If there can be anything worse that could ever happen to a digital nomad, I’m positive I’ve experienced the full brunt of it.
Groggy from sleep, I reach over my bed stand for my phone out of instinct to check the time. Not feeling where my phone was where I left it last night when I set my alarm before going to sleep, I thought it might have fallen on the ground. Frustrated at not being able to find it, I finally plucked what little morning energy I had to drag my body out of bed and put my glasses on to look for it properly.
Still not finding it, I went out of the room of my friend’s apartment in Playa del Carmen where I was staying for 4 days on a brief stop before heading on to Oaxaca to ask him if he’d seen my phone anywhere.
He was as groggy from sleep as I was, and it took a while for him to gain composure and comprehend what I was asking. Just as I was waiting for him to give me some sort of consolation on where my phone could possibly be, I noticed something amiss from the corner of my eye.
My laptop stand on the dining table felt strangely out of place. It took me a second to realise the laptop which I’d always place on top of my laptop stand is not there.
“Where IS my laptop?!” I exclaimed at Matt.
“OMG. And my pouch with my wallet and cards are missing. WHAT IS GOING ON, Matt?!”
Frantic, I retraced my steps back to the bedroom and noticed with more clarity now that my smartwatch which I’d placed beside my phone is also MISSING. I’m clearly 100% lucid now.
What the hell is going on? I felt a growing nervous pit in my stomach that I always get when I get nervous, the same kind I get whenever I’ve to be on stage in public.
“Please tell me this is a nightmare,” I silently pray.
Shakily, I flip every part of my friend’s house for a peek of my most precious belongings, silently telling my babies that this is not a prank I want to play. It was futile.
We try to brainstorm the possibilities that a burglar could come in the night when I was asleep from 12mn to 8am to steal my laptop, wallet, phone and smartwatch despite the main door being locked and my room door being closed.
The only way anyone could have come in was by climbing up one storey through the balcony (his apartment is on the second floor), opened the sliding doors of the balcony, stepped past Matt who was sleeping on the couch in the living area, opened my bedroom door (which creaks when moved) to grab my belongings.
It was such incredulous speculation and sounded like such an impossibility.
How could anyone come as close as my physical body while I was asleep, to get ahold of my phone and smartwatch which were both RIGHT beside my face, without stirring me is a thought that terrifies me even as I think about it now.
What’s STRANGEST was that none of Matt’s belongings was stolen – not his Macbook nor his phone – just my most valuable items in the world.
My mind was in a state of emergency and horror. My WHOLE LIFE was on that laptop, which was now rudely taken away from me. I couldn’t even think ahead on what my next contingency steps were, even though I knew dealing with what’s next is what’s most important at that time.
My worst fear had happened – more than my previous case of a misplaced phone, living 2 weeks without a phone in Costa Rica or being deported from the US, which, even though it happened 4 weeks ago and I was only shortly reunited with my phone 2 weeks ago, seemed so inconsequential in the face of what just happened.
I felt SO handicapped.
I had no means of communication to my closest ones, I had NO clue if I’d be able to recover anything back from my laptop, and most of all, I had no idea if I could trust the person I was living with, which 3 days before, we barely spoke more than a sentence to each other.
I felt truly lonely and vulnerable, and I’d never felt this way once in my years of travelling solo. Not when I travelled in the US in the thick of the pandemic. Not when I was in the US during the Trump election. I never once felt threatened.
Before I go on, I feel I owe it to you to explain this connection I had with Matt.
We had some similar interests – we both work online and are well-connected in the digital nomad community. He’s from the UK and is now working on launching his online coaching business as a sobriety coach. He chanced upon my travel blog work online and wanted to connect, hence his offer to host me.
I was passing through Playa del Carmen on the way to Oaxaca so I thought I’d check out a new spot in Mexico and get acquainted with some other digital nomads living in Playa del Carmen.
We spent the first few days really getting to know each other’s businesses and sharing online marketing tips and experiences – it was a really enriching conversation we shared on our walks to the beach. In the first 3 days, I was introduced to his friends who all work online – in eCommerce, as coaches, software engineers and the like. I was really starting to enjoy the social aspect of Playa del Carmen and how modern and accessible everything is in the city.
