december 2004

1. I am single.

My old roommate scott was to get married south of Cancun on a resort in Playa Del Carmen. I made a vacation out of it by securing a few weeks off work and purchasing a round trip flight in and out of Cancun, the 10th to the 28th. I had no plans after the wedding. I brought my friend Roy's Lonely Planet Yucatan and a copy of Anna Karenina that had been sitting on my bookshelf unread for almost a decade. Just before I left, my friend Elliott, whose famously suburban brother had scheduled a vacation in Playa with his wife and children, bought a round trip ticket to Cancun from the 21st to the 4th. I would have to figure out some way to meet him, but had no idea where I would be on the 21st. My flight departed on the 10th at 6:30 in the morning.

2. I planned to pack on the evening of the 9th.

3. I then made a date for the evening of the 9th, and decided that I would pack afterward and sleep on the plane.

The evening finished up around two, I got back to my place at 2:30, and started packing. I had to wake up at 4:30 to get to the airport.

I have a pouch that attaches securely to the belt or hangs around your neck that I have used for many years to keep my wallet safe while traveling.

4. I searched for twenty minutes for the pouch but couldn't find it. I decided I'd buy another one at the Cancun airport.

My flight went from Montreal to Philadelphia and from Philly to Cancun. The Philly-Cancun plane was big, a 767 or something. Me and several hundred Americans going to Cancun (this is special kind of American) boarded the plane excitedly. We pulled away from the gate toward the runway, then stopped, changed direction, and pulled back to the gate. Some sort of mechanical problem. We should be underway shortly. Five hours later, we were still at the gate. I accepted this with tranquility until my iPod froze and suddenly I had no choice but to listen to every American Going To Cancun around me tell every person on her cell phone speed dial list how ridiculous it was that we had been delayed for so long and can you believe it and what if the resort cancels our reservations and I'll never fly USAir again. Ultimately we were transferred to another plane and departed long after we should have arrived.

5. The flight was delayed seven hours.

Needless to say, another travel wallet was the last thing on my mind when we finally got to Cancun, as the rehearsal dinner had already started. I ran to the Playa del Carmen shuttle as fast as I could and promptly waited there for 45 minutes while enough passengers accumulated to make the trip worthwhile. I missed the rehearsal dinner, but the rest of the wedding was a blast. I have never been on one of these all-inclusive resorts; you pay your nightly fee and thus gain access to all manner of food, drink, and smile from the local employees whom I later learned earn US$4 per day. Thin brown people paid four bucks a day to make fat white people as comfortable as possible during their adventure vacation in Mexico. Still, we were able to push guilty thoughts of global economic injustice aside to make room for celebrating the new couple. My groomsman's speech, always a source of anxiety, was well-received, mostly because in the earlier stages of their courtship Scott made the mistake of sending me a poem he had written to his now wife Carlie, which I read aloud. Scott actually crumbled to the ground as I read it and later told me that he was so humiliated it took him several hours to remember that he had just gotten married.

To Carlie
by Scott Brandt
December 2000

I sit here naked,
more drunk than horny
and think about you.

Drunk, I like to think about you.

In the blurry haze of the moon
I will imagine your face and your laugh.
Your body pressed close against mine.
Your breaths rapid.
My desire reflected in the core of your eyes.

The feeling of fulfillment
tinged with excitement and fear.
Fear of commitment.
Fear of compromise.
Fear of stasis.

Ah, the sweetness of your breath,
enveloping and inviting.
Calling me to your spirit.
What is a song without dissonance?
What is life without sorrow?

The honey is bitter
and the vinegar sweet.
You dream sweet bliss in my arms.
The moon smiles.

After the wedding, I went south to Tulum where I briefly crashed Scott and Carlie's honeymoon, then continued south to Chetumal, on the Belize border, where I caught a bus that took me to Flores, Guatemala. Tikal ruins, Finca Ixobel, Coban, Guatemala City. In Guatemala City I purchased high-tech powered speakers for my (now working) iPod but

6. I never bought a travel wallet.

I was having good fun in Guatemala. Two and one half pages into Anna Karenina I traded it for a 2002 Let's Go Central America so I knew where to stay and what to do as I made my way through this backpacker mecca. Cheap + gorgeous + exotic + great food = muchos gringos.

