Tag Archives: robbery

Chasing robbers

22 Jul

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been chasing two types of robbers.

The first, Ecuadorian customs, we are trying to outwit using the powers of logic, justice, and tenacity.

The second, an actual daylight robber, we chased off a bus, down the street, then pinned against a wall before handing her over to the police.

The latter may have been far less dignified, but it worked.

Latin American Monopoly

Let’s hope we don’t end up going directly to jail for not paying our customs fine.

The former – our fight with customs – was borne out of our attempts to make ourselves legal in Ecuador again, which we blogged about last time. Because of further delays with our van repairs we had run out of time on both our tourist visas and the permit for our van, which is issued by customs and only allows a foreign car to be in the country for three months.

At the 11th hour we’d been told by customs that we could not renew the car permit until we first had valid visas. So we made a plea to the director of migration to get a special 45-day visa to tide us over. It worked, and all the staff in migration were so helpful and understanding they even expedited the process and got us a super-fast one in two days.

We travelled back to customs, clutching our shiny new visas and feeling pretty chuffed about our success.

“Look Mr Customs officer!” we said, “we have new visas and got them really fast, just for you”.
“That’s great,” he said, “we can give you a new car permit. But now you are late, so all you have to do is pay the $1,000 (£650) fine that built up while you were sitting in the queue at the visa office for two days.”
“Erm, let’s think.” We thought for a moment. “No, we don’t think that’s fair, because we came here and applied for the permit extension SIX days ago, before it expired…”.

“The first I knew… was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad.”

This was the rather tense beginning of an excruciating eight-and-a-half hour day at the customs office – arguing, waiting, refusing to leave until we’d been heard. They just kept insisting we pay the fine, and that we sign a form to say we’d been notified of our transgression. We refused. Not only could we prove we’d informed them in plenty of time about our complete inability to take the car out of the country on time, one of their officers had actually travelled to the mechanic and inspected the broken van 3 days before our permit expired.

The useless manager who was dealing with us was in over his head. The fine was “on the computer” which made it irreversible, he said. The computer was apparently in charge. We felt sure they had made several errors with our case, but hell was going to freeze over before he admitted that and became responsible for wiping a potential $1,000 windfall off their books. He eventually agreed to bring us a letter explaining both the ‘transgression’ and our right to appeal.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Don’t think much of the customer service at the customs office.

After keeping us waiting for hours, at 5pm all the staff upped and left. We sat waiting alone. Useless Manager still hadn’t appeared. We waited. Then suddenly he shot out from behind us and bolted for the door – I mean, he was literally running like a hare. We shouted after him, and he gestured that he had to catch a bus. If we hadn’t been in such a foul mood, it would have been hilarious.

We waited another full hour before someone turned up with our letter and explained what we had to do.

We spent several days taking advice and composing a huge appeal letter, in Spanish, and all the documents for evidence.

Meanwhile we had a very welcome visit for a few days from Kiwi overlanders Will and Rochelle of Kiwi Panamericana who were passing through on their way north to Colombia. We enjoyed a few beers and some food while swapping travel tips and mechanical anecdotes, as they’ve also had their unfair share of things breaking on their car.

Monday morning we had one final chat with a lawyer we’d met, who also happens to be an exiled Chilean journalist living in Quito, and decided everything was ready to head off to customs with our appeal.

We jumped on a packed bus and stood in the aisle, rammed up against our fellow passengers. A man and woman next to us were behaving a bit oddly, and we exchanged some quiet words about whether they were up to something. We both had our bags clutched tightly to our chests, as everyone does on the buses here, and Jeremy was keeping a close eye on this woman who kept fiddling with her shawl and bumping into him.

As the bus pulled in at a stop, she pushed past him to get off. Amazingly, he caught a glimpse of our red iPad cover wrapped inside her shawl, and made a lunge for it.

The first I knew of anything going on was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad, and he was bellowing directly into her face. WTF?! He grabbed the computer off her and was shouting at the top of his voice as she tried to get out of the bus and away from him.

They both bundled off the bus, and I followed, grabbing the woman by the clothes.
It’s hard to remember every detail now, but there was loads of shouting. Jeremy then looked down and realised she had slashed through the side of his bag with a knife and – despite his being ultra-aware and holding on tight to it – had managed to take the iPad out without him realising.

Jeremy's slashed bag

Jeremy’s slashed bag.

