Thrillday: Hijacked in Ecuador

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Personal, Thrilldays, Travel

If you don’t know me very well, you’d probably be a bit surprised to hear about some of the things I’ve seen and done.  I certainly look unassuming enough, with my engineer’s glasses, my student’s scruff, and my geek’s sense of humor.  If you know me a bit better, you might’ve heard about some of the crazy situations I’ve fallen into over the years.  If you’ve done much traveling with me, you’d know I suffer from a healthy bit of wanderlust, mixed with a perhaps unhealthy tolerance for danger.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that scare me.  Among the things I’d reveal, large drops rank somewhere high on the list.  But still, I tend to gravitate towards places and people that I find intriguing.  And sometimes this leads to…interesting encounters.

If you’ve spent much time at all with me, you’ve probably heard a few of these stories.  But talking with a friend recently, he recommended I put them all in one place on my site.  So I suppose I’ll gradually relay these stories as best I can.  In addition to breaking my long radio silence, injecting a short story here and there should liven this blog up a bit (I hope).  I’m thinking of doing this on Thursdays.  Let’s just call them Thrilldays.  Prepare to be thrilled, gentle internet-goer.

So, without any further ado, I present to you: “The time I was hijacked by armed Colombian guerrillas in Ecuador”.

In order to get from the Puente de Cuyabeno (Bridge of Cuyabeno) to Papallacta we would have to first take a 3 hour bus to Lago Agrio, followed by a 5 or 6 hour bus to Papallacta (which is then only about an hour and a half to two hours away from Quito). The 3 hour leg of our trip was uneventful.

We arrived in Lago Agrio expecting to have to take a cab to the terminal terrestre (almost every city here has a major bus terminal called the ‘terminal terrestre’) where we would catch our next bus towards Papallacta and Quito. However, as we were about to get into our cab the Trans Baños bus came by and the yeller/money collector for that bus started yelling “Quito! Quito!” We apologized to the cab driver and threw our bags into the bottom storage compartment for the bus. We were on our way to Papallacta, the best hot baths in Ecuador (consisting of a few dozen pools of different temperatures heated by volcano).

We fell asleep.

What we have later determined to be sometime around 6pm, things got ugly.

I opened my eyes as people were screaming and a man with a gun was yelling for us to put our hands in the air. “La Plata! La Plata!!” (“The Money! The Money!!”) My mind stopped. Everything was a reflex to a reflex to a hint of an action. The first thing I did was take my camera out of my pocket and shove it into the side of the seat. I then took my watch off and shoved it into the side of the seat. Azalea shoved her credit cards into the side of the seat. The men were shouting and making their way towards us. Luckily we had time to do something because we were in the back of the bus. However, we were the only three foreigners on this entire bus. What would they do with us?

“Cierra las ojos!!!”(“Close your eyes!!!”) I was pressed up against the window. I was a part of the window. Azalea leaned into my side. There was no hiding. He was right beside us. “La plata! La plata!” I handed him my wallet and Azalea handed him her little money bag. My wallet only had a few dollars in it, as well as a credit card, my MIT ID (so much for breaking in as a creepy old alum), and my REI member card. The real prize was around my neck. I was wearing one of those secret passport cases wrapped across my shoulder like a carrier bag. Contained in this sleeve was about $70, my passport, my ATM debit card, my list of contact numbers, a 2GB USB thumb drive, a 1GB SD memory card, and a memory card reader. The sleeve was hugging my ribs on the left side of my body. I was only wearing a tshirt over it. This would not work.

In the moments before a gun was in my face, I considered popping the memory card out of my camera and sticking it in my passport holder. For some reason that had always seemed like a good plan to me. In the actual situation, I was afraid it would reveal that I was wearing a secret stash. Should I shove the camera down my pants? Should I leave it? I just dumped the camera in the side of the seat with everything else. However, when I saw they were moving everyone off the bus I didn’t know what to do. For some reason I thought they were going to ditch us in the jungle (they had been driving us deep into the jungle for a while now). It seemed like they could just leave us somewhere and drive off with the bus. I had no time to think it through. I grabbed my camera at the last instant and shoved it back in my cargo pants pocket. I was pulled off the bus.

You’ve seen it a million times in movies, but you never expect to live it. I stepped off the bus and before me on the dirt road were all of the 20 or 30 passengers of the bus lying in the dirt in a row, side by side, faces down. This could’ve been a road to someone’s house…or to a church…or to some exotic resort in the rainforest. But right now, it was our prison. At the end of the line was another man with a gun. I was the last one off the bus.

