The Business Trip From Hell

Pink Handcuffs

Business trips abroad can often be a welcome break from office routine, but sometimes they can go hideously wrong.

Here our Highly Placed Professional recalls what happened to him when he went on a recent business trip.

Part One

I realised I was in deep trouble when the handcuffs went on, and I was pushed into the back of an unmarked police car, wedged in the middle of two customs agents in civvies.

The car must once have been white, but now looked like a nicotine-stained finger under a covering of dust and sand. The taller, taciturn goon with the pockmarked face had taken the wheel, and deftly reached out through the gap in the front window to attach a flashing red light to the roof.

'Where are you taking me ? Show me some ID. What's going on ?'

My gabbled questions were completely ignored, until the younger guy on my left, incongruously clad in a heavy overcoat, simply said: 'We're going to the HQ in town. More questions'. Then, with a curiously dramatic sense of timing, he put his sunglasses on. The sense of helplessness I felt was as palpable as my new friend's mastery of understatement!

What had started as a prickle of fear in the back of my mind now exploded into a state of sheer terror. What form would the next part of my interrogation take ? Were they planning to take me over the border and sell me as a hostage ? Each and every permutation raced through my head, until I forced myself to take a gulp of air and calm down. Even so, by the time we had raced the rush hour traffic back into town from the airport, the engine howling and the driver cursing in guttural Arabic, I felt faint and was covered in sweat. The two guys jamming me in had raised the temperature for sure, but not that much; this was the heat of sick fear.

We all know that every so often something comes along that rocks your world, and really makes you take stock. It's just that you don't expect it to happen on a business trip.

I'd been on a quick trip to see some contacts in Africa. I know it's a big continent, but let's keep the name of the country a secret for now (as I'll surely have to go back there one day). And it all started out fine, the usual fare of nondescript meetings, a few drinks and a dinner. As we all know in business, video conferencing is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. After all, you have to break some bread and down a few stiff ones before you can really say you have a proper relationship with a client. 

Anyway, here I was, with a good friend and work colleague who'd never travelled to the country before, so, on our last morning I thought it would be nice to show him a few of the sites - ancient ruins, museums, old villages, you know the sort of thing. Well, we'd just paid for our tickets and were walking into a Roman amphitheatre when an old guy wearing a half-length overcoat somewhat furtively approached me, and pushed three small coins into my hand.

'Lovely souvenir Meester!',  he croaked, 'Give me $20'.

At first, I showed rather brusque disinterest, as I was keen to see the sights, but he insisted. And he looked so old and frail that I guess I felt sorry for him. Out of some strange sense of shame, I pushed the equivalent of about $5 into his hand, the guy quickly vanished, and I dropped the coins into my pocket without a second thought.

The morning passed in a blur of hasty tourist visits, and we finally made it to the airport with nothing more than a few photos, our site tickets and my three small coins to show for all our troubles; this was tourism-lite on a business trip. 

Our driver beamed as he dropped us back at the airport. We paid him off and gave him an extra tip.

'Next time you visit my brother's shop, OK ? He give special deal on carpet!', he said.

I groaned inwardly. If there's one thing I don't need it has to be any more carpets from exotic locations.

'No worries, Hamdi, we'll catch you next time', I lied.

And so we wandered into the airport to check onto our flight - two relaxed, middle aged businessmen with not a care in the world. How ironic bearing in mind what was to follow.

As I went through the immigration channel with my mind in neutral, the uniformed customs official gestured at me to empty my pockets and place the contents into the basket on the small conveyor belt that went through the X-Ray machine. I took off my jacket and dumped everything into the middle of the basket - cell phone, belt, credit cards, and loose change. I ambled through the metal detector and the guards hardly gave me a second glance. But as I stood there waiting to retrieve my stuff, I noticed the guy in front of the screen say something to his colleague. And suddenly three uniformed officers were all pointing at me.  Even then I had no clue what all the fuss was about, until one of them held up one of the coins.

'Ezz it yours ? It ezz yours, sir ?!'

