The Guilty Pleasure of Watching Stupid People 42

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Click through to see the video preview for the episode

How to Not Get Locked Up Abroad

I have written about safety on the road before, but this is a slightly different topic. Instead of focusing on how to avoid being robbed or scammed, National Geographic wants me to give my tips for how to avoid getting arrested and imprisoned abroad.

I have thought long and hard about this and came up with my exhaustive list:

1. Don’t smuggle drugs across borders.

2. When in doubt, refer back to rule number 1.

There are probably a number of other valid tips, in fact my friend Raymond also posted on this topic this weekend, but those two sum it all up for me in most circumstances. You could add some others for certain countries: don’t insult the King in Thailand (idiotic law, but enforced), don’t have sex in public in a Muslim country, and many others, but I’ll stick to the big universal one, drugs.

Given the choice between doing drugs somewhere and smuggling them somewhere else… always choose to just do the drugs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not endorsing drug use (as depraved as I’ve been in my life, I’m shockingly one of the few that has never done any illicit drug), but I’m just saying…. unless you are in a country like Saudi Arabia or Singapore, you are rarely going to get in nearly the amount of trouble for using them compared to smuggling them. Here is a great post my friend Kate wrote about people getting in trouble while using in Laos. Note the different level of trouble there verses the smuggling cases.

OK, that may be the most perverse travel tip I have ever given. Well, at least the most perverse one that I’m willing to write about.

Black Palace of Horrors Episode

Let’s review this season’s premier episode of “Locked Up Abroad” with my comprehensive and exhaustive tips foremost in your mind.

It is 1970 and Dwight “went to Peru for adventure.” He had just graduated college with a degree in psychology and mathematics and wanted to see the world. In Lima, he “met a person on the street” and asked him to sit down for a coffee. He had never done cocaine before, but he had heard about it and was intrigued. So, Dwight “asked him to find some cocaine.”

He just meet this total stranger ten minutes before. Perhaps I need to add another tip to my list:

3. Don’t be a moron.

His new friend found him a gram of cocaine. I was certain he was going to get arrested right there, but this idiot was temporarily lucky. He went off to some hotel room and took his first sniff. He loved it. He went back home the States and kept using. His “nose got bigger than his wallet” and he “was objecting to how much he was paying for it in America.”

He comes up with a plan to get more cocaine for his burgeoning habit.

He was going to go back to Peru and fake a mountain climbing accident. He would pretend to have a broken shoulder and store the cocaine in bags under the cast. The plan is actually pretty comprehensive. He had been working as a nurse in the States, so he also got some forged medical receipts and X-rays.

He headed back to Peru, meet back up with his friend from the cafe, bought about a kilo of coke and implemented the rest of his plan. His exit plan was to go overland to Ecuador, then fly to Mexico, then cross the border back into the States overland. It’s a little unclear if he was smuggling the drugs back into the States to make money, but I assume from his discussion of his habit he just wanted it for his use which leads me back to my comment earlier.

If you are going to just do drugs…. just stick around in the country and do them. Crossing the border with them…. bad.

He made it to Ecuador and had no problem getting on his plane to Mexico. In the meantime, he took two Valium to calm himself down and help him get through customs: “little did I know that decision to take Valium was going to change my life forever.”

I feel the need to add yet another tip:

4. Don’t do drugs while you are smuggling drugs.

Are we getting a theme yet?

He obviously got arrested and he was thrown into the Black Palace of Horrors, which is apparently one of the worst prisons in the world. He fell in love and hatches an interesting escape plan with his new girlfriend.

You just need to watch the episode. It, like pretty much all episodes of this show, is entertaining and qualifies as an absorbing guilty pleasure in my eyes. I endorse the show and really did enjoy this episode. And to be fair, there are episodes that don’t just focus on the perils of drug running — upcoming episodes include a guy that got arrested in Saudi Arabia for being gay and a trucker that got kidnapped by Islamic insurgents. But for me, this show is a quality guilty pleasure.

Which leads me to wonder this:

Why are shows like this so addictive?

Why do we enjoy watching people do stupid things on TV? Reality television almost entirely exists to scratch this itch in our collective psyches.

If you are one of the rabid followers of the Bachelor/Bachelorette, I know you are going to say you watch for the romance and the dream of happiness ever after, but you can’t tell me that you don’t also enjoy the guilty pleasure of laughing at the guy that brings the ostrich egg to give to the Bachelorette at their first meeting.

You might say you enjoy American Idol for the quality singing and hope of seeing the emergence of a new star, but tell me you don’t also love the first few episodes where the William Hung’s of the world humiliate themselves in auditions.

