What Two Santiago Bag Snatchers Stole From Us, and What We Learned from the Experience

We arrived early in the morning in Santiago, slightly weary from two red-eye flights (and a layover in the Lima airport).  We’d read horror stories about taxi scams at the Santiago airport so we came prepared and marched right up to the desk of an official taxi company, ready to ignore any aggressive touts with official looking badges.  At the desk we paid for a ride to our downtown AirBnb and had an uneventful ride, taking in sights of this new city as we went.

Our AirBnb host had graciously agreed to let us check in at 9am since the apartment had been vacant the previous evening.  This was a big relief, but we arrived at the building tower at 8:30, leaving us with half an hour to kill. As we arrived we spotted a coffee shop right at the base of the hi-rise building which seemed like the perfect spot to wait.  

On the outdoor patio we picked a couple of tables and stacked our luggage against a wall next to one of the tables.  We glanced over the menu and placed an order for a couple of coffees with the server.

It was Saturday morning and there were few people out and about.  Most of the nearby shops were closed. The area seemed safe and secure and we were happy to be able to relax a little after many stressful hours of travel.  

A heavyset man with a half-buttoned floral shirt and a middle-aged woman walked up to the café.  The couple stopped, and the man took a seat at a nearby table while the woman stood nearby, facing the street as if she was waiting for a ride.  When she glanced our direction Annette asked if she might be our AirBnb host. I dismissed the suggestion since our host was supposed to be in an apartment in the building.  

While we sipped our coffees the kids played games on their kindles.  Annette and I were chatting and using our phones to do some research and plan out the next few days of activities in Santiago.  A few minutes after 9 it was time to check in to our apartment and maybe have a nap.

I got up to pay for our coffees at the register inside the coffee shop.  I hadn’t had the chance to get any Pesos from an ATM yet so I paid with a card, which took a minute or two.  

When I came back out Annette looked up and said, “where’s my backpack?”  I stared at our pile of luggage. It was gone, and so was the smaller of my backpacks.  The two people who’d been lingering were gone too. Instantly we knew what had happened.  I ran to the street and looked one way and then the other in hopes of spotting someone to chase down.  It was too late, they were gone.

The thieves had astutely made off with the two bags most likely to contain valuable items, leaving behind the kid’s backpacks and our three larger bags that mostly contain clothing.  

bags

We quickly started doing a mental accounting of what was in the two bags that were now gone:

  • Our tablet computer that we used for travel planning and blogging.
  • A cheap Chromebook that the kids use for schoolwork and games.

My mind shifted to the pouch containing our passports and cash that Annette sometimes carried in her backpack.  Fortunately on this day they were in her purse that was strapped around her shoulder.

We were thankful to still have our travel documents but there were many other items in those two bags:

  • Our travel-sized games (including Bananagrams, Exploding Kittens, and Pass the Pigs).
  • Two spare phones that we carried in case our primary phones were broken or stolen.
  • Two Kindles that Annette I and use for books and entertainment.
  • Most of our charging cords and all of our chargers and travel adapters.
  • Medicine, including the prescription EpiPens that we carry for our youngest son who is allergic to nuts.
  • Annette’s fleece and rain jacket.
  • Small mementos (key chains, pins) from the prior eight months of travel.

Of course there were more odds and ends that we’d remember later.

I went back inside the coffee shop and tried to communicate to the two ladies working inside that we’d just been robbed.  I didn’t have all of the Spanish words for this but my gestures seemed to get the message across. They shrugged their shoulders sympathetically.

We grabbed the rest of our belongings and went into the apartment building lobby where there were two people working the reception desk.  Again I did my best to communicate what had just happened and I asked them to call the police. I messaged our host and let her know what happened. A few minutes later someone came down with the key to our apartment; the desk staff let me know that they’d call me when the police arrived.  

A bit shaken, we checked into our apartment on the 17th floor, still trying to process what had happened.  In 8 months on the road this was the first time that we’d fallen victim to this kind of theft, despite traveling in a many cities where bag snatchers and pickpockets are common.  A few minutes later the phone rang. The police (“Carabineros”) were downstairs.

I approached the two men in tan uniforms and introduced myself.  Once again, in broken Spanish and gestures I explained that two bag snatchers had made off with two of our backpacks.  The building staff helped translate, and had even managed to capture the thieves on one of the security cameras, strolling out of the frame with our backpacks on their shoulders. The waitress from the café came to give her account.  Apparently the exact same thing had happened to another group the prior week.

One of the Carabineros asked if I wanted to file a report, in a way that sort of suggested “why bother?”.  I wanted to do the report, as the paperwork might come in handy later. He disinterestedly produced some forms from a folder and filled them out, asking me to describe the bags and the contents.  

The language barrier made the process take longer than it should have; I used Google Translate to look up foreign words until my phone ran out of battery charge. The demeanor of the officer made it clear that we’d never be seeing our stuff again, not that we expected any different.  Finally the forms were finished and the officer handed me a copy and with that, they departed.

I went back upstairs.  Annette had started typing up a list of the items that we’d lost which seemed to help us process the loss and prioritize items that needed to be replaced.

Some things we didn’t remember until we needed them later.  The next morning I started to retrieve my electric shaver from my toiletry bag, only to remember that it had been in my backpack since battery powered items are not supposed to travel in checked bags.  That evening I needed a bottle opener. Also gone.