The next thing I knew, they were leading me off, yelling and jumping up and down like they'd just won the lottery. In a way I guess they had, because these coins were, so they claimed, real, genuine, ancient, museum-quality. Yeah right. I was apparently in the soup for attempting to steal national treasures, and I was part of a gang of international criminals engaged in smuggling antiquities from their country. Were these guys for real ?!

Taken to a small interview room, I had to repeatedly go through how I'd bought the coins and why I'd come to the country in the first place. And the room was crowded; there was the Captain of the Customs, the Lieutenant, and two other guys. Shouting mainly in Arabic, and with a bit of French thrown in for good measure, they made me compile a statement detailing exactly what I had told them. Then two other guys in civilian clothes entered the room, and one of them was wheeling in my suitcase. This was getting serious - they'd pulled my baggage off the flight, and it was clear that I was likely to be stuck here for some time. Now I began to feel intimidated. These chain smoking, sunglasses wearing, pasty pockmarked faced officials were beginning to spook me out.

After what seemed an age, one of the officials said: 'OK, we've searched your bag and taken your signed statement, sir. Please accompany these messieurs'.

He shrugged off my quizzical look, 'Sorry for your bad luck, sir, but I'm just doing my job'.

And with that I left the airport accompanied by two local police officers, one of them wheeling my suitcase, and me feeling slightly sorry for myself.

Fear does indeed breed upon itself. I was bundled into a car, which soon squealed to a stop in front of an imposing, though somewhat dirty and faded, Rococo building (I later found out that this was the Interior Ministry). I was taken inside and made to sit in a corridor beside my suitcase, both of us assuming an identity of obvious misery and gloominess. I had become attached to my luggage at this point - somehow it made me feel that I wasn't alone. While I still had it in my possession, I felt superior to all the others sitting in the corridor with me. Every so often a large door, with chipped white paint, would creak open and a unformed policeman would go in, to be followed by a murmur of voices obviously discussing one of the detainees waiting outside with the rest of us.

All of a sudden, I had this huge desire to pee, and asked to be excused.

'Non, monsieur. You must wait for the judge'. It seems that I was being processed for detention, so that they could keep me with my new corridor colleagues for the next several days. This had now become terrifying. I can only liken it to sitting outside the headmaster's study waiting for six of the best - except you're pushing 50 and in custody in a foreign country!

My case was apparently quickly processed (I never did get to see the judge himself), and I was hustled back into the sad looking police car and driven at slightly less speed to an completely anonymous office building in the town centre. By now it was dark, and the locals were settling into their evening routine.  I heard the reassuring toot and buzz of a scooter, noticed the casual glance of a bearded man acknowledging an acquaintance, and saw an attractive woman carrying a basket of fruit on her head. All sorts of garbage was blowing around the streets - old plastic bottles, paper bags, cigarette cartons and fag ends. The whole place reminded me of a bad movie set.

I was eventually led to the basement area, past eight jail cells, and then mercifully shown up several flights of stairs - still dragging my case behind me. I was now becoming angry, yelling out: 'What the fuck is going on here ? I demand to see a lawyer. I want the embassy. And I want to pee!'. It would have been funny, only it wasn't. Not at all. Everyone ignored my outburst, of course, although one of the guards eventually  waved me to a nearby toilet. After relieving myself, a  big heavy with the Harley jacket appeared out of nowhere and instructed me to follow him.

More questions, more time wasted, more uncertainty followed. And then the Captain got up and bade me good night. He was off home. So casual. And then the two remaining guys said they were going to hold me overnight, and laughed when I asked where I was going to stay. I was off to clink, of course.

'Don't worry, sir. You'll be OK. We know the coins aren't real. We're just doing our job. Everything will turn out fine', they reassured, 'But the inquiry has to be completed'.

I was then matter-of-factly asked for my shoelaces, my belt, my passport, and the keys to the lock on my suitcase. Oh yes, and my cell phone, and my money too. I was going to the Bouchebouche, the temporary detention centre 10 miles out from town. 

It's frightening, one minute you're a suited, booted, balding businessman looking for the next trade and the club lounge. And the next you're a nobody. No shoe laces. No belt. No briefcase. It's just you and your wits. I was scared stiff, and all I could think of was the movie Midnight Express.

