Sunday, April 29, 2007

Material Disaster Strikes

I´ve had overwhelming good fortune in my life and on Thursday, April 26 I experienced a bit of a correction. I had just arrived in Valparaiso, Chile on a bus from Santiago. I went to the information booth looking for a hostel. The woman there tried to sell me on a particular place, insisting it was the cheapest in town. In Buenos Aires I had grabbed a copy of a hostel directory and saw an ad for a hostel that promised cheaper rates, so I walked to the pay phone bank directly in front of the info booth to call.

I approached the bank of payphones and placed my large backpack and my small handbag on the floor directly in front of me. Intending to use the payphone slightly to my right, I placed the small bag to the right of the backpack. But, at that moment, a woman approached from my right and it seemed that she wanted to use a phone. I shifted to the phone on my left, but didn´t move my bags.

I dialed the hostel, confirmed it was cheaper and got directions--probably a total of 2-3 minutes on the phone. When I looked down to pick up my bags, my small bag was gone. Inside that one, small blue beloved Guatemalan bag was:

a) Cannon Digital Elph SD600 camera with about 400 pictures of my vacation
b) 20G iPod with 3000 songs (and a new pair of $30 headphones)
c) Blackberry Pearl cell phone which served as my alarm clock and sometimes MP3 player (with $40 headphones)
d) Passport, with record of immunizations
e) Mastercard
f) Congressional Federal Credit Union check card
g) about $75 U.S. and Guatemalan currency
h) Spanish-English dictionary
i) flash cards for studying Spanish
j) Autobiography of Mark Twain (I was about halfway through)
k) original Army issue aviator sunglasses
l) my Swiss Army pocket knife keychain
m) my list of local contacts (I should have this on a portable storage drive)
n) my book of ¨Nuevos Amigos¨and a second journal I had bought for recording expenses, thoughts, etc.
o) children´s version of David Copperfield in Spanish (for use with item h above)

There are few worse feelings than that exact moment when it sinks in that your bag is really gone and you´re not getting it back. At first, you want to believe it´s an illusion and that you must have simply misplaced it--perhaps I left it at the info counter when I went to call. But, in the span of only one or two seconds, you realize this is wishful thinking.

At that point I yelled ¨Mi bulsa, mi bulsa¨and the woman at the info desk realized what had happened. A nice young woman named Sandra who was waiting at the bus station for a friend came over and the two of them asked me what happened and then called the police.

I waited about half an hour for a cop to show up. During that time the guy who runs the small newspaper stand next to the phone booths said that he saw the whole thing happen, saw two women walk away with my bag, but didn´t know that it was my bag. I later wondered why he couldn´t have spoken up when I first yelled ¨mi bulsa¨ which might have given me a fighting chance of chasing them down.

Once the cop came, we had to wait another half hour for a van to come and take me to the police station. As we entered the police station, I had my first shot of persective--if I had to see the inside of a Chilean police station, there were a lot worse ways.

It took the police two hours to take a list of what was in my bag and write up a report. It some ways it seemed like this wasn´t a common occurance for them, which I can´t imagine is the case. The primary officer I was dealing with couldn´t have been nicer. He then passed me off to another guy who actually let me sit directly in front of him while he typed up the report for about 20 minutes without even acknowledging my existence. Eventually I spoke up, mostly because I was anxious to call my credit card company to cancel the cards before they could be used. I was not able to do this from the station (apparently they can´t call out if Chile) even though I had a number that was specifically for calling collect outside the U.S. or Canada. My interaction with him was a bit weird, but perhaps he was simply anxious about not really being able to communicate with me very well. Unfortunately, in a pinch, I was not impressed with my Spanish.

By the time I got out of the police station, found an internet cafe with Skype, cancelled my credit card and check card, found a taxi, and got to the hostel, it was about 6pm. The American Embassy in Santiago had been closed, so the ordeal of getting a new passport would have to wait until the next day.

I got to the hostel, put down my bags and proceeded straight to a bar. I decided to deal with the situation like any reasonable and responsible person--deaden the pain by getting unreasonably drunk. I ordered a Johnny Walker on the rocks (which here is at least a double) and a liter of beer and an hour and a half later, I had made friends with the bartender and was well on my way.

