Jill Naprstek / Contributor
I have to say, over the years I've been a pretty lucky traveler. I like to think of myself as a smart traveler, aware of my surroundings and always on the lookout. I keep a close eye on my bag, purse and camera, especially around monkeys. I don't walk down dark alleys alone at night; I lock up my valuables in the hostel safe; I keep an eye on my drink when I'm at the bar; I try and follow all the other usual warnings you hear about. But sometimes no matter how prepared you think you are, things happen. Or you let your guard down for that one second and before you know it, you're the victim of a crime.
Well that's what this story is about. A few years ago, I was backpacking in South America with a girlfriend, J. We had six weeks to explore Chile, Bolivia and Argentina after which I would return home and my friend would continue on her year around the world journey. We were starting her year abroad in Chile and had just returned from the ever amazing Easter Island.
Once in Santiago, we hopped on a bus bound for the coastal city of Valparaíso. Accompanying us was our Brazilian friend, L, who we had shared a dorm room with on Easter Island. L didn't have the time to spend a full weekend in Valparaíso, but she decided to come along with us for the day. At the end of the day she would catch a bus back to Santiago and continue her trip.
After arriving in colorful Valparaíso, J and I were on a mission to quickly find a hostel. We planned to check in, drop off our stuff and get out and explore so L could make the most out of her short stay.
Valparaíso is a stunning coastal city located right on the Pacific Ocean. The city itself is built on steep hills and at one time the city had almost 30 funiculars to assist its residents in getting up and down the steep streets. Valparaiso is also known for its beautiful colored buildings and lots of street art and graffiti.
We had our taxi drop us off in the heart of the tourist area, thus doubling our chances to find a hostel with vacancies in the least amount of time. Luck was on our side and we claimed the last two beds in our top hostel choice. Quickly throwing our belongings onto our beds and grabbing what we needed for the day, the three of us set out to explore the city.
"All of a sudden I heard a loud shriek coming from beside me. When I looked over at J, I saw her making a mad dash down the stairs, chucking the bottle of water she was carrying down the street and racing off to who knows where."
We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a local restaurant and then joined a free city tour. By late afternoon we were tired and weary from all the walking but felt we had a great introduction to this beautiful city. L headed off to the bus station to get her ride back to Santiago while J and I headed off to find a grocery store. We wanted to get some snacks and something to make for dinner that night.
In the late evening, just as the sun was setting, we were on the steps leading up to our hostel. We were tired, hungry and couldn't wait to have a shower, food and a good night’s sleep. As we approached our hostel, we had to walk up a steep, narrow alley (steps only, not a street), to access the front door of our hostel (this is very common in Valparaíso, we weren't staying in some dodgy back alley hostel). Our arms were full with bottled water and groceries as I inserted the key in the front door of our hostel with J standing on the step next to me.
All of a sudden I heard a loud shriek coming from beside me. When I looked over at J, I saw her making a mad dash down the stairs, chucking the bottle of water she was carrying down the street and racing off to who knows where. Somehow I put two and two together as to what just occurred. I met the eyes of the hostel receptionist and blurted out, "My friends just been mugged!”
I dropped all the bags I was carrying and ran down the stairs after J, eventually finding her walking back across the street towards me, letting out wails of frustration. Apparently a young guy had been following us biding his time waiting for the perfect moment to strike. And neither one of us had noticed.
He had followed us up the stairs to our hostel and just when J and I thought we were safe, he attacked. Our perpetrator had come up behind J, grabbed a hold of her purse and yanked it, breaking the strap. The thief immediately took off running with J's purse and all its contents, no doubt using his planned escape route. Having her purse ripped form her body had thrown J's balance off and by the time she regained her footing, the guy was already across the street. Not deterred in the slightest and more pissed off than anything else, she gave chase as fast as her legs would take her. (Later I asked her what she would have done had she actually caught up with her mugger and she just gave me an evil grin).