Part 2

'The little van pulled into a walled compound off the road, all white and brightly lit up. There were no watch towers or anything like that, but you could still tell it was a prison.

'OK, we get out here'. The customs guy turned round and asked me to put one end of the handcuffs onto my wrist. We got out and walked up a kind of dark alley to where the main gate was. All solid steel and painted grey, with an eye slit at head height. I was already thinking that this was like something out of the movies, when the shutter smacked open and I could see a dark pair of eyes staring quizzically into mine through the gate.

There was a chatter of Arabic and then, with the squeal of rusty hinges, the gate opened about two feet to allow me and the customs man to pass. We entered a large courtyard with a dimly lit reception area, and grey walls and black floors. There was a long wooden counter at shoulder height, and behind it were a few guards complete with black berets, boots and jackets. A few had sergeant stripes.

I was motioned to stand to one side inside a white box painted on the floor. Another detainee next to me shrugged and mumbled something, and one of the sergeants yelled at him across the desk, 'Zzzit!, Zzzzit!'. My fellow detainee turned around and put his hands on the wall above his head. The occasional shout echoed around the building, but it sounded more like drunken dissatisfaction than anything more sinister. In the background there was a dull banging sound, like cell doors being locked and keys being thrown aside. 

It was now about 11pm, and I hadn't eaten, or drunk anything, for hours. While the desk sergeant was signing for me, the customs man sauntered off with a casual wave to me. I peered down the corridor into the gloom. There were a few large cells, bars running from floor to ceiling at the front, with about 30 or 40 people in them, each lying on the floor on really thin straw mats. You know, like the ones you use on the beach to keep the sand off.

Jesus! I panic. What's it gonna be like squashed up in there with a load of hardened prisoners - and I'm in my chinos and blazer for gawd's sake! I was also shivering, as the temperatures drop quickly in the evening and I had no access to extra clothing. But at least I'd been given a plastic bag with some drinking yoghurts, a packet of biscuits and a litre bottle of water inside. The customs guys had pretty much insisted they get me these essentials on the way there, so I took courage in both hands and indulged myself. No-one gave me a second glance.

Suddenly the sergeant gestured and called me over to the desk. He grinned at me, and I realised with relief that he was being friendly. We went through several languages, until German was chosen for a rather truncated conversation. So what did you do ? Nothing, I gushed; it's some little coins. Oh coins, we get a lot of that here! With that he laughed, took a thumbprint, and beckoned to another guard to lead me off, after a quick frisking and a perfunctory search of my plastic bag.

This guy addressed me as 'El Inglese'.

'Not worry, you big man', he said, 'Have nice cell for you'.

A cell on my own! Thank goodness. I calmed down.

'Here', he continued, 'Cell number 1!'. Thirteen guys looked up with apparent disinterest as I was led inside.

The door slammed behind me, and the confident grin on my face swiftly vanished. As I turned round, I saw the guard wandering off nonchalantly back down the corridor. Panic mode again. Finally, I faced my new cell-mates - only to find that they had already lost interest in me, and were sitting in groups of three on the bottom bunks, sharing cigarettes, talking and occasionally laughing. 

One group was huddled round what looked like a dead baby in a bag, but I soon realised it was actually chicken (of a sort) and chips. It smelled pretty good, but then I it would, given my circumstances.

'Take a bed man', one of the inmates eventually said.

I hurriedly chose the top bunk right by the cell bars, thinking that the air would be fresher or something there; bad mistake as it was freezing cold. I should have realised that it was free for a reason. And there was no pillow or anything else, so I rolled up my blazer and got under the solitary blanket.

With that, a face loomed close to mine and a deep voice said: 'Hi, I'm Hamdi' (why have all these guys got the same name ?). Although I'd earlier been freaking out about the company I would be keeping. I quickly realised that these guys were in the same boat as me. In fact, I felt rather guilty for judging them.

