Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Highway robbery.

the outside of the Baños police station although the inside wasn't much more inspiring

Since we had arrived in South America, it was a lot harder to find good accommodation. In Colombia, the problem was that the supply couldn’t keep up with the demand. One hostel owner told me that over the last five years tourism had grown at a rate of 20% annually but this year it was growing 20% every month! Absolutely bonkers. Now combine this with something another hostel owner told me, it took him two years to get permission to open his hostel and you’ll understand why we were always so anxious to book ahead. In Ecuador, the problem was not a lack of hostels but a lack of good hostels and a whole lotta tourists. August is the highest of high seasons and Ecuador is one the most popular backpacker destinations. But despite leaving the dusty roads and low-tech of Central America, booking ahead was a big problem in (supposedly more advanced) South America. While most hostels listed an email address, it seemed none of them ever checked or replied to their emails. So here we were about to set off to the popular backpacker town of Baños without having heard from any of the places we emailed. That just meant we’d have to be sure to leave by midday so we’d have a shot at finding a good place before dark.

Luckily Baños was just over three hour ride from Quito so there was no need to get up at the crack of dawn. Instead we had breakfast and said our goodbyes to the lovable oaf that was the hostel dog and headed out to the Southern Bus Terminal. When we grabbed a taxi on the street, we were pleasantly surprised by a quote that was less than our ride in. And that pleasant surprise turned to guilt as the cab kept driving and driving and driving to get to the new terminal. It was even further out than the northern one so we gave the driver the 50 cents for the tax to enter the new terminal. I know, I know, but Ecuadorian taxi drivers were making us soft by actually being nice.

The Southern Terminal was even bigger than the one we arrived at. It looked like an airport, all shiny and clean and modern. Inside buying a ticket was made incredibly easy by the colour coded kiosks – a directory let us know which colour window we could buy our tickets at and just in case we were colour blind a station employee pointed us in the right direction. After the chaos at Colombian bus stations this was all a bit overwhelming. We had just missed one bus but there was one due in 45 minutes which gave us time to buy water and find our bus bay. Our ticket had a bay on it but as we walked towards it we were immediately turned back by security and shown to the right one. Apparently we had been walking in a restricted (i.e. still under construction) area. Oops. When we got to the right bay there was a bus waiting there but it wasn’t ours. Nope, that one didn’t leave until just before our bus pulled in.

It wasn’t the nicest looking bus but we’d seen worse. But the employees were very helpful. The ayudante insisted on helping Adrian but his bag on the overhead shelf as we settled into our seats near the front. And then we were off. The route was obviously a popular one with lots of stops in towns along the way. At each one vendors selling food and drink would also get on, ply their wares and then get off along the highway, presumably to catch a ride back to town from the next passing bus. Like all buses we’d been on in the last 5 months, this stopping and starting added a lot of time to what should have been a short trip but we were used to it.

Soon we were just outside of Baños. Adrian reached up to grab his knapsack and immediately I noticed an uncomfortable look on his face. He began searching through the pockets which was easy considering they were empty. With a look of horror on his face he told me, “It’s gone.”
Sometime in the last 3 hours from right under our noses, someone had rifled through his knapsack and removed his beloved PSP and all the games. I figured he had just packed it in his big bag and told him not to worry. No, he insisted as we pulled into the station. They were gone and that’s when he told me the rest of the bad news. The knapsack was also where he had been keeping the money belts we never wore. Inside were our backup credit cards and his British passport. What!?!

As the bus stopped we grabbed our luggage from off the bus and began a thorough search of everything. Nope. We’d been robbed somewhere along the highway. Adrian decided to ask the ayudante if he’d seen anything - of course not but he suggested it was the people that sold stuff on the bus that did it. I don’t know how they’d do it considering they were always laden down with baskets of stuff in both hands. But whoever it was didn’t matter, the stuff was gone.

The good news was we still had our main credit card, bank card and passport. So we could still travel. But that didn’t mean canceling and replacing what was gone was going to be easy. The bad news continued when we got to our first choice hostel. They were no rooms. Still in shock we headed to our second choice. They didn’t have any rooms either. But they directed us to their sister place around the corner. The room was cheap and clean and big. So we took it and began making an inventory of what was gone. And gone were Adrian’s PSP, 10 games, 4 credit cards, 1 British passport, almost $400 in traveller’s cheques, and the 6-year old digital camera which had been in a handbag inside the knapsack, meaning however stole the stuff gave Adrian’s bag a thorough going over. I did smile about the digital camera, it was on its last legs and would be a disappointment when it stopped working.

