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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Reasons to have faith in humanity

A week and a half ago, I visited the Algarve and Atlantic Alentejo in Portugal. I left my rental car parked in Portimão for a few hours. I thought that the car was locked, but I cannot be one hundred percent certain of that. In any event, a few hours later, I returned to the car, unlocked it from a distance and got in the car. Shortly after this, I realised that a rucksack I had left in the car had been stolen. In it was my passport, a couple of lenses for my digital SLR, a pair of prescription spectacles, a (printed) copy of the latest Vernor Vinge novel, all my spare underwear, various printed travel information, and my Kindle. Things I did not lose included my wallet, my mobile phone, my camera, my favourite lens, and my iPad (all on my person), and my laptop, various cables and chargers, and all my other remaining clothes (in the boot of the car or in my hotel room).

This was highly annoying, and to have things stolen is always a personal violation, but one learns to be philosophical about things like this. If you travel as much as I do, things go wrong occasionally (as they do at home). Much worse would have been a car accident or (worst possible case) anything causing personal injury to me or anybody else. So, I made a visit to the police and the consulate, got replacement documents, and did my best to resume enjoying my trip. Nothing was lost that could not be replaced by spending some money. Annoying, but compared to the total amount of money I spend on rent, or food, or even on travel, a small inconvenience. (Getting to the stage where I can put such things behind me like this has taken some effort, and has not been quite as successful as I am pretending now.)

Places I have visited where I have had things stolen: Cannes; Prague; the Algarve. Places where people have attempted (unsuccessfully) to steal things from me: Buenos Aires; Prague (again); Belgrade.

Places I have visited without the slightest trouble: Moldova; Albania; Ukraine; Kosovo; Transnistria; Bulgaria; Romania; Laos; Vietnam; Kenya; Indonesia; China; Turkey; Mozambique; Most of these multiple times. In a couple of these places I have been overcharged by taxi drivers, but no direct theft has ever looked like happening.

What one learns from this is that tourism related crime goes where tourists go. Places that sound grim and dangerous are often quite safe (at least with respect to petty theft) when you get there. Places that are close and familiar can often be quite dangerous. Tourist resorts are much more of a problem than big cities. I was robbed on the Algarve, but I have never had the slightest problem in Lisbon or Porto. I was robbed in Cannes, but I have never had the slightest problem in Marseilles, even in neighbourhoods that physically look poor and dangerous. Take care in Malaga, but you are probably fine in Seville or Madrid.

One discovery is that rich and poor have nothing to do with it. I have been to places full of rich people in which one can barely walk out on the street without getting into trouble. I have been to extremely poor countries in the third world where one can walk down the road in the middle of the night with $2000 worth of expensive camera gear in plain sight without the slightest danger.

Of course, even when you are robbed, even in tourist resorts, good things sometimes happened. In Buenos Aires, I fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book: paint or some other liquid was thrown at me from behind. I had no idea what it came from, and someone then approached me to offer me aid. This is of course an opportunity for someone connected with whoever threw the paint to get close to you, offer you aid, and then steal your possessions when your guard is down. However much you know this and however experienced you are, it is still possible to fall for these tricks when you are tired and in unfamiliar surroundings.

In this instance, I fell for it completely. I was in one of the fancier parts of Recoleta, the most expensive district of Buenos Aires. Such a thing would never happen in Belgravia, which is perhaps why I was off my guard. However, I fell for it. I would shortly have had my bag stolen (which contained almost everything of value to me that I had with me in South America) except for the fact that a local couple saw what was going on from across the street, told the potential thieves to get lost, told me to be more careful, and went on their way. They were gone practically before I knew what was happening. I wish I had later been able to buy them a drink or otherwise thank them properly, but I had no such chance.

Last week, after I had my bag stolen in the Algarve, I got replacement documents from the consulate and came home.

Three days later, a comment apparently from me appeared on my Facebook account, consisting of “contact me please hi have your kindle pedroxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com”.