Hamdi spoke good English, and told me who everyone was, and what they were in for. Fourteen guys were in bunks around the side of the wall, and everyone was smoking except me. Smoke soon started to waft up over my bunk, and when I looked over the side I could see a cocooned face peering back up at me, with a ciggie stuck in the middle like a dart in a bull's eye. One eye winked at me, and some sort of Arab salutation followed. I mumbled a kind of casual greeting back. I was getting the hang of this, I thought.

Act nonchalant, I kept thinking, and no-one will bother you. Then paper rustled by my ear and I looked down to see an elderly man holding up a brown bag full of dates.

'Take! Take!', he insisted. These guys were really trying to be friendly.

Hamdi then called over from his bunk, 'So why you here, Inglese ?'

I sat up, dangled my legs over the side and told them my sorry tale, fully expecting a burst of outrage at my plight. 

'Yeh, that happens', Hamdi finally said rather matter-of-factly. 

Emboldened by the security of the group, I jumped down and shared out my biscuits. I only felt like drinking anyway. But when I got back up on the bunk, I was careful to tie my plastic bag of goodies to the end of the bed just like the others. By tomorrow I knew I'd be hungry. One by one the guys started to bed down. I guess it was midnight.

In one corner of the cell was what appeared to be a heap of blankets on a bunk, and every so often a great hacking cough broke out, followed by some serious projectile spitting.

'Samir is sick',  said Hamdi, stating the obvious. 

'When's lights out ?', I asked. He just smiled at me like I was crazy. I took another look around. One guy had a bloodstained bandage round his head - just like in a war movie.

'He killed three people in car crash', Hamdi pointed out, 'They moved him here because his victims' family want revenge'.

I shrugged like this kind of thing was totally normal and happened all the time back home. Then I thought about it - if you killed a few people in a car crash in the UK, you'd probably end up with three hours community service.

The big guy with the whole baby chicken was Mohammed, I was told. His bunk seemed to be club social. I wondered if he was popular because of his personality, or simply because he had the chicken and chips!

'He's in big trouble', Hamdi explained, 'Smuggling. National artifacts. They're really tough on that sort of thing here'.

Yet again my mind started to spin, as I realised that despite being English and a City boy, here I was just the same scum as everyone else; just a guy in a bit of trouble being investigated by the judge. And all because of three small fake coins! I groaned. And here I was, in jail, with real criminals. 

I closed my eyes, but the uncertainty kept slicing through my attempts at sleep - the shouts from other cells, the hacking cough, the snoring, the constant murmur of voices, and the click of cigarette lighters. I opened my eyes one last time and sure enough, above the top of my head, the great steel grey bars stretched up to the ceiling, and the neon lights outside in the corridor glared away. This was really happening'.

Part 3

'I awoke from a fitful sleep, and looked up wondering what time it was. Suddenly all hell broke loose. It was dawn. The cell bars rang and rattled as one of the guards ran his baton along them.

'Get up! Debout!', he shouted.

Outside a pack of stray dogs yowled a ragged dawn chorus, as the sound of the Muezzin boomed out from the surrounding mosques, calling the faithful to prayer. I got down from the bunk to see that most of my cell-mates had lit up already. And it was probably only 5am.

The cell door opened, and we shuffled up the corridor like a bunch of kids on a school outing. Someone behind me shoved my plastic bag into my hands.

'Eat, Inglese!', he insisted.

We were led into a huge yard surrounded by twenty foot high walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. In one corner was a barred door with two stools by it. The guards sat there, lounging around and occasionally yelling out commands to the 200-odd detainees. It was still pretty cold, despite the watery sunlight  trying its best to penetrate the early morning mist. I leaned my back up against the wall and blinked in wonderment - I was in an exercise yard with guys walking round in long circles, just like I'd seen in all those prison movies!

One guy had some horrid-looking knife wound on his face, another was missing two front teeth and stank like a brewery. This beat Alcatraz or Shawshank hands down, but when the hell were they going to let me out ? The guards did seem to be processing people. But slowly. The sun was up higher by now, and a few sparrows dropped into the yard, targeting some spaghetti hoops on the ground by a drain. From time to time we were moved from one end of the yard to another for no apparent reason. Sometimes we all sat on the ground in lines, and then some of the prisoners would be led out. And when my turn finally came, I didn't realise they were calling me.