Most Gutatemalans get around in what are called chicken buses, which are retired American schoolbuses, not modified to accommodate adults because most Guatemalans are smaller than most American schoolchildren. These buses depart from seemingly random locations and drive around town aimlessly, while the driver's helper screams out the destination in hopes of attracting as many passengers as possible. Anyone who can pay the fare is granted entry onto the bus, regardless of how many people are on the bus. Typically by the time the bus leaves its city of origin each seat, which is designed to sit two American schoolchildren, holds four Guatemalans and the aisle is packed so tightly people hang out the front and back doors. Once people are hanging out the front and back doors, passengers ride with the luggage on top of the bus. Guatemalan highways are shoulderless and not well-paved, and the topography is usually severe as most of Guatemala is mountainous and the roads curve around steep gradients. The chicken bus driver will try to overtake anything moving slower than the speed achieved by the chicken bus when the throttle is fully opened in highest gear. The strategy used by chicken bus drivers to pass is not to wait until sight distance confirms that enough open road exists to allow a pass, but to assume that enough open road exists to allow a pass, and if it turns out enough open road does not exist to allow a pass (e.g. an eighteen-wheeler is coming around that blind curve), the chicken bus driver simply slams on the breaks and swerves back behind the vehicle he was attempting to pass. This makes for an exciting ride.

7. My plans called for me to travel from Antigua to Panajachel, on Lake Atitlan, on the afternoon of December 23rd.

I was finishing up my tour of Guatemala and was making my way back to the southern coast of the Yucatan, where Elliott had arrived and was spending time with his brother on another Iberostar resort outside of Playa del Carmen. I found out about a shuttle that runs once a day between Panajachel and San Cristobal de las Casas, a gorgeous town in the Mexican state of Chiapas I had previously visited. From San Cristobal I could get a 20-hour bus or 45-minute flight to Cancun and finish off my vacation where it began, on the beach. I went to the travel agent in Antigua who organizes this shuttle, which leaves at six in the morning from Panajachel and arrives sometime in the midafternoon, depending on how long you spend at the border. I purchased a ticket for the following morning, December 24th. US$40 = 332 Quetzeles, I put it on my credit card. The travel agent asked me how I was getting to Panajachel, I told her that I was planning on taking the chicken bus, as usual. She offered me a shuttle that goes directly from Antigua to Panajachel, instead of the chicken bus route where you have to change buses in Chimaltenango, for the low low price of US$10. The chicken buses would cost about Q5, or US$.70, and they're an important part of my authentic Guatemalan experience.

8. I said thanks but no thanks, I'll take the chicken bus.

The bus to Pana leaves on the far side of the Antigua market, and it's a cloudless hot day as I wander toward the dusty makeshift bus terminal (a field). As I approach, all sorts of Guatemalans yell 'Panajachel!' and point me in the direction of the appropriate bus. This is typical; the locals are familiar with the gringo trail and know where big white people with backpacks are going. The bus is about to pull away, and the driver's helper motions for me to hurry up and take off my pack. I give it to him, and he starts to put it on the roof. No way, I'll stuff it on the shelf above the seats. Fine.

I jump in the back door. The last seat on the left has only one person in it, with vacant shelf space above. I stow my pack and he allows me to pass by him so that I have the spot next to the window. I sit down and pull my iPod out of my man bag.

As soon as the wedding was over I decided I needed some sort of sack to use as a day pack, so I purchased what is in fact a Mayan style purse, but which I prefer to refer to as a man bag. It's the perfect size, with an adjustable strap and a zipper of extraordinarily poor quality. I had been using it to carry my books, iPod, flashlight, earplugs, glasses, lotion, water, and, occasionally, my wallet.

As I'm getting my headphones out, I ask the guy next to me how much the fare is. He tells me two Quetzeles. He's neither friendly nor unfriendly. He's fairly well-dressed, for a guy on a chicken bus. 30's. Thin.

The driver's helper (I'm sure there's a spanish word for this vocation) makes his way to the back of the bus and asks for Q2. I take my wallet out of my back pocket and give him a Q20 bill. He gives me back two bills and some change. I put the change in my pocket and put the bills in my wallet, then

9. I put the wallet into my man bag.

The passenger sitting next to me saw me put the wallet into my man bag, and I am aware of this. I am very conscientious of my wallet. I know where it is at all times. I haven't lost my wallet since I was a child. I am constantly thinking about its security at home, and thinking about its security twice as much on the road and five times as much when I'm backpacking through an undeveloped or developing or resource-challenged or whatever's the latest PC way to refer to a poor country. So I was well aware that he saw me put my wallet in my man bag. And at that time I explicitly evaluated the threat this man posed to my wallet. I remember this perfectly.

10. I concluded that this man was not a thief.

I based this conclusion mostly on the fact that I sat next to him, he didn't sit next to me, so the likelihood of his being a thief is no greater than that of the Guatemalan population at large, which I thought was a very small likelihood. So I put the wallet in my man bag, zip it up, and lay it across my right thigh, on the seat between he and I. I put my right arm through the strap so no one can grab the bag.

