I had already been to Ecuador back in November, and had visited Quito, Mindo, Latacunga, the Quilatoa Lake, Guayaquil, and, of course, the Galapagos Islands. But I had left Ecuador suddenly, and there was just one thing left on my “must-do” list: The Swing at the End of the World. I had seen pictures of this swing in the town of Baños that looks like you are swinging into nothingness, and really wanted to see it for myself. I had the time to fit in a quick visit between leaving Peru and heading to Colombia, so couldn’t resist the temptation to go.
I booked a nightmare flight that saved me $150, as a budget backpacker sometimes you have to sacrifice a little time to save some cash. Instead of flying direct to Quito, I flew from Lima, then to Panama, then Bogotá, and finally to Quito. I had a day layover in Bogotá, and was spoiled rotten by the family of one of my best friends, who welcomed me with typical Colombian gusto and some fabulous Colombian food. That evening I boarded the plane again for Quito, arriving there at 11pm. I had treated myself to a hotel near the airport, which actually turned out to be a great place to stay, as they picked me up from the airport that evening, and they dropped me off at the bus station the following day so I could take the bus. This saved me a lot of hassle getting into the centre of Quito late at night, and paying taxi fees from the airport, and to the bus station which is a long way out of town.
I changed buses in Ambato, hopping off and jumping on another bus to Baños within minutes. I arrived in Baños around 5pm, and made my way to my hostel, Santa Cruz Backpackers. I was lucky yet again with my choice, enjoying a 4 bed dorm to myself, and I slept well. The only downside was the weather, which rainy and cloudy – just like home! When the rain finally cleared I ventured out to find lunch, a yummy ‘huevos rancheros’ at Cafe Hood, followed by an obligatory chocolate brownie and strawberry ice-cream. Life was good. I walked around Baños briefly, to the springs “Las Termas de la Virgen” which poured out of the mountainside. As I was walking, the rain returned, so I headed back to the hostel.
I asked the lady on reception for the key to the room; “it’s open” she informed me, a new guy had just arrived. I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of sharing a room with a strange man, but ‘you never know’ I thought to myself, maybe he’s cute. He wasn’t in the room when I went in, and I was relieved I had tidied up a little that morning. He seemed tidy, just a couple of shirts on the bed, some new flip flops on the floor, and a rucksack under the shelf. I went to the bathroom, then went to open my locker.
I was confused. There was half a key broken off in the lock. That idiot had broken his key in my lock; that was my first thought. I can’t get my stuff out! I marched back to reception to get help from the receptionist. She looked for something to try to pry out the broken piece, but I suddenly realised the door was open. My locker had been forced open. Panic rose from the pit of my stomach. My laptop! My passport!! My phone!!!! The credit card I had kept with my passport. The cash that was tucked inside the cover of the spare phone. All gone.
I was shaking. How did this happen? Where is the thief? Call the police! Why did you put this man in my room? Is there no record of who he is? Will I get my stuff back? My work! My photos!! I felt sick.
The hostel doesn’t take a copy of passports when people check in. They don’t ask for payment up-front. This guy had filled in fake details on the check-in sheet and was handed a key to my room. Well, the shared dorm where I was staying. They do have CCTV though, so she pulled up images of the thief for the police. The police arrived 30 minutes after we had called them. What had been a theft discovered 30 minutes after it happened turned into an hour later, then an hour and a half once the policeman had come and talked about what had happened, and of course the culprit was long gone by then. On the way to the police station we drove around the block a couple of times to see if he was hanging around. I suggested asking at the bus station if he had a bought a ticket anywhere, but apparently that wasn’t a good idea. Instead, the policeman asked at another hostel if he recognised the guy. He didn’t. We headed to the station to make the report. I felt helpless.
I sat while the officer typed up the report; a mere paragraph summing up the day where I had lost the most important possessions I owned. I scanned the report and signed my name, my head spinning. He dropped us back off at the hostel, the receptionist had come with us in case she saw the thief as she was the only one who had seen him in the flesh. She apologised, and obviously felt guilty as she reimbursed me the $60 that had been stolen. I was still angry, but it was hard to be angry with her. I have stayed in countless hostels on my travels, shared dorms without lockers, and left my belongings in lockers all over South America and nothing had happened in eight months. It just takes one day, one hour and one arsehole to change all that.
It could have been worse. I could have been there, he could have threatened me, or attacked me if I had disturbed him. I could have spent the night in the dorm with him, and anything could have happened. In the end all he took was stuff, belongings, memories and my work. He didn’t injure me or attack me. I am not hurt, just angry and upset. Angry at this person for stealing my things. Angry at the hostel for letting him in, even though she “didn’t get a good vibe from him”, and so angry at myself for not taking the time to back up my work. Travel 101 folks, always save your photos, in more than one place!
It isn’t the material value of what he took, although that is not helpful in a budget journey. $150 for an emergency passport, extra night’s accommodation in Quito, a $150 laptop gone, a $50 mobile phone gone, $60 in cash and another $150 to get a new passport when I get home. All that, and the thief would probably get less than half that amount for his ill-gotten gains. It’s so frustrating – it’s not even the stolen passport that is the worst thing, it is my work. Hundreds of photos, dozens of pending blog posts, my thoughts and musings as I have travelled during the last eight months.
That night I drowned my sorrows in spectacular fashion, ending up curled up vomiting on the bathroom floor. I had wasted a day in Baños at the police station, and the following day not able or willing to leave the relative comfort of my bunk bed. The next night I slept fitfully, a knot in my stomach when I thought about what I had lost. Strange dreams about people I thought I knew, memories of photographs, phrases I had written that are now lost.
Finally, two days later, I regained some of my usual fervour. I visited the Casa del Árbol with two Canadian newlyweds I had met on my drunken night out. They took the photo of me that I had so desperately wanted – the most expensive photo I have ever taken, or have had taken. But there it is. Glorious, and cloudy. The view of the volcano was obscured by thick cloud, but that somehow helped the eerie feel of the photo. Was it worth $500? Probably not. But at least I have insurance!
Generally, South America is a safe place – there are some precautions you should take though, and this post on how to stay safe when backpacking in South America will help.
*Update* If you have your passport stolen, please note that most insurance companies will not cover the cost of replacing your passport – only the accommodation if required to spend a night while replacing your passport. I had to pay £100 for my emergency passport, and another £100 for a new passport in the UK, and this was not covered by the insurance.
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