I was forced to the ground, my face in the dirt. I didn’t feel anything. But I felt that I should feel something. I should be afraid. I should be going into fight or flight. I felt nothing, only reflex. I imitated feeling. I pushed my face deeper into the dirt. Did this make me look more pitiful? More desperate? I shook. Did this make me look afraid? Would this make them more afraid of what they were doing? Would this make it more real for them?

Shots are fired.

They start yelling at Azalea for money. She has already given her money to them. They keep yelling. She frantically explains that the other man has her bag. They keep yelling and make her stand up. They make her go to get her bag from the man standing at the other end of the line with a gun. She runs over.

Shots are fired.

I hear Azalea crying as she runs back to her spot in the dirt, to my left. She is trembling. She has real feeling.

Brett has been taken back onto the bus because his wallet didn’t have enough money in it. They held a gun to him and made him get his bag. Then they had him press his head into a seat while they searched through his backpack. They got his camera. His dues were paid.

I was the last to be searched. I had brought my small daypack off the bus with me. He violently rifled through my daypack, throwing everything that was worthless at my head as I lay in the dirt. He hit me with my jacket, a couple of books, some snack food for our long bus ride.

I considered saying a prayer out loud. These people were religious, weren’t they? Could they step outside of the situation to see what was happening? I couldn’t think of the words to the Our Father in spanish. I said the prayer silently to myself, in english.

The man searched down my body and rolled me over. His search was thorough, and I realized it would’ve been useless to just put the camera down my pants. He found it in my cargo pants pocket easily. However, in his search he did not find my passport case. I am a walking commercial for the company that makes those cases.

I was lying on my back, looking up at him as he fumbled with my camera case to see his prize. I did something stupid. Looking up at him, I pitifully asked if I could have my memory card. Please.

“Hijo de puta!! Cierra los ojos!!!” (“Son of a bitch!! Close your eyes!!!”)

Shots are fired, right above my head.

“Policía!! Policía!!!”

There was a large commotion. Our captors started running into the jungle, firing shots into the air as they went. One of them was wearing my backpack, which was now being used to transport their loot.

I had no concept of time during this…it could’ve been 10 minutes or 2 hours and I wouldn’t have known which was more accurate. Some time after they ran into the jungle, another man came and shook me. He was trying to get me up. Were they back for more?

No. It was the bus driver. I quickly gathered my loose belongings in the dirt before me. A pair of wool socks dropped to the ground. I looked at it for a moment. What was I looking at? I left it and ran onto the bus with the rest of the passengers.

We drove back out of the jungle. I looked through my possessions. They didn’t take my cell phone, which was a relief. They also didn’t take my wallet. I checked it and everything was still in there, they hadn’t even bothered to take the $3. I was relieved. Eventually we stopped on a main road where a police officer took down our reports of what had happened. I listened.

Apparently a man riding the bus had asked the driver to stop somewhere to let him off. We were near Cascales, Ecuador. We were maybe 30 or 40km away from the Colombian border. When he was starting to get off, two men ran out of the jungle with pistols in their hands. They handed a pistol to the first man who was getting off and then the three of them boarded. I don’t recognize accents, but the Ecuadorian passengers could tell these men were Colombian by their accents. Also, they were not men. They were boys. Maybe in their late teens. What had brought them to this? I wanted to know. The driver mentioned that they might have been the same people who hijacked the bus a week before. What??? This would’ve been useful information before getting on their bus.

I went back to my seat having reported my lost possessions. When I got back, my wallet was gone. Another passenger had stolen my wallet. We searched the floors but it never showed up. I was in shock.

The remainder of the bus ride we were a little jumpy. Any time the bus stopped, people would yell “Cierra la puerta!”(Close the door!)” We did not want to stop anywhere else.

Eventually we made it to Papallacta and were left off in front of a hostel. We were alive.

My total losses:
Camera: $300
2GB Memory card: $95, 6 days of photos in the jungle (I had luckily burned a CD of my photos in Quito before leaving for the jungle, so I didn’t lose everything)
Wallet: Credit Card, MIT ID
Leatherman Pocket Knife: $60
Daypack: $15

Tips for being hijacked near Colombia
1. Pack most stuff underneath the bus.
2. Hide things on bus if you have time.
3. Don’t carry valuables on you, aside from a wallet with at least $20 or $30 in it to appease them (if there is any less, they will try to scare more out of you).
4. Do what they say.

Note: This story was excerpted from my original post in a travel journal I kept during a backpacking trip across South America in 2006.  The original article can be find on the Travelpod blog here (which apparently has over 27,000 views! whoa!): http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/rickwastaken/south-2006/1154664720/tpod.html#ixzz1z52Pi0ZS

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Demystification is a critical part of education

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Commentary, Personal, Society

I firmly believe that most anyone can be taught most anything, if given the right resources.  I’ve stated before that the future of education will be very personal, and there have been a number of recent reports supporting this trend.  However, there’s still a key hurdle that we frequently underestimate: mist.