11. I then put on my very expensive headphones, which fit in the ear canal and block out 30 decibels of ambient noise while delivering sound directly to the eardrum, and listen to a Simon and Garfunkel album while looking out the window so that I may enjoy the always-interesting Guatemalan countryside.

In retropect, I realize that the man next to me could have given birth to a medium-sized child and I would never have known. I rely on the iPod to provide sensory isolation, which I consider a great luxury, but it turns out that we evolved the hearing sense for a reason, and that reason is not to put a soundtrack to your trek through Guatemala.

The bus makes a number of stops on its way to Chimaltenango. One of them looked like a sizable town, so I pause Simon and Garfunkel and ask the man next to me if this was Chimaltenango. He shakes his head. I put the tunes back on and turn away so that I can look out the window and enjoy the always-interesting Guatemalan countryside. The bus stops again in the middle of nowhere. The man next to me gets off.

Twenty minutes later the bus slows down and some guy standing in the aisle taps me on the shoulder. I pull the earphones out and look up. 'Pana! Pana!' Time to change buses. I unzip my man bag to put my iPod in and transfer my wallet to my pocket. I don't see the wallet. But there's a lot of stuff in there, and it's not unusual for me to have to hunt for a moment to find something in particular. So I hunt for a moment, and there's no wallet. I get my first shiver.

Now there's a cacophany of sound directed at me, the only parts of which I can understand are 'Pana!' and 'Gringo!' The bus is stopped and they want me off, now. Where's my wallet. My heart's beating faster. I stand up. Feel my pockets. Nothing in them but some change.

Gringo! Pana! Gringo! The driver's helper is now pushing through the aisle toward me, motioning for me to get the fuck off the bus. I pull my backpack off the shelf. I look on the seat. Nothing. I'm beginning to panic. I'm holding my huge backpack in one arm and trying to use that hand to sort through my man bag. The driver's helper is now standing next to me yelling at me. He opens the back door and the next thing I know I'm standing on the dirt and the bus is pulling away. The driver's helper points at another bus parked on the other side of the road and closes the back door. I look at that bus, and another driver's helper is motioning for me to get on, the bus has started to roll. I drop down to my knees and empty my man bag. Ten people on this slowly rolling bus are screaming at me. No wallet. I feel my pockets again. No wallet. There's no wallet. The wallet is gone.


I put my belongings back into the man bag, everyone is screaming at me to get on this Pana-bound bus. I walk quickly toward it, feeling dizzy and a little short of breath. I sit down with my backpack on my lap, completely unaware of my surroundings, not able to form coherent thoughts, the world spinning around me, just totally overwhelmed by the idea that I am alone in rural Guatemala without cash, plastic, identification, or spanish. And then I see the driver's helper standing next to me, who knows for how long, waiting for me to pay him.

The present need to deal with this guy causes the fog of panic to lift. I feel a great clarity of thought, and ask him how much. 3 Quetzeles. Aha, I have that change in my pocket. I pay him, and start thinking about my next step. And then I remember. I open up the top of my backpack and pull out a white envelope, folded in half.

Most travelers skip Guatemala City, as it's reported to be a dirty, sprawling mess unfriendly to tourists and particularly dangerous. My guidebook devotes half a page to detailing how unsafe the place is, especially for single travelers. Peace Corps employees are forbidden to stay downtown overnight. You must never never travel alone after sunset in Guatemala city. Of course I'm no ordinary tourist, I am Uberbackpacker and these sorts of rules don't apply to me; I fully intended to explore the capital's nightlife. As a concession to the guidebook, however, I found a hotel in the nicer part of town, and, almost as an afterthought,

12. I put 300 Quetzeles and my passport in an envelope in my backpack in case I were mugged.

I open the envelope and see 300 Quetzeles and my passport. 300Q is a bit less than 40 bucks. Big smile. I start planning. What was in my wallet? A few hundred Quetzeles; a couple receipts including my ticket to San Cristobal tomorrow; my Royal Bank credit card; my ATM card; my McGill ID; my driver's license; Quebec health card; and a few less important items. He can't use my ATM card without a PIN. I will call the credit card first, then will have to figure out how to get more cash. I remember these VISA commercials promising to deliver a new card to you anywhere in the world if you lose it while traveling. I'll call the travel agent in Antigua and tell her I lost the ticket, could she please tell the driver that I've paid the fare. I have enough for a night's lodging and some street meat. I'll go back to San Cristobal tomorrow and figure shit out from there.