We love watching people do dumb things on television. I haven’t even touched on shows like Jersey Shore or Basketball Wives (speaking of which, you need to go read the Grantland weekly Reality Television scorecard — laugh out loud reading), which exist purely for the cringe-worthiness ability of people to go above and beyond idiocy on front of television cameras.

Going back as long as recorded history, mankind has always enjoyed a well-told story and I will give “Locked Up Abroad” its due there, they are well-told and suspenseful stories. The other side of enjoying a well-told story is that we have long enjoyed the guilty pleasure of laughing at others — think about the court jesters of Shakespeare’s time.

We all enjoy the Fool.


Here are the details about this season’s premier episode. As they themselves say on the Nat Geo website, its a cult classic.

Deservedly so. It is fun stuff.

Locked Up Abroad: Black Palace of Horrors
Wednesday, May 23, at 10pm ET/PT on National Geographic Channel


Postscript and backstory:

I think you need to know why I am writing this post. Sure, I have written about the oddity of Eurovision and also wandered far afield from travel stories when I wrote about how top 10 lists suck or about ceiling fan deaths in South Korea, but this post came from a specific request.

One of the Public Relations people representing the National Geographic television channel contacted me last week asking me to write a review of their television show “Locked Up Abroad.”  They asked if I would pre-screen the first episode of this season and write about my tips for “How to Not Get Locked Up Abroad.” I felt I owed them a follow-up email:

I might be able to do this, but if you know my blog at all, I can be a bit bitingly sarcastic. I have joked around with friends about this show while we’ve been traveling and my basic tip would be “ummmmm, don’t smuggle drugs across borders.” In fact, the whole gist of my post is quite likely to be how amazingly stupid most of these people are. IF that is something you would be interested in, I can knock something out, but I don’t want to offend you if that doesn’t jibe with your intentions on this.

She immediately replied with an email that I wish I felt comfortable sharing, but I didn’t ask for permission to do so. It was great.

I actually had no intention at all of doing this post, until I got that reply. My limited experience with PR people is that they are almost pathologically possessive about “the message.” Hell, in my past life, I was a press secretary and campaign manager for a few political campaigns. I have some sympathy for that point of view. That reply sold me to write this post — I am still smiling re-reading it now and look forward to someday having a beer with her at some point in the future.

She has to be cool.

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

42 thoughts on “The Guilty Pleasure of Watching Stupid People

  • Roy Marvelous

    You’d think the drug thing would be a no brainer huh? But I’ve met lots of idiots while traveling.

    My favorite was a guy from Greece who told me he always traveled with his own weed because he “didn’t like the stuff from the streets”. So he used to stuff his underwear with a few joints before flying!!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      LOL, I have met idiots like that also. “I’m just bringing it in for my own use.”

  • Laurence

    I’ve seen a couple of reviews now of this particular show, (interesting idea from Nat Geo I have to say) and it’s been interesting to watch the various angles. Your angle is thus far my favourite one 😉

  • Erin

    Hilarious post – I watched Locked Up Abroad a couple times, but I just kept thinking some of these people were well suited for the Darwin Awards books. And being one who’s never done any illicit drugs either, I am quite dumbfounded by some of the stupidity I’ve seen on the show.

    I admit to being hooked on the Bachelor/Bachelorette but definitely not for the romance factor – I love the idiotic things they do when meeting for the first time and all the drama that develops over the season. Romance…what romance? What…like 2 of the seasons have worked out to date? 😉 Same with AI, I used to only watch the initial episodes and never again once they started Hollywood week.

    I think I am drawn to these shows as they somehow make me feel better about my own life. At least I can watch some of these and think, at least I’m not THAT bad!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I think that is half the point of most reality TV. “Thank God that isn’t me.”

  • Jeremy Branham

    I admit that I don’t get caught up in the reality TV thing. A couple of years ago, I watched American Idol for a season. However, I’ve never seen an episode of anything else you’ve mentioned. I am thankful for that. Guilty pleasure or not, I am already unproductive enough as it is without watching these shows! 🙂

    With that said, let’s talk about Mr college grad cocaine addicted moron. Your tips are good ones. Like you, I don’t get the appeal of illicit drugs. I guess I approach the issue too logically – why get involved in something like drugs when the every possible consequence is bad?

    With that said, it’s an interesting story but I shake my head at his stupidity. This guy tried to smuggle it because of his own addiction. For others that get locked up because someone gave them a package or something to smuggle, here’s where I actually listen to the advice I get in the airport “please do not leave bags unattended or accept packages from people you do not know.”

