3 steps to protecting your valuables abroad + what to do when it is too late

It’s a strange feeling, having all your stuff stolen.

When it was all said and done, that was all he said. He didn’t cry, like I would have. Didn’t get angry, like I expected him to.

All the warnings we had gotten about traveling in South African cities — they had come true.

We had parked our car on Long Street, a busy street in central Cape Town, when we were approached by a “car guard.” In every city in South Africa, even the small ones, you will find car guards. Men, and occasionally women, don neon vests and rush up to you when you park your car. Sometimes they help you park or back out of your spot, other times they tell you they will protect your car while you’re gone. All of this in exchange for a tip. These “guards” are not paid by the establishment they are in front of or by the city, and it is customary to give them a few rand. Even the Lonely Planet guide book recommends tipping them. The thing is, anyone who can get their hands on a vest (which can be bought in any department store) can become a car guard, and in this way it becomes a form of begging. By the time we arrived on Long Street we were well acquainted with the car guard routine. We had already tipped two that day. But this time when we got out of the car, the man immediately started haggling with us, telling us how much we needed to pay and that we had to give it to him right then, not when we got back to the car. He acted official, as if that was how things worked in Cape Town. While we were getting out of the car and talking with him, another man walked up behind us. Just after Nick tipped the first guy the second one started telling us the first guy wasn’t a car guard and we needed to pay him instead. We started to follow the second guy away from our car, and we’ll never know if one of them had managed to open the car door before Nick hit the lock button on the remote clicker or if we forgot to lock it all together. We had been gone five minutes — walking into a hostel to check availability — when I started to get a bad feeling. On the wall of the hostel there was a sign that warned travelers that if someone approached them on the street asking for something, they were likely to be a skilled thief. “Don’t give them any of your time or they will take a lot more than that” read a quote at the end of the sign. By the time we walked back onto the street I was feeling panicky and started telling Nick we needed to leave. As we climbed into the car I said, “let’s just get out of here before all our stuff gets stolen.”

That’s when Nick looked in the backseat and said, “Too late.”

We were renting a tiny car with no trunk, so both of our bags had been in the backseat of the car. Mine were on the street side and his closer to the sidewalk. Both his backpack and duffel bag of kayaking gear were gone.

Our first thought was that maybe the “guards” would take the bags to an alley near by, search through them, take the cash (luckily Nick had his passport and credit card on him at the time so we still had that) and possibly discard what they didn’t want.  We figured kayaking gear, while some of the most valuable stuff we owned, would be useless to someone who didn’t even know what it was or where to sell it. We searched the surrounding areas for hours but didn’t see anything. When we returned to Long Street, the second man who had approached us was standing right across the street from where our stuff had disappeared. Nick walked up to him and asked if he knew what happened. He immediately told us the other guy must have taken it. Nick said he would pay him to take us to the place where the stuff was, and he immediately began to lead us through the streets. We had followed him several blocks when he asked us to give him the money then. Of course we refused. He said he knew where the other guy slept, he had seen him take the stuff, and he would help us get it back — if we paid him right then. Our discussion caught the attention of a lady passing by with a baby on her hip. She asked us what was going on and when we told her she began yelling at the guy (in a different language) telling him he had to take us to the place where the stuff was and she was coming with us to make sure he did. We all walked onward, almost running to keep up with the guy.

I was beginning to get nervous about following this stranger to who-knows-where, when several blocks away we came upon the train station. From there we followed the man up to the roof of the building to a huge homeless encampment. He told us that’s where the guy who stole our stuff lived and began to walk away. We tried to insist that he stay with us until we found the guy and the stuff, reminding him that we would pay him, but it seems he had changed his mind. He began to run back down the many flights of stairs that had taken us to the roof. We ran after him, out into the train station. The woman was yelling at him, we were pleading with him, and all the while the baby was just chilling.

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Suspect just before being tased by the security guard.

