It’s taken quite some time for me to write this post. Ten months ago, I was pickpocketed on a busy bus in Quito, Ecuador. At first I refrained from writing about the situation because I was still processing what had happened. In my experience, there was a certain amount of self-inflicted shame involved in being a victim of a theft. I also didn’t want to write about the experience because I feared it would serve as a printed confirmation for all of the nay-sayers of my solo South America trip – the ones who told me travelling alone to South America as a gringa would be dangerous. That it would be stupid to do so…. “We told you so.”
But here’s the thing – I wasn’t alone when this happened. I was with a man, who, per the nay-sayers, was arguably supposed to protect me from all the dangers of the world. But I digress; let’s go back to the beginning…
My partner, B, and I decided it would be lovely for him to visit me in Ecuador about two months into my backpacking trip. It was easiest and cheapest for him to fly into Quito, so although I had had enough of the city Quito (too much concrete and diesel fumes) we spent a few days there before taking a trip to Otavalo, Ecuador. Rather than paying a few bucks for a taxi to the northern Quito bus station, I insisted we take the hour-long ($0.25) bus to the Carcelén bus station, where we would then catch another bus to Otavalo. Yes, you read that correctly – a taxi would have costs us less than $10, but after living in Ecuador for several months on top of being the stingy person I already was, I voted for us to take the 25 cent per person bus. By this time I had been living in Quito for several weeks, had taken the city buses multiple times, and, in fact, had taken the exact route to the Carcelén bus station previously. I felt safe on the buses, but also knew of the high risk of pickpocketing on this particular form of public transit. Usually I can identify tourists in DC as those wearing their backpacks front-facing, but in Quito even the locals kept their backpacks on their front.
Before leaving the states I had purchased Travelon’s Anti-Theft Signature Quilted Messenger Bag secondhand, which gave me a bit more piece of mind as to my risk of being pickpocketed. I had used it for several weeks while riding the Quito buses, as well as remaining vigilant of my surroundings and those near me. Before B visited, I recommended he purchase a round-the-neck safety pouch for valuables, as he usually keeps his credit cards in his back pocket in the US.
Predictably, He didn’t. That day I was all atwitter that he should give his wallet to me so I could place it in my purse, insisting it would be much safer there. Luckily he didn’t listen to me and kept his wallet in his pants pocket.
After spending a few days in Quito we boarded the Trole bus to Carcelén station. Prior to boarding we debated leaving the non-essentials at our hostel in Quito, as we would be returning to Quito from Otavalo before B’s flight back to the US. Ultimately we decided the hassle wasn’t worth the effort of unpacking everything and deciding what to take and what to leave, so I boarded the bus with my 40L backpack and crossbody purse, and B did the same with his smaller backpack and a hand firmly clamped on his back pants pocket to protect his wallet. Right before leaving the hostel I had placed my camera in my purse, concerned it would get crushed in my backpack.
While I had, on separate occasions, taken my backpack on the bus and rode to Carcelén station, I had never taken my backpack during rush hour on such a long trip. Unfortunately, B and I boarded the Trole bus around 3:30pm. When we first boarded it wasn’t too crowded, but slowly the bus filled to capacity. Eventually, the bus became so crowded that if you were pushed on one side you were forced to move in the opposite direction, as you didn’t have the footing to stop yourself from moving. People were pressed on top of one another with barely enough space to breathe. During the hour-long ride I had one hand desperately grabbing for one of the overhead bus straps and the other on my backpack, trying to find some comfort in lugging along this 15+ pound giant.
When we finally arrived at Carcelén station I heaved a sigh of relief – the uncomfortable part of our journey was over. As people started unloading from the bus, I reached my hand into my purse to find my wallet, as I would need to pay for the next bus to Otavalo. I immediately noticed my purse wasn’t zipped closed, which was the first signal something was wrong. I frantically shoved my hand around in my purse, searching for my wallet. Nada.
“B!” I screeched, “I think someone took my wallet.”
In an anxious frenzy, I began to pull everything out of my purse as we exited the bus. A local woman and her daughter tsk tsked and informed me that I needed to keep my hand on my purse at all times otherwise this would happen. This is all very helpful advice now, isn’t it? I thought as my heart raced.
While becoming more and more distressed we flagged down a police officer at the station. I explained to him what happened in jumbled Spanish and he pulled us out of the passenger area and into the police office. My head was spinning – did this really just happen? I had heard similar stories about it happening to others, but I had lived in Quito for a month and a half. I had purchased an anti-theft purse. I learned Spanish. I had done everything right – this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
I wanted to end my trip right then and there – South America was a bad, bad place and this would never happen in the United States. I wanted to cry.
Spoiler alert: I did cry. A lot. But I didn’t end my trip.
