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Robbed By Cab Drivers In Nicaragua And Chicago In The Same Week?
Those were the words that I kept repeating to myself, sometimes replacing the word "hell" with more sinister, unpublishable expletives. I was sitting in the Rancho Marsella restaurant at Playa Marsella, a remote beach that is 20 minutes down a dirt track from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, wondering where Camilo, a local cab driver who had taken us to the beach and had my $1,200 camera in his trunk, had gone.
Camilo had told me that he planned to hang out at the beach and would be ready to take us back to our hotel whenever we were ready. He seemed eminently trustworthy, so I didn't think twice about stowing my Nikon D7000 in his trunk after I had taken a few photos of the empty crescent shaped beach.
After an hour of lounging in the beach's only tiny patch of shade with a group of Italian backpackers, I went to the beachfront restaurant to use the bathroom and noticed that Camilo wasn't around. I assumed that he must have gone for a walk or a swim, but an hour later when we returned for lunch and saw that he still wasn't there, I checked the parking lot and saw that his car was gone.
I started to panic and curse myself. Bringing a $1,200 camera to a beach in a poor country like Nicaragua is a bad idea, but as a writer, I take my camera everywhere because you need good photos to accompany stories. Still, why had I given him the temptation of leaving the camera in his trunk? There were no more than a half dozen people on the huge beach, so even if I was in the water, what was the chance it would be stolen?
"He'll come back," said Jen, my wife. "He probably got bored sitting around."
I hoped she was right but feared she was wrong. He wouldn't be able to get $1,200 for my camera, but its value still probably represented a few months work for him. And something Camilo said on the ride to Marsella stuck in my mind. "We are poor people here in Nicaragua," he said. The words just kept rattling around in my head. We are poor people.
After 15 or 20 minutes of fretting, one of the guys at the restaurant suggested that Camilo might have gone a mile or two up the road to watch a youth baseball game. But we had passed that game on the way to the beach and when I asked Camilo if he liked baseball, he said "no."
Still, it was worth a try, and one of the men at the restaurant drove down to the game on his moped and five minutes later, returned with Camilo, who looked aggrieved. I have never been so relieved to see a taxi driver in my life.
"I just went down to check out the game," he said.
I told him that there was no problem but clearly the guy on the moped must have explained that I looked pissed off because Camilo sat on a step near the bar looking angry while we ordered drinks. I bought him a drink but I could tell he was hurt by the fact that I had doubted him.
On the way back to town, he pointed out his house, a typically humble, working class affair that had a small store attached, and said, "That's where I live." He might well have added, "I may not be rich, but I am not a thief."
Over the next few days, Camilo drove us on a few more outings – to Granada, the ferry to Ometepe and around town – and I even had a chance to visit his home and meet his son, Camilo Jr. (see photo). We became friends and I came to realize that he's an honest man. My fear that because he came from a poor country he might seize the opportunity to take my camera was unfounded and wrong.
Five days later, we encountered a similar situation upon our return home to Chicago, but this time, Jen and I reversed roles. After a long, grueling day of travel from Granada, Nicaragua, to Chicago, via Houston, our little boys were asleep in the cab when we arrived home at 11 p.m. We were dressed for summer and the temperature outside was below freezing, so Jen and I decided to carry one sleeping child each into their beds and then return to the cab to get our baggage.
But by the time I got back outside after delivering my 3-year-old into his bed, our driver, a young man who appeared to be from East Africa, had what looked like all of our baggage out on the sidewalk and was getting ready to pull away. He mumbled something along the lines of "You're all set," and pulled out, just as my wife was bounding into the driveway warning that she had left her backpack and purse in the backseat.
I hadn't realized that not all of our baggage was in the trunk and apparently our driver didn't either but it was too late, he was gone. My wife had her work laptop, our passports, her driver's license, cash, credit cards and more in the bags he had just driven off with.
Jen was on the verge of tears because only some of her work documents were backed up and the loss of this computer would be catastrophic for her. I recalled the young man's name and we had an emailed receipt from him in my inbox. My wife wracked her brain and thought she remembered the name of the taxi company - Choice Taxi - but wasn't 100% sure.
We called Choice and the dispatcher initially seemed less than helpful. She claimed that she had no list of company drivers and, even with the guy's name and a description of the car, she was unable to confirm if he worked for them. She promised to make an announcement over their radio for him to contact her but said that since it was Friday night and their office was closed, we might have to wait until Monday, when the owner would be available, to track the driver down.
My wife kept calling her back every 30 minutes, pleading with her to make more announcements while I researched the cab situation at O'Hare airport. There are dozens of companies, perhaps more than 100, and without a cab number or license plate, trying to find a specific driver is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We called the police and all they could do was offer to take a report for insurance purposes. We found a website where you can email a complaint about a cab driver but that was it.
By 1 a.m., after we had waited two hours for the driver to respond to his dispatcher or return to our house, we called to cancel all our credit cards. My wife felt certain that the driver or perhaps a subsequent passenger had decided to pocket her stuff. But I felt like we'd get our things back. We knew the guy's name, after all, so he wouldn't risk his job to steal a laptop, passports and credit cards. And most people who are getting into a cab are unlikely to turn into thieves just because they see some valuable items on the floor of the cab.
Our prayers were answered at 1:30 a.m. when the dispatcher called us back to say that Yosief had (finally!) responded to her calls over their radio system.
"Please tell him to bring us our things tonight," I begged. "We'll give him a reward."
We were overjoyed but also shattered from exhaustion and worry. Nonetheless, we stayed up until Yosief finally arrived at our home at 2:30 a.m.
All of our belongings were intact and I thanked Yosief, who said he was from Eritrea, profusely. I resisted the urge to ask him why he hadn't responded to the radio calls sooner and felt I probably knew anyway – he spent most of our ride from the airport on the phone and was probably similarly preoccupied while my wife was crying and fretting over her laptop.
I asked Yosief if I could take his photo but he held the reward envelope up over his face and declined.
"That would not be good for me," he said.
What did we learn from these incidents? Most taxi drivers, even poor ones, are honest. But it's still a good idea to jot down a license plate number or cab number and know what company you are patronizing when you get into a taxi. And it's an even better idea to back up your computer as often as possible.
Note: Camilo put the fear of God into me at Marsella Beach, but he charges very fair prices, speaks fluent English and is an honest, trustworthy person. If you want to hire him to drive you around while in Nicaragua, please contact him at (505) 886-72336.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]