Anyone who was travelling in the autumn of 2001 has a 9/11 story. It’s the ‘where-were-you-when-JFK-was-shot’ quiz of the 21st century. I imagine for most travellers the slow filtration of information hours, or even days after the incident, was a rude burst of real life interrupting their unreal on-the-road existence, although I met one guy who had just arrived in Afghanistan when it happened, and left very shortly afterwards. For me, that audacious act of terrorism set in motion a chain of events that resulted in my utter ruin.
I was due to fly through New York that day, on my way back to the UK after 3½ glorious months in Central America. I stayed in a small, family-run hostel in Houston, Texas on September 10th after an interminable bus ride from Mexico City. I had a quiet night in and rose early the next morning to check out on my way to the airport. I noticed a few people watching the news intently on the TV in the day room.
The matriarch of the house enquired politely as to my destination. “Flying home to England,” I replied, trying to combine notes of pride, relief and mournful regret. “Oh, I’m not too sure about that,” she said, bizarrely, “You might wanna call the airline before you go to the airport”. She showed me into the lounge and I saw the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. Nasty. Explanations were confused but there was a rumour a ‘plane had hit the building. I was still milling about when the second collision occurred, and minutes later was on the lobby payphone to American Airlines, who confirmed that no flights would be leaving until further notice.
Well, this was inconvenient, but another day in Texas wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe I could seek out that Frisbee-sized steak I’d always wanted. I didn’t stay glued to the TV like the others but took the opportunity to explore downtown Houston, soon coming to the conclusion that it’s a pretty boring place. I couldn’t even get a good view of the city as all the skyscrapers were closed. By the end of the day the scale of the attack was apparent, but life continued in the hostel.
I got chatting to a couple of guys drinking a beer on the porch, Kevin & Sergio. They were keen to go to some bar several suburbs away and I saw no reason not to join them. One of them had a car and drove us across town via a bottle shop where we shared some Mad Dog 20/20. I half expected the joint to be closed out of respect for the dead, or at least dead itself, but actually it was pumping. And this was a Tuesday! It was like the whole city had turned out to give al-Qaeda the finger.
It was a big place with inside & outside areas and several bars. Now I’m no stranger to the American practice of tipping bar staff and I generally do so, foreign as it may seem to me, but I can’t abide it when they keep my change on the assumption that I would have left it anyway. That’s not on, so when what the young man who served me my first drink did just that, I stood my ground and demanded my money. I’ll decide how much to tip you, punk. He reluctantly handed it over and naturally I didn’t give him anything back. What he did next was unexpected – he looked me directly in the eye and drew one finger across his throat in a murderous gesture. Bit of an over-reaction, I thought, and walked off. There were other places I could get served.
Later on in the night I made friends with a nice couple who offered to buy me a drink, which I accepted. “Surprise me,” I said. We were outside, near the lair of the wannabe gangster, but I wasn’t buying so he couldn’t refuse to serve me. They ordered for me, he made the drink, and I drank it.
I awoke, curled into a ball in a tight space, my eyes blinking in harsh fluorescent light. The floor was tiled. I felt like shit. I crawled out from beneath the sink in a lady’s public toilet, in an underground car park, in the middle of Houston, without a dime in my pockets. The last thing I remember was that rum and Coke. “How did I get so drunk, so fast?” I thought, “Idiot”. I stumbled out into the daylight, still wasted. It was around 6am but luckily I found the 24hr bus ticket I’d bought the day before. Somehow I navigated to a bus stop, found the hostel and flopped down in my bunk.
The next time I awoke was with equal shock. My brain was shouting at me, asking urgent questions. Where is your money belt? Is it around your waist, where it was last night? Is it under your pillow? I looked; it wasn’t. It was nowhere. I’d worn it in the same place for 16 weeks, kept safe between military juntas, Mexican drug cartels and rum binges, and on my 2nd night in a 1st world democracy – I’d lost it. My passport, money, plastic, plane ticket, insurance documents – everything. Damn you, Bin Laden!
Kevin explained that I’d suddenly become uncontrollably, incoherently inebriated. I was ordered to leave by two policemen, so he’d put me into a cab with the address and a $20 note in my back pocket. I checked – the money was still there, so what had gone wrong? Had I gone mental at the cabbie? Had I decided it was a good idea to go to another bar? Most likely the driver had seen the state I was in, robbed me and dumped me in an alley. I was lucky to still have all my teeth.
With air traffic grounded for days I spent my time searching. I returned to the bar, asked around, looked through the bins, called all the taxi companies. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the mysterious underground car park again. It was useless. I had to get money wired from home, report to the police that I’d been mugged, get a new ticket from American Airlines in the midst of the chaos they were dealing with (which actually worked to my advantage, cost-wise) and try to reschedule a flight home, all in a place once ranked by opentravel.com as the second most boring city on earth. Five days later I finally boarded a plane.
It wasn’t until years later that it struck me – I’d been roofied! I hadn’t overdone it; the bastard had drugged me. Rohypnol, probably. I was just too naïve to realise it at the time. At least I didn’t wake up with a sore arse!