Well, the inevitable happened. Everyone will tell you that if you travel for long periods of time, there are a few things that are guaranteed to occur. What I think rates as number one is: you will get sick. Well, we addressed that one in my last post. When traveling alone, you will probably get lonely. And with extended travel, you will probably at some point be pretty tight with money. I have definitely touched on all of the above during the past year. The other thing is that, no matter how prudent you are, you will likely experience theft. This is why travelers are encouraged to wear those stupid body wallets under their clothes, why they sell all sorts of locks and chains and armoured gear, and why they tell you never to leave valuables in your car.
For most of my year, I got by with experiencing NZ as a relatively safe place. So much of the country is made up of farmland and small towns where you might not even have a key to your house. Yes, there are travelers everywhere so you do need to be careful, but for the most part I was fairly removed from feeling vulnerable or unsafe. I did have a couple food items stolen in one hostel, and a pair of trousers disappeared from my belongings at another, but I'd say two encounters with petty theft in a whole year is pretty darn good. I always kept my things packed away in my bag, even if I was staying in a hostel for more than a night. I preferred top bunks in busy hostels where I slept with a bag containing my laptop, wallet, and passport. On road trips I kept valuables with me - or, if necessary, hidden in the depths of my things. I lived by the notion of "out of sight, out of mind" and, near as I could tell, it worked. As they say, "opportunity creates a thief," so I made a good effort not to allow 'opportunity' to come knocking.
My childhood friend, Jordan, and her husband, Jim, came over from the States to join me for my last two weeks in NZ. It was great to catch up and I'm sure I will go into more detail of our travels in another post, but I'll jump ahead a week into their visit; less than a week before I was due to fly back to LA.
Once we knew exactly when Jordan and Jim would visit, we had booked tickets for a Rugby World Cup Quarter Final game. I would have been happy attending an earlier (and cheaper) match, but they wanted to see a game, and invited me to join them! We planned our trip around the game in Wellington, starting our roadie in Queenstown and working our way up to Auckland with the game right in the middle.
I was not exactly organized with regards to the game, and totally forgot to pick up our tickets before we hit the road. We took the ferry over from Picton, in the south island, along with heaps of other rugby fans (90% of the boat was decked out in green!) We arrived on the north island, found our way to the stadium, and they dropped me off to find will call while Jordan and Jim found parking. I had deliberated about what to bring with me into the game with thousands of spectators, and what to leave locked in the rental. I had my cell phone, and since they didn't have one for me to call, we arranged for them to ring me through skype in order to find me.
At the ticket window they requested photo ID and the credit card that the tickets were purchased on. Great. I had left my wallet in the car! I wandered back to a visible spot to wait for Jordan and Jim. I watched a marching band parade up the street and over the bridge, then park right next to where I was standing. A couple minutes later, my phone rings and I have to duck away from the noise in order to hear Jim and explain that we had to go back for my wallet. He said not to worry - that it was a five minute walk - and they would be back soon. I should have known he exaggerated about the time, and I tried to occupy myself with taking pictures and amusing myself with the crowds for the next half hour.
When I spotted Jim coming up the ramp, I went to meet him, grabbed my wallet, then sprinted to the ticket office. About halfway there I noticed that he had not only handed me my wallet, but a plastic bag with American cash and photocopies of my passport, license, and credit cards. I shrugged this off and presented the required information at the ticket window. I decided I owed Jordan and Jim a beer, but we did make it to our seats for the National Anthems and settled in to watch Ireland v. Wales! It was an exciting game to watch with dramatic fans and evenly matched players, and we very much enjoyed ourselves. All three of us Americans (used to good 'ole gridiron that lasts for ages), were surprised with how quickly the game was over. We followed the throngs downtown toward the pubs afterwards and stopped in for a drink and a bite. At around 10:30 we headed to the car park where we experienced a sobering moment of realization.
As Jordan unlocked the driver's door, and Jim headed for the passenger side, he stopped mid-sentence. "Ah, guys? I think our car was broken into..." he announced casually as he stared at the gaping hole someone had pried into the lock area of the door handle.
"No. Really? No! It can't be." I denied as I came around to see what he was looking at. Someone had gone at that door alright. We opened up the van and looked around. Nothing. No laptops, no backpacks. I stepped back in disbelief and dialed 111 (a number I never thought I'd use during my stay). No units available. We had to walk to the police station to file our report.