In all the commotion outside the bus the robber slipped out the side of the platform, which in Quito are like covered train station stops. We suddenly realised she might have something else out of our bags – we were carrying our passports and documents because we needed everything for our trip to the customs office.

Jeremy was shouting for the platform guard to call the police as we quickly tried to check what else might be gone.

“She’s still there!” she shouted, pointing to the robber outside on the street. She opened the ticket gate for us and we catapulted out of there like greyhounds out of a trap. The woman saw us and started running like hell. Anyone who knows Jeremy knows that his loudest voice can be heard within about a 10-mile radius. He was continually yelling “call the police!” as we chased her down the busy road, and by the time we caught up with her a sizeable crowd had gathered.

I have always wondered how one might react in a situation like this. It’s amazing how fast you can run when you have adrenaline and indignation on your side. After the days we’d had, she picked the wrong time to rob us.

We caught her and got a firm hold, shouting god knows what, while she tried to deny doing anything. A bank security guard called the police and loads of people gathered round, making it impossible for her to escape. We established that nothing else had gone from our bags, but we still wanted to make a report to the police. A passerby came over with a mobile phone he’d seen her throwing under a car as we chased her – almost certainly stolen from someone else on the bus.

We really needed to get to the customs office – a two hour journey away – but didn’t want to let this drop.

After a few hours at the police station, they told us we could go, but that we would have to leave the iPad and bag behind for “a few hours” so they could be logged as evidence.

We did so and then headed off to customs to hand in the appeal, only having to make a minor fuss about some of our much-needed documents that Useless Manager had locked in his drawer before heading off on holiday. We left it in their hands, and were told we should hear the result of our plea in up to 10 days.

Will, Rochelle and Paula, Quito

Will and Rochelle come to stay!

What a day! It was a great novelty to have Will and Rochelle to come home to and tell the tale in our own language.

We currently have a large writing project to be getting on with, and were champing at the bit to get started. Just one last bit of bureaucracy to deal with the following morning, which was to collect the iPad from the police. Jeremy took the 45-minute walk there, only to be told property could only be collected after 2pm. He walked home, not a little annoyed.

We both returned there after 3pm, to be told we couldn’t collect our stuff because they had “lots of paperwork to do” and only certain people could sign the forms, blah blah. It all turned to white noise. Not for the first time that week, Jeremy went totally nuts. I was muttering “let’s try not get arrested….” but he’d gone. We were the victims, it was our property, we had volunteered it to them as our civic duty, and we wanted it back NOW please, he said, quite loudly.

Someone else came and explained that we should come back for the iPad “perhaps in a couple of days”. Whomever had told us something different was wrong, she said, adding that the police officers, in particular, had no idea how the system worked. That was the final straw.

How could we explain to them that we were now on something like our 13th day of dealing with incomprehensible bureaucracy?! We did not leave. We wanted our stuff back. We were promised a boss to speak to.

Eventually they sent one and, in all fairness, they sent the right guy. He was disarmingly camp, with a huge quiff. He spoke French-accented English, taught to him by his French grandmother. Basically he was an Ecuadorian version of ‘Franck’ the wedding planner from Father of the Bride.

Franck, Father of the Bride

Sending ‘Franck’ to help and calm us down was a stroke of genius.

“I hear you are very very angry,” he said.
We concurred.
“We have too much paperwork and not enough people to do it,” he explained, grabbing a mountain of files and desperately trying to find ours.

We understand this, we said. It is not exclusive to the Ecuadorian public services.  But it’s the time one wastes by being told a lot of bullshit that gets one’s blood pressure going through the roof. Why didn’t someone tell us at the beginning that this would take days?

“Oh, no one understands how it works,” said Franck, with a heavy sigh.

He typed furiously to get our paperwork done, frequently breaking off to talk to us about British accents, Scotland as depicted in Braveheart, and English stereotyping of the French.

“Just one thing”, he said. “Can you prove the iPad is yours? Do you have a receipt or something?”
“Are you (f*****)joking?” we asked. “Why would we be carrying a receipt? WE brought the iPad to you. WE caught the robber and gave her to the police. We left it here as evidence, only to help YOU.”
“I know. You were robbed yesterday, and now you feel like you are being robbed by the police!” said Franck… “So you don’t have a receipt or anything? We still have to prove that it belongs to you.”
***!!!!¥¥fcuuuuuuuuk^!
“Please don’t get angry. I believe you,” he said.
“Just BRING me my computer, and I will prove in 2 seconds that it belongs to me,” I said.