When I say mist I’m referring specifically to the foggy notions that lead someone to believe a concept or activity is beyond them.  This unfamiliarity with a topic obscures one’s motivation and ability to even begin tackling it.  You become paralyzed by a debilitating lack of confidence that is all too often instigated by those who are best positioned to alleviate it.

Of course, many people likely throw up intellectual barriers simply to boost their egos.  When I use big words that you don’t understand, I point out how much smarter I am.  Math is hard.  This machine looks complicated.  You can’t wiggle a stick around in just the right way to get a manual car to move properly, that takes years of experience*.  Too many people throw up verbal barriers around the knowledge they’ve gained, as though they had to protect it in some sort of zero sum knowledge game.  But knowledge isn’t scarce.  There’s plenty to go around, and it should be shared as freely and openly and empathetically as possible.

While I’d hope my personal encounters with this phenomenon have been isolated incidents (the ivory tower seems to breed mist-makers), it’s unfortunately a pervasive annoyance.  There are mechanics, doctors, politicians, and pretty much any kind of superior with fiscal or egotistical motivations.  Mist is basically the tag line for Apple.  Users can’t do anything to modify or upgrade their iCrap on their own.  Kids are taught that they need a certified “Genius” just to help them change their batteries.  Little boxes of circuits are “magic”.  No, Mr. Jobs, they aren’t magic.  Dragons are magic.  Those are just well-understood tangles of wires.  And mystifying them is bad for America.  If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.  You won’t always find me singing the praises of Microsoft, but it’s interesting to compare them with Apple in this respect.  Windows-powered PCs seem built for modding and tweaking.  In fact, Windows 7 was even my idea.  The difference between these two approaches to customer respect is pretty glaring</rant>.

Clearing the Mist

Fortunately, there seem to be a number of anti-mist movements gaining momentum recently.  Wikipedia brought a vast expanse of knowledge to everyone’s fingertips.  Now you could find some ground when bullshitters tried to pull it out from under you.  A long line of cheap or open source textbooks and video lectures promise to bring even richer learning experiences to everyone (although these both fall short of the ideal education system of the future).  JOVE and Instructables have also built themselves on the idea of opening up knowledge in a more visual way.  Aardvark and Quora have built businesses on providing users with immediate access to expertise, allowing you to bypass information-hiders with murky motives.

These kinds of tools, largely enabled by the internet, have helped accelerate a number of do-it-yourself (DIY) movements, including one of my personal favorites, DIYBio.  It’s important for these initiatives to engage in early education and outreach to remove barriers for kids.  They can do science.  They can build a radio.  They can replace their own batteries.  I definitely wish I had been exposed to more hands-on work at a younger age.  I’ve seen this become an issue with many grown-up people who are constantly held back just because certain topics or tasks are a little bit mystical to them.  In fact, I bet 80% of inaction could be overcome with some simple demystification.  And that’s part of what this blog is all about.


*Ok, maybe that was part of the impetus for this post.  Some people told me driving stick would be too hard and I couldn’t master it in a week, let alone 15 minutes.  I showed them.  And I did it driving on the wrong side of the road!  Take that, mist!

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Eagerly awaiting my genetic destiny

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Personal, Science, Technology

I’m about to see some things that can’t be unseen, to learn some things that can’t be unlearned, and to think some things that can’t be unthought.  Within less than a fortnight, a significant amount of my genetic destiny will be revealed to me by the magic of consumer genetics.  And the suspense is killing me.

As a metrics and diy bio junky, I’ve been very eager to explore the essential blueprints to my being.  It’s incredible to even imagine that most everything I am can be reduced to a fundamental set of instructions based on patterns of just four letters (the rest can be accounted for by ‘nurture’, which for me is mainly an amalgam of adventure novels and Saved by the Bell episodes, as best I can tell).

When I first heard about 23andme several years ago, I was pretty sure the future was coming fast.  However, the price tag was still a bit steep for me.  Considering the Moore’s Law depreciation of sequencing costs, I just couldn’t rationalize the expense for a report that didn’t even cover my entire genome.  I even signed up for the Personal Genome Project in the interim.  Unfortunately, they still haven’t taken me in, and my enrollment seems unlikely given their preference for people with known rare genetic conditions.  So I’ve waited for the price to go down.

Happy DNA Day!

And finally an opportunity for low-cost genotyping!  April 23rd was National DNA Day, during which 23andme (named after your 23 chromosome pairs), offered their full package (including ancestry, health, and extended sequence access) for just $99.  This was a $400 discount from the normal $499 price tag.  Obviously, I jumped on the deal.

