Robbed By Cab Drivers In Nicaragua And Chicago In The Same Week?

san juan del sur taxi driverWhere the hell is Camilo?

Those were the words that I kept repeating to myself, sometimes replacing the word “hell” with more sinister, unpublishable expletives. I was sitting in the Rancho Marsella restaurant at Playa Marsella, a remote beach that is 20 minutes down a dirt track from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, wondering where Camilo, a local cab driver who had taken us to the beach and had my $1,200 camera in his trunk, had gone.

Camilo had told me that he planned to hang out at the beach and would be ready to take us back to our hotel whenever we were ready. He seemed eminently trustworthy, so I didn’t think twice about stowing my Nikon D7000 in his trunk after I had taken a few photos of the empty crescent shaped beach.

After an hour of lounging in the beach’s only tiny patch of shade with a group of Italian backpackers, I went to the beachfront restaurant to use the bathroom and noticed that Camilo wasn’t around. I assumed that he must have gone for a walk or a swim, but an hour later when we returned for lunch and saw that he still wasn’t there, I checked the parking lot and saw that his car was gone.

No!$#@!*


No one at the restaurant knew where he went or had his phone number. I had his phone number written in my notebook, which also had all my notes for the stories I planned to write, but that was inside my camera case – in his trunk. I knew his name but had no idea where he lived or what his license plate number was. We were too far from town, down a brutal, rutted track, for him to try to pick up other fares, and he had explicitly stated that he wasn’t going to leave the beach. Was Camilo off taking photos with his new camera somewhere?

I started to panic and curse myself. Bringing a $1,200 camera to a beach in a poor country like Nicaragua is a bad idea, but as a writer, I take my camera everywhere because you need good photos to accompany stories. Still, why had I given him the temptation of leaving the camera in his trunk? There were no more than a half dozen people on the huge beach, so even if I was in the water, what was the chance it would be stolen?

“He’ll come back,” said Jen, my wife. “He probably got bored sitting around.”

I hoped she was right but feared she was wrong. He wouldn’t be able to get $1,200 for my camera, but its value still probably represented a few months work for him. And something Camilo said on the ride to Marsella stuck in my mind. “We are poor people here in Nicaragua,” he said. The words just kept rattling around in my head. We are poor people.

After 15 or 20 minutes of fretting, one of the guys at the restaurant suggested that Camilo might have gone a mile or two up the road to watch a youth baseball game. But we had passed that game on the way to the beach and when I asked Camilo if he liked baseball, he said “no.”

Still, it was worth a try, and one of the men at the restaurant drove down to the game on his moped and five minutes later, returned with Camilo, who looked aggrieved. I have never been so relieved to see a taxi driver in my life.

“I just went down to check out the game,” he said.

I told him that there was no problem but clearly the guy on the moped must have explained that I looked pissed off because Camilo sat on a step near the bar looking angry while we ordered drinks. I bought him a drink but I could tell he was hurt by the fact that I had doubted him.

On the way back to town, he pointed out his house, a typically humble, working class affair that had a small store attached, and said, “That’s where I live.” He might well have added, “I may not be rich, but I am not a thief.”

nicaraguan homeOver the next few days, Camilo drove us on a few more outings – to Granada, the ferry to Ometepe and around town – and I even had a chance to visit his home and meet his son, Camilo Jr. (see photo). We became friends and I came to realize that he’s an honest man. My fear that because he came from a poor country he might seize the opportunity to take my camera was unfounded and wrong.

Five days later, we encountered a similar situation upon our return home to Chicago, but this time, Jen and I reversed roles. After a long, grueling day of travel from Granada, Nicaragua, to Chicago, via Houston, our little boys were asleep in the cab when we arrived home at 11 p.m. We were dressed for summer and the temperature outside was below freezing, so Jen and I decided to carry one sleeping child each into their beds and then return to the cab to get our baggage.