Until my worst nightmare happened. When I was sleeping. In a friend’s house (not a hostel nor while Couchsurfing). With the doors closed. When I was absolutely sober. It wasn’t like I was wasted or had a long night out. I was asleep by 12 midnight!
Wishing I didn’t have to face reality but having to think of contingency plans, he suggested that I go over to a cafe where his friend was to get a cuppa and calm my nerves.
Not knowing what else to do, any suggestion sounded better than staying cooped at home and pondering my doom at that point in time (which one person’s speculation said could be part of his plan for him to remove the stolen belongings while I was out of the house).
At the cafe, I borrowed a phone to call my card provider, Transferwise, to freeze my card (I highly commend their service, customer support and speed of delivery for my replacement card btw!).
I also made a couple of phone calls to my trusted circle to seek advice. All of them pointed to the most obvious culprit, though a part of me found it difficult to imagine anyone would do that to me, especially not someone with whom I’d just slowly forged a bond with.
Deciding to head right to the police after, I was met with strong opposition from Matt. He kept dissuading me from doing so, claiming that the police here are corrupt and would only work if they take bribes.
Disregarding them, I was insistent about going to the police RIGHT AWAY. He agreed to it as he wanted to be supportive of my distress, though he did let slip that he was worried that the police might take him in since it happened in his home. That comment rose red flags in my mind.
The whole process took longer than I wanted since he had to go back to pick up items and stop for a quick lunch (mostly for him, I had no appetite after what just transpired).
Eventually, we made a stop at the Tourist Police, which did nothing except point us to a government body for us to generate an official police report. A helpful Mexican we met at the office helped to translate what I recounted, since none of the officers spoke English.
Contrary to what he claimed, there was NO corrupt police NOR bribes he spoke of.
One task down, the next step for me was to get some sort of communicable device for my flight the next day, where I would meet Selassie and continue the next leg of the journey.
As much as I’m all for offline living, my phone had always been my safety net. The millennial in me couldn’t live with being totally off the grid. I didn’t want to risk having another panic attack of not being able to find Selassie when I arrived in Oaxaca, in a country that spoke little English. My mental threshold could not stand facing any more emergencies for the rest of the year (is it only February?!).
At this point, Matt had offered to lend me a few hundred dollars in cash to tide me over until I arrived in Oaxaca and settled down as he empathised with my situation.
Feeling slightly consoled but none better, I used a portion of that money to get a replacement basic phone. As I was shopping for a phone in town, he received a phone call, and that was when his attitude took a 180-degree turn to one that’s stealthy.
I could sense that he was suddenly suspicious of my actions. The sensitive nature in me knew something was amiss, and I put all courtesies aside to ask him to tell me straight up what he was thinking instead of beating around the bush by asking me about my financial situation (though I had an idea by that point).
It turned out that his friend was cautioning him against me, the 3-day-old friend whom he’d just given a bunch of money to, who was leaving on a plane the next day, unsure if she’ll keep to her end of the deal and return the money when she got settled in.
I tried to explain who the real victim is but decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, the friend who was warning him about me. When we went to his friend’s home to hash it out, he explained that he was just looking out for his friend and didn’t want Matt to risk losing the money to someone he barely knew.
This was THE friend who advised him against going to the police and to move on with life because the day is precious. He wanted me to forget that my 2 most important items in my life and my life’s work were rudely snatched away from my life permanently just 8 hours before and instead to seize the fucking day?! Trust a “7-figure entrepreneur” to say that.
In that closed space listening to an accusation by 2 strangers after losing all of my most precious belongings that were worth more than thousands in value, not to mention the priceless memories, I couldn’t hold my composure anymore.
To be accused of this whole episode being a part of my plan to run away with a couple of hundred dollars in cash, when my stolen items were worth way more in value, was just ludicrous and beyond my comprehension.
They weren’t only insensitive to my loss, but absolutely hostile towards me and my situation. Everything I’d been holding in – from the loss of my belongings to the enveloping loneliness in a town where I knew nobody to this accusation right in my face – came out in bursts of tears, as much as I fought against them to keep a strong front in front of these 2 unsympathetic humans.
More than the initial shock of losing my valuables, this was the lowest low I could experience on this day that was stretching longer than I wanted.
