Without a trace

Travel editor Claudia Kirschhoch disappeared in Jamaica two months ago. Could the same thing happen to you?

Published August 11, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

You think of Jamaica. You think of swaying palm trees and seductive white beaches, the tympanic dance of steel drums and the lulling thump of reggae, the sweet spicy smell of jerk pork riding the air.

You think of Claudia Kirschhoch and a chill taps your spine.

Kirschhoch is the 29-year-old Frommer's Travel Guides editor who disappeared from the resort area of Negril, Jamaica, on May 27.

It's a baffling tale. Despite posting a reward offer of $50,000, about 20 times what an average Jamaican makes in a year, her parents, resort proprietors and police are apparently no closer today to finding Kirschhoch than they were on the morning of June 2. That's when employees at the resort where she was staying entered her room, after her parents had called worriedly looking for her, and found everything -- passport, plane tickets, wallet with cash and credit cards, camera, clothing, luggage, house keys -- still there, all except for her sunglasses, a portable radio and a bikini she had bought just before the trip.

Kirschhoch had come to Jamaica on a press junket that was supposed to go on to Cuba. When the Cuba portion of the trip was canceled, she and some of the other participants decided to stay in Jamaica for a few days. On the morning of May 27, she had breakfast with one of them, travel writer Tania Grossinger. Later that morning, she was seen in the lobby of the resort where she was staying. After that, her trail winds into mystery.

What happened to her? And what does her disappearance mean for average American travelers -- and for the $1.4 billion Jamaican tourist industry?

Four scenarios about her whereabouts have surfaced in the ensuing two months.

The first is that she simply went to Cuba on her own. The second is that she "broke loose," a phrase Jamaicans use to describe the behavior of those occasional visitors who, enthralled by the island's laid-back life, spontaneously chuck everything and disappear into the hills. The third is that she had an accident that left her unable to get help. The fourth is that she fell victim to foul play of some kind.

None of these scenarios is very satisfying. Why would she leave behind everything, even her clothes, to go to Cuba, and why wouldn't she inform anyone about what she was doing?

Why would she spontaneously abandon what, from all accounts, she considered a dream job at Frommer's -- a job she had begun less than a year earlier -- and an exciting, fulfilling life in Manhattan?

If she died by swimming out too far or falling off a cliff or some other accident, why haven't the numerous full-scale search efforts, which have covered the entire island and involved everything from helicopters and boats to FBI agents and psychics, yielded some trace of her?

The least implausible theory is the fourth one, but it is almost inconceivable that if it is true, no one who knows the truth about her has stepped forward to claim the reward. As on most islands, secrets have a way of traveling, and unraveling, on Jamaica.

A crucial piece of this puzzle is simply missing.

If you are Kirschhoch's parents, you endure the prolonged agony by searching, by making three separate trips to the island, by walking the seven-mile beach at Negril and passing out fliers, by setting up toll-free phone numbers for tips (888-991-4000 in Jamaica, 888-967-9300 in the U.S.); you go to reggae clubs and concerts, visit shops and markets, organize press conferences and appear on local talk shows; and you talk, talk, talk with locals, hoping the ties that grow will somehow reach out and uncover the truth. It's endless and exhausting, but the alternative is simply unacceptable.

As a parent, I think about this and my heart goes out to Kirschhoch's parents in a bond of inexpressible anguish and pain and a silent prayer.

But as travelers, what do we do with this disquieting tale?

First, we do not pull the collective comforter over our heads and stop traveling. One traveler's disappearance -- even the disappearance of a presumably experienced and savvy traveler -- does not alter the fact that if you are an American, you are more likely to encounter foul play at home than on the road.

Yet Americans are particularly skittish travelers, and when something untoward happens in the world, we tend to indiscriminately avoid that whole region. Should we keep away from Jamaica -- or the Caribbean in general? What lessons should we take from Kirschhoch's still unresolved tale?

I spoke with a number of travel professionals -- agents, writers and editors -- and all agreed emphatically that this one case is no reason to avoid the Caribbean or Jamaica.

"This is a unique case," said Chris Lofting, president of the Society of American Travel Writers, "and travelers shouldn't draw any general conclusions about Jamaica from it. Indeed, until we know exactly what happened to Claudia, it's hard to draw any really specific lessons from her case. But broadly speaking, I think travelers should always keep five safety tips in mind:

"1. If you have any questions about the social or political stability of a place you're planning to visit, check the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs site, where notices are regularly updated advising travelers about countries the U.S. government feels pose risks to Americans.