By now the girl working the front desk of the hostel was outside assisting us, as well as a few bystanders who had been walking down the street. Wouldn't you know it, one of the bystanders, a man in his early 40's, was an off-duty police officer. He offered to take J down to the police station to file a report and help out in any way he could.
I asked J what was in her purse and the very bad news came out; Her iPhone, some cash, a driver’s licence, a credit card but worst of all, her passport. While J went with the police officer to the local station, I went inside the hostel and worked on canceling her credit card and iPhone accounts.
About an hour later, J returned, looking exhausted and dejected from the whole ordeal. She wasn't bothered too much about losing her purse but the loss of her passport was devastating. Not only do you need your passport to fly, but in Chile you need your passport for all long distance bus trips.
We were both kicking ourselves for being in such a rush that morning to get out and see the city. Under normal circumstances we would have taken the time to empty our bags of valuables, only taking what we need for the day. We were in the habit of locking up our extra cash, cards and passports in the hostel safe. But that morning, with L waiting for us, neither of us had done this. Thankfully, J had some more cash that she had stashed in her large backpack and another credit card, so money wasn't an issue. But her passport was.
"She couldn't see anything good about the vibrant city and wasn't her usual, cheerful self. But who could blame her?"
At this point, it was late on a Friday night and there really wasn't anything else we could do. Our original plan had been to spend the weekend in Valparaíso then move Monday morning. We were planning to spend a few days making the long journey north along the coast, to arrive at our next destination, San Pedro de Atacama. Now all our plans were on hold as we had to go back to Santiago first thing Monday morning to pay a visit to the Canadian Embassy. We had no idea what the process was or how long it would take to replace a stolen passport.
We did see the sites of Valparaíso over the next few days but J just couldn't shake the foul mood that had set in following the mugging. She couldn't see anything good about the vibrant city and wasn't her usual, cheerful self. But who could blame her?
Waking before the crack of dawn Monday morning, we were on one of the first buses back to Santiago. We made good time and by 10 a.m., J and I were in the embassy filling out paper work.
We basically set up camp in this little office building for the day, leaving our backpacks as we went to get new passport photos of J. She also needed to produce as few forms of ID (we had photo copies of our passport with us) and she was well prepared. Because she had packed up her life back in Canada, she had an old drivers licence and her birth certificate, both which helped immensely. She had to provide four references with phone numbers, to vouch for her, me being one. But since her iPhone had also been stolen, she couldn't remember many of her family and friends phone numbers! The embassy was amazing though, allowing us to make any long distance calls back home in order to secure the right information.
I can still remember the phone call J made to her mother. "Hi, mom. Yes, I'm fine but I was mugged a few days ago. I'm at the embassy right now and I can't really chat but can you give me the phone number for our neighbor? Yes, the old lady who has lived next door to us my whole life so I can use her as a reference? I'm trying to get a new passport."
Once all the paper work was done, the lovely lady at the embassy told us to come back at 5 p.m. to see if they had the passport ready. We tried shopping and enjoying the city but just ended up at the Starbucks across the street from the embassy. We worried about what our next move would be depending on what they had to say at the embassy. J insisted that I continue on without her, pointing out that she may be stuck waiting for a week. Of course I refused to leave her behind and we poured over my guide book, searching for local activities that wouldn't require us to produce a passport.
At 5 p.m. on the dot, we nervously walked back into the Canadian Embassy. And there it was, J's new temporary passport! We couldn't believe our luck! She got a new passport issued in one day! She would still have to get a new passport in a few months when she returned to Ottawa for Christmas, as this one only contained four pages. But it would be enough to see her through the rest of her time in South America.
Hoping our luck would hold out a bit longer, we raced back to the Santiago hostel we had stayed in a week earlier and they had space for us. Pushing our luck a bit more, we headed down to bus ticketing agency and secured bus tickets for the next day that would take us from Santiago all the way up to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. This meant an 18-hour bus ride, something we had originally tried to avoid, but given the circumstances we didn't mind.
All in all, everything actually worked out just fine. We didn't lose any travel time and though the whole ordeal was exhausting and frazzled our nerves, we'd gotten through it.