But by the time I got back outside after delivering my 3-year-old into his bed, our driver, a young man who appeared to be from East Africa, had what looked like all of our baggage out on the sidewalk and was getting ready to pull away. He mumbled something along the lines of “You’re all set,” and pulled out, just as my wife was bounding into the driveway warning that she had left her backpack and purse in the backseat.

I hadn’t realized that not all of our baggage was in the trunk and apparently our driver didn’t either but it was too late, he was gone. My wife had her work laptop, our passports, her driver’s license, cash, credit cards and more in the bags he had just driven off with.

Jen was on the verge of tears because only some of her work documents were backed up and the loss of this computer would be catastrophic for her. I recalled the young man’s name and we had an emailed receipt from him in my inbox. My wife wracked her brain and thought she remembered the name of the taxi company – Choice Taxi – but wasn’t 100% sure.

We called Choice and the dispatcher initially seemed less than helpful. She claimed that she had no list of company drivers and, even with the guy’s name and a description of the car, she was unable to confirm if he worked for them. She promised to make an announcement over their radio for him to contact her but said that since it was Friday night and their office was closed, we might have to wait until Monday, when the owner would be available, to track the driver down.

My wife kept calling her back every 30 minutes, pleading with her to make more announcements while I researched the cab situation at O’Hare airport. There are dozens of companies, perhaps more than 100, and without a cab number or license plate, trying to find a specific driver is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We called the police and all they could do was offer to take a report for insurance purposes. We found a website where you can email a complaint about a cab driver but that was it.

By 1 a.m., after we had waited two hours for the driver to respond to his dispatcher or return to our house, we called to cancel all our credit cards. My wife felt certain that the driver or perhaps a subsequent passenger had decided to pocket her stuff. But I felt like we’d get our things back. We knew the guy’s name, after all, so he wouldn’t risk his job to steal a laptop, passports and credit cards. And most people who are getting into a cab are unlikely to turn into thieves just because they see some valuable items on the floor of the cab.

Our prayers were answered at 1:30 a.m. when the dispatcher called us back to say that Yosief had (finally!) responded to her calls over their radio system.

“Please tell him to bring us our things tonight,” I begged. “We’ll give him a reward.”

We were overjoyed but also shattered from exhaustion and worry. Nonetheless, we stayed up until Yosief finally arrived at our home at 2:30 a.m.

All of our belongings were intact and I thanked Yosief, who said he was from Eritrea, profusely. I resisted the urge to ask him why he hadn’t responded to the radio calls sooner and felt I probably knew anyway – he spent most of our ride from the airport on the phone and was probably similarly preoccupied while my wife was crying and fretting over her laptop.

I asked Yosief if I could take his photo but he held the reward envelope up over his face and declined.

“That would not be good for me,” he said.

What did we learn from these incidents? Most taxi drivers, even poor ones, are honest. But it’s still a good idea to jot down a license plate number or cab number and know what company you are patronizing when you get into a taxi. And it’s an even better idea to back up your computer as often as possible.

Note: Camilo put the fear of God into me at Marsella Beach, but he charges very fair prices, speaks fluent English and is an honest, trustworthy person. If you want to hire him to drive you around while in Nicaragua, please contact him at (505) 886-72336.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

I was robbed in Quito and all I got was this poo stained t-shirt

It began like any other day in the life of a travel writer – gingerly exposing my limbs, one at a time, to the arctic water gurgling out of my hostel’s shower head. It was Tuesday morning, and I had just arrived in Quito. My research had left me in a state of premature love with this UNESCO heritage city almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes. While hyperventilating in the relentlessly cold stream, I decided that I would open my Quito story with an interesting historical anecdote.

The original inhabitants, the Incan tribe of Quitu, settled the city now known as Quito in roughly 2000 BC. This makes Quito one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. In the 16th century, the conquering Spanish forces decided to take the ancient city, but the Incans were not willing to give it up. The Incan warrior Rumiñahui threw the Quitu treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to dust. The Incans could not bear to see their city wasted on the Spanish invaders.It was the ultimate middle finger to the colonial outsider. Razing your own town to deny the conquering forces its completeness is a twisted breed of poetic justice. But what really makes a city? As I took to the cobbled colonial streets and pastel Spanish structures of Quito, I thought about the irony of this all. The Spaniards rebuilt Quito to their own standards. It is not the treasures or buildings that make a place what it is, but rather the people. The people are still here, and later that Tuesday, they robbed me.