Of course, 23andme is just one of many consumer sequencing companies (including Navegenics, deCODEme, and Knome, among others).  However, 23andme offers one of the most complete offerings I’ve found.  They give you ~600,000 known “single nucleotide polymorphisms” (or SNP’s, basically just single letters in your sequence where you’re likely to vary from others in a meaningful way), including mitochondrial DNA.  Granted, this is just a small portion of my entire genome (only ~0.02% of my 3 billion bases, to be ~exact).  However, it represents many of the significant places (or loci) where I differ from you or anyone else.  It also includes many compelling factors involved with a range of heritable conditions.  And I’ll be particularly interested to learn things like my eye and hair color.

Some Reasonable Caution

Gattaca earwaxNow, it’s not a terrible idea to take a step back and consider the consequences of such deep self-knowledge.  First of all, I have to ponder the psychological impacts this information could have on me.  What if I find out I have some rare genetic disorder that is reliably linked to a terminal illness?  What if I find some factors that would indicate the need for a drastic change in lifestyle?  What if my dad isn’t my dad?  What if I find that I’m completely boring, genetically?  These are all possibilities.  But I’m prepared (or at least momentarily indifferent) to their consequences.  I believe that understanding the root of your medical condition can help you make educated choices moving forward, and I intend to leverage any information I gain.

However, I am slightly more suspicious of the potential legal implications.  Just imagine a Gattaca-esque  world (by the way – notice the title is made of A, T, G, C) where your job, insurance, and even mate, are essentially determined by the strength of your genetic code.  That’s some pretty scary stuff.  And most people don’t seem to realize how close we are to this (at least technologically).  There are already a number of opportunities for genetic theft.  It will be very important for the government to enact some tough regulations that can withstand any assault on personal genomic privacy.  Fortunately, we currently have a law protecting us from genetic discrimination with respect to insurance and employment.

What I Hope to Get Out of This

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of data.  I’d like to be as quantitative as possible in my life choices.  Within the realm of health, this has primarily manifested itself in the use of activity-tracking applicaitons, such as CardioTrainer for running and Daily Burn (formerly Gyminee) for weight training.  However, my genome represents a vast bank of data that I could never empirically derive by phenotypic analysis alone.  I’m super excited to finally get access to even a small portion of this raw data.

Although obviously I could have accessed a lot of this information by myself using several methods (including outsourcing directly to Illumina, as 23andme has done), I wanted to go through one of these companies (and 23andme in particular).  This is mainly because I appreciate all of the additional analysis and formatting they provide in presenting the absolutely daunting amount of information contained in my raw genetic sequences.  They’ve developed some simple tools to show my ancestry, as well as my health risks (weighted by the reliability of the associated studies in a 5-star format) in a secure, web-based format.  Though I could collect and analyze this information myself, it would certainly take a significant amount of effort, and thus I’m willing to pay a service to provide this convenient user experience.

And speaking of user experience, it’s interesting to note the relationship between 23andme and Google.  Specifically, 23andme received a significant amount of funding from Google (mildly controversial since 23andme cofounder Anne Wojcicki is married to Google cofounder Sergey Brin).  But this all makes sense to me.  It is Google’s stated goal to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  Personal genomic data is perhaps some of the most useful information out there, and Google clearly has an interest in organizing it.  Considering what they’ve done for the web, I’m excited to see what they can do to simplify genetic relationships.  And I suppose I’m about to find out.  All my base are belong to Google.

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Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists and Engineers

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Personal, Society

Future Scientist

As some of you are aware, I will be temporarily disconnected from the intertubes for the next couple of weeks while floating around the Peruvian Amazon teaching kids about healthcare, electronics, and the environment. The main idea is to provide some practical resources and training to children in remote settings, with the goal of inspiring the next generation of technological community leaders.  The initiative, called Future Scientist, will hopefully expand to other locations with the goal of developing a sustainable remote education platform.

This is a bit of an experiment a few of us here at Berkeley are putting together, so we are expecting more than a few hurdles in the beginning.  However, I believe we’ll be able to make some kind of an impact within the communities we reach, and we’ll ideally bring back some ideas about education and volunteering in general through constant and thorough needs assessment.

This trip will be a little reminiscent of my time in the Dominican Republic providing medical outreach to impoverished communities.  However, there is the striking difference that this trip is grounded primarily in science and education, whereas the DR program was centered around community service through Christian missionary activities.  In fact, the majority of this kind of aid tends to be supported (and financed) by religious institutions.  So it will be interesting trying out some work under a secular model of sustainability.

In other news, I have finally launched my modeling career, starting with my painfully photogenic hands:

Next up is an interview with SugarSync (more on that later).

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