Travelling around the world is great 99 percent of the time, but there is always that 1 percent where things can go wrong. The following incident falls into the nether region of that 1 percent, but it should not be used as evidence that a city or place is "unsafe." I had read about such a "sliming" scam in a guidebook ahead of time. One unseen person squirts/spills some substance on your back while a second person offers to wipe your stain. In reality, this person is actually body-searching you to see if you have any hidden valuables. When I faced this for the first time, I reacted in a clear and proper manner and thwarted the scam. I would like to inform you about this so that if you do become a TARGET of the scam, you will not be a VICTIM of the scam. Sliming seems to be a popular worldwide scam, and the perpetrators use a variety of substances to fling upon you in order to distract you. This experienced traveler has been the unsuspecting target in Rio De Janeiro (1995-mystery substance), Barcelona (1996-chocolate milk), London (2000-ketchup), and Buenos Aires (2001-mustard). However, I have never lost anything in any of these occurrences.
PLACE: Buenos Aires, Argentina
TIME: September 2001
I was riding the aged but serviceable Subte subway towards the San Juan station on the Green "C" line. In a portend of things to come, a young nino accidentally squirted me with Coca-Cola while we were in the same train. The bottle of pop had apparently been jostled on the moving train such that when he opened it, the liquid refreshment burst out of its containment. The boy's parents (especially the mother) wore expressions that combined regret and bemusement. I had a half-smile on my face as well, as I dabbed myself with a napkin (helpful hint: always carry a spare napkin or tissue just in case you need one!). I figured that this was not a scam, as everything happened in front of me.
The very busy San Juan station lies between the San Telmo and La Boca districts. From the station, I intended to walk the two miles or so through La Boca, with the final destination to be the colorful Caminito area. On a major street in La Boca, I encountered two innocent-looking women, one of whom was holding a map. She asked me in slightly accented English for directions to Caminito (this thought did not pass through my mind immediately, but why would these two Latinas ask for directions from the only Asian person walking in La Boca?). I hesitated slightly, pointed towards the general direction of Caminito, and continued my walk. Then the same woman with the map yelled out "senor!" and said that I had some substance on my back. NOTE : this is a SCAM !! I was splattered with some pungent mustard on the back of my jacket, my light blue jeans, my backpack. I just sat down on the stoop of an apartment building and started to clean myself with napkins. The map lady offered to pitch in with her own napkin, but of course I declined and waved the two women off. I have no visual proof, but if you are as sharp as Angela Lansbury you will have deduced that the slimer was the silent partner of the map lady. This is an impressive scam, because my attention was on the map lady for about two seconds, just enough time for the slimer to bathe me in mustard.
For about ten minutes I was unsuccessfully wiping my stains as I sat on that apartment building stoop. Several people walked in and out of the building; are these local residents aware of this scam? I then headed to a nearby restaurant to mentally regroup, and I ate a delicious lunch there. In a nearly unbelievable scenario, I saw those same two women on my return trip towards the San Juan Subte station! They were on that very same street where they had tried to scam me several hours earlier. I just stared holes through them. They noticed that I had spotted them, and they scampered along quickly and reshuffled themselves into the crowd. Who else did they try to scam that day?
Incidentally, I had checked out of my hotel already, as I was flying out of Buenos Aires late that night. I discarded my stained jeans at the hotel restroom (I had intended to toss this old pair anyway), but my jacket and backpack reeked of mustard throughout my flights home. Oh well...
These slimers and scammers are not violent (at least the ones I have encountered), so I was more annoyed than afraid when I was targeted in this manner. Please pass this bit of information amongst your travelling associates. Information is power!