After spending the morning photographing Quito, I sat at an outdoor cafe on a huge open plaza, gorging myself on crispy cheese empanadas and locro soup with maize tortillas. An epic bare knuckle boxing match broke out just meters from my lonely table. These men beat the living hell out of each other. In one corner was a short fat man with messy childlike hair. He wore a tight orange shirt that held up his bulging belly like a rubbery girdle. He swung at a tall droopy man with a disheveled beard and crusty stains on his gray slacks. A group of security guards and cops watched the fight, laughing. They winced and turned, grabbing each others’ shoulders when the taller man appeared to knock out the combatant in the orange corner. But it was not to be. The proverbial David stood up tall and tackled the man in the stained pants. After beating his pudgy fists into his downed opponents head, the guards finally intervened and broke up the fight. Both men went back to sitting on their benches, idling in the Ecuadorian sun.

I thought to myself – Ecuador is going to be awesome.

I finished my late lunch and returned to my Lonely Planet “Old Town Walking Tour.” As I turned up Venezuela street, the heavenly Basilica del Voto Nacional came into view. Unlike its similar Spanish counterparts, the towering Gothic marvel is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and tortoises in the place of gargoyles and saints. I stood there, thinking about how awesome it will be to get some sweeping HDR panoramas from the soaring tower of the old church. It was around this moment that someone from the roof of a charming colonial building dumped a bucket of shit on my head.

It startled me immensely. I ducked into a doorway and assessed the damage. My Nikon d700 was covered in what appeared to be diarrhea. My hair was damp with the same disgusting brown liquid. My backpack was mostly spared with just a light sprinkling here and there. If you have never had a bucket of fecal matter dumped on you from above, then congratulations, your life is less demeaning than mine.

It is a functional part of the robbery. Appeal to the senses, get the mark to focus on something close, make them nearsighted, shock them away from their natural balance, and then take what they have. Governments utilize this approach to push through agendas during times of crisis when the populace sees in only the short term. Crooks behave similarly. Like focusing a camera on something near, the background fades to a blurry bokeh, and you can only see the crap on the hand you just ran through your hair. This is when the muggers come for you.

About 10 seconds into my shitty assessment, two Ecuadorian men rushed me. One went for my backpack and the other went for my camera. Preparation and travel IQ go out the window if someone wants what you have bad enough. They roughed me around a bit as I shouted something pathetic along the lines of “Nooooo…not my camera.” Luckily, I held on to my backpack tight. They only made off with my prized camera rig. Each man took off in separate directions.

It happened so fast that I could not even tell which one stole my camera. A gaggle of Ecuadorians were shouting and pointing in one direction, so I took off at a full sprint. I caught up to one of my assailants and noticed that he did not have my camera. My mind reeled through the possibilities of what I could accomplish by tackling or tripping this man. I slowed down.

The police presence in Quito is excessively robust. It is one of those places where there are so many cops that it makes you feel more nervous than reassured. Within minutes, several members of the police force had arrived at the scene of the crime, flashing toothy smiles and nodding in confusion at my English explanations. I ineptly described the circumstances of the robbery. They spoke no English. It was like tossing a dinner roll at a wall and expecting it to stick. After questioning several witnesses and inspecting my hair and backpack, they sent me off to the Quito police station.

As I sat in the police station, reeking of shit and explaining the robbery with mutant Spanish inelegance, I could feel myself settle at a new personal traveling nadir. At this moment, as I watched several other westerners solemnly file into the station with their own tales of stolen belongings, I decided that I did not deserve Quito, and Quito did not deserve me. I phoned Grant, the super-editor of Gadling, and he put me on the next flight home.