Besides the physical items, the thieves had (at least temporarily) stolen away our confidence in being able to travel in a foreign place, and our belief that we were “pro travelers” that couldn’t fall victim to such a simple crime.  We were angry at ourselves for letting our guard down and not picking up on the red flags.

Also stolen away was our sense of security; as we walked the streets in the next few days we constantly felt uneasy, and we found ourselves sizing up complete strangers, trying to figure out if they posed a threat.

The things we had to replace immediately were USB cords and chargers, a computer (so we could make travel arrangements and write blog posts), and Epi-Pens.  

Small electronics stores are everywhere so getting new charging cords and USB chargers was no problem.  For a replacement computer we made our way to a nearby street lined with department stores where we compared prices of laptops.  Finally we picked out one that had “good enough” specs to get us through the rest of the trip. Annette picked out a cheap tablet to replace her Kindle.

The process of purchasing the computer and tablet took longer than it should have, as the store employee searched his inventory and disappeared into a back room before finally producing the cardboard boxes with the items inside.  We paid and waited for our purchase to be bagged up.

Next came a rather comic exchange with the store clerk.  He explained that he didn’t have a bag to give us, but that we should probably find one before leaving the mall or risk having the computer grabbed out of our hands on the street (good grief).

Mildly panicked, we walked into the nearby food court, trying to figure out how we were going to get our purchases safely back to our apartment.  We debated unboxing the computer to make it easier to conceal, but felt self conscious about doing that step in the busy food court. Finally we decided to shove the box into a too-small bag that we already had.  About a quarter of the box protruded from the top. We peeled off the stickers identifying the contents and decided to make our way back to the apartment.

Back on the street we walked swiftly towards our apartment.  I clutched the bag tightly under my arm and Annette walked directly in front of me to try to block the view of what I was carrying.  We pleaded with the kids not to dawdle. Extra nervous due to the previous day’s events, we furtively scanned the sidewalk for potential bag snatchers while trying to act cool.

Fortunately we made it to our AirBnb safe and sound.  The next order of business was replacing the EpiPens. Using our new computer we started the search. and fortunately we located  a recent blog post by an expat living in Santiago detailing potential sources for the medicine. We soon found that EpiPens are rather hard to come by in Chile.  Pharmacies do not stock them; one that we contacted stated that they could import them but it would take 60 days.

The most promising lead was the Allergy clinic “Fundacion Creciendo con Alergia”.  I emailed them and a few hours later someone replied, letting me know that they had EpiPens in stock and could sell me one if I could produce a prescription written within the last six months.

We had the foresight to bring along a paper prescription for the EpiPens in case we were questioned by airport security, but unfortunately that prescription was eight months old.  We phoned the kids doctor back in the US and explained the situation, asking if they could email us a new prescription. It turned out that email was not a possibility; the doctor could only send the prescription by fax and only after we faxed them authorization to do so (gotta love the red tape and inefficiency of the US medical system). We scrambled to register for a service that allowed us to send and receive emails via fax and within a few hours we had the image of the fax with the new prescription.

The next morning I figured out how to navigate the metro and took a 30 minute ride to the allergy clinic, apparently the only one of the type in the city (and maybe the country).  Once there I was allowed to speak to the doctor, who gave a quick consultation and made sure I knew how to operate the EpiPen before letting me buy one for 127,500 Chilean Pesos (almost $200).  Based on the doctor’s demeanor she was concerned that I might be shocked by the high price. Sadly, we’re desensitized to paying ridiculous prices for fifty cents worth of epinephrine in a fancy injector.  

With the precious EpiPen in hand I made my way back to the apartment.  Having procured a new computer, USB cables and chargers, and the EpiPen we had replaced all of the most critical items except for a new bag to carry them in.  All of the department stores were having back to school sales so finding a new backpack was no problem.

Relieved to have been able to replace the most critical items, we tried to make the most of our remaining few days in Santiago.  I wish I could say that we didn’t let the bad experience detract from our enjoyment of the city, but we never did feel secure (especially in the downtown area).  All the same, we still had a good time – you can read about what we did here.

As we observed locals on the street we noticed ladies clutching their bags close to their bodies, people wearing backpacks towards the front, and people using their cellphones in a guarded manner (instead of just walking down the street while staring at them absentmindedly). Petty crime seems to be an accepted part of life in Santiago.  After our initial experience, whenever we left the apartment we made sure to carry the bare minimum with us (a little cash and a credit card).

After processing and recovering from the theft over several days, the anger and insecurity we felt initially was slowly replaced by a renewed confidence.

Having your things stolen is one of the worst things that can happen while traveling (aside from physical injury).  We had feared this possibility since the beginning of the trip, but once it actually happened the consequences weren’t as dire as we thought they might be.  Fortunately we were in a position to be able to replace what we needed and move on with our travels. 

We were also heartened by and grateful for the help that we received from friendly locals in the city. There are bad people in the world but they are outnumbered by good ones, for example Nina who wrote the blog post on finding EpiPens in Santiago and offered to personally meet us and guide us through the process.  

As we continue our travels we’ll take this lesson with us and be more alert, especially when getting the feel of a new city.  We will also travel with confidence and without being overly fearful of another theft, since we know that we can recover even if it did happen again.

 

 

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