    Don’t be a moron!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Perhaps “don’t be a moron” has more applicability than to just this situation. Hmmmm…. must think.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Ray, there is still time for that ostrich egg. Don’t give up yet.

  • Angus

    Hi Michael,

    As a former attorney from Arkansas I wonder why you feel the need to travel the world or watch NatGeo docs to get kicks from ‘exotic’ horrors such as these…

    Surely there’s plenty right there on your own American doorstep for you to enjoy? —

    Last time I checked the American penal system could pride itself on the most epic abuse of drug users of any in the world
    — way more compellingly horrific than anything you could find in backwards South America — at least from my European perspective

    Indeed – as an American, your entire prison population for drugs alone is more than the entire Western European prison population (see EMCDDA data) for all crimes combined!

    Close to 750,000 non-violent drugs users are now imprisoned in the USA (of around 2.7 million prisoners)… compare that to China who only have 216,000 people in drug detention centres… (come on China, keep up, you’re mean to be the savage autocratic police state here!)

    And of course even though African-Americans make up only 13.5% of the US population, they make up 54% of American drug prisoners — 54%!

    And let’s be clear on this: in the US whites use and sell drugs at slightly higher rates than blacks!

    You can get all this in ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander which you might enjoy reading — judging from the above, it might be right up your street: epic dehumanising cruelty on a vast scale — oooh hooray!

    But seriously Michael — this isn’t just kids burning ants – these are real lives being destroyed here, while you and the other posters sit around and gloat and smirk.

    Isn’t it time America grew up about drugs — lawyers included?

    Either that or just abandon your pretensions to being a civilised country, and just come clean about being a savage people – debased by bigotry, ignorance, and mass incarceration…

    Oh – and did I mention the 50,000 people who have been murdered south of the Rio Grande in gang competition over supply routes to the US, as a direct consequence of US drug prohibition — and that in just a couple of years? Another time maybe…

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      And the sense of humor meter just swung so hard it knocked someone over…

        • Angus

          Hi Ava Apollo,

          my point? seriously?

          do I really need to make it any clearer just how sick and degraded I think it is for the citizens of the ‘incarceration nation’ to smirk and giggle at the victims of the insane. murderous drug laws their country has forced on the rest of the world? … not least Latin America…

          I don’t find abuse funny. Apparently, some people on this blog do. I’m just asking you, in my own angry way, to rediscover some kind of integrity.

          This is not just about the mass murder tearing apart whole nations south of the Rio Grande; it’s not just about the vast prisons, the ecological destruction and the countless human lives ruined or destroyed — it’s the total moral bankruptcy the ‘War on Drugs’ has created in the most powerful nation in the world…

          of which Michael’s humour (alleged) is in my opinion a symptom… just one more pussy abscess on what is frankly a rotten ‘mass incarceration’ culture… one that I feel compelled to squeeze…

          So what have we got here?

          This is a country where your president can sit and smirk on national TV about drugs, mention in his biography about ‘doing a little blow’ and how inhaling pot was ‘the point’ etc.

          And meanwhile, just on your own turf — forget for a moment the chaos your country’s drug policies are creating elsewhere — 1 in 6 of the 750,000 non-violent ‘offenders’ (read human beings!) locked up in the USA for drugs are there just for pot…

          But don’t take it from me…have a read of the ‘The New Jim Crow’

          The hilarious comedy that is the ‘War on Drugs’ has reduced America to an ‘incarceration nation’ — locking up African-Americans at a vastly disproportional rate to whites — and recreating two of the most shameful eras of your history – slavery, and Jim Crow – right under your own noses…

          And meanwhile you laugh at peoples’ lives being destroyed in ‘exotic’ places like the Black Palace of Horrors in Peru…

          If you’re ok with that, then so be it. But you had better also accept that this comes at a cost: and that is to be held in utter contempt by civilised people the world over, and to be a disgrace to everything America is supposed to be about….

          When you’re done smirking at people’s lives being destroyed, maybe have a think about it!

      • Angus

        Hi Michael

        for genuine comedy about incarceration, I recommend a British comedy called ‘Porridge’ – sort of like a British MASH, in prison

        real humour, with real humanity

        I’m not sure how that would be possible with the American prison system today though

        “50,000 people woke up in solitary confinement today” — ‘buh booom tish’

        “the American penal system is bigger than anything Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago ever saw” – ‘buh boom tish’

        “mass incarceration is getting privatised — prisons for profit!” —- ‘gimme a drum roll, Chuck!’

