The Devil’s Breath, The World’s Scariest Drug!
After our unforgettable Galápagos trip, Chris and I went back to Quito together with the rest of the Gálapagos group. Life in Quito wasn't that much different from last time we were there. We decided to stay an additional week in Quito before we would head to Colombia. There wasn't much to do for us here, but every now and then it's pleasant staying at one place for a longer period of time. Any experienced backpacker knows what I'm talking about…
Before we went to the Galápagos we'd already had the opportunity to taste Quito's insane nightlife. Chris and I craved for more and headed out again in quest of more lunatic parties. We ended up going to ladies night again in Bungalow 6, which is located in new town. Ladies night in Quito is different from all other ladies nights I had experienced before. All ladies enter the club for free and get free drinks from 20:30 to 22:00. All men have to use a different entrance and need to pay 5 bucks to get in. As the men go upstairs and pay for their drinks, the ladies are getting drunk downstairs. Both sexes are completely separated and at 22:00 the doors to the cage of wasted ladies will open and the "lions" will be unleashed to hunt. Quite a funny concept and quite straightforward… we all know why people come here.
So I attended ladies night with the amazing Galapagos group and we had loads of fun! As usual, it wasn't the plan to go all crazy but once you receive some (Ecuadorian) tequila shots -thanks Chris! - you can't fight that little innocent voice in your head anymore. After a couple of hours of craziness everyone decided to go back to the hostel. As I was still having a great time here I decided to stay. I danced with this gorgeous Colombian girl for a while and she introduced me to a Colombian drink called "Arguadiente". I had already heard of this drink before, but it was this night that I tried it for the first time. It's not a bad drink to be honest, I quite liked it. But it is quite strong, this is what you would drink with your friends to get drunk quickly. It's comparable with Sambuca. I've heard that this is what they drink in Colombia all the time, and if that's true I'm going to be in trouble once I get to Colombia. The girl was really nice and after providing me with some more insights on Colombian culture, and showing me a few dance moves I went outside to go back to the hostel again and get some fresh air. Obviously, at this point my brain was heavily affected by tequila shots, Arguadiente, a few beers and many Cuba Libres (the Ecuadorian ones: 4/5 rum, 1/5 coke).
I was about to grab a taxi when I ran into some cool Ecuadorian people on the streets. They shared some rum with me and we were having a blast. But, I misjudged them and it appeared that they weren't that cool at all. I wandered the streets with them, and that's the last thing I remember…
I woke up at the fire station, completely drugged, confused and disorientated, with an IV attached to my left arm. They did a poor job on putting it into my arm as the whole area around it was completely bruised. I checked my pockets and they were empty! At this point I realized I got drugged and robbed, and they even took my shoes. I can't recall anything at all and I don't know how I got to the fire station. Quite a weird place to end up at, but then again it could have been worse.
I felt horrible and asked the fire fighters if they could take me back to the hostel and they were kind enough to grant my request. I had never asked them how I got to the fire station in the first place, I was still too drowsy to be able to think clearly. I guess I will never find out what really happened that night. Perhaps it's for the better…
The people back in the hostel hadn't worried about me at all as they were assuming I had taken off with this Colombian girl. Boy, I wish I had… Therefore, they were quite surprised when I got back completely destroyed. I made quite an entrance; as I wasn't able to walk properly, four huge fire fighters took me up the stairs and handed me over. I still remember this vaguely and according to Chris my behaviour was odd and I didn't make any sense at all, even for the two upcoming days. Still under the influence of that drug I climbed on the wrong top bunk where I disturbed this innocent German girl called Jana and fell asleep next to her. Luckily, it didn't seem to matter that much to her.
The following days I could still feel the effects of this drug. I felt drowsy, dizzy and weak and it's still hard for me to remember what I exactly did these days. A doctor dropped by at the hostel to see if I was alright. He said my heart wasn't beating properly and that I should take it easy the coming days. According to him, I got drugged by something that is called "Escopolamina" or "Burundanga" (English: scopolamine).
What is Scopolamine?
I did extensive research on this and apparently it's something that is being used a lot in Ecuador and Colombia. There are many ways one can administer this drug. It can be thrown in drinks or be applied on the tip of a cigarette, but if all stories should be believed one can even blow it in your face and then it will only be matter of minutes before you convert into a walking zombie. One famous Scopolamine story shows how a man walks towards his female victim, asks her for directions, and shows her a map. The woman, unaware of any danger, doesn't know the map contains bits of Scopolamine. She holds the map a bit closer to her face and that will be the last thing she will be able to recall.