"2. Remember that tourists are targets. Be aware that people may be targeting you for pickpocketing or something even more severe, and take appropriate precautions.

"3. In a strange city, ask your hotel's concierge or other locals which streets and areas you should be sure to avoid. If you want to walk back to your hotel from a restaurant, for example, ask what the safest route is. In New York, just to take one city, a difference of a few blocks can make all the difference in the world.

"4. Don't carry unnecessary valuables -- passport, jewelry, etc. -- and when you do carry valuables, make sure they are in secure places. Remember that an American passport is like gold in some places.

"5. Avoid local political rallies and demonstrations. Even if you're sympathetic with the demonstrators, attending a rally just invites trouble. Know the local hot spots and avoid them. Be a tourist -- go to the monuments and museums instead."

Kristina Rundquist, spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Agents, ticked off her "basic tips I always pass on to clients":

"Don't let yourself slip into a vacation mentality -- always use the same common sense you use at home.

"Don't go around flashing jewelry, cameras, etc. -- try not to call attention to yourself.

"Leave traveler's checks and credit cards in your room's safe or, even better, in the hotel's main safe.

"Take a matchbook from your hotel. If you get lost, you can show it to a local to find your way back.

"Follow your gut. If you don't feel comfortable in a place or a situation, get out of there.

"And finally, if you're not comfortable with the thought of going somewhere, then look at a different destination. That first place will always be there; just choose a different destination in the interim."

Bob Jenkins, vice president of the SATW and travel editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, addressed the same issues and concerns in a thoughtful e-mail:

"Because most people see their vacation travel as an escape from the workaday world, its stress and sameness, they tend to suspend some actions they regularly take in their usual world. Among these is being careful about their selves and their possessions.

"Most of us do not get pickpocketed at home, especially by bands of cute but pestiferous children pressing against us on a street demanding money, or by someone who takes advantage of the confusion caused when a stranger smears his hot dog mustard on our shirts. When we go through the 'security' checkpoint at an airport gate, the last thing we think about is that someone is going to steal our laptop computer from the X-ray conveyor belt.

"More importantly, in the excitement of being someplace different and special, we get swept up in a feeling of adventure and thus ignore or forget the age-old advice about not walking down dark streets, or venturing into neighborhoods about which we know nothing. We have another drink at the bar with someone we have only just met. We open our wallet, displaying all of that colorful foreign money we think we need to carry, and thus we let strangers see what's there.

"And perhaps we think that a new acquaintance is actually a friend-to-be, with whom we hope to spend more time and in whom we place our trust. The idea that this stranger might make his living from taking advantage of tourists does not prevail.

"So, should we choose to not travel because of safety concerns? Only when the U.S. State Department has issued warnings about the general safety of visitors to a region, due to criminal problems or significant civil unrest.

"What we need to do is research a destination -- check newspapers, magazines, Web publications and destination Web sites. If there is still a desire to be there, then go, but check at the American Embassy or consulate in that city or country to get fresh, on-site advice.

"And take the usual common-sense precautions:

"Don't flash your money; carry only enough for the day's expected costs, leaving the rest in the hotel safe or else hidden below your clothing in money belts or neck pouches.

"If you have to put down your suitcase or your day's purchases, place them between your legs or directly in front of your legs.

"Don't wear showy jewelry or watches or casually carry expensive-looking still or video cameras.

"If you need to move about a city after dark, have your hotel clerk call a reputable cab company.

"And don't be too quick to bond with a stranger in a new place."

What about Jamaica in particular? I asked Diana Willis, media manager for the Jamaica Tourist Board, if she had any special tips for people visiting her island.

"I advise people to exercise caution just as they would at home," she said. "Crime against tourists is really very low in Jamaica, but you shouldn't leave your wallet or camera untended on the beach, and you shouldn't wander into remote areas after dark -- just as you wouldn't at home. Just be sensible."

Visitors should also look into Jamaica's Meet the People program, Willis added, which brings together visitors and residents with shared interests, such as stamp collectors or orchid aficionados. This program presents an exemplary opportunity for travelers to meet locals through a channel that is organized and supervised -- perfect for people who are uncomfortable with impromptu encounters.

