recorded the PIN punched in on the keypad by the customer.

Accessing the device remotely using a mobile phone or Bluetooth technology, the criminals then would transfer the information to a blank card and use that at another ATM, punching in the PIN and withdrawing money.

One detective said to not use ATMs that look abnormal, but he added that it is hard to notice a skimming device unless you’re looking for one. The main way to avoid being a victim is to cover the keypad with your hand when entering your PIN.

The skimming in Australia is thought to be the work of an international gang from Southern Europe. The crime can take place anywhere. Skimming devices were also reported in New Zealand this year. A skimmer was found on a train ticket dispenser in Amsterdam in December. And on RedBox kiosks in New Mexico in April 2008. And continually on gas pumps across the US.

In Sydney a few years ago, a cashier was convicted of skimming at a gas station, after which a Visa International rep said that if an attendant swipes your card in a secondary device, you should call your bank immediately.

A year ago, I reported that Brazil’s Congress was considering requiring visitors to get special permits before entering the Amazon. For the record, that plan was dropped.

During the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, passengers flying to China from affected countries each had to fill out a health declaration card, listing their name, passport number, flight number, contacts and travel history as well as any flu-like symptoms. Each then had their temperature taken by a hand wand or infrared monitor (which did not touch the traveler).

If anyone was suspected of carrying the virus, all passengers and crew would be taken to a designated area to determine what to do with each person. Some could be quarantined in hospitals for up to seven days.

Twenty-five Canadian students were quarantined in Changchun, Jilin Province, and 43 quarantined people who had arrived in Shanghai from Mexico were sent home on a chartered plane, while six others volunteered to stay in the city and wait out the quarantine.

China’s quarantine process now has been modified.

Restrictions on ships sailing to the Antarctic — it may take a few years for all member countries to ratify it, and the new rules already were being followed voluntarily, but an amendment was passed in April by member countries of the 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty.

They agreed that ships carrying more than 500 passengers should not be allowed in Antarctica and that at any one site no more than 100 passengers should go ashore at the same time.

Numbers of visitors to Antarctica have risen from 6,700 in the 1992-93 season to 45,000 last season.

Something that would have a greater impact on tourism there — this summer the Marine Environmental Protection Committee will consider a proposal from the International Maritime Organization to prohibit cruise ships from carrying heavy fuels in Antarctica.

To enter certain ports (Los Angeles and European cities), some ships temporarily switch over to burning lighter, cleaner and much more costly marine gas oil. The amendment as proposed would prevent ships entering the Antarctic Treaty area from even carrying the heavier fuel or even intermediate fuel (such as that which Quark Expeditions uses), making cruises prohibitively expensive. If approved, the rules could go into effect as soon as 2011 or 2012.

An alternative may be to use protected fuel tanks.

On April 25, a few hundred miles south of Seychelles — and 600 nautical miles from the Somali coast — MSC Cruises’ MSC Melody was attacked by pirates while on a 3-week cruise from Durban to Genoa.

About 600 of the 991 passengers were at a classical music concert “under the stars” on another part of the ship when, in the semidarkness, according to passengers, a woman peered over the railing on the afterdeck and said, “Yikes! There’s a small boat next to us.”

Jules Tayler, a Brit living in South Africa, was among other passengers who rushed over to see five or six men in a speedboat, with one man climbing a rope to the deck below. One passenger screamed, “Pirates!”

Tayler said, “We immediately began throwing tables and deck chairs at the rope.”

One hit the pirate and he fell off. The boat turned around but then opened fire with, Tayler said, three salvos of 25 to 30 rounds each. He said the skiff continued to approach the ship and, despite the gunfire, the passengers continued to throw chairs. “No one knew how to ring the alarm,” Tayler said.

Meanwhile, according to passengers’ accounts, two passengers ran screaming into the bar and told the captain about the attack. Captain Ciro Pinto radioed an alarm code to the crew, ordered all passengers below deck, ran to the bridge to open the safe and distribute pistols (which, by law, must be locked up) to the 12 Israeli security guards on board and then had the helmsman pull in the ship’s stabilizers and steer the ship in a zigzag pattern to create waves to ward off the speedboat.

Passengers said the security guards showed up six to eight minutes into the situation. When the guards fired two warning shots into the air, the pirates pulled back, apparently surprised that the ship’s crew was armed.

According to MSC Cruises, the guards used fire hoses to prevent the pirates from attaching a ladder with hooks and climbing on board, and the pirates continued to follow alongside and behind the ship and fire on the ship with Kalashnikov assault rifles before speeding off, the whole incident taking 15 minutes or so.

The hull and a lifeboat were punctured, windows were shattered and one passenger and a crew member (one of 536 crew on board) were injured superficially by flying glass.

Upon learning of the attack, the captain also “blacked out” the ship. Shortly after the attack was over, he said, the satellite phone on the bridge rang and a man said in broken English, “You have been attacked. You need help. Give us your coordinates and we will come to you.”

When the man would not give the name of his ship, and because he thought he heard “street sounds” in the background over the phone, the captain refused to give his ship’s position and continued toward Aqaba. It is surmised that accomplices on the mainland were trying to provide the pirates assistance.

The Italian cruise line stated that before the cruise began, it had changed the ship’s course to take it farther from Somali coastal waters, even canceling a port. It will no longer allow its ships to sail in the dangerous areas of the Indian Ocean. An MSC Symphonia cruise this autumn has been rescheduled to travel along West Africa instead.

Not much will top that story, but Contributing Editor Yvonne Horn gave us some good news recently.

For her column “The Garden Path” in ITN, she received the Bronze award in the Travel Column category at the 2009 SATW writing awards announced on Mackinac Island, Michigan, on May 9. There were 17 entries in competition for best column.

It’s her fourth writing award this year. Congratulations, Yvonne!

Also exciting — this month we’re introducing a new column and Contributing Editor. You’ll find “What’s Cooking In…” by Sandra Scott on page 72. In this installment, she gives us insights into the Garifuna of Honduras.

We’re trying to get more columns on fewer pages. We hope you like the variety.

Now, tell us about your last trip. I’m not expecting any pirate stories, but you’ve got at least one travel tip you can share. Send it in! — DT