        “and it’s systemically racist, and it’s pushed the American nation back beyond the Jim Crow era to the day’s of slavery, and debased any shred of morality and humanity the USA ever had”

        oh, I’m splitting my sides, this is hilarious!

        yeh — you know what Michael – can’t see that one getting pitched to Jerry Seinfeld somehow

        • Michael Hodson Post author

          Methinks asking you for advice on what is humorous would be akin to asking Jerry Falwell for advice on good porn. I think I’ll pass.

          And I am still doing a complete reexamination of my post to see where I discuss US incarceration issues… wait… its a post about a show called Locked Up ABROAD. Odd, that.

  • Angus

    Hi Michael,

    Maybe this is what you’re missing:

    when people have their lives destroyed by getting locked up in that exotic place you call ‘Abroad’ – be it for drug possession or drug smuggling – it is a US incarceration issue…

    You see, last time I checked it was the States that imposed the War on Drugs on the rest of the world (via first the League of Nations, then the UN) and continues to impose it, unrelentingly…

    No amount of human misery. lives wrecked, or blood spilled — say the 50,000 Mexicans dead in gang competition over supply routes to the US — seems to be enough to get the Federal government to rethink its ways….

    So I refer you to the first paragraph of my reply to Ava Apollo:

    “do I really need to make it any clearer just how sick and degraded I think it is for the citizens of the ‘incarceration nation’ to smirk and giggle at the victims of the insane. murderous drug laws their country has forced on the rest of the world? … not least Latin America…”

    as for you asking Jerry Falwell about porn… sheesh Michael you’re kind of handing me a ‘wanker’ put down on a plate there, buddy…

    anyway, I think I’ll refrain – after all, this is a civilised blog for civilised people…

    …isn’t it?

  • Michael Hodson Post author

    If you think the US drug laws are the reason that other countries have drug laws… you are clueless. But so clueless, you are only adding to the humor intent of the post, so that’s cool. Mucho thanko.

    • Angus

      hi Michael

      that’s a Straw Man you’ve just beaten up there Michael – where did I say that?

      but are you denying US is central to the War on Drugs?

      if so then that is a pretty bizarre and extraordinary stance

      I am guessing international drug law isn’t your field — or apparently even current affairs – did you follow the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena?

      you know, Santos, Molina and the rest pressing Obama just to give room for them to open up a rational debate about reforming drug laws

      the US has been the prime mover behind all international drug law since the Opium Conventions at the League of Nations in the ’20s right up to the present day UN Narcotics Conventions

      just for the most recent example – have a look at what happened recently with Bolivia over the UN Narcotics Conventions and coca

      and that’s before you even get into the question of funding, enforcement, the DEA offices all over the world, the US corporations with a stake in eradication technology, private prisons etc. etc. etc.

      anyway, as for the humour of people getting caught up in the War on Drugs perhaps this will tickle you

      Mexico’s Drug War: 50,000 Dead in 6 Years
      MAY 17, 2012


      Gathered here is a collection of recent photographs from Mexico’s drug war and the people so horribly affected by it.
      All images in this entry are shown in full. There are many dead bodies; the photographs are graphic and stark. This is the reality of the situation in Mexico right now.

      • Michael Hodson Post author

        The US-lead “War on Drugs” basically started in the mid-1980s.

        This television show is about an arrest in Mexico in 1972.

        The unintentional humor of the comments is closing on in being ALMOST as funny as the original post. 😉

        • Angus

          Hi Michael,

          Interesting strategy Michael, keep insisting that it’s funny.

          Re-compound your previous failings… sounds familiar, ironically so considering the topic… good old American hubris…

          Anyway — yes, you are right that it is Reagan who used the ‘War on Drugs’ to bring US incarceration rates to the hilarious / disgusting level they are currently at now…

          But this is part and parcel of a domestic and foreign policy that the US has pursued aggressively for the best part of the 20th century, beginning with its move with Egypt in 1928 at the League of Nations to get cannabis appended to the Opium Act, through the Anslinger era, the UN Narcotics Conventions starting in 1961… ad nauseam

          But the term ‘War in Drugs’ was in fact coined during the Nixon administration, when the explicitly racist intent was honed… I’m not sure how this will play down in Arkansaw, but I wonder what you make of this:

          ‎”Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue…that we couldn’t resist it.” – John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale for the launch of the War on Drugs

          “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Haldeman, [Nixon’s Chief of Staff] wrote. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

          If this is the kind of culture you are happy to be a part of then so be it. I think I speak for quite a few people from “abroad’ when I say it would be nice if the US stopped exporting it. It would be nice if you stopped laughing about it as well, even south of the Mason Dixon line.

          I won’t be holding my breath though…

        • Angus

          Are you married Michael? Do you have family?

