Some of you may be wondering why there were no photos in my last post, no visual record of the cigar makers of Estelí. Well, that’s because my camera was stolen just a few days after my visit to the cigar factory. And although that might be nothing more than a minor hiccup in anyone’s holiday (unless the tourist is a professional photographer and all their pictures were on the camera), for me it was more than a hiccup. Not because of the camera, but because the bag that the camera was in (the bag that was stolen) also contained my passport and bank cards. Oops.
Just south of Estelí is a national park, Reserva Natural Tisey-Estanzuela. It’s an area of small villages, pine-covered mountains, waterfalls, and views that stretch to El Salvador and Honduras. The closest attraction in the park to Estelí is Salto Estanzuela, a waterfall and swimming hole that’s just a few miles away. And I thought that it would be the perfect trip to take on a hot day in June. As is the law in Nicaragua, I have my passport on me (I was told to carry it with me at all times by the customs officer at the Honduran/Nicaraguan border, and later by the local policia – the original, mind you, no photocopies allowed!). And, much to my shame, I also have my wallet on me too, having forgotten to remove it from my bag, like I normally do before I go out. But it’ll be fine – Nicaragua is one of the safer countries in Central America, I’ve had no problems so far (well, at least since I left Belize!); and I’m in the rural sticks, where the locals are friendly and honest. Hmmm…
After paying the 1US$ fee at the entry gate (a fee which clearly doesn’t go towards paying a security guard), I walk to the waterfall, change my clothes, and place my bag on a rock close to the water. It’s a Saturday, but the place is devoid of other tourists, and seemingly empty of anyone except me. Seemingly.
After splashing around in the pool for a while and exploring the cave behind the falls, I swim back to the shore. And as I get out of the water, I notice that my boots are still on the sand, but my bag is gone from its rock. There’s a long period of confusion, as I look from the rock to the boots to the trees, and to everywhere else in between, trying to process what’s happening, like a child trying to figure out a magic trick. And when I finally do realise what’s happening, I run out of the water, throw on my boots, and experience several of the most stressful hours of my life, beginning as I desperately scour the area, while imagining every possible scenario that could’ve happened to the bag, from being blown away by strong winds to stolen by thieving monkeys to eaten by hungry dogs. After finding the woman at the entrance and breathlessly explaining in bad Spanish what’s happened, she kindly calls the local police. I then wait for what seems like an eternity, wearing nothing more than my swimming trunks and boots (everything else is gone), until the police arrive, where they chat to the locals over a coffee and then finally start talking to me (they do find me an old T-Shirt though, so at least I don’t have to talk to the law enforcement officers in my pants).
After having a brief interview, we all (five officers and me) go back to the falls, where I perform a re-enactment of everything I’ve done (including helpful swimming and running and looking actions), and the officers take photos of the ‘crime scene’ and have a look around. I’m actually quite impressed by their thoroughness and professionalism, even though at one point they all pause in their police work to stop and look at the pretty waterfall, which leads to them all taking selfies with it, and finally culminates in them asking me to take a group photo.
Eventually, it’s obvious that the bag’s not in the area – we’re in the middle of nowhere, with dirt paths leading through the forest in every direction, so the perps could be anywhere (and they haven’t taken the valuables and then discarded the bag, or thrown away the stuff they don’t need, like the passport – thieves today eh?). So we all climb in the police vehicle and head back to Estelí. I have a free cup of coffee from the lady at the falls, and a free T-Shirt from the police – although, at the first bump in the pot-holed dirt road, I manage to throw the coffee over the shirt and wear both for the rest of the journey.
Back at the station, the detective takes my statement (I’ll need this for my insurance, and more importantly, to get a new passport), and asks me to look through a seemingly-endless list of mugshots to see if I recognise anyone. As I never saw anyone else at the falls, this part seems somewhat pointless, but perhaps he wants me to pick someone, anyone, to make his job easier, or to be able to take the case further. I don’t know. In the end, he confides to me that there are scores of robberies in that area (!), and that the culprits are probably from Estelí, and that the bag and its contents are as good as gone. Every person in the mugshots is a scary-looking, tattooed gang member, many of them staring aggressively at the camera while making the devil horns signs with their fingers. I’m glad I didn’t see the miscreants.
For the next few days, I’m back and forth to the police station. Although I have the police report, it’s not signed or stamped. And according to the lovely Jane at Café Luz in Estelí (the same English lady who owns the TreeHuggers tour agency who I visited the cigar factory with), if the report’s not numbered, signed, stamped, and dated, then it’s not valid. So I have to make another three trips to the police station to get the rest of the details. By the third time, the officers are looking distinctly unhappy to see me, and try to fob me off with various excuses (when I’ve woken them up from sleeping on the couch, that is). But I manage to find the detective in charge and get my report completed.