All I wanted more than anything was to go to bed and wake up from this terrifying nightmare. Por favor.
I know I shouldn’t be pointing fingers at anybody, especially not someone who’d kindly hosted me. Furthermore, I don’t have any evidence that pointed to him.
How then do you explain why none of his electronics was stolen in the same sitting? Would a burglar choose 1 Macbook over another even though they were side by side? Would he choose an older phone model over a newer one, even though his phone was placed accessibly on a stand in the living room?
Also, as I’m typing this and checking out his profile, I’d just noticed that he not only removed the video he tagged me in during one of our workouts in Playa del Carmen we did together, he also unfriended me on Facebook and unfollowed me on Instagram, erasing all traces of me on his social media profiles.
I’ll leave it to you to interpret what that means…
Also, you might be chiding me for trusting “strangers” easily, but I’d never once encountered a bad stranger I chose to be acquainted with, up til now. If I never embraced meeting strangers, I would’ve never had the best experiences in my life and never met the coolest people on the planet. Some of my closest friends are actually met over the internet (greatly in part due to my online nature of work).
The whole leg of my US journey last year, when I chose to leave Singapore during the pandemic, was thanks to virtual friends I’d made who’d taken such good care of me and made me feel right at home even though I was away from home.
I’d expressed my debt of gratitude more than a couple of times for these friends-turned-family (in this IG post and my 2020 round-up blog post) because I know I’d never be where I am without them. I surely would’ve cried my way back to Singapore by now instead of writing this at a plant-themed rooftop cafe in Oaxaca, Mexico where a playful squirrel would occasionally come to steal seeds from the plants.
The worst thing(s) about this happening was that:
1) More than having to spend an unexpected amount of my budget to replace my electronics, I hadn’t promptly backed up all my working files on my laptop, so I’d lost a good chunk of writing and phone visuals from Costa Rica and Mexico.
This is what makes my heart aches the most. Every time I talk to my family/ friends about this incident (I’d recounted this story more than 10 times already), my voice never fails to waver whenever I tell them about how I’d lost my hard-earned work and precious memories in the form of pictures and videos…
2) The nomad travel insurance I was bragging about, SafetyWing, doesn’t cover loss of electronics (of all things they don’t cover…). The only reason I went with them was that they covered COVID-19-related expenses and home coverage for every 90 days spent away from my home country.
However, after this episode, I’m not sure I want to support them anymore. What’s the point of calling it a nomad insurance if it doesn’t cover the most important consideration a digital nomad would have – electronics?
That, and I’m uber frustrated that a medical claim I’d filed when I went to the doctor in LA for a lymph node problem in December is still not reimbursed. It’s been 3 freakin months.
If it’d been Singapore’s travel insurance, they would’ve covered the loss of electronics and my claims would’ve been processed within A WEEK, without question. Christ!
The reasons why I couldn’t go with a local insurance were because 1) they don’t cover COVID-19 and 2) I had to be back in Singapore within 90 days of being abroad. It’s been 4.5 months since I left home in October now.
After what happened, supporters on one hand would tell me “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Opponents would say otherwise – that this could be a sign I should go home and wait out the virus until it’s safer to travel. What’s your stand on it?
Naysayers aside, I’ve received more support than I can possibly imagine, both physically and virtually. To my friends and family who sent coffee funds, offered to send old laptops and phones, lent me cash to tide me over while I waited for my replacement card to arrive. I’m so incredibly touched and never expected how kind some of you are.
Despite the worst that could happen to me, I’m grateful for all the help and support I’ve received, and that I’m finally back on my two feet and slowly picking back from where I left off.
I’ve waited until now to post this because I had trouble ordering a replacement laptop from Mexico – it either takes more than a month to deliver an English keyboard, or I’d have to accept a laptop that’s a Spanish keyboard.
Anthony very kindly flew over from LA this past weekend (it’s Monday now) with my laptop and my belongings I’d left in the US (before the whole saga of being deported and no longer having a visa waiver access to a tourist visa to the US).
And yes, he’s one of the people I’d met virtually, come to trust, and became good friends with. I was hosted by him even though we knew nothing about each other in the beginning. We did a couple of photoshoots together, such as the one below:
‘Til then, I’ll be catching up on my life in Oaxaca, where I just signed another month’s lease!