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When All Is Lost
How to avoid a foreign fleecing By Robert Young Pelton


Illustration: a traveler in trouble

After two hours spent absorbing two millennia of culture, I returned to my rental car to retrieve my valuables and found myself staring in disbelief. Everything was gone: money, credit cards, clothes, passport—everything. I had been warned about pickpockets and chose to bet on the steel security of a locked trunk. Boy, did I screw up. Was this some backstreet in Baghdad? A dusky alley in Kabul? No. This was Vatican City! In a guarded parking lot, no less. An Italian cop showed up to smack his forehead in sympathy and decry the injustice and immorality of it all, but he just shrugged his shoulders when I wondered aloud exactly what the hell I was going to do. Since then, I've come up with some answers about where to turn when all is lost.

MONEY
The conventional wisdom is that stolen credit cards need to be canceled ASAP. But then what are you going to do for money? One trick is to call Western Union to wire cash—charged to your still functioning card—to a traveling companion with ID. Western Union will call you back to confirm; you should know the three- or four-digit security code on the back of the card (which the thief has, of course). You pay a reasonable fee for the service and can pick up your cash at more than 170,000 locations (yes, even in Afghanistan). Then report the card stolen.

POSSESSIONS
In many countries, thieves will sell you your stuff back. For a price, police officers or hotel owners can sometimes tell you who walked off with your goods. A friend of mine had his camera snatched in Afghanistan, and an incensed local commander put the word out. Within minutes one of his lieutenants came back and said, "For $200 I can get your camera back, and for $400 I will shoot the man who stole it." My friend chose the cheaper and less messy option.

PASSPORT
Almost nothing happens these days without ID. The consulate will issue you a new passport if someone at home can fax copies of an ID you left behind, or after a detailed interview confirming your identity. Better still, look into getting a second passport before traveling. Ireland, for example, offers citizenship (and an EU passport) to anyone with a grandparent born in Ireland. If you've got the money, you can even buy "second" passports (and citizