Jun
08
2009

Robbed by the Police

“Welcome to Ecuador, where we cut out the middle man – the police just rob you directly!”

They stole my iPhone.

To start at the beginning: After a lovely breakfast this morning of whole-wheat pancakes topped with fresh tropical fruit (and a weird event – as I’m squeezing the bottle of honey, a dead bee comes out the spout. Now I know it’s apropos, but how would a whole bee get into a processed bottle of honey??), I catch a bus to the border. Perhaps because of the strained relations between the two countries, one can’t simply take a bus directly between cities – you have to take a series of local buses and taxis, walking across the border yourself.

I’m a bit nervous, because I woke up in a panic realizing that my Colombian visa may have already expired. Sure enough, I was one day over my stay. Nervous about possible fines or hassling.. but no, exiting Colombia was no problem. He saw the date, but didn’t say anything.. just gave me an exit stamp. Changing money with one of the hagglers was no problem, either – even got a good rate.

A short walk across the bridge to Ecuador, and immediately one of the border police takes me inside a small building and starts interrogating me and going through my stuff. I’m trying to be friendly and chatty, but he’s not smiling. He’s looking at each of my electronics, asking how much stuff cost, how much was my airline ticket, etc. Of course I low-ball everything, not wanting him to think I’m rich. He wants to see photos on the camera, asking where I’m going, how long I’m staying, etc. Finally he’s satisfied and I stuff everything back together and head off for the immigration office.

This part was easy – no cost, and they gave me a 90-day entry instead of the usual 30-day, which was nice. I walk over and catch a taxi to the bus station for my onward journey. Along the way, I go to take a note on the iPhone. Look in my bag, and it’s not there. Fuck. I’m very careful about always putting it back in it’s case, which lives within my security purse with my other electronics, which lives within my day pack. I had just been using it on the bus to the border and remember putting it away, so that border cop must have palmed it. I’ve gone over the sequence of events a hundred times in my head, and can’t come up with any other explanation.

I get the taxi driver to turn around, he sounds sympathetic (and not terribly surprised), and drops me off back where I started. The taxi driver is friendly, saying he’ll wait for me, etc – turns out he was just trying to up his fare. We got into an argument later when I told him I’d be staying a while, and I’ll just pay him for that mile he drove me – but he wants the full round-trip price as if we’d gone all the way to the station and back. Way to kick a man when he’s down!

Anyway, I approach the cop and knowing full well how I need to play this, I say, “gee, mr. cop, my iPhone seems to be missing – have you seen it?” Being careful not to accuse him, etc. We go inside, another cop makes a show of looking around, huh, no sign of it. Once we’re alone, I offer him money – again, being careful to let him save face, not getting irate, etc. But he’s pointing at his pockets, saying he doesn’t have it. We were the only ones in the room when he was going through my stuff (a point he keeps making even though it works against him), so I know he’s got to have it. I’m pulling out $20 U.S. bills while explaining that it won’t work for anyone else, since there is a passcode – much better to just take the cash and let me have it back. He clearly understands me, repeats back what I’ve just said about the security code, but still won’t offer it up.

So I go to a pay phone and call Elo for advice since I’m about to cry. She advises that I just wait, for hours if necessary, and then possibly talk to the boss. Also that I should try enlisting his “help”. So I go back to the cop and explain that I’m sure he doesn’t have it, but if it turns up, I would be happy to pay a lot of money for it. Again, I explain about the code. He goes into some long rambling story about foreigners, and how he used to work on the border of Peru, and he keeps taking out his phone and saying he keeps trying to call but there’s no answer (who is he trying to call – the imaginary friend that stole it??).. most of this I don’t understand. But my hope is that if I just park myself there in front of him it will eventually turn up.

Meanwhile I go through the rest of my pack just to make sure it didn’t slip into some strange crack. About an hour later I look up from doing this and see him and the others driving away in a truck – and a new team of agents has taken their place. I guess his shift was up. But it’s pretty shady that he wouldn’t come over and said bye, don’t you think?
So I’ve decided to spend the night in this border town and try returning in the morning when he’s hopefully on duty again. I don’t know what else to do. I’m hesitant about seeking out his boss, because that might unnecessarily escalate things and endanger actually getting the damn thing back. Plus, I don’t know if my Spanish is up for it.

I don’t know why he wouldn’t just take the money. Maybe it’s worth a lot on the black market down here. Maybe he was trying to teach the gringo a lesson. Or maybe he just really wanted an iPhone.

I’m of two minds about this experience. On the one hand, I’m grieving – that iPhone was everything to me – my lifeline to the world I left behind (containing as it did the New York Times, magazines, etc), it was my traveling companion (with my five favorite movies that kept me company on lonely nights plus podcasts for those long walks), my local guide (GPS, maps, guidebook pages, WikiTravel pages, language dictionary), my communication center (email, twitter, text, oh and phone), all those things I listed a few posts back. So I am really freaking out and sad and upset about being forced to change my ways due to this loss. Obviously this is a first-world problem – people have been backpacking around the world for eons sans iPhone. But it sure eased the experience, particularly as a solo traveler – not being able to lean on or collaborate with a partner.

On the other hand, I’m already seeing how this might be the universe trying to tell me something. Get your head out of the technology, and into the local culture more. It could have been far worse – my debit cards, my new camera (no, this is worse), my passport.. actually, none of those are worse. They’re all replaceable.. the iPhone and what it contained is not. Grrr.
Right, back to the positives – umm… that which does not kill us makes us stronger?
My fear is that I’ll become even more isolated and withdrawn, no longer having those things that cheered me up and got me through the day. My hope is that I’ll use this as an opportunity to reach out to my surroundings, locals, and other travelers more.

The thing I’m most upset about is losing the data that only existed on that device: all the contact info for people I’ve met along the road (if you’re one of those people, please contact me!), photos that I took with it and not with my camera, my personal diary that had a lot of good insights during my travels, the calendar with important dates I need to keep track of… I keep thinking of other things. Lesson learned – if I had paid the $100/year for MobileMe, it would have synced all those changes with the cloud. Also it looks like MobileMe has a remote wipe feature. Speaking of..

The security lock doesn’t kick in until the phone has not been used for an hour. So I just hope that he wasn’t smart enough to turn it on before the timer kicked in – if he had dug through the thing he would have found all my bank account numbers, scans of credit cards, etc. Once the security lock does kick in and he tries the wrong code 10 times in a row, it’s supposed to wipe all the data on the phone, thereby securing my personal data. I hope that’s true. But it occurs to me that he could still hock the blank phone for a lot of money. I wish the damn thing self-destructed instead, like a James Bond phone. I wish there were an app for it that ran in the background and reported where in the world it was, so I could kick down his door. Wait, there is! Crap, I knew about the mac version of this, but it looks like they have an iPhone version now. Cool, only a little late for me. [Update: check out this awesome story of a guy who used Apple's Find My iPhone to recover his stolen phone.]
It’s ironic that all of this occurred the very same day that Apple released their new iPhone model. If only it were as simple as just walking downtown and picking one up. Besides the enormous cost, I would need my computer to sync it with, which is 3,000 miles away.. and a few other stumbling blocks.

Although I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with cops, I still wouldn’t have expected one of them to outright rob me. Most of us are raised with the belief that they’re generally on our side, defenders of peace and security – not our assailants. Of course, of all people I should know that’s often not true. Another lesson learned – treat them as thieves from now on! It’s just so frustrating when they have all the power, and you have none. He’s wearing the uniform, he has the gun, he has the weight of his comrades behind him. He could arrest me or kick me out of the country. What can I do? Absolutely fucking nothing.

I’m trying not to let this bad apple color my experience of this country I’ve just entered. I’m sure I’ll calm down in a couple of days. At least until the next time I reach for my iPhone to do that currency conversion and.. oh, right. I forgot. It’s gone.

Due to this loss, I will obviously be less in touch from now on. Certainly not the amount of twittering I was doing, and less frequent responses to email. You’ll no longer be able to see where I am on the tracker. And no more audio narrations, which I was just getting excited about.

I do still have my Treo phone, although it’s on it’s last legs. And it doesn’t get the internet. I bought a new SIM card for it so I have a mobile number while in Ecuador. I’ve listed the number in the “Contact” tab at the top of the blog, as usual.

I also still have my iPod, thank god. It appeared to have died on the bumpy bus ride back from Tierradentro – the hard drive crashed, and I got the dreaded “sad mac” logo. But it magically resurrected itself. Gawd, I hope it holds. If that dies, I’m really doomed.
I know, I sound like such a baby – but it’s really amazing how music can transform my mood and get me going again. I suppose if I were a yogi I wouldn’t need any of this stuff. But I’m not.

I know this is way too long-winded for such a short story. I guess it’s my form of therapy, helping me calm down.

Speaking of, I’m off to find a stiff drink.

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Written by Josh in: Ecuador | Tags: ,

12 Comments »

  • Judith Johnson says:

    Oh Josh, this is sickening sickening. You are so connected with that. And the police of all people. And all your connections to others and the outside world on it. My heart is with you. J

  • christine says:

    Dear Josh,

    I’m so sorry! I wish that it would turn up somehow. Or that you would just get it back somehow. Thinking about you tonight.

  • Jessica Chance says:

    So sorry to hear about this, Yosh! This sure trumps having our beer and coca cola stolen by the Belizean border cops, eh? Take heart, you will find other ways to keep in touch, and surely find rhythm and stories all around you. This is also the perfect time to join Facebook. I bet more than 70 percent of the travelers you have met are online. If you just do it for the contact info, it isn’t giving in! Looking forward to seeing you in Peru!

  • Jimmy Page says:

    Just throwing my sympathies onto the pile. It’s not nearly as crushing, but my ATM card recently got eaten by a machine in Beijing. I put it in and it never came out. I know those feelings of panic and frustration, especially when you’re far away and your worldly anchors are compromised! I’m sending good thoughts that the iPod keeps its happy face, and you, yours. And you still have this incredible blog as record of your experiences. You will be the techie phoenix, rising from the ashes of corrupt authorities! LOVE.

  • Josh says:

    You guys are the best. Just when I needed the sympathy, you all come through with such nice comments.

    After that stiff drink last night, I took a walk and looked up to see that big beautiful full moon grinning down at me. Which took me back to the story I told in my very first post. Glad to know that big old moon is still storing all that good energy for me.

    I also re-read Riz’s treatise and was re-inspired to look at the bigger picture.

    Hugs to all of you.

  • Vikki says:

    Now that really pisses me off!
    I’m sorry this happened Josh.
    So what would be the roadblocks to getting you a new iphone? Anyone out there up for contributing to the “Replace Josh’s I-Phone” fund?

  • JDF says:

    Egads…criminy and golldurnit straight to hell!!! Your post, ironically, is great, btw…really walking us through the whole terrible thought process. You can’t stop writing SOMEhow because you’re getting really bloody good!!!

    Sigh. Awful circumstance, my dear…let me know if I can possibly help facilitate any substitute getting to you, OK?

    xoxo JDF

  • Josh says:

    Again, it means so much to me to read your words of support. Vikki, I didn’t even know you were reading the blog! Yay. And JDF, you swell the cockles of my heart with your compliments..

    So just to finish telling this sordid tale:
    I went back there this morning at the same time as yesterday, assuming I could find the guy. Wouldn’t you know it, the shift of people working was completely different today. Huh. The lady cop I talked to seemed to know what I was talking about, so that was encouraging. But I really couldn’t understand much of what she said.. one of those crucial times I really wish I had hit the Spanish books harder!
    One thing I did understand was her warning / reminding me to always watch their hands when they’re searching my stuff! You know you’re in a corrupt country when one police(wo)man warns you about the other policemen. But that comment reassuringly put to rest the fear I had that it’s a huge racket that they’re all in on.
    I gave her a piece of paper with all my contact info and asked if she could pass it along to the boss. It was a long shot, but I figured worth it. Lo and behold, later in the day the corrupt cop called me. (So I guess she gave the paper to him, not the boss. Arg!) Again, I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say, so I asked bluntly – “do you have my iPhone or not?” He said no.
    Now I’m really confused. If he’s guilty, why would he go to the trouble of calling me? But I really can’t think of any other way it could have disappeared.
    Regardless, it’s gone and I’m moving on…

  • Clair says:

    Josh,
    This is the pits. Much sympathy. I know that feeling of violation that results from such a loss. Many kudos to you for the courage you have shown and for moving on.

  • Uyen says:

    Josh,

    Really, really sorry to hear about your loss. Keep looking upward and forward. It’s time to upgrade.

  • German says:

    It is not about the loss, is about the impotence on the situation. I’m sorry about that… Best regards from Bogota.

  • Jenne says:

    Ugh. This would be horrifying. The loss of so much connectivity! I’ll have to take a look at more recent posts before fully commenting, but my time in Spain wasn’t used as fully as it could have been because I held onto English (and absolutely had to, due to an English-speaking boyfriend!) too much. You won’t learn Spanish until you’re forced to use it all the time. Good luck! Hope you’re doing better now!

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