I was outnumbered: it was three of them against one of me. I was in Mexico City after dark. I didn’t have a choice; there was no point in putting up a fight. They took me in a car to a gated house in one of the suburbs. I wasn’t blindfolded but I might as well have been, because I was totally lost in a huge city I didn’t know. I had no idea where I would be held or what was going to happen to me. What ransom would they demand? It was the night before Christmas Eve and I spent Christmas Day and the next three days in captivity before I was released.
My kidnappers treated me well. In the large house that was to become my enforced home for several days, I was given a comfortable bedroom. I was well fed. I spoke some Spanish but my captors had the courtesy to speak to me in English. It was a luxurious captivity.
During the days I was held, and ever since, I have looked back and wondered why it happened, reflected on the chain of events leading up to the moment of abduction, considered how I might have avoided capture, and imagined what kind of Mexican Christmas I would have celebrated had things turned out differently.
I thought back to the starting point: the allocation of my seat on that plane. Was it random or did somebody arrange it? On the long flight from London Heathrow to Mexico City International Airport I was seated next to a polite and well-spoken Englishman. Little did I know that he would turn out to be one of the gang. Unbeknown to me at that point, the process of my kidnap had begun.
When sitting next to a stranger on a plane, the interchange is often limited to a polite hello or nodded acknowledgement before putting on headphones. Occasionally there is some short conversation. But this was different. This man engaged me in interesting discussions about all kinds of things, from poetry to travel, from spirituality to food. We talked for most of the long transatlantic flight. This Englishman lived in Mexico City with his Mexican wife and had been back to England to see his elderly father. He asked me about my plans and I explained that I didn’t have any, just to head for a hostel for a few days on arrival and then decide how to spend my time in Mexico.
Travelling solo is the most liberating experience. You are free to go wherever, whenever and however you like, without any negotiation or compromise that is an inevitable part of travelling in a couple or a group. There are downsides too, of course. At times it can be lonely, and if you are having a bad day, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, you are more vulnerable in your isolation. My freedom and solitude made me an easier target.
Later in the conversation, as we neared our destination, he offered to give me a ride to the hostel when we arrived. He would be met at the airport by his family and they would drop me off before returning to their home. Naively, I thanked him for his kindness and accepted the offer graciously. We arrived, cleared immigration and customs, then we met his family. At this point I went to change some money and when I returned, he said: “We’ve decided. You are coming to stay with us for Christmas”.
It was the most gentle of kidnaps and I was a willing victim. Guy and his wife Barbara lived in a large house with her parents. The two storey building was divided into two households, with the parents living downstairs and the younger couple upstairs. I was given my own bedroom in the upstairs household.
Christmas was only two days away and they were preparing for the festivities. I went with Guy and Barbara to the supermarket to stock up for Christmas and they told me all about the different foods on offer and which ones were favoured for traditional feasts. I ate more in those next few days than in the previous couple of weeks. We visited their friends and family and we received visitors during that festive period. My kind guests also acted as tourist guides and took me to the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. We went to their favourite cafes and numerous places of interest. I had a wonderful time and still have fond memories of that Christmas in Mexico.
Eventually I got itchy feet and needed to explore the rest of Mexico, backpacking alone to Acapulco on the Pacific coast and the Yucatán peninsula. I negotiated my release and a few days later they let me go. My ransom was negative. They had paid for everything and refused my offers to contribute something towards my accommodation or food. They wouldn’t even let me buy them a drink. I told Guy that I felt guilty. He explained that I had repaid their hospitality in other ways: by changing the family dynamic. Christmas time brings people together but sometimes old grumbles surface too. He said that they often quarrelled with Barbara’s parents at Christmas but having me there diverted their attention. Apparently, like a toddler or a puppy, I was a new focus for their interest.
I kept in touch with my captors and was able to repay their hospitality in other ways in the following months. Their British marriage certificate needed to be endorsed by the Mexican Consul in the UK for legal purposes back in Mexico and I was able to help with this, visiting the Mexican Consulate in Manchester on their behalf and dealing with the documentation. They also visited me in England a few years later and stayed in my (much smaller) house.
Then my kidnappers escaped to the Middle East, living under cover as hotel and hospitality consultants in Dubai.
Several years later, an odd thing happened. Guy contacted me, out of the blue, to ask if I would join his team for a consultancy project in Abu Dhabi. My first reaction was to decline, because I knew nothing about the hotel and hospitality industry. He responded that this was exactly why I would be valuable. In fact the client, a wealthy Arab property developer, had insisted that they include in their team somebody from outside the industry who could bring a fresh perspective. They needed a maverick, an outsider, to add some creativity to their thinking. And so I joined that team and helped them to advise a major international hotel chain. I facilitated the discussions about business strategy, bringing techniques and approaches from other industries. One of the tools we used had been developed in the banking industry in the USA and we modified it to devise a strategy for the hotel. My job was also to challenge assumptions, to ask questions, to ensure that the thinking didn’t fall into old and comfortable patterns. Adopting and adapting business practices from apparently different industries can spark creativity. Together with my colleagues’ expertise and the client’s experience, we were able to offer a business strategy that delivered the success the client needed.
Kidnapping and consultancy aren’t often connected, but life is complex and unpredictable. Business opportunities arise in mysterious ways. The randomness of seat allocation on a plane can lead to a lasting friendship. Such serendipity cannot be planned. Luck happens.
Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
First published 25 October 2018.
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