Risk and reward is an inherent component to nearly every arrangement of our lives, and walking around any large Latin American city with thousands of dollars in camera equipment is a risky proposition. I understand this completely. This is why I carry insurance. Traveling can be risky, but one thing to remember is they cannot take from you what you do not have. There is a lot to be said about traveling simply and traveling in groups. If I had been a part of a large group or did not have a nice camera, then I would have been left alone. It is easy to minimize the risk of traveling without sacrificing the reward of visiting new lands.

Latin America is as dangerous as you make it. While the large cities possess a certain breed of desperation that has always worried me, the countryside is a beautiful place filled with kind strangers, dramatic jungles, and breezy beaches. If there is one thing to be gleaned from my story it is this – travel safely and watch for falling shit. The last time I came to Latin America I met my future wife, so it is not all bad.

Also, buy insurance. World Nomads is great for general travel insurance with $500 of electronics coverage included with a medical policy. If you carry expensive equipment, then take out a valuable personal property policy. I carry my policy with USAA, and I was fully reimbursed for my stolen gear within three days.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Wrist-strap your cash when you travel


As pick-pockets get smarter and quicker, it’s hard to avoid getting robbed when you travel unless your money is stashed in your underwear. It’s especially difficult for women as we always seem to want a purse/bag when we head out and don’t want to wear jeans — mostly just to keep money.

Which is why I was thrilled to find this wristband-wallet combo where you can hide your bills in funky punky bracelet form.

Newly introduced by Amsterdam-based accessories store – RoB – that specializes in leather and rubber products, the wallet is available in all sizes and a variety of colors and stripes.

CAUTION: The store is otherwise totally skewed towards male erotic and S&M products (so don’t freak out when you explore the homepage), but it does have some neat and offbeat items like this one. And, you can order and buy on line, so you don’t have to visit the store!

Stories from the Overnight Bus

Overnight buses are a budget traveler’s friend. They’re a cheaper alternative to planes, trains and automobiles, and they allow you the freedom to get off and on where ever you please. Plus you save on a night’s accommodation because you spend it on the bus. However, the mere mention of taking an overnight bus sends shivers up my spine. Perhaps it’s because I find it impossible to sleep in an upright position and the next day, like a creature of the night, I stumble down the steps of the bus into the bright early morning sunlight with bright-red eyes, wildly disheveled hair, an aching back and numb limbs. Then I have to sleep a good portion of the day to catch up on the sleep I missed by not sleeping on the bus. Convenience my ass.

But perhaps my disdain is because of the following experiences:

  • The first overnight bus I ever took was from Bangkok to Surat Thani in Thailand. We were wooed by the amazing price of this bus ride, but a couple of days later, we realized how they make their money — we were very stealthily robbed during the night. How they got to the wallet that I hugged to my chest all night is beyond me. A night of firsts, this was also the first time I’ve been robbed — actually make that the only time (fingers crossed.) We splurged on the train on the way back and enjoyed a crime-free rest.
  • About a month later, we found ourselves in on a long overnight in Vietnam. For the record, buses in Thailand are like Buckingham Palace compared to buses in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Anyway, the un-air-conditioned bus was so full that they actually sat people on folding chairs in the aisles. Lo and behold, we broke down in the middle of the jungle at 3am and the drivers couldn’t get the bus going again until about 5am (I think they need AAA in Vietnam.)
  • From Brisbane to Airlie Beach (a mere 17-hour trip), my travel friend Lauren ended up with a broken chair that didn’t recline. Right next to the bathroom, allowing us to enjoy some pleasant odors all night long.
  • Also in Australia, I spent one night busing it behind a troll-like man who snored unimaginably loud almost the entire trip (10+ hours) and then engaged in questionable behavior while he was awake (it was dark on the bus and we were looking at him at a funny angle so we couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing but it looked bad)

I suppose these are all down to bad luck, and I realize that overnight buses have saved me lots of money in the long run, but in some ways they’ve taken years off my life too (ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.) My point? Beware.