My Kindle is always connected to the internet. And the Kindle is synchronised with my Facebook account. Pedro presumably worked through the menus, figured this out, and then used this synchronisation to update my Facebook status. I sent an e-mail to Pedro at the given internet address. He sent me an e-mail the next day stating that his father had been walking his dog, and had found the Kindle in the middle of a road 16km from Portimão. He had given it to his son, presumably on the basis that the son had better tech skills and/or English language skills than he had. I sent Pedro my address, and he promised to post the Kindle to me as soon as possible.

I am struck by a couple of things here. Firstly, the kindness of strangers. There are a few people who will take advantage of you and steal from you, but a great deal more who will go out of their way to help you, even when they have no interest in doing so. I don’t actually believe in good karma, but one almost sometimes can. I am also struck by the fact that we are approaching the point where modern technology is almost a menace for the thief. A Kindle is locked to a particular Amazon account and is essentially useless to anyone without access to that account. It is easy to change the account from that account and so sell the Kindle legitimately, but not from the Kindle itself. (This becomes problematic if the manufacturer of the device wishes to use such a power to prevent the legitimate buyer from transferring that right to another subsequent user, but hopefully the market can deal with this.) More and more items that we own are connected to the internet, and more and more can be tracked remotely. Thieves apparently know this, which is presumably why the Kindle was thrown out a car window. (My camera lenses are lost, alas.)

There are privacy implications in this, but there are also good, keeping track of your property implications too. Individuals are often more helpful than large organisations. If you lose your phone, the mobile phone company will disable it to prevent the thief from being able to use it, but they care not at all whether the legitimate owner gets it back. Nor, generally, do the police. (A mobile phone that belongs to me was temporarily lost a year or so back. The mobile phone company immediately blacklisted it, the phone, even though I only asked them to cancel the SIM. The phone was subsequently returned to me, but I have still been unable to get them to unblock the phone despite multiple attempts. Thus I have a nice paperweight.)

However, if a kind individual finds it, they often do have the ability to return it to you. And very often they will. Three cheers for Pedro and his father.

19 comments to Reasons to have faith in humanity

  • No matter where I am on the planet, I always lock all valuables in the boot of the car when I’m not in it. Desperate and/or immoral people do annoying things all the time, everywhere.

  • Call me paranoid,,but I would under no circumstances give my home address out to somebody who had my stolen kindle. Please tell me you used a p.o. box or similar?

  • Indeed you do, if you have a car in which the boot locks. However, if you are abroad in an unfamiliar car, who knows what you do.

    As it happens, the bag was in the boot of the car. However, it was a hatchback in which the boot locks and unlocks at the same time as the doors do, and in which one can get into the boot from the back seat anyway. And the people at the consulate told me that picking locks of cars is quite common, so it is possible that I did lock the car.

    It’s not that locking everything in the boot is bad advice – it is good advice – it’s just that however many precautions you take, and however careful you are, you are sometimes still going to be a victim of a crime and/or other things will go wrong. When you are travelling you are often tired, and you are unfamiliar with local conditions and conventions, it is thus easier for people to take advantage of you than it is at home.

    I don’t really buy it that it is desperate people who steal from you though. This sort of crime is committed by non-desperate professional thieves who do it for a living.

    wh00ps: If I do, what are they going to do with it? Particularly given that the actual thieves have it already as it was written on documents that were in the bag they stole. In any event, my address is no secret – I am probably listed in the phone book, assuming such things still exist, and I bet it can be found on the internet without too much difficulty. I’m not going to tell such a person when I am not at home, but I told him the opposite, i.e. I am at home, and here is my address.

  • Michael, I know people (addicts, all) who thieved out of desperation to feed a compulsive habit and physical addiction. I’m not saying it’s any excuse, just that not all theft is carried out by cold-hearted professionals.

  • I had a similar thought, wh00ps. I recall this story having been told many years ago, and I have no idea if it was real, but the way it went was that this woman hung her purse on the hook inside the door of a public toilet. Someone from the outside reached inside, grabbed the purse and made away with it. Then, after a couple of days, the woman gets a phone call from someone claiming to have found the purse. They agree to meet at a coffee house, but when she gets there, no one shows up. She goes back home, only to find it broken into and cleaned out of all valuables.