After several hours of form filling, stamping, signing and photocopying, at 7pm we retrieved our iPad from the vault.

“I hope we don’t get robbed on the way home,” I said, sending Franck into a renewed fit of giggles.

The project we’ve been working on for the rest of this week has been hard work but stimulating. It also makes a nice change, and is quite relaxing compared with chasing down robbers.

All we have to do now is wait to see whether it’s as easy to win victory over the Ecuadorian state as it is to chase down a slightly tubby bag slasher.

Days: 620
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes you just have to make a scene.

Advertisements

Honduras – we love you, we hate you…

27 Jun

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
[by Paula]

We got the van out of Honduras last week, and I have to say we didn’t even give it a cursory backwards glance as we gleefully skipped southwards over the border. We’ve since been busy loving Nicaragua – the gorgeous camping spots, volcanoes and lakes galore, and the (mostly) blissfully smooth roads. Yes, now that we are sad little petrol-heads, things like smooth roads get us very, very excited.

We are, frankly, relieved to be here. We had a bit of a rocky relationship with Honduras and gladly decided to go our separate ways. It was for the best.

It didn’t help that our ‘back-on-the-road’ celebrations earlier this month were somewhat marred by a couple of things.

Volcano, Nicaragua

Can’t move for volcanoes in gorgeous Nicaragua.

We picked up the van on a Friday afternoon, and took it back to the hostel we were staying at in San Pedro Sula which – we may have mentioned before – is a very dangerous city. The murder capital of the world, in fact. For this reason we did not go out after dark on any of the previous 10 nights we’d stayed there. But this night Honduras were playing Panama in a World Cup qualifier, so we arranged to go to the game and the co-owner came along with some of her friends, leaving her sister in charge.

We were having an amazing night. Tens of thousands of people stood to sing the national anthem, the beers were flowing, everyone was really up. The guy sitting behind us had just returned to Honduras for the first time in 20 years, after living in the US, and was beside himself with excitement. We both said later that it was one of those moments – and there have been a few, despite everything – where we thought, ‘aw, Honduras is lovely, Hondurans are lovely people, maybe it ain’t so bad after all’…

Then at half time that all came crashing down. We got a call to say there was an armed robbery at our hostel. Two men with guns had ambushed six backpackers as they arrived, burst inside and robbed them and another guy already inside. Some of them were left with nothing but the clothes they stood up in – passports, money, cards, whole backpacks, everything gone. Thankfully no one was killed or injured. As the locals reminded us later, not all robberies in San Pedro end the same way.

As we were driving back there from the game we were really terrified. The phonecalls from the hostel were increasingly frantic and confused and at one point it sounded like we might be returned to a siege, with the gunmen still inside. But when we arrived they had gone, and the police were there. Jeremy and I had spent the intervening half an hour trying to face up to the possibility that we might have lost all our stuff too – as all our valuables and car keys were upstairs in a bedroom and we didn’t know if the whole place had been ransacked.

It hadn’t, and our stuff was still where we’d left it. The van was safely parked behind a solid gate next door. More importantly, we realised how lucky we had been to pick that one night to go out.

No one blamed the hostel, who handled the situation brilliantly. Sadly it’s not unheard of for tourists to be followed to their hotels, or jumped when they arrive somewhere. Often the taxi drivers are directly involved or tip people off. Most hotels – as this one does – use taxi drivers they know, but in this case the travellers had turned up on spec.

Pink boa snake, Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

Honduras has some cool and unique stuff, like this pink boa (I know, it looks white, but it is called a pink boa..)

No one got much sleep that night. In the morning we helped the people that had been robbed as much as we could, with spare clothes and use of our Skype account etc, before heading off to Lago de Yojoa, south of San Pedro. Two of the victims – young Danish backpackers – decided to come with us as they couldn’t replace their passports until after the weekend. We bundled them into the van with what was left of their belongings. They were still shocked after what had happened, but remarkably philosophical.

As we drove along one of them said: “We’re so glad we met you. Proper grown-ups who are responsible and know what they are doing.”

We just looked at each-other, silently thinking: “Holy shit! What makes them think we are grown up and responsible?!..”. We felt so old, but then realised we were actually old enough to be their parents.

We were absolutely desperate to get them there safely, and pulled into the lake hostel a couple of hours later, very relieved.

