The landscape of Guatemala flashed past the open windows, lush green foliage and sunburnt red earth beneath the distant indigo volcanos on the horizon, as the chicken bus bumped and lurched around tight corners and sparse traffic. I shifted restlessly, my skin sticky against the plastic seat. After a little over a month in Guatemala, we were headed for Guatemala City where we would change buses to head for the El Salvadoran border. We were happy and excited, ready to explore a new country. Maybe my excitement made me less cautious than usual. Maybe the passing landscape distracted me from my immediate surroundings. Either way, when I checked my bag around forty minutes into the journey, it felt suspiciously light.
Panicked, I pulled everything out of the bag and searched through my belongings. My purse wasn’t there. Rikki and I both jumped up and searched the seat, the floor beneath the seat, the aisle of the bus. It was nowhere to be found. I knew instantly that it had been stolen, the purse that held both our passports, my bank card, driving license and the £70 in quetzals that I’d taken out to pay for border crossing fees and buses and our hostel in El Salvador.
The bus was busy, and as is usual on local buses in Guatemala, a man had crammed himself onto the end of the two person seat that Rikki and I shared. At some point he had slipped his hand into the small leather bag that I wore across my body, and taken out my purse. Crammed together as we were, I hadn’t felt his hand as it violated my space. He was no longer on the bus when I realised that the purse was missing.
People around us tried to help, searching the floor of the bus at their feet. A man behind us who spoke good English offered suggestions, whilst the elderly women squashed together on the back seat shook their heads sadly at our distress. The men running the bus jumped off and ran back down the road to try and find the man, but no-one knew when he had got off. The purse was gone, and our passports with it.
We jumped off the bus the minute it pulled up on the outskirts of Guatemala City, and piled straight into a taxi to the British Embassy, where we completed and signed endless forms to cancel our passports and request emergency travel documents. We had to go to the police station to obtain a police report (in Spanish), and to a nearby mall to have new passport photos taken. Then I made several long distance phone calls to cancel my cards and request replacements. Our travel plans for El Salvador forgotten, we collapsed into the cheapest hotel room we could find to wait for the following morning when we would return to the Embassy.
The money wasn’t the problem, and nor were the passports themselves actually, although we knew it would be costly and problematic to replace them. The things that hurt the most were the things with no monetary value – our passport stamps, accumulated through years of travel, that we loved to look through and remember where we’d been. The embroidered leather purse that I bought in a market in India. A rare 20 peso coin I was carrying as a keepsake from Mexico. I wished beyond hope that he’d just taken the money and dropped the purse somewhere for us to find, although of course he hadn’t.
I’m trying not to feel anger towards the thief. £70 is an amount of money that was obviously worth a great deal of risk to him, and I hope that somewhere a family of Guatemalan children had the meal of their lives on that money. I hope he uses it to buy them birthday presents or school supplies, or to make sure they have shoes and warm beds. That is what I hope, although of course he could just as easily have spent my money on alcohol for himself, in which case I hope he got happily wasted and then staggered under the wheels of the nearest passing chicken bus (I’m still working on the zen approach).
We spent a long and horrible weekend stuck in Guatemala City, trying to work this out. Having set off on a trip with a long, vague route and no specific plans, we were suddenly forced to try and plan out the rest of our journey through Central America to specific entry and exit dates in order to validate our emergency travel documents, at the same time as trying to predict which country we might be in when our new passports were sent out so that we could arrange to collect them from an Embassy there. We made plans which quickly became impossible, and changed our itinerary multiple times, amidst a fair amount of fighting and tears.
The situation was complicated further by the fact that my driving license was stolen along with my passport, leaving me with no photo ID for a replacement passport application. In terms of documentation, I suddenly didn’t exist. Several 3am (our time) calls to the UK passport office confirmed that although they might accept photocopies of my stolen documents in lieu of actual photo ID, they also might not. The risk was that I would apply for a new passport, wait for six weeks, and then have my application denied based on lack of sufficient evidence, leaving me stranded in Central America, considerably poorer and forced to buy another emergency travel document along with an emergency flight home.
In the end, we made the decision to untangle things for ourselves. Rather than push on amidst the ongoing worry that I wouldn’t be getting a new passport any time soon, we flew to Mexico. We took a bus to the coast, and we got on a boat for Isla Holbox, where we’re spending a little over a month in paradise before flying home to sort out this big, big mess. And then, with an altered course, we’ll set off again to make our way to New Zealand via a stopover in Stockholm and a couple of months in Vietnam and the Philippines. Not too shabby.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR PASSPORT IS STOLEN ABROAD
- Get to the nearest embassy as soon as you can, and fill out the forms to have your passport cancelled. You can obtain an emergency travel document for onward travel with a specified itinerary, which will be valid for nine months and up to five countries after departing the country you are in. You need to specify a date of entry for your final destination country. For most people, this should be enough to carry on with your trip and get you home without too much disruption. The ETD costs £95, and you’ll need two passport photos taken within the last year. Get a payment receipt for your travel insurance.
- You’ll need to go to the police station and obtain a police report stating that your passport (and any other belongings) have been stolen. For reasons best known to themselves, the police officers in Guatemala City tried to persuade us to change our statement to say that we’d lost our passports rather than had them stolen, saying that it would take several days to produce a theft report. When we insisted however, they produced a theft report on the spot. Make sure the report states your full name and a report number that you can reference. Get two signed and stamped copies, one for the embassy and one for your travel insurance.
- The embassy should have a phone and a computer with internet access – make sure you contact the providers of any cards you might have had stolen, to cancel your cards and request replacements if needed. The embassy can usually arrange for an emergency cash advance as well, if you have no other access to money.
- If you need to apply for a new full validity passport from abroad, you can do so online at (insert link). You’ll need to print the forms once completed and send them off along with your supporting documentation. You can pay for the new passport online as part of the application process, which includes courier costs to have your new passport delivered to you abroad (again, save the payment confirmation for travel insurance). It’s possible to arrange for a new passport to be delivered to any British embassy for you to collect.