Hamdi finally ran over. 'Inglese!', he spluttered, 'Go the gate. You're going to see the judge. Good luck man'.

Outside, one of the customs men from the night before greeted me like a long lost friend. 'So how was the night ?',  he asked me enthusiastically. I wondered if he was taking the piss.

'The beds are really good, mon ami', I gushed back at him. I got a sharp look for my trouble, and he led me back out the large gate to another customs car, which looked like some large mythical bird of prey had dumped several hundredweight of guano on it from a great height.

'Nice wheels!', I chirped, getting into my stride now. Despite all the ups and downs of the night before, I was feeling quite chipper, and my feeling of relief increased when I got in the back and saw my case was waiting inside. Next stop, the airport. I was out of here.

We pulled up at the Palais de Justice for me to meet the judge. I started composing my best French message of reconciliation. All a terrible misunderstanding. Never again, what a great country. But, not for the first time in my life, pride came before the fall. After waiting in a basement cell for an hour with just my suitcase for company, they got me back in the guano car and set off without saying anything. As we sailed right past the airport I felt the now familiar fear of uncertainty grab me, but when we pulled up outside a huge military complex with guard houses  and soldiers with machine guns standing at the barrier, my mood again changed to one of outright depression. When was this going to end ?

So I was held for yet another day, and asked all the same questions, except this time by men in military uniforms, and some plain clothes national guard types. I managed to get my mobile phone out of the suitcase and spent a few anxious moments in the loo texting back to the UK. My wife was keeping a stiff upper.

'Don't worry dear, it will pass', she reassured by text.  I was baffled; did she want me back ? Stranger things have happened! My colleagues were more forthcoming, telling me that a lawyer had been hired and had already started making waves at the courthouse, but this was still another wasted day for me. I thought about the horror people must have endured when they were taken hostage, and the terror of never knowing what was happening, or when it all might end. How terrible to be held for months, or years. All that wasted time, as life goes on without you. I took comfort, though, in the fact that my adventure was so mild in comparison, and I knew it had to end soon.

Finally, I was told I was going back to Bouchebouche for another night. By this time I was almost fatalistic - and all I really wanted was to be in the same cell and get my old bunk back. I was clearly taking comfort in the familiar.

I was welcomed back like a returning hero. Mohammed had me sit by him and insisted on my eating from another bag of chicken and chips. I was famished by now, and it tasted delicious. This time I'd loaded up with goodies on the way and gave out lots of water, biscuits and some bananas the guards had bought for me. Despite the irony of the situation, it really did feel good to be back. The conversation, of course, was totally inane.

'So how's it going ?', I asked bandage head.

'Oh, the other tribe still want to kill me', he replied, 'But they keep me here till it cools down. We have to pay money to their family'.

I slept like a log that night. And in the morning I was taken out to another car and back into town. By now I was getting used to this strange routine, and in the basement cells I even met a few guys from the exercise yard. Some of them had their mobile phones back, so we knew it was probably chucking out day. When the end came for me, though, it was rather unexpected. A barred gate was opened and the guard told me to get going upstairs.

'What, to the judge ?' I asked.

'No you can go now', he replied. It was as simple as that.

So I wheeled my case up the road and away from the building, noticing some of the cell widows at street level as I passed. I saw a barber's sign and thought I'd go and get a shave and tidy up. I hadn't washed properly in two days. While I waited my turn, I called the office.

'That's great man', one of my colleagues said on learning that I was free, 'But we have a question for you - are you still able to sit down ?'. Ha ha. Very funny. The barber motioned me over.

'My dear monsieur. My fingers will dance for you. Your skin will be their dance floor, your worries will fade away. Forget your troubles mon ami. You go to aeroport now, non ?' Was I the talk of the town ?

I leaned back with a sigh, and he patiently got to work as my mind turned to business class and my world of freedom. The journey home was going to be plain sailing, I thought, and there would be no more souvenirs for me.

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