Mary Ann and I arrived in South Africa, groggy, irritable, and tired after 26 hours of travel going from Wenatchee to Seattle, then to Amsterdam and on to Johannesburg. We arrived late because of delays in Amsterdam, and it was after midnight. We were the last flight for the night and the airport was mostly deserted. It was a fine warm evening, so after collecting the bags (you remember all those bags we carry!) we saw our overnight hotel in the not too far distance from the exit and decided to just walk it rather than waiting for the hotel courtesy bus. Mistake!!!
I suspect from your reading of the 14 previous “Times’ Off The Bench” you would figure that we are experienced, careful, cautious travelers. Well…usually we are. We don’t take unnecessary risks, we follow all of Rick Steves’ warnings, and usually we don’t do stupid stuff. We have never had a travel crisis or been the victim of a crime (unless you count never receiving a piece of luggage). Until now. As we were walking into the driveway of the Johannesburg Holiday Inn, I heard Mary Ann scream, and quicker than it takes to write this, her shoulder bag was snatched by a silent running young man. Mary Ann reacted (surprisingly) by chasing him across the street and toward a freeway. As agile as she is, she did not get close to him. The bad news was that in the bag were our passports, Mary Ann’s purse, my billfold, all of our credit cards, and most of our cash. How could we be so stupid? Excuses include that I don’t like to sit on my billfold on airplanes. Mary Ann did not give it back after we landed and after customs Mary Ann stuck both passports and billfold in her purse instead of returning mine to me.
What a crisis! No passports in a foreign country. No credit cards. No cash except $300 hidden in a carry-on. No original picture ID, as the driver’s licenses were in the purse and billfold and the passports were gone. This was day one of the 21 day adventure in South Africa. What were we going to do? First we checked into the hotel and reported our theft. They were very helpful but amazed we were so stupid that we walked from the airport (tell me something I didn’t know). Next we tried to calm down and the hotel people arranged to get us to the police to report the theft.
We did follow the travel advice I have given in the past and had color photocopies of our passports and both sides of all our credit and debit cards in another bag. This turned out to be manna from heaven! First Mary Ann tried to call the credit card companies to get them stopped. With the trauma and excitement it was quite a challenge to be making international calls at 2 am in the morning. Finally, she had the brilliant idea of calling our daughter in Wenatchee, gave her all the numbers and left it to her to contact the credit card companies. Next the hotel staff took us to the police station at the airport (riding this time instead of walking) to file the theft report. We really did not hold out any hope of getting anything back, but it turned out that it was extremely important that we had filed the report, and had a complaint number and receipt of the filed complaint. More about this later.
Finally, back at the hotel we hit the bed trying to get some rest. Oh, sure! A million worries were running through each of our minds. How do we replace the passports? Can we get a credit card replacement? Can we get more cash? Did the cards get cancelled? The worries, as you can imagine grow and grow. No sleep that night. We were up at 6 a.m. and off to the airport to meet our traveling companions.
When we met as they came out of arrivals (nearly last) they tell us that none of their luggage arrived. We told them about our theft, and then commented everything works out great as we had clothes and they had money! What more could we need for a three week South African adventure.
Well we now leave the hapless travelers back at the airport. Will they get new passports? Can they get a credit card? Will they be able to fly around South Africa? Will they ever be able to return to the United States? You will just have to wait until the next issue for all those answers.
(Published in the Fall 2005