The next task is to get more money, as my emergency stash of US dollars is running low. Cue a phone call to my sister, who tries unsuccessfully to navigate the overly-complicated Western Union website, which appears to have been designed by sadists (I try using it and get frustrated, and I work in IT – although I think the problem may be that WU requires proof of ID and address before you can send money for the first time). Eventually, my poor sister has to go to the nearest WU agent and do it in person (where it’s as simple as the web way is complicated). Although one thing that does throw a small spanner into the works is my own lack of proof-of-ID – I’ve no passport and no driving license. So, in return for me fixing her laptop, Jane allows me to have the money sent to her, and goes to one of the many WU agents to collect it.
I then contact the staff at the British Consulate in the capital Managua (the UK doesn’t have an embassy in Nicaragua, the nearest one is in Costa Rica), and they tell me that, as a replacement passport takes a minimum of two months, and as I don’t have much money (or any access to more money), I should get an emergency passport and book a flight home, and sort out the mess in England.
I originally think that I can wait for my credit card to be replaced, then have someone at home receive it and give me the details (so I can activate it and then use it to pay for the emergency passport and the flight). However, due to my overly-complicated financial life and lack of disaster-recovery planning, even that becomes a problem. A problem that takes several weeks to fully raise its ugly, unsolvable head (during which time I’ve spent most of my money, but I’ve very frugally managed to survive, and I’ve even managed to explore the rest of northern Nicaragua, subsisting on a diet of pasta, tuna, and bananas). Eventually, a kind friend graciously allows me to use their credit card, and I make my way to the capital and the consulate.
Thanks to the lovely staff at the consulate (and the equally-helpful chap at the embassy in Costa Rica), and a few stressful moments notwithstanding (mainly due to suspicious travel agents thinking I’m a terrorist or a criminal, because I’m using someone else’s credit card to pay for a flight), I finally have the flight and the Emergency Travel Document. One of the requirements of the ETD is that you have to have the travel booked before it can be produced, as the ETD is valid for one specific trip on one specific day. The most obvious (and easiest, and quickest, and cheapest) route from Nicaragua to England is via the USA; but needless to say, Uncle Sam has his own particular rules, which includes not accepting emergency passports, even when one is simply transiting through the country. So I end up on a convoluted trip home via El Salvador and Spain.
One final thing that needs attending to before I leave the country is my visa – with all my troubles, I’ve overstayed my time here. And I’ll not only need to pay a fine for overstaying, but I’ll also need to buy another visa to allow me to leave the country. Luckily, Zoila (the nice lady in the consulate) has written me a letter to give to the visa staff explaining my plight. And after giving them the letter, the police report, the ETD, and several pathetic and hopeful looks, they let me off the hook with the overstaying, and give me an exit visa for free. And all it costs me is a few Cordobas to photocopy all the documents – in true developing world style, I have to go outside and take my life in my hands by crossing the busy street, to where there’s a row of generator-powered photocopiers under tarps, with queues of fellow applicants getting their documents done. And with passport and visa in hand, finally, nearly four weeks after my unfortunate theft, I’m on a plane back home.
And after six weeks at home, during which time I manage to get my replacement passport, driving license, and bank cards, pay back the various people I owe money to, eat nice food (oh cheese, I have missed you), eat some not-so-nice-but-cheap food (oh, Poundland, I’ve missed you too), and catch up with friends and family (not to mention enjoy the British summer – that’s not sarcasm by the way, it really was very nice weather), I’m back on a plane to Central America. To continue my journey through Nicaragua (a country I’m looking forward to exploring, especially as I’ve only seen a small part of it), and the rest of the region. Without getting robbed again, hopefully. And the all that extra time is just long enough for me to stop beating myself up about what an idiot I am…
So the moral of the whole sorry story is – don’t carry your passport with you (take a photocopy, no matter what the police say, the worse they’ll probably do is fine you); definitely don’t carry your bank cards everywhere with you either; have a back-up stash of money for emergencies; have your important documents photocopied, or scanned and saved on your computer, or in the cloud; and try to have some understanding friends or relatives, in case it all goes belly-up. And be careful travelling on your own as a rich westerner in poor countries (not that it should stop anyone from going, as almost all the people I’ve met have been nice and normal). And if the worst comes to the worst, just watch an episode of ‘Banged Up Abroad’, and think yourself lucky ;-)