  • All that said though, I do agree with Michael that there are far more good people out there than bad ones.

  • jmc

    wh00ps – you’re paranoid…

    As one of those perennial good Samaritan types – I’ve returned a laptop bag and a handbag / purse in the last year alone to their rightful owners. Both left on the side of the street while getting something out of the boot. You will find that the really nasty stuff happens far far less often than is reported in the media. This stories make the media precisely because they are so unusual.

    What I find interesting is the response of the owners when reunited with their property. They are always grateful but I’ve found that the creative / arty / progressive types (lots of those here in San Francisco) are always slightly awkward. Not knowing how to respond to a pure unselfish act. Ordinary folk, for want of a better description, always respond to such a kindness with a genuine and heartfelt thanks and will always try to send you a personal thank you in some form or other. Even if its only a small card.

    Quite revealing I think.

    The most wonderful thank you I’ve ever got was a large box of reindeer sausage and salami from Alaska. When I lived in Seattle I saw a car drive off leaving a handbag by the side of the road. A quick look through the bag for contact info showed that they were down from Alaska and the owner had some very serious medical condition. So called the owners doctor in Anchorage and got a message through to the lady that I had found her bag and was able to get it back to her within an hour. Turned out she was in town for cancer treatment (it was successful) so getting her medication back to her as quickly as possible had saved her a lot of grief.

    I’ve found that most good deeds are rewarded. Each in their own way.

  • I don’t want to turn into one of these people who never leaves his hotel room or never gets on a bus because foreign places are so dangerous. Local advice is often not very helpful either. (Local people will often tell me that parts of town in which people who are not like them live are dangerous, but this is usually not true. However, parts of town in which people who are not like them live are often interesting, which is why I often but cautiously ignore such advice). If the opportunity to have a drink or a meal with a local person you have just met presents itself to you, you don’t want to always say no because you are afraid of being taken advantage of. It can be a scam. It can turn into someone trying to sell you something, but in which there will be no problem if you say no, and walk away. Usually, though, it is just someone being warm and friendly. You do not want to lose the good things for fear of the bad ones. As I said in the post, though, the further away you are from places with many tourists, the less likely you are to be taken advantage of, which sometimes makes you a little too complacent if you go to places where there actually are a lot of tourists.

    Generally, though, you get an instinct for when people are trying to take advantage of you and when there is danger. One can still sometimes be wrong about people, but nothing in life is every perfect. I’ve made well over a hundred foreign trips in my life, and have been a victim of crime a total of three times: one successful pickpocket, one bag stolen from me in a restaurant, and one bag stolen from a car this last week. All of them happened in extremely touristy places. That’s not too bad.

  • Of course, the time I had my rucksack stolen in Cannes, I lost very little of value other than the bag itself, as I had left virtually all my possessions in my hotel room other than my laptop. I had dinner in a restaurant and as there was WiFi in the restaurant I got out my laptop at the end of the meal to check my e-mail / read Samizdata etc. I got a little too engrossed by the internet (and had had some wine, also) and my bag (which I had placed on the chair opposite me) was taken by someone without my noticing. My laptop was with me, but it was safe as I was using it. The lesson I learned there was that in such circumstances you should place a bag on the floor under a chair rather than on top of a chair, as it then becomes much harder for someone to take it without being noticed.

    The French police were utterly useless. (You want to report a crime? Can’t you see we are trying to watch television?). On the other hand, the proprietor of my hotel was incredibly sympathetic. This was a little, old fashioned, family run French hotel, and the proprietor didn’t speak a word of English. He only figured out what had happened after I checked out of the hotel carrying my possessions in plastic shopping bags. At this point he mimed and expressed in emotive French how appalled he was. He searched for a replacement bag for me to put my things again. Eventually, he gave me a zip up shoulder bag that had clearly been given away to promote a film at the previous year’s Cannes Documetary film festival.

