The Robbery: Part I

Published: April 27th 2007
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Breakfasted heartily at Costa Linda, Manuel Antonia national park area, this morning and then merrily moseyed down to the beach where I was to get my bus to San Jose. I was in fine spirits as I watched the beach vendors, masseurs and sunbed renters setting up and the morning waves crashing in. I stood chatting with an American girl and her mother as a few drops of rain ushered in what would be a thoroughly grey day. I remember having my small pack down at my feet - ankles inside the straps - lest unseen grabbing hands should take a chance.....

I had been on the bus a few minutes, in my rightful spot, but it was a shit spot - in my view - so I moved to a seat two rows back. Sometime into the travel at the next pick-up point, a girl got on with the ticket for the seat my derriere was now comfy in.....she was adamant she took that seat so I moved back to whence I had come. Critically, I neglected to take my little bolsita down with me. By the time a feeling somewhere in my chest pricked me, and I realised my bag was not with me, I was hemmed into the 3/4 of my chair between the armrest on the right and a 15 inch wide thigh on the left. The woman spilling bodily out of the seat next to me was simultaneously huge and lovely, so after a glance behind me and up, where I saw my bag and two nice girls beneath it, I relaxed, and carried on my Spanish practice and learning of Costa Rican phrases with Senora WhoeverSheWas. Whilst listening to this amiable lady, who even gave me her address with entreaties to visit in the future, and who told me all about her son who spoke very good English, I did weigh up the risks of not going for my bag. My ridiculous thought processes ran like this:

- this was a ´decent´ bus, with allocated seats that had to be purchased in advance
- the people looked nice, in particular the two girls sitting under my bag
- it was ´directo´ all the way to San jose so wouldn´t be stopping, picking up new thieves or dropping any of them off along the way
- I already had used up all available space in jamming my other bag at my feet, and there was no space on the parcel shelf above me in this seat

Now, let´s just have a look at those items in this bag, which are apparently of such minor importance to me that they didnt warrant extricating myself for a moment to go and get them:

- One UK Passport (replete with a burgeoning collection of interesting little stamps to look back on in old-age)
- Three flight tickets, paper ones, that will be a PAIN in the ass to recover since I know from experience that TACA dont have a record of non-electronic tickets
- All my insurance documents (including my photocopies and no, I didnt save important ref nums along with other data on an email to myself)
- 250 US dollars
- A second wallet with various cards, driving licence, diving licence, spare credit card
- FOUR MONTHS of photos on CD and ALL my digital memory cards! (Thankfully I have low-resolution back-up on the Net, and as I found out later, the last two months of those lost were still on the card in my camera, which I had with me)
- Silver earrings for my mum and an amazing silver bracelet with all kinds of stones for my sister, from Taxco, Mexico
- Silver and jade earrings for Sofie - "the jade chosen specially to complement her eyes" - from Antigua, Guatemala
- the most amazing Swiss Army knife ever invented, a present from Ivan and Xenia; I think it even had GPS
- some drawings and paintings I did
- and, last but not least................SEVEN MONTHS OF JOURNALS, hand-written, barely legible, in quirky Central American school books with drawings, newspaper cuttings, input from the web, and threads interweaved including stories from books I was reading that would occasionally coincide with my own travels or feelings
- other not-so-importants, but bloody annoying and hard-to-replaces
- oh, and a brilliant little salt and pepper shaker from REI (the loss of this item I will never spiritually recover from :-) )

? ? ? ?

i.e. what the fuck?

I mean, I´ve carted my goddam sacks up and down mountains (well, hills at least), on cram-packed chicken buses where 90% of people would like your bag, on soaked-to-the-skin boat transfers, down innumerable back-alleys....I´ve sat in a score of dodgy bus terminals and waiting what was it? Complacency borne of my run of good luck so far, or plain stupidity, that hijacked my usual sense of vigilance that gave the necessary inch for that bottom-feeding scum-sack to nick my dearest possessions?

I will never know.

The technical details run like this: There was a request for a stop sort of in the middle of nowhere, which i remember thinking was a bit strange. According to folks on the bus, a young man in a baseball cap had been sitting behind the girl and had reached above her for a small black bag. I´d even looked around, pricked by my conscience, but the rear door the driver had opened for him (were they in cahoots?) had already closed by then, with the ladron long gone. I began scanning along the rack above me.......until my eyes met the hiatus in the luggage I knew was once filled by my bag. Sickness hit me like gut-punch, quickly spiralling outwards, terminating in a swirling delirium in my head. Then, what felt like a fire exploded beneath my breast-bone as the magnitude of what I had just lost became apparent, "that guy just took my fucking bag!!" raged I. A group of German women, bearing sorry expressions, stared at me as I maniacally searched under seats and among all the bags in the overhead racks.

The driver called the police and on arrival in San Jose, every remaining passenger had to show me what was in their carry-on bag. Some passengers, even local Costa Ricans, forced 10000 Col. notes (10 quid/ 20 dollars) into my palms, accompanied by words of pity, as they opened their bags for me to rummage around in (as instructed by the swathy, but amiable, moustachioed police officer). I could hardly take such a juxtaposition of meanness and magnanimity in the same 30 minutes.