After coming up with this plan, the survival instinct ebbs and I start to get very angry with myself, so I start in with the perspective checks, thinking about all the much worse things that could of happened. Thinking about what I would have done if I hadn't put 300Q and my passport in my backpack.

What would I have done? I had 6 Quetzeles in my pocket, about 80 cents. That's two tacos. Not enough to make a phone call; not enough for a bed for the night. What do you do? Do you beg for cash from another traveler? Do you hitchhike back to Guatemala City and get to the US embassy? I'm not the begging type, so I think about hitchhiking, imagine being dropped off somewhere in Guatemala City and trying to find the embassy. At least I wouldn't have to worry about getting mugged. I am very grateful that I don't have to do this. A big smile. I feel good.

The bus that was supposed to take me to Pana stops and a bunch of people tell me to get off and get on this other bus. On this other bus I am asked to pay 10Q, which is clearly some sort of gringo scam but I don't care. I pay up the first of my three 100Q bills. This bus stops every five minutes and the driver's helper jumps out, pops open the hood, and does something to the engine and we keep going. After 45 minutes and a dozen such episodes the bus is apparently beyond repair, and everyone gets on yet another bus. I am asked for another 2Q. Finally, I arrive in Panajachel. I head straight for Mario's Rooms, the cheapest place in the guidebook, noting banks, internet cafes, and international phone places along the way. I give Mario 80Q, drop my pack in my room and get on the net. I find the numbers to my bank and credit card. Go to the phone place. I try to place a collect call, but can't figure out how to do this. I place a conventional call to the credit card company.

Hi I'm calling from Guatemala, paying per minute, and don't have much cash left. My wallet was just stolen with my credit card inside. No, I can't, you can't make collect calls from Guatemala. Name, address, phone, mother's maiden, all sorts of other stuff to verify my identity. I had to go through this ritual at least ten times in a 24 hour period. When was the last time I used the card? Oh right, it was this morning at the travel agency, forty american. Right, $53 canadian, sure, that was me. That was my last charge. Listen I have very little money left, and I'm alone. Is there any way I can get more cash?

- We'll deal with that in a moment sir. That charge was at 11:17 this morning.

Yeah that sounds right.

- That was your last charge?

Yes. I hope that's the last charge on there. I lost my wallet about 90 minutes ago.

- So you didn't make a charge of $640 at 2:30 at what looks like a grocery store in Las Albanas, Guatemala?


- No need for that, sir. Does that mean you did not make that charge?


- Did you make a charge of $580 at 2:37 at the same store?

[I'm yelling now. I *never* yell.]

Were these charges approved? Who would sell this guy a thousand dollars worth of groceries on a foreign credit card? It's impossible to spend a thousand dollars at a guatemalan grocery store. The store is in cahoots. Were these charges approved?

- Yes sir. Did you make the charge of $580?

Of course not!

- OK. After that there was another request of $720 at the same store that was automatically rejected by the computer.


- After that there was a request of $3 that was rejected at...McDonalds.

The final activity on my card was a rejected $3 charge at McDonalds. I spend a while on the phone (paying per minute on my rapidly dwindling supply of funds) with this guy trying to figure out how to get me cash, and it amounts to nothing. The few financial institutions in Panajachel are closed at this point. He tells me to go to the bank when they open in the morning. I was supposed to leave at 6:00am, nothing left to do until I arrive in Chiapas tomorrow. I walk around Panajachel, at the bottom of which lies Lake Atitlan, an indescribably beautiful body of water surrounded on all sides by mountains, over which hovers a mysterious fog. I guess it's not indescribable. Anyway if you haven't seen it, head on over before you're too old to flirt with college-aged backpackers.

I wake up early and get on the shuttle to San Cristobal. At the Mexican border, we are informed we must change vans. 10 minutes later, as we're driving away in the second van, I realize that both of the long-sleeved shirts I brought, including my sweatshirt, are in the first van. Gone now. I can only laugh.

We arrive eight hours later, around 2:30. A mountain town, notably cooler air than I'm used to. I start making international phone calls, running around banks, internet cafes. I'm trying to get a cash advance on my newly-issued credit card, which of course I don't have. My bank tells me all I have to do is have one of the local banks call them and they'll approve the advance. I wait in several long bank lines, explain with some mixture of my awful spanish and their awful english my predicament to several tellers and several supervisors and get nowhere. They don't want to have anything to do with me. I go to the tourist office, and one of the bilingual ladies there acts as my translator. We repeat this process to no effect. All the while I'm making expensive international calls to my bank and credit card, determined to get out of this mess myself. The banks are closing, it's getting cold, I don't have enough money for a sweatshirt and am not sure I can buy a bed for the night. I'm also very hungry but am afraid to spend any more of my cash, which by now amounts to about 15 bucks. At some point I pull out twenty Canadian dollars, the only other cash that I have, and slide it under the window at one of these currency exchange places. The clerk examines the bills and gives me this look that says, "What the fuck is this shit?" and pushes it back under the window, seemingly irritated that I've wasted her time.