With the list in hand (as well as a Spanish dictionary and old photocopies of all our documents), we headed to the police station (photo above) to make an official report that insurance, the credit card companies and the passport folks would need. The police station really was only 3 rooms and we were directed to sit in one of them. Here we waited for 20 minutes until a police office? judge? or clerk came in took our statement. Dealing with the police was not something I had covered in any of my Spanish lessons but luckily the officer was able to understand my pidgeon Spanish and Adrian’s mime and put it together in a typed report which was then signed and stamped by a notary? lawyer? or judge? That made it official, we were the victims of crime. The next stop was an internet café to hop onto skype and cancel all those credit cards. That wasn’t fun and I’d like to state how disappointed I was in Amex’s operator and how pleasantly surprised I was by Mastercard’s. Amex didn’t seem to care and was cold and rather unhelpful. Apparently, the thief had already tried to use the Amex to get $4995 worth of goods from somewhere (in Ecuador this would by you a fleet of used cars I’m sure). The transaction hadn’t gone through because my account was dormant since I hadn’t paid the membership few in the last few months (we hadn’t used it so I forgot). But that also meant Amex wouldn’t help me with a replacement until I paid the $50 fee – she then began asking me when I was going to pay it. Suddenly my “help, I’ve just been robbed” call became a collection call. Grr. This might not have sunk in accept that I called Mastercard afterwards. They were the polar opposite: they first asked me if I was okay, if we’d been hurt; they asked me what else had been stolen and did we need help; she wanted to know if we still had access to money. And when she knew we were okay she helped us figure out how to get a replacement card. Unfortunately, (and this is true for all Canadian credit cards) we couldn’t get a replacement. Well, we could get a temporary one that would expire in 30 days but a full replacement could only be sent to a Canadian address for security reasons. For some reason I don’t understand, it’s considered safer to send the credit cards to a third party address in Canada and then have the third party courier them to us, rather than have the credit card company send them directly to us. Silly. But after 4 hours of dealing we didn’t have much fight left in us.

The adrenaline was wearing off and since we hadn’t eaten since this morning, we were starving. We walked out in a daze to find a place to eat. As we approached the main square, we saw a familiar face. It was Matt from Cartagena. We chatted on the street and excused our moods telling him our sad tale. He decided to join us for dinner and we relived our first meeting by once again having pizza and beer. Although we’d only met Matt once before, it was nice to be chatting to a friend. Not only did it help to have a sympathetic ear, he was a great distraction and by the time we finished up we were feeling a hundred times better.


Gillian said...

oh you guys, i'm so sorry! That really sucks. It sounds like you might be back on your feet though..that's good.

Chin up!

liz and adrian said...

Well it was our first bit of crime after five months on the road so not bad. The more we think about it the more we are convinced it was probably the ayudante on the bus that took the stuff.

Ayngelina said...

Mmmm I don't think that is right. I lost my Visa twice in the Philippines and they sent a replacement in 5 days.

When I was robbed in Saigon Visa offered to send a replacement to me but I didn't know where I'd be in 5 days.

Is a Canadian Embassy considered a Canadian address since it's officially Canadian soil?

Where was Adrian carrying the bag? Under the seat or on top with the big bag?

liz and adrian said...

the bag was right above his head (the first and only time we've put stuff up above). the only reason adrian put it there was because the ayudante insisted. hence our suspicion.

all three, visa, mastercard, and amex, would only send a temporary card abroad which would expire in 30 days, not much good to us since we've still got long way to go.

Renee said...

Ugh. I'm so sorry. But glad to see you guys carrying on. Smiling at the thought of the camera dying.

And yes, Mastercard is pretty good when it comes to replacing cards. Some jackass stole my number and was using it to buy shirts and shoes at JC Penney as well as a bunch of online retailers. They called me and were able to ship me a new card (to my NY address the next day (since I told them I would need it for traveling.)

AMEX sucks.

Ayngelina said...

Hey I've been following some people in Ecuador on twitter and it looks like this is a long running scam and has happened to more than a few.

One couple was able to prevent it with PacSafe but I'm not so sure I want to spend US$150 on a daypack.

liz and adrian said...

yup definitely an age old scam for ecuador - i've heard similar stories from other folks. I think the guidebooks should actually call it out.

You definitely don't need a pacsafe - pricey and expensive - just buy some little padlocks for your bag. Works fine unless of course you have a trekking pack which doesn't have lockable zippers. But even then there should be a way to put a little pad lock around the opening.