Scopolamine can't be detected as it's completely colorless, odorless and tasteless. Keeping an eye on your drink is always a wise thing to do, but there's hardly anything you can do to prevent someone from blowing it in your face (hence, the name "the Devil's Breath). It's derived from the "Borrachero Tree" in Colombia and to make matters even worse, these trees grow on the streets of Bogota. Hence, it's not hard to obtain the ingredients.
The most remarkable part of Scopolamine is that it basically turns you into a human zombie. Victims will be incapable of exercising free-will and unable to resist suggestions. In other words, you will do whatever people tell you to do. Many stories about victims emptying their bank accounts exist. One of the most famous stories deals with a guy who became so docile that he helped his "masters" emptying his own apartment. He woke up with no memory at all and asked the security guard why he didn't stop them. The guard's response was simple: "Because you told me to!"
Oftentimes, this drug is used by beautiful Colombian/Ecuadorian women. They play their game of seduction and deliver the drug whenever they think it's appropriate. The next morning (or maybe even days after) you'll wake up and realize you've been robbed. However, women are also victims. Many women have repeatedly been drugged over days, have been gang-raped or are forced into prostitution.
How Does Scopolamine Work?
So how does Scopolamine actually work? How can it erase your memories and create the inability to exercise free will?
Memories are facilitated through a brain chemical called acetylcholine. Scopolamine blocks this chemical and messes with the memory creation process. The process of creating memories involves 3 stages: the initial making of the memory (encoding), creation of long term memories (storage/consolidation) and recall (retrieval). Scopolamine interferes with the first stage, which means that memories will not be stored in the first place.
The amygdalae are two almond-shaped groups of nuclei that are responsible for the fight-or-flight response. This means that sometimes they shut down our thinking so that we can act quicker in emergency situations to protect the body or to avoid death. They are also responsible for controlling aggression and anxiety. Scopolamine affects the amygdalae and this explains the pacifying effects. Victims, therefore, remain cognitively nimble but are unable to retain information.
Initially, Scopolamine was being used for medical purposes. It's been used as a sedative and to treat nausea and motion sickness. At the beginning of the 20th century it was being used together with morphine and chloroform to induce a state of "twilight sleep" during childbirth. Future moms would experience less pain, but they would remember nothing when the effects had worn off.
In 1916 the obstetrician Robert House found out that women were still conscious during delivery and that they were able to answer questions adequately. He soon discovered that his patients were always answering his questions truthfully. House then came up with the idea to use Scopolamine to interrogate suspected criminals. It confirmed his hypothesis that people under the influence of Scopolamine were not able to "create a lie". The CIA got involved in this and the idea of a "truth serum" arose. It is assumed that the CIA has used this technique extensively in order to get the truth out of criminals, suspects and convicts.
So… What now?
After reading about Scopolamine many people still remain sceptical about it. Some people think of it as a hoax and I do admit it sounds like a horrible bed time story. Well, I can tell you this stuff is as real as it gets and given its simplicity in administration it may actually be the world's scariest drug…
I believe I have been really lucky as it could have ended way worse. Physically, I'm all fine and I have only lost material stuff that can be replaced. As I didn't have my bank cards on me and I didn't have my own apartment, they had no reason to enslave me for days.
The objective of this post is to inform people about Scopolamine and to let everyone know that it does exist. Be cautious when you travel to Ecuador and Colombia. Keep an eye on your drinks and never accept drinks from a stranger (a general rule for any place I guess). Stay with your friend as most incidents happen when you're by yourself. In my case, that's where it went wrong! However, don't become all paranoid! You still want to enjoy your travels!
I've experienced Ecuador as an amazing country with great people! It's wonderful to feel the love and respect you receive from complete strangers when you're travelling. You see with your own eyes that there are many good people out there and it really restored my faith in humanity. Obviously, that night when I got drugged wasn't a good experience. I trusted some strangers and they took advantage of that. Some people would get psychologically damaged after such an incident, and I surely don't blame them for that. However, I always like to look on the bright side of things. We need to realize that we have to keep on going after bad stuff has happened. I still love Ecuador and its people, and I still love Quito despite what has occurred.
It will only be a matter of time before I reach Colombia. I noticed that it still has quite a bad image when it comes to safety, but my fellow travellers would strongly disagree with that. Many people have told me it's the coolest country in South America with some of the nicest people they have ever met, and there must be a reason for that. I believe more people should give this country a shot, and that's what I'll be doing as well. Frankly, Colombia is the country I've been looking forward to the most…