The salesman told me the amount I owed him, and I reached into my purse to extract a coin for the postcard I wanted to buy as a keepsake. My fingers found my disposable camera and my keys. And nothing else. My wallet was gone.
Not only my wallet, but my driver’s license, every last bit of currency I owned, my debit card, my international calling card and a copy of my passport had vanished.
As hurried customers pushed past me in the frenzied market teeming with key chains, postcards and other souvenirs, my mind started to scramble. No wallet? Where had I left it? When did I last use it? That’s right, McDonald’s earlier that day. Did I set it on the counter while I paid? Had I ever for one moment loosened my tight grasp on my purse since leaving the fast food joint?
I couldn’t remember.
My thoughts were interrupted by a rhythmic stream of Spanish phrases being fired at me. The salesman was speaking to me, but I was too flustered to understand or piece together a coherent answer.
After all, I wasn’t even a fluent Spanish speaker. And I wasn’t in my home country. I was a 19-year-old American girl in Costa Rica. And I had been robbed.
Had I known how to deal with this incident, my experience with robbery in a foreign country might have been a little less chaotic and frantic. In hindsight, I wish someone had told me beforehand how to respond to such a situation if it occurred. But I had only been advised how to avoid it.
I had been studying in Costa Rica for almost a month by this time. In fact, the day in question happened to be my last day in the country. I had spent the last three and a half weeks living as a boarder in a Costa Rican woman’s home and attending language school every day.
I had constantly been warned about Costa Rica’s reputation for petty theft since deciding to study there. My entire stay I had conscientiously followed the typical travelers’ recommendations and safety tips. I kept my money in my front pockets and grasped my purse against my hip. I had even worn my backpack in front of me when walking in downtown San Jose, and I never kept all of my money and credit/debit cards in one place—until that one fateful day. I had kept both eyes open and remained wary at all times—at least I thought so.
But it was my last day in the country, and nothing had happened to date. I hadn’t even heard of any robbery incidents occurring with any of the other American students at my school.
So I relaxed a bit and became comfortable with my surroundings as I shopped in downtown San Jose with three American friends that afternoon. Maybe the theft wasn’t as prevalent as I had been told after all.
Well, it was.
Back in the marketplace, the Spanish-speaking salesman began asking me all sorts of questions about where I had been and when I had last used my money. He and the crowd that quickly gathered around chattered away their advice to me.
Had I not been in such a fuzzy state of mind, this advisory process might have gone a bit more smoothly. But after my multiple interjections asking for something to be repeated and stating I did not understand, the salesman and his posse finally convinced me to go back to McDonald’s to look for my wallet. They also urged me to cancel my debit card as quickly as possible.
My best friend, Erin, who had traveled with me to Costa Rica, set off with me to find the McDonald’s. After asking for directions a few times, we finally found the fast food franchise, but no wallet.
The fact sank in that I had been robbed and was now pretty much destitute in the dinero department. So we set out to find the bus stop to take us home. As we wandered in circles searching for the bus stop, it began to rain. And by rain, I mean pour. Basically, the weather went just about as well as the rest of the day was going.
You see, I was really in a jam. I had no bus fare to take me home, no calling card with which to cancel my debit card and no $26 for the tax required to leave the country.
Erin spared me some change to get me home, but the situation put her in jeopardy as well. She had been borrowing money from me because her debit card was dysfunctional in Costa Rica. At this point, the few coins Erin still held onto were not going to do either of us much good.
Well, I borrowed a calling card with four minutes on it from a friend to call the bank to cancel my debit card. Not surprisingly, the number wouldn’t work from Costa Rica. I quickly turned to Plan B, and after a one-minute explanation of the situation to my parents, they rushed to the bank to cancel my card. They were too late to stop the thief from charging $45 to my card at Pizza Hut, but early enough to put an end to his night out on the town.
I borrowed money for Erin’s and my taxes from my host mom and a friend who lived nearby.
We made it back to the States alive, but it was still an experience I wouldn’t recommend for anyone.
As many of you college students and young adults study and travel abroad these days, you may find yourselves in a situation similar to mine. As you embark on your journeys, you may not realize the dangers you could face as a young American in a foreign country.
OK, maybe you’ve read the travel safety tips. You’ve been advised to wear your backpack in front of you, to hide your money on you or to always travel in groups. These guidelines are helpful in avoiding violence or robbery, but they still leave you in a tight spot when an incident occurs despite your attempts to prevent it.
Let’s face it. The odds of getting robbed or just losing your wallet or important documents when traveling abroad, especially if your stay is extensive, are decent enough. So if and when this unfortunate event happens to you, here’s how to deal with it.
1. Take immediate action. Unless you have a firm belief that you may have simply misplaced your wallet or and have a good idea of where it may be, don’t waste time searching for it. If it wasn’t theft in the first place, but it’s been a while since you misplaced the item, it most likely will have been stolen before you can track it down.
I went on a wild goose chase searching for the McDonald’s where I had last pulled out my wallet. Once I finally found it, I spent a long time floundering in my broken Spanish with a Costa Rican guard who lectured me on being careful with my belongings instead of offering me any assistance or advice. So instead of wasting your time…
2. Get to the nearest phone as fast as you can. You may have to go back to where you’re staying or somehow obtain a calling card, but find a phone to use. When in doubt and if you speak the native language, ask directions to avoid wasting time searching for your destination. If you lost a credit or debit card, it’s very important for you to get in touch with your credit card company or bank to cancel the card quickly. If you don’t have the numbers for these institutions or cannot get in touch with them, call a family member or friend at home who is familiar with your information and ask them to take care of it.
3. Call the local U.S. embassy. If your passport was stolen, the embassy needs to be notified that someone may try to fraudulently use it and will also help you to replace your passport to keep you from being stranded abroad. If only a copy of your passport was stolen, there is no need to contact the embassy. A thief cannot do anything harmful with a copy.
4. Get a refund. After canceling your card, if it was a debit card, ask your bank to inform you of the purchases made since the theft. I simply went to my bank after returning home and told them I needed a new card because mine had been stolen abroad. They filed a claim against Pizza Hut for accepting the fraudulent payment and returned the $45 spent to my account. If you lost a credit card, dispute the charges with the company.
So ultimately, don’t let inconveniences like petty theft spoil your trip. Travel the world with the confidence that you now know how to handle the incidence of robbery. I handled it. So can you.