In February 2014 I was on the backpacker island of Utila in Honduras for a month of diving and, well, blowing off some steam after finishing up my PhD. As a newly minted doctor I couldn’t entirely leave work behind – a big grant application was due just days before I was ticketed to fly home to Sweden. So I took my computer with me to work on the application from the comfort of a hammock before submitting it remotely.
It was going well – I got lots of work done, Skyped with my colleagues from the dive shop futon and polished the grant while working on my tan. I was holed up in a dorm room we fondly referred to as the PADI prison, a nod to the dive propaganda poster wallpapering. My PADI prison-mates were five other divers that I had gotten to know reasonably well over the weeks. We were all responsible when it came to locking the door whenever we left. There were a lot of electronics laying around – phones, GoPros, point&shoot and SLR cameras, dive computers, iPads and laptops. We all had something to loose, so we were all careful.
Then, four days before the grant application submission deadline, everything went to pot when a druggie followed one of my prison-mates up to the dorm in the middle of the night, walked right in, sat down on my bed (which, incidentally had my computer tucked under the sheets), grabbed the computer, yelled ‘THIS IS MINE NOW!’ and booked it out of the room.
When I got back to the room around 5.30 am (like I said… blowing off some steam..), my computer was long gone, but my dorm-mates had left me a note, explaining what had happened. As anyone who gets home at 5.30 would be expected to do, I gave the note a cursory once-over before passing out. At 8.30 I bolted up in bed, and realised that I better actually do something about my missing computer, before its new set of legs walked it off of the island for good.
So I staggered down to the dive shop, handed over the note explaining the incident, and passed out (again) on the futon while the shop employees raised the alarm. In the early afternoon I was still sulking, while reflecting on the lessons I had learned.
- Back up your computer. BACK IT UP. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD BACK EVERYTHING UP! During my years as a PhD student I always heard the stories about the friend-of-a-friend writing their thesis who’s computer was stolen/died/set on fire/etc and lost it all, weeks before heading to the printer. Don’t be that person. I wasn’t. It is just too preventable. I backed up my whole computer before leaving Sweden (easy peasy – a 1TB drive and an hour of my time. Left the hard drive at home for safe keeping). Then, any work I did after leaving Sweden was synced on Dropbox.
- Password protect your computer. I hadn’t done this. I also didn’t have a whole lot of ‘sensitive’ stuff on the computer. After the theft I immediately changed all passwords and disconnected my Dropbox account – all easy to do remotely. However, the fact that this guy could open up my laptop and browse through my travel photos – smiling on the beach, eating dinner the night before – that just makes me feel icky and violated.
- Have insurance. Now, I have no qualms about traveling to supposedly dangerous places. And I am well aware that theft is always on the table. So, rather than worry I just call up my insurance and make sure I’m covered. While I didn’t get the whole value of my computer back (I got about a third), it was much better than nothing. Especially considering my computer was three years old, and had all the bonus options (a MacBook Pro, which cost me about $3000 new). With the insurance money I bough I new MacBook Air which is more travel friendly (read: lighter) and with fewer options. Not a big deal, since I now do all my computationally intensive analyses for work on a server.
- Have a Plan B. I did not have a solid Plan B. Which, in hindsight, was pretty friggin’ dumb considering my next three years of employment were riding on this grant. Luckily, I had some awesome people around me. It turned out the manager at the fantastic dive school where I was diving had a spare Mac – which she lent me for the remainder of my stay. THANK YOU REBECCA!!! If she hadn’t lent me her computer I don’t know what I would have done. Utila is a bit removed from the commercialised world and picking up a new computer was out of the question.
- Don’t Panic. When you travel shit happens. We all have bad travel days: flights get cancelled, taxis rip you off, hotels are full-up and computers get stolen. And if these things are worse than the ‘plusses’ of travel, then get yourself home ASAP. But for me the good well outweighs the bad. My computer was stolen, but the next day I was submerged in crystal blue waters, bobbing leisurely after a sea turtle weightlessly navigating a coal reef. Who needs a computer anyway?
- Bureaucracy stinks, but deal with it anyway. I had to go get a police report for my insurance, which isn’t exactly easy in a country like Honduras. I went to the police station, which wasn’t even equipped with a computer. I was told to come back the next day, then the next day was told I couldn’t have a report since it had been more than 48 hours since the incident – which wasn’t even true (it had been about 36 hours). I had to find a translator (again, thank you Rebecca!), sit around for forever – despite being clearly the only visitor there all day – and finally answer all sorts of irrelevant questions about myself (Are you married? What is your job? Where are you from? Can I see your Swedish residence permit? Do you speak Swedish? How much money do you make?), and very few questions about the crime itself (What colour was the computer? … ok that’s good.).
- Trust people. My computer was stolen from my dorm room. There were three other people in the room when it happened. Two of them chased the guy half way across the island to no avail, and the third had the presence of mind to sit everyone in the room down directly after it happened in order to compile a statement. She wrote the exact time, a description of the thief and the full sequence of events. The next morning this helped us to immediately rule out prime suspects (it wasn’t the ‘usual guy’ since the police had him in custody till 4.30 that morning, while my computer was stolen at 3.50 am). Despite the fact that my insurance company explicitly told me to ‘trust no one,’ I would rather trust people I feel are trustworthy. It sure beats constant paranoia and anxiety.
In the end I didn’t get my computer back. They found out who did it, just hours after he boarded a boat for the mainland. That sucked. It also sucked that he wasn’t going to be persecuted, since it was too expensive and just not worth it.
However, I also didn’t lose much when it was all said and done. The only ‘irreplaceable’ was the SD chip from my GoPro, which had really cool footage of a moray eel we encountered earlier that day. The photos were all backed up (both on the chip & the laptop), but I hadn’t put the chip back in the GoPro – so both copies of those photos are long gone.
Furthermore, even though I lacked the foresight to password protect my computer, none of my financial information was compromised. It has been six months since the theft and I haven’t seen a single fraudulent charge appear on any of my accounts.
Maybe I’m a bit relaxed about this whole ordeal. It was an annoyance and inconvenient. It cost me money and time. But I’ve been travelling for over ten years now in all sorts of ‘dangerous’ places, and this is the first item I’ve ever had stolen. After what I would estimate as well over 1,000 days on the road, those are perfectly acceptable odds to me. So what did I learn? Be prepared, and keep on keepin’ on!