It turned out that the police officers who pulled us into their office at the bus station were transit police and were there only to serve citizens of Ecuador. Since I was a tourist, I would have to go to the tourist police station, which was located in La Mariscal, the tourist district of Quito… exactly where we had come from an hour previously (the organizational system of the law enforcement of Ecuador still makes zero sense to me). The thought of a 45-minute car ride to La Mariscal, filling out a police report, and then catching the same hour-long bus to Carcelén station again made me sick.
On the ride in the police car to La Mariscal, I had a sinking realization – my camera wasn’t in my purse, either. B tried to help by reminding me that I came to South America to challenge myself. He offered that this was a great opportunity to put that theory to the test. Through my sniffles I shot him a look that I hope conveyed the inappropriate timing of his comments.
Looking back almost a year later, the whole process wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The transit police officers kept tabs on us for the 45 – 60 minutes we waited in their office for the tourist police to arrive and told me not to cry (easier said than done), and assured me that everything would be okay. The tourist police officers
took pity on us kindly offered to drive us back to Carcelén station after the report was finished, meaning we avoided the repeat hour-long bus ride now stained with negative connotations.
We made it to Otavalo just fine that night, and while I lost about $80 worth of cash, my travel insurance covered the cost of buying a replacement camera and replacing my drivers license, which I did once I returned to the states. Most of the credit and debit card companies were extremely helpful and express-shipped replacement cards to Ecuador, and I was fortunate enough that I had been given the advice to have a backup credit and debit card in a separate location, so I was able to survive until the replacement cards arrived.
So would I recommend you stay away from Quito, Ecuador? Yes…. but only for the plethora of diesel fumes and concrete structures. I was pickpocketed, but it could have been much worse. My French friend, John*, who works as a social worker back home, laid out the situation in plain language to me.
“Emily,” he said, “You are lucky there was no violence involved. When there is violence, it leaves emotional scars.”*
While still living in Washington, DC I had signed up for police text alerts and had forgotten to turn off the alerts prior to leaving for South America. In the two months between leaving DC and being pickpocketed, I received roughly five alerts of robberies on the streets of DC. While I don’t have the police report for each incident, I can make an educated guess about the nature of the crime based on what I know about robberies in US cities. The incidents in DC most likely involved violence, whether physical or whether a show of a weapon. Pickpocketing isn’t as common in the US as it is in cities in South America, especially in the locations reported.
Further, I do not believe solo travel is innately dangerous. I do believe that my guard was a bit lowered since B and I were traveling together. To clarify, no one is to blame except the thieves. But I have read a number of accounts of women travellers, many who say that they are on higher alert when alone and things like pickpocketing generally have happened to them when travelling in groups.
In short, this experience did not make or break my five month trip to South America. It momentarily felt like it had; I like to liken it to what one may feel after a car accident – you may feel violated and upset and that driving is the most dangerous activity ever (it’s actually #3), but would you let that accident stop you from driving a car in the future? A few days after the theft I realized it was just a blip in the journey, and I would never think of trading in the rest of the five months to avoid a pickpocketing in Quito.
*Names have been changed and conversations paraphrased from memory.
While certain things in life are outside of your control, it’s important and empowering to remember there are other things you can control. Here are some tips and tricks that helped make the post-theft process a little bit easier for me:
- Have at least two (2) credit cards AND debit cards. Keep at least one (1) credit card and one (1) debit card in a separate location than your other cards in case of a theft.
- Write down the toll-free international phone numbers of your credit card companies and keep that separately from those credit cards.
- While we’re at it, have a photocopy of your passport separate from your passport. Email it to a trusted individual back home. I was lucky my passport was not stolen, but a photocopy would have helped if it had been.
- Keep a bit of extra currency (local or U.S., as U.S. dollars are sometimes accepted in other countries) separately from your credit and debit cards.
- Get a police report. No matter how small the incident, regardless of whether you think you’ll actually need it, get one. It will be infinitely easier to be reimbursed or to prove your innocence if you need to do so down the line – I have a blog post coming with a story of how skipping out on a police report almost cost me €200 for something someone else did.
- Back up your photos frequently. I was fortunate that although the thief got away with one of my camera’s memory cards, I had recently backed up my photos in an internet cafe. Otherwise, I would have lost a huge chunk of my Galápagos pictures. If you are taking photos on your phone, Google photos, Apple’s cloud, or a similar program works well. If you’re using a camera, going to an internet cafe to upload your photos to the cloud or email every so often is also a good option and fairly cheap.
- Buy travel insurance. Not sure if it’s worth it? Read this article. Then go buy travel insurance.
- You are irreplaceable. Your phone, your keys, your wallet, your passport, your camera – all replaceable. It will be a hassle to replace these things, yes, but it’s possible. Never put yourself at risk to save an inanimate object.