The Small Miracle
Around 8 or 9 I went back to the hostel to meet up with two American women I had met when I first stopped in. There, in my absense, a small miracle had transpired--the police had come and brought back my passport, record of immunizations, credit card, and check card. I was thrilled that I was spared the time-consuming ordeal of obtaining a new passport, and immediately locked the recovered goods in my locker.

It seems likely that the folks who took my bag were small time theives and while an American passport probably has considerable value on the black market, they didn´t want the risk or trouble of selling it (I imagine the penalty for getting caught is higher than for electronics as well). Of course, I couldn´t help thinking--I understand they would keep the electronics, but if they were going to toss aside the passport couldn´t they have tossed the other stuff with it that was worthless to them but worthwhile to me--the dictionary, flash cards, even the bag itself which I really like. Oh, well...the passport is more than I had a right to expect.

I am about two months into my travels and I let my guard down slightly. I wouldn´t be surpised if this is a common time for folks to get ripped off. My actions didn´t quite venture into the zone of outright stupidity, but certainly veered sufficiently far from the vigilent caution required--especially in a bus terminal where anyone with a backpack has a large target sign painted on our backs. This was a very expensive lesson in caution.

In the end, what was really lost? (I´ll resist the urge to make a comment about my innocence...)

Well, first there was money--all told this little lapse in judgment had cost me about $1,000. Stupidly, I hadn´t bought any travel insurance and stupidly, I had all my most valuable possessions in one place. This was a costly lesson indeed.

But, fortunately, money is not the limiting factor on my trip--time is. So, in many ways it´s the nonpecuniary losses that sting more. First, the 400+ pictures of the first two months of my trip. This could have been much worse. My pics from Guatemala are on a disc I sent home. I´ve been blogging regularly, so most of my favorite pics are up on the web. In fact, I spent a significant amount of time in Santiago blogging (of course, I also meant to put all my pics on CDs while I was there and didn´t...). Still, those pictures are irreplacable and my record of this journey will be incomplete.

Second, the journals. I have most of my new contacts in my gmail file. Probably the worst thing about losing the journals is that I had been meticulously recording every cent I´d taken out of the ATM or spent on credit cards since the beginning of my trip. At the end, I would have known exactly how much this journey cost me. Now, I won´t. Sorry, Dad, you would´ve been proud.

The loss of the iPod is mostly an inconvenience. The songs are on my laptop at home. And, I think I´ve found a way to turn this into lemonade. Because I was using the iPod, I wasn´t really exploring new music. Now I´ve bought a small MP3 player and will buy new CDs in every country. I´ll miss the good ol´ Grateful Dead, but I´ll use this as an opportunity to push myself to explore new sounds.

The flash cards are a big pain. They were my two most important sets--grammar rules and irregular verbs. And, they´ll be a pain to reproduce. But, I´ll have to renew my resolve to read more Spanish and get more practice.

As I was telling folks at the hostel the story, it seemed almost everyone had their own story as well--and all admited various degrees of culpability, of bad judgment. One one hand, the stories made me feel better--I wasn´t the only one; (as one of the American women told me) this happens to the best of us. On the other hand, they made me feel worse. Some of the folks hadn´t seemed to have acted stupidly at all--there´s a limit to what we can do to protect ourselves. These stories made me feel like I can buy everything back only to lose it all again tomorrow.

But, in the end, I wasn´t hurt and nothing bad had happened to anyone I love. I remain one of the luckiest people in the world--with the time and resources to wander throught Latin America for nearly six months, and loving family and friends to embrace when I return.

I managed to find the same exact camera in a department store here in Valpo--after all, the blogging must go on. Ironically, this is the third time I´m buying this camera. A friend left my first one at Rudy´s bar in New Haven on my 30th birthda, after I correctly predicted I would get too drunk to handle it responsibly and placed it in his care.

As for the rest, we shall see. My next country will be Bolivia, which is apparently worlds cheaper than Chile. Maybe they even have some nice bags...


Leah said...

I'm so sorry. I know how awful that must have felt. As you said at one point, it is very typical a few months into travel to let your gaurd down. You start out super cautious, and then as you get the hang of things you relax just a little. Peace Corps actually has statistics on this: there's a sharp rise in victimization of volunteers at around the 1 year mark. But the end of your post blew me away- you have a really awesome perspective on the whole thing, and you're exactly right.

Demanding strangers who read EGEG said...

C'mon buddy - give us something new - this April stuff is stale.

Anonymous said...