After hours of this I'm cold, hungry, and miserable. I call dad to ask him to wire money, this represents the ultimate admission of defeat. He's not home, not answering his cell. I call Roy, his wife Danielle answers, and she makes the call to Western Union. I go to a local Western Union outlet, they tell me they need some sort of transaction number. No you don't. I'm exasperated. I call Western Union. No, you don't need any transaction number they say, just your ID. I go back to the outlet and try to explain this to him. Sorry, I need a number. I call back Danielle. She gives me a transaction number. Back to the outlet. Five minutes later, I have 3600 pesos in my hand.

I want to cry, but years of being dragged to chick flicks allows me to easily squash this urge. I purchase a travel wallet.

3600 pesos strapped around my waist, I walk up to this 12 year old girl selling panchos, and ask how much. 500 pesos. 50 bucks? That's crazy. But I'm standing there shivering, not exactly in the best position to bargain. But then again I'm jewish and I decide I'd rather freeze to death than pay 50 bucks for her fucking pancho, the adolescent Mayan bitch. I walk away, she calls back, I get it for 350 pesos, still a ripoff. I buy ten tacos and a bus ticket back to the Yucatan to meet up with Elliott.

The guy I spoke with initially from the credit card company never told me I had to file a police report, but I later found out that if you don't file a police report, my bank makes you pay the fraudulant charges. Elliott and I call the Panajachel police department from Playa del Carmen and ask if we can file a police report over the phone. No. We offer a Q100 bribe. He asks for Q150. So I Western Union 150 Quetzeles to Pana, bringing my total unintended contribution to the Guatemalan economy to US$1290.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how all this happened; clearly it wasn't a simple matter of being unlucky. I listed 12 factors that played a role in the bad outcome, all of them except #12 contributed to the theft.

1. I am single.
2. I planned to pack on the evening of the 9th.
3. I then made a date for the evening of the 9th, and decided that I would pack afterward and sleep on the plane.
4. I searched for twenty minutes for the pouch but couldn't find it. I decided I'd buy another one at the Cancun airport.
5. The flight was delayed seven hours.
6. I never bought a travel wallet.
7. My plans called for me to travel from Antigua to Panajachel, on Lake Atitlan, on the afternoon of December 23rd.
8. I said thanks but no thanks, I'll take the chicken bus as usual.
9. I put the wallet into my man bag.
10. I concluded that this man was not a thief.
11. I then put on my very expensive headphones, which fit in the ear canal and block out 30 decibels of ambient noise before delivering sound directly to the eardrum.
12. I put 300 Quetzeles and my passport in an envelope in my backpack in case I were mugged.

Some of these, like number 5, I have little control over. Some were obvious judgment errors, number 6 probably the most flagrant with numbers 9 and 10 not far behind. This is a partial list, you could probably come up with a list a thousand entries long.

We're constantly making errors. We make a zillion a day. Very few of these lead to perceptibly negative consequences, because there are all sorts of built in checks to catch and correct these errors, most of which we never even notice. This has been described to me as the swiss cheese model. Imagine each decision as a slice of swiss cheese, with an error being a hole in that slice. The next decision is another slice, with another possible hole. These slices are laid on top of each other. In order for errors to lead to important consequences *the holes have to line up* and this happens only rarely. That's why you can get away without a travel wallet most of the time, because most of the time other good decisions or twists of fate will prevent the error of not using a travel wallet from leading to a bad outcome.

You can minimize your chances of suffering a bad outcome by incorporating systems into your routine that diminish the chance of making an error. Good habits act like a piece of cheese with no holes. I always put my keys in the same place; I kick my tires before driving; I set two alarms before going to bed; before I leave for a date, I write her name on my wrist, to refer to in case I forget.

In this case, I've learned to avoid packing at the last moment, to never travel without a travel wallet, to think of every stranger as a potential thief. Most importantly, keep your passport and some cash separate. Maybe an extra credit card too. If I had not done this, instead of a major headache I might have been in the midst of a real emergency. Other things. Don't bring stuff abroad you don't need, like a driver's license. Recognize the danger of wearing headphones. When you really need cash, don't fuck around with your bank, just call someone and get to a Western Union. And bribe when necessary.