Well, it finally happened: My laptop was stolen on a bus shortly before departing from Quito to Riobamba, Ecuador.
I was being very careful and had taken a lot of precautions, but I was scammed by an organized group of three men — one of whom was wearing a fake bus company uniform — so they were professionals, and clever ones at that…
The bad news is I’m out a laptop — a fairly new laptop — which hurt.
The good news is the systems I used to protect and backup my files and videos worked well, and that stuff was ultimately more important.
My biggest fear in coming to South America was being robbed. We had heard all the stories about how common theft can be.
So I did all the sensible things. I carried the laptop in a bag that stayed with me at all times, never going into the bottom of a bus, for example, and the bag I carried looked pretty generic and cheap.
I also had taken steps to protect other items, such as keeping my small and deliberately subtle video camera in a pouch strapped to my belt, along with a small rope so the camera was always attached to me even when I was using it. That part actually worked.
So the way these guys got my laptop was frustratingly clever.
After we boarded the bus — and before we even left the bus station — the scam began.
Two men who looked like fellow passengers boarded, and sat down two rows behind us.
Another man boarded the bus dressed like an employee of the bus company.
We had already interacted with one of the real bus company employees, so when this man came to talk to us we didn’t think anything of it.
He asked our names, and wrote them on a clipboard he carried, which seemed like a thing that could be legit.
Then he asked us to switch seats, sprayed my bag and Shannon’s purse with alcohol — a nice touch that seemed normal and believable because of COVID — and asked us to put them in the overhead area.
So I put the bags in the overhead area on the other side so we could see them. I thought I was being smart in doing that, bags never out of sight and all that.
He indicated that our bags should be above us, then he moved the bags over our heads where we couldn’t see them and — this is my favorite part — told us to buckle our seatbelts.
I guess these all should have been red flags, but we thought the guy was a bus employee and that he was there to transport us safely.
I think we were prepared for the idea of some random pickpocket, some opportunist who would seek out an easier target if we were clutching our bags.
This guy kept up the ruse by actually asking another couple to move into different seats, as he made his way out of the bus. Well played, Mr Thief, well played.
So we were sitting there, buckled in for maybe a minute, while, of course, nobody else was using seatbelts.
We were still thinking that we were being smart and careful, so we unbuckled and checked to make sure our bags were still above us. Our bags were there, no problem.
What we didn’t know was when the fake bus employee put our bags where we couldn’t see them he also slid them back to his fellow scammers who were two rows behind us.
And when those guys got up and left the bus while we were unbuckling to check on our bags, we didn’t even notice.
Everything looked good, the bus started to pull out, and it was going to be a safe and pleasant trip.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
The bus stopped before even leaving the station, and the real bus conductor and the driver came back yelling and generally acting frantic.
We had no idea what was going on, and couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Eventually we figured out that they had found out that thieves had been onboard, and they wanted us to check our bags.
I should mention that all Shannon had in her purse was a bottle of water and a sweater, since we had prepared by putting our money and passports on ourselves. One point for us, maybe more than one point, since that kind of loss would have been more problematic to our general travels.
So I opened my bag, confident that I had done it all correctly.
When I felt that soft squishiness of the laptop sleeve inside the bag, with no hard square of the laptop inside of it, I felt almost dizzyingly confused for maybe two seconds.
Then I got angry and started yelling.
But, well, my yelling, and trying to say in Spanish that the bus company was responsible and owed us a laptop, was both silly, and didn’t do anything to recover the laptop.
We got off the bus for a minute, I yelled some more, and a security guard at the station came over and said words I didn’t understand, that I think basically amounted to never let go of your things, nothing else can be done here, too bad.
We got back on the bus, I gnashed my teeth and felt angry, and we pulled out and began our trip to Riobamba.
I did my best to go through all of the stages of grief as fast as I could, and by the time we were rolling through pretty valleys and farmland, I decided that:
– I was grateful we hadn’t been actively held-up or assaulted.
– We did all the precautions we could, but being scammed by a group or organized pofessionals — the guy was wearing a fake bus uniform for crying out loud! — somehow made me feel less stupid, at least.
– I had encrypted the hard drive on the laptop, so it would need to be fully wiped for someone to use it again, and they couldn’t access any of our files.
– I had backed up my videos and files, so I didn’t loose ANY of my source material.
– This might sound really weird, but I appreciate that the thieves went straight for the laptop and didn’t damage my bag or take anything else. They were focused on the most valuable item, and didn’t waste time on anything else. Hell, they even left the charger — I can still use it to charge my phone, haha!
– Hopefully those guys needed that laptop more than us, and we’re lucky, privileged, and fortunate to come from a country where we had enough opportunities to work and save and be able to travel in the first place.
– Maybe our laptop will end up in the hands of some kid or young person who will be able to use it to improve their education and access more opportunities. Hey, whatever happened to the laptop will be forever unknown to me, so if I’m going to speculate then I may as well speculate something good.
From a financial point of view, we had deliberately bought a laptop that wasn’t super high-end, or super expensive, as I feared it might be stolen.
That’s not to say it didn’t hurt — a few hundred dollars is still decent money to me — but at least it wasn’t thousands of dollars.
And, as I mentioned, I had current backups of everything important, including the project files for the videos I had been in the process of editing. I had actually run the last backups of a few stray files that very morning.
I guess the most frustrating thing was the laptop was only a few months old, and it had just replaced the piece-of-junk laptop we struggled with for the two years pior. We finally had the budget for a new laptop, and now it’s gone.
I’m very reluctant to buy a new laptop at all.
I’ve been putting together a plan to see if I can write and even edit videos with just my trusty $185 smartphone.
I’ll write more about that in an upcoming post, it’s actually pretty interesting (see below).
Thanks for reading, especially since you made it this far.
We got knocked down for a day, but we’re still happy to be traveling, happy to be in South America, and, well, I’m optimistic that I can continue to create content using the device in my pocket, without another laptop.
Also, our new situation in Riobamba is pretty damn great, so I’m looking forward to writing about it.
Stay tuned, travel friends…
PS – This all definitely delays my upcoming videos, as I’ll be changing platforms entirely and have no way to export the next three videos I was working on. But I’ll be able to start making those again from scratch, soon.