The commotion caught the attention of a station security guard. We all started trying to explain to him what was going on and the guy tried to run off. The security guard grabbed him by the throat and started dragging him through the station. We ran after them. When the guy struggled to get away, the security guard pushed him against a wall and tased him. We followed them right to the adjacent police station where the security guard told the police what was going on and we were all put in a holding cell together. Most of what was said was not in English, but the guy kept mouthing off to the police officers and whenever he did they kicked him in the shins or slapped his face. Eventually the police told us they were going to look for the other guy up on the roof. We wanted to go with them so we could see if we could spot our stuff but they said the rooftop encampment was much too dangerous. We waited there at the station while police went in and out until finally one officer said he was going to take us to the main police station to open our case. He drove us there in the back of the police car, so now we were miles from downtown and our car, and dropped us off. We waited in line again, and when we finally reached the counter we were told we couldn’t open a case unless they had the suspect there at that police station.

At this point we realized we were never going to get our stuff back anyway, so we gave up and left the station.

Want to make sure your travel experience isn’t tainted by thieves?

Step one: Leave it at home

When you pack your bags, think about how you’ll feel if you never see this item again. Can you afford to lose it? Economically? Emotionally?

This is standard traveling advice, I know. You’ve heard it all before. I had heard it before too, but I didn’t take seriously when we left the U.S.

Don’t take your laptop. Don’t take your camera. Don’t take your favorite dress. Don’t take your Nikes. Don’t take your kayaking helmet that’s been signed by Rush Sturges. Only take things you don’t care if you come home without. Seriously.

Step two: Keep it on your person

There are some things you can’t leave behind. Your passport. Money. Maybe your laptop if you have work to do. Or maybe you think bringing your camera is worth the risk for that photo of an African lion you’re dying to capture. If that’s the case, just keep it on you. I have a small purse (one of those dorky traveling ones, yes) that is easy to keep around my neck and slip in my shirt. The reason Nick still has his camera, passport and wallet is because he carried them with him when we left the car. He carried them with him everywhere. His camera he carried in a concealed box which most people took to be a first aid kit. Yes, he’s very cautious, doesn’t step outside without bandaids.

Step three: Don’t trust anyone

This piece of advice goes against my very nature. I am one of those people who will ask a stranger in a coffee shop to watch my laptop while I go to the bathroom. I’m also the kind of person who will leave my laptop in my dorm room while I go out to breakfast because the hostel seems really secure and I know everyone who’s around. So is Nick. Both our computers were in our bags on a dorm room bed when Nick’s mysteriously disappeared. It’s plain and simple. We weren’t careful enough. We were too trusting. We were scared to leave our stuff in the car parked on the street so we brought it inside assuming that would be better. Nothing is better than carrying it with you. Always assume that those around you will be opportunists, even if they are decent people.

What to do after the fact

We had two experiences with having our stuff stolen in South Africa, and we had different reactions each time.

The first time Nick’s laptop was stolen from our dorm room, so from then on we left everything in our car when possible. When two bags were stolen from our car we returned the rental car and began carrying everything with us everywhere.

The first time, when the laptop was stolen from the dorm room, we inquired about it to the hostel staff who took it into their hands. They identified who they thought was the suspect, searched his bags and called the police. When the police came they questioned us and the suspect and we opened a case, but all that came of it was a wasted day at the police station. The second time we attempted to search for the belongings ourselves, offered to pay the suspect if he took us to our stuff, and eventually the police got involved by default. Again we spent a wasted day at the police station.

My advice to you? Don’t bother to get the police involved, it will just make you angrier and waste more of your time. The best thing you can do is just let it go as soon as possible. Let go of the stuff you had. Let go of your attachment to those possessions, and move on. After the second incident we felt so frustrated and helpless that we wanted to change our flights and go home.

Instead, we took a deep breath, and stayed. Nick managed the rest of the trip with one T-shirt. And I’ve been holding on tight to my laptop ever since.

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