The lady who had so entertained me was beside herself, begging me to let her son help me in some way this weekend. I thanked her for her kindness and said I would be okay - I had kept one credit card on me so I could pay for things at least. I returned to the dim cabin containing a clutch of policemen, and started the tedious process of reporting what had happened. As I was relating events to an officer, there was a constant throbbing at my temples for the loss of my journals - how COULD I have been so stupid? What I did was the numero uno mistake to make as a traveller. Christ, they even tell you not to do that in DENMARK. Why the hell didn´t I just send my finished journals home like Keith said, when I dispatched 6 kilos of stuff the week before? (I´d not been able to separate myself from them though). Why didn´t I leave them and the back-up photo CDs in my main bag? (I´d stopped trusting the main baggage hold under the bus since half the time they just give your bag to anyone who wants it)

......I couldn´t think. What I´d most dreaded had occurred (ok, worse things could have happened, as taxi drivers, recounting quite nasty tales of attacks on some unfortunates they have witnessed, were keen to remind me). Why didn´t I take that week out to bang it all in to this damn blog? (But who wants to do spend a week typing when travelling?). Why didn´t I send the first four months of scribbles back with Sofie in January?

Twat! Idiot! Fuckwit! (Sorry about the language).

I just had to take it, and accept, that SHIT HAPPENS. All the time. To someone. That´s all.

So, back to the boring business with the cops. What a great Friday night. The night before the day I should have taken my flight to Panama, the night I planned to be knocking back some beers as I dreamed about sailing through the San Blas Islands to hang out with those groovy autonomous Kuna People on my way to apparently stunning Cartagena, Columbia.

Next the moustachioed officer, now grinning, now adjusting himself and his gun-belt as his pot belly tumbled out over it, also asked me to recount the details. It seemed that the first one had just been asking me out of curiosity. Moustache (I will call him Carlito) asked me questions in rapid local dialect that I strained to follow, but his smiley nature and the generally jovial atmosphere in the room somehow kept my spirits and morale from completely nose-diving. Soon another one emerged from the bathroom, still doing up his pants, in identical army green uniform. Various unintelligible comments were passed back and forth between Carlito and him. The rest of the officers fall about laughing. I just sit in the middle in a daze. As jocularly as all the rest, the last entrant also enquired about what had happened to me. I politely asked that one of the others ostensibly working on my case describe things to him. I was desperate to get out of that desperate place with its single fizzing fluorescent tube and jokes that I would never understand.

Eventually, we´d sorted out the airline who I was supposed to be flying with the next day, and got through to a sympathetic lady at the British Embassy (after I´d spoken to the American Embassy; Carlito had just assumed I was from the States). I could have a new passport in one day, but nothing happening till Monday, so for sure I was stuck in rainy bloody San Jose - the town I seem fated to keep coming back to - for the weekend and no doubt longer.

A skinny taxi driver pushing 60, with a stubble and a neck that resembled an ancient tortoise´s as it emerged from his shirt collar, was next to show up. As expected, he was adamant that the two hostels I told him I wanted to go to were full up. I was too tired to argue and soon acquiesced in order to get out of here, so I let him take me to the place he recommended. It was too many leagues out of the centre for my liking though, so I got him to drop me at a decent looking hotel in the centre:

"I´d like a room please"
"How many nights?"
"Just tonight"
"Sorry, but we´re full"
"You mean, if I want to stay for more nights, you´re NOT full?"
"Yes, that´s right Senor"

Refusing to get into a debate about the logic of his hotel´s guest admission policy, I paid for the one night and agreed to stay for two. My heart renching as I reached down for my now only one bag, I walked over to the lift and entered it. My head swam as I flopped against the back of the lift and thought about all the annoying little tasks I now needed to execute before I could leave Costa Rica. ´Well, not much to be done now´ I told myself, and decided to check out the hotel bar and restaurant once I´d dumped my bag. I was quite done in and famished. I wandered the featureless, noiseless corridors that smelled faintly of disinfectant, until I arrived at the grey door of what was a dismally decorated room. The choice of grey paint for the walls inside - not unlike those of the uncannily named Hotel San Jose, the prison-like place we stayed at in Honduras - added to the overall dreariness. ´Are these hoteliers colour-blind´ I began to wonder.

The restaurant was large and vacuous - not a sole soul, except the bartender´s. I thought it was closed since the lights were off, but the door had a sign which read Abierto, and then I spotted the barman drying glasses with a cloth. The heavy doors swang open on demand, and I plopped myself down listlessly on a stool in front of the slick-haired server of drinks in his perfectly pressed and pristine white shirt. "What can I get you Senor" he said, as he warmly shook my hand. I got the impression that customers were a rare occurence around here. I drank some beer but my stomach was up and down and I couldn´t face a meal. The kind barman who´s name I´ve forgotton gave me some French baguette and butter, gratis, which washed down with another beer, was just perfect and I felt a trace of my spirit and zest for life on the road return. After hearing about my inauspicious day, he simply reminded me that the main thing was that I was physically unharmed and that that is all that really matters.

I bade the man farewell and decided to watch some cable TV in my room, since I may as well get something out of my 40 bucks. Now, the American version of CNN is worse than anything I´ve seen from their European product - one presenter, of a money programme, was smarmier than an East-End used car salesman ordering champagne after a successful week. Bored of that shite, I decided to vent some spleen on my blog. The youth on reception directed me to the single PC the hotel had, an old machine with a lop-sided monitor and a casing now brown with the smoke from cigarettes. I think it was the security guard, asleep on the chair at my side, who was the source of the pungent and unmistakable smell of the marijuana. Driven by the still burning embers of my partially concealed fury, I managed to bang out a voluminous text in my blog about my crappy day, despite keys which stuck together as you typed. It provided some catharsis though, pouring venom and vitriole into a letter aimed at all the theives and chancers of the world. It had the desired effect and by the time I ´d done, I felt calm and dozy enough to sleep.

I went back to my room and tuned into CNN again, just to see if they could tell me something interesting; my American friend Ivan in Holland refers to CNN as the Iraq Channel, but there wasn´t even news about that, only a story about a dog stuck up a tree in Alabama (well, something as inane as that - it was so inane, I can´t even remember......could have been a cat, in fact).



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