    I thus traveled all the way back to London carrying a red bag with “BECOMING A WOMAN – in High Definition” written on the side of it in large letters. This got a few looks.

  • Bruce Hoult

    Fortunately it’s become practical to travel very light. I’ve now traveled halfway around the world with only carry-on luggage and the only important things have been my passport, a credit card, and my iPhone (and charger), all of which are on my person at all times.

    If it wasn’t for the practical need to have changes of clothes a bag would not be necessary at all. But it and the tshirts and jeans in it can be replaced quickly and cheaply anywhere.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I lost my cellphone on the Chicago subway a few months back. (It fell out of my satchel.)

    A few days later my dad called from South Dakota. The man who found it located my Ph# directory, and called him. I called the gentlemen myself. He lives on the other side of town, 17 miles away, but he agreed to meet me at the public library downtown and hand it back. I offered to buy him lunch, but he declined.

  • Antoine Clarke

    Nice story and I tend to agree about civility being unrelated to wealth.

    The people that prey on tourists successfully are not dope fiends I would suggest.

    One tip I would give travellers is to be wary of picking up a hire car at an airport after a long flight. Aside from the obvious problems of driving while jetlagged, people picking up cars are sometimes followed because they are likely to take a wrong turning, not know where or how to contact police quickly and be carrying cash or valuables with them. I would suggest taking a bus to a busy, well-policed neighbourhood (hotel coutesy bus is obviously best of all) and hire a car from the hotel.

  • You were out and about around here and you didn’t stop by so that I could buy you a beer?

    You naughty boy you. We are only 30 klicks from Portimao after all, the other side of Silves…..

  • Tim: I’ll take that as an invitation next time I am in the area.

    Although, given the mishaps that happened on this trip – I am now having a fight with the car rental company – that may not be soon.

  • RAB

    Two heartwarming stories for you Michael.

    The wife and I were in a restaurant in Kalkan a few years ago and we got chatting to the Brit at the next table on his own, as you do.

    He told us that he’d been to the beach that day and got a taxi back into town. He’d bought a state of the art video camera for the trip and left it on the back seat of the taxi. Well that’s the last I’ll see of that, he thought.

    But nope, he was having a drink outside his hotel a few hours later when the taxi pulled up and handed him back his camera. The driver had spent the entire afternoon tracking him down. He got a hefty reward though natch.

    I was telling our hotel barman about it later and he said that’s the way Kalkan is. We all know each other here. We allow no thieves, if bad guys turn up we spot them an sort them out straight away. Theft is bad for everybody’s business.

    And years and years ago (people still don’t believe this when I tell them) we were having a right wrangle with the Taxmen, who believed we owed them squiggly amounts of money when we didn’t, and we could prove it as we had all the documentation, but it was all getting very acrimonious shall we say.

    Well the wife had all our papers in a briefcase on the back seat of the car, and she only parked it and popped into a shop in St Pauls for five minutes, but yes, when she came back the side window was smashed and the briefcase gone.

    Well there was bugger all of value in there except for a calculator, but the loss of the papers meant that we would be out thousands of Pounds. We was fucked!

    A month later a brown paper package arrived. It contained all our vital papers. The thief had obviously read them and realised the hole we were in, and sent them back!

  • RAB

    PS Friends of mine run the Cafe Englais next to castle in Silves Tim.

  • Antoine: Yes. The car I rented was clearly marked as a rental car, too, in that it had the name of the rental company stenciled in the back window. It might as well have said “Please rob me”

  • Laird

    FWIW, rental cars in Florida no longer bear any indicia of that status (special license plates or signs) precisely because they had become a magnet for thieves in a state which lives largely on tourism. That may be true in other states as well, but I’m certain about Florida.

  • A couple things here of note:

    1) The more anonymous a locality is, the more crime there seems to be. That is not a bad gauge of how dangerous a place is at a base level…

    2) This should be a lesson to never save your account and password for autologin on your electronics. Make the user type a password…. which is a pain, but throws up an immediate barrier to info thieves.