However, on the way, we’d heard a disturbing new noise coming from the van. It didn’t sound healthy at all, although the new transmission seemed to be performing fine. We pushed it out of our minds temporarily and set about enjoying our first night camping in months.

Coffee finca camping, Honduras

Camping again. Heaven.

We slept in a beautiful coffee finca, teeming with birds and amazing bugs, and so tranquil and dark at night. We’d missed the van so much – every little task, no matter how mundane, felt exciting. It was just brilliant to be independent again.

While there we talked to a Honduran woman, from San Pedro, about our feelings for the country. She had just returned after spending five years in Italy, and was shocked to see how violent her city had become. People hide in their cars, behind high walls and razor-wire fences or in soulless shopping malls. Many use drive-thru shops and banks instead of walking around and there are armed guards everywhere, even on some residential streets. There are many people who will try to defend it as an okay place to live, but to us this is not an acceptable way of life.

We told her: “One minute we warm to Honduras, we see its good side, and then the next we are really scared.”

She said: “I’m from here, and I feel exactly the same.”

We’ve tried hard not to be too negative. We wanted to love the country, not least because we had bad memories of a previous visit 10 years ago, when Jeremy was very ill there. This time we met lots of wonderful people in Honduras, and saw a tonne of natural beauty that is hard to beat. We tried to recognise that being stranded somewhere can give it a sinister feel that is partly imagined, because you feel trapped and are no longer staying out of choice.

Our mechanic Ivan, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Our Honduran mechanic, Ivan, must have been very glad to see the back of us.

After a couple of nights at the finca we decided to drive-test the van, to try to work out how serious the noise was. We drove up and down the nearby hills – scratch, scrape, scrape. It was still there. Much as it was truly the last thing we wanted to do, we reluctantly accepted we’d need to head back to the mechanic in San Pedro Sula to get it checked out.

We pulled in that afternoon. I’m sure he was as depressed to see us as we were to be there. Even the security guard had a face that said: ‘oh hello, back again (sigh).’

After much thought we decided to go back to the same hostel – what happened was not their fault, we still felt safe there and we wanted to support them. And it turned out others had made the same decision and gone back too, which speaks volumes for the wonderful owners, who helped us beyond measure during our many stays there.

The mechanic said he’d found a damaged wheel bearing, which might be the source of the noise. But he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get the right part to replace it in Honduras. I stopped listening then as I was too busy hyperventilating into a paper bag.

The upshot was, we were stuck in San Pedro for another, very very long five days. Thankfully a new wheel bearing was found and ordered, and arrived the next day. But the noise was still there. The mechanic wondered aloud if there might be a problem with the new transmission. Our hearts sank again. Finally, another problem with the brake calipers was found as a possible source. They thought they’d sorted it, but the noise remained.

On the final day, when we went to collect it, our mechanic – usually a sharp, clean-shaven, tidy kind of guy – had a five o’clock shadow and tousled hair. We felt partially responsible. Had we broken him too?

Volcan Telica, Nicaragua

It’s behind you! Another spectacular smokin’ Nicaraguan volcano.

He trudged out to the reception area and said: “There’s nothing more we can do. We’ve fixed everything but the noise is still there sometimes,” and concluded that it was nothing serious, that we could safely drive it like that and just live with it. Of course, we haven’t heard the noise since.

We drove off, happy and excited again. Nicaragua awaited! We headed south and looked for somewhere to camp near the border. We pulled into what we thought was a church with lots of land and asked if we could camp there. The man very kindly phoned to ask his boss, and then gently told Jeremy that the answer was no – it was a youth rehabilitation centre and they didn’t think it would be appropriate. Oops. Now that would have been a weird last night in Honduras.

We eventually camped up in a basic little deserted turicentre, with rooms and a slimy swimming pool. The owners, an old couple, had their house in the grounds and we parked up under a tree in front of it. She cleaned up a toilet especially for us but said there would be no access to it after midnight. We told her we’d be leaving early for the border.

Next morning she got up early and shuffled out to our van in her nightdress. She said she’d opened the side door to their home and we were welcome to go inside, wash and use the loo. For about the millionth time on this trip, we wondered if we’d find such hospitality and trust in our own part of the world.

Other than border officials, that old lady was the last person we saw in Honduras, and for that we are very glad.

Days: 268
Miles: 9,003
Things we now know to be true: There’s a fine line between love and hate.