          I hope for your sake none of them ever fall victim to the War on Drugs…

          Two of my friends have fallen victim to War on Drugs, in both cases for cannabis

          anyway, enjoy your porn collection…


  • Ali

    Funny write up. I have definitely been guilty of watching a few reality TV shows purely for the stupidity. (Have you ever seen Average Joe? Ridiculous.) Not sure if we actually have access to this in Germany since so many things from the US are blocked, but it sounds like an entertaining show.

  • Angie

    Dear. Lord.

    Great post, Hodson. Hopefully, some day you’ll share her reply. It must have been something!

  • Gracie

    I am guessing international drug law isn’t your field — or apparently even current affairs – did you follow the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena?This guy tried to smuggle it because of his own addiction. For others that get locked up because someone gave them a package or something to smuggle, here’s where I actually listen to the advice

  • Angus

    @ Gracie, Natalie etc.

    In many countries in Europe addiction is now treated as a disease.

    I realise that throwing an addict in prison, criminalising them etc. is perfectly normal in your American culture

    But in civilised European countries it would be seen as no different than throwing someone in prison for having HIV/AIDS, or cancer…

    I realise you think it is funny.

    I hope eventually, for your sake, that you will eventually come to see that it is sick, inhumane, and uncivilised.

    • Natalie

      Angus – The difference is that people who have HIV or cancer have not broken the law.

      People who have an addiction to drugs should be treated as an addict but that does not mean that the law needs to let them off.

      Many countries plainly state that selling or buying drugs is an offence. If an addict wishes to ignore that law they have to pay the consequences.

      Same as prostitutes and burglars who sell their bodies and steal to fund their addiction. Should we let them off because they are addicted? No, otherwise the whole country is in Anarchy

      BTW – Never set foot in American and I am from a European country.

  • Sarah @ Green Global Travel

    I didn’t see that episode of Locked Up Abroad, but I saw the one with the actor whose friend asked him to take a trip and pick up some suits (which turned out to have drugs in them). I almost thought the episode wasn’t real (the actor was playing himself in the reenactment and everything seemed exaggerated–he described everything as if he were an action hero). He thought he was going on a nice vacation to just pick up something for his friend, all expenses paid. Not really seeing many of the episodes, I totally agree with your list.

  • Ceri

    Hahaha, I hate that I get easily addicted to reality shows and this show frustrates me so much.

    Every episode is about a moron who “made a mistake” and you genuinely have to ask, ‘How naive can you be?’ 😛

    They get no sympathy from me. They do the crime, they have to do the time. ,,, Is that too harsh?

  • Anne McKinnell

    @Michael excellent post! Obviously there are lots of morons out there who do these types of things and need the reminder that doing it when it could result in going to jail in a scary country is a much bigger risk than doing it at home. Of course there is the question of doing it at all, but most people do something stupid at least once in their lives. You wrote it with great humour and I laughed pretty hard at the “don’t do drugs while smuggling drugs” tip.

    @Angus – Dude. It’s a travel blog. There’s nothing sick, inhumane or uncivilized about advising people not to smuggle drugs, whether it is told in a humorous way or not. Get over yourself. We’re not here to overhaul drug laws or solve the problem of drug addiction. We’re just travelling around seeing stuff.

  • Jaime

    Oh man this show was my guilty pleasure when I was preparing for my RTW trip. I watched every episode… and it would scare the shit out of me & make me not want to travel. I knew I was watching it knowing damn well I would never do any of those thing because it’s common sense. I mean really… & that is why as crazy as I am… I do not do drugs on the road. It’s just not worth the risk. I’ll drink till the sun comes out, but nope you won’t catch me doing them…

  • Hotelopia UK

    Wow, I thought this was just a story, it wasn’t until I was half way through the article that I realised it’s actually true! (we don’t have that show in the UK – not that I’ve heard of anyway).

    You have to be so careful with laws abroad – in India for example a woman will be arrested if she’s topless at the beach, something that’s perfectly normal in most of Europe!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Naked in many countries is dangerous for sure. And not just with the possibility of being arrested.

  • alanc230

    I think that many have the hubris to think “I”m smarter than (fill in the blank), I won’t get caught even if (name) did.”

  • Amanda

    I laughed. I mean, under the cast? And yes, it doesn’t even take a lot of travel experience to know you shouldn’t take drugs from someone you just met. It just takes life experience or common sense. This story reminds me of a friend of a family member who used to smuggle dope in his cowboy boots in the 70s.

    Some of the locked up abroad stories are truly terrifying, especially the one with the guy who was in Dude Where’s My Car. Seriously, that one gave me nightmares. Thankfully, I trust no one.

    I read a lot of travel blogs and this one is quickly becoming a favorite.

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