After a quick survey to figure out what was missing, we headed further downtown to file our 'complaint.' Three computers, two cell phones, an e-reader, my external hard drive (with pictures from my year of traveling, various important documents, and several unpublished blog posts), four backpacks, two sleeping bags, multiple SD cards, my glasses and spare contacts, and several pages worth of random bits and bobs that happened to be in the various bags. Trying to recall all these items, and estimate their value, was a bit stressful - particularly when it was nearing on midnight. In addition to all of our contact information, lost property, and car/parking information, there was also a section to report any suspects.
From the time that they initially parked the vehicle, to when Jim ran back for my wallet, there were four skateboarders loitering about the car park. This was over a half an hour period and, while they appeared harmless at the time, they are who Jordan and Jim immediately thought of. Four skateboarders. Four backpacks. Perhaps they took the sleeping bags (of little value) to stuff the backpacks and look like average travelers. Perhaps they filled the packs with their skateboards as well. Perhaps it wasn't even them at all. Either way, the police suggested we not expect to see any of our belongings again. They would likely sell off any valuables and dump the rest in the wharf.
The other stressor of the evening was figuring out where to sleep that night. We had put off the decision, figuring we would just end up driving out of the city a bit and freedom camping - either sleeping in the car or finding a spot to set up the tent. This was out of the question now since two out of three of us did not have sleeping bags. We had researched hostels, hotels, and motels in the area, but they all had no vacancy because of the RWC. It was now after midnight and we were desperate for a plan. Our respective patience and tolerance levels had been tested and after asking if we could crash in a jail cell, we were advised to drive north in order to find available accommodation.
North was the answer. I decided we would drive up to Meg and Todd's place on the dairy farm where I had spent some time. Meg was my emergency contact in NZ and though I hadn't yet needed to use her for that purpose, I knew how to let myself into their flat where we were expected to stay the next night. We hit the road and (with a slight detour after Google sent us up a long, windy road that turned out to be closed) made it to the farm at about 3:30 in the morning. I showed Jordan and Jim to their bed, and set up my sleeping bag on the couch, then snuck back out to the van and called home. I had received a text from my dad earlier, wanting to chat, so I figured I'd call while I was still winding down from the evening's events. After dropping a note on the kitchen table of the main house (in case the family wondered what the strange vehicle was doing in their driveway), I finally got some sleep.
The next day we explained what happened to our hosts and were greeted with kind words and offers to help. Luckily all three of us had passports, wallets, and cameras on our person at the game, so we were not in dire need of assistance. I even had the copies of my credit cards and such so I didn't need to worry about that. It was more the emotional processing and healing that we needed to focus on. Our rental company's nearest branch was in Auckland, so they sent us downtown to Palmerston North to a locksmith. He fiddled with the door, opened up the door panel, and removed the locking mechanism. This way we would only be able to open the door from the inside, but we could at least secure the vehicle for the remainder of our trip. We stopped at shops to replace some essentials, and did a bit of light shopping to lift the spirits. Our favorite stop was at the Chocolate Lounge where we treated ourselves to some sweets and hot drinks!
Meg graciously offered to prepare dinner (even though we had planned on cooking for them) and we returned to the farm to visit the family. The kids showed Jordan and Jim around, and introduced them to the lambs, calves, chooks, cats, and pony. We watched the remaining two Quarter Finals with explanations from an 8-year-old, and I enjoyed yet another one of Meg's delicious home-cooked meals. It was a welcomed respite from the chaos of the night before.
I'm not sure it's possible to explain the violation you feel when someone invades your personal things like we experienced. It's frustrating to think of all the different actions you could have taken (Why not bring my hard drive with me like I usually did? Maybe we could have put the adapters and chargers away as well as the computers.) But I suppose you'll never move on if you dwell too much on "woulda... coulda... shoulda..." The car was left in a busy, well-lit lot. Valuables were left out of sight. The windows were tinted. Unfortunately, it was clear we were travelers, and it was more than likely we had gone to the RWC game. The perpetrators had a specific window of opportunity, and they jumped at the chance to ruin our holiday.
Though our moods fluctuated over the course of our remaining week of travels, and there may have been some muttering every time we spotted skateboarders, I think we coped with the situation fairly well. I tried to put it out of my mind and not let it interfere too much with the last week of my year, but it was certainly frustrating. I don't care much for the backpack, or the computer for that matter. They are replaceable. What I care about is the personal memories and mementos that were lost in the shuffle and are meaningless to those who took them. The year's worth of pictures I hadn't fully backed up; the things I had written throughout the year; the random keepsakes I had collected; the piece of driftwood I found on the beach in Golden Bay.
I've learned many lessons from such a miserable experience, and the biggest piece of advice I can dish out is this: you can never be too careful. You might not have to wear a body wallet, but back up your photos, carry your valuables with you, and keep emergency contact information on hand. You never know when you might need to use it.