Then I spoke with veteran guidebook writer Christopher P. Baker, author of half a dozen travel guidebooks, including Lonely Planet's guide to Jamaica and the "Passport Illustrated Guide to Jamaica." I asked Baker what issues and lessons he thinks Kirschhoch's case raises for travelers.

"Well, Jamaica as a destination certainly poses several challenges," he said. "Muggings, murders, rapes and other serious crimes are daily events, and though not normally aimed at tourists, the history book on this score is unnerving. Drug use and drug trading proliferate, scamming tourists is a rite of passage for many younger, uneducated Jamaican males and a deep-rooted anger and resentment toward whites and a schizophrenic volatility are ubiquitous elements of the national psyche. Alas, Negril -- the hip in spot where Claudia disappeared -- attracts many unsavory characters bent on parting tourists from their dollars."

I asked him if he considers Jamaica a safe destination at this point, and if there are any particular guidelines travelers there should keep in mind.

"In general, Jamaica is safe and the majority of visitors have no problems," he said. "The Jamaican Tourist Board has made great strides in recent years to end hustling (harassment by itinerants) in the popular beach resorts. But once you stray from the beaten tourist path, it is easy to run into trouble. Women alone in Jamaica should be especially cautious and should never venture alone at night.

"Here are a few other guidelines I would pass along:

"Drugs (mostly ganja -- marijuana) are pervasive throughout the society, and it can be a temptation to experience Jamaica at its 'roots.' I strongly advise against joining any Jamaican males in ganja smoking, especially in a nefarious setting. Also, many Jamaican females prostitute themselves in resort areas and, besides the obvious health risk, they often work in cahoots with ruffians.

"In addition, many Jamaicans get angry at being photographed and may demand money if they see you photographing them. It's wise, as well as courteous, to honor local feelings.

"Jamaican males are extremely quick to get angry, and machismo is so deep-rooted that physical violence -- sometimes extreme -- is often an imperative. Avoid getting into an argument, and get away from other people's arguments or volatile crowds as quickly as possible.

"If visitors want to go to local nightspots, etc., I very strongly recommend that they go as a couple or as a group, or accompanied by a trusted local."

Of course, every destination is different. Jamaica is not Japan, and neither of them is Jordan. Every place poses its own risks and rewards.

I have felt intimidated and I have felt exhilarated in Jamaica. I have felt besieged by touts and hawkers and befriended by farmers and fishermen. Temptations -- dope and sex -- have been proffered plentifully, as have innocent, heart-opening invitations to visit local homes and join local celebrations.

Would I forgo a visit to Jamaica right now, at least until Kirschhoch's case is resolved? No. I would just apply my own basic rules of the road, which echo those of my colleagues:

Before you leave, get as much information about the destination you're visiting as possible. Buy guidebooks, scour the Web, peruse travel magazines, contact official sources such as tourism boards and unofficial sources such as Web site message areas -- Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, for example. Check the U.S. State Department's consular warnings about the world, keeping in mind that these almost always err on the side of caution, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's health updates and advisories as well. Most important, find out about the risky areas and activities in the place you're planning to visit.

Be sure someone back home knows your itinerary. If you change it, be sure to let him or her know.

If you are traveling in high-risk areas, keep the local American Embassy or consulate informed of your whereabouts. Don't wander off alone into areas you don't know.

If you befriend locals, exercise the same common-sense restraints you do at home -- don't abandon your sense of caution just because you're on vacation. But don't lock yourself away from the locals in fear, either.

Travel is always a complicated equation of risk and growth -- that's a major part of its allure. You can go to Jamaica and spend a hedonistic week hidden behind high fences and security guards if that's what you want, but for me one of the greatest joys of travel anywhere is meeting the local people and getting to know the culture. And if I were to change my travel ways because of Claudia Kirschhoch's disappearance, then the forces of evil in the world -- the forces of fear and ignorance and division that Kirschhoch and travelers like her everywhere are always fighting against -- would gain a small but significant victory.

So here are the two hopes Kirschhoch's anguishing case inspires in me:

The first is a fervent prayer that she is somehow found safe and sound.

And the second is that her disappearance will indeed affect tourism to Jamaica and around the world -- not by keeping us home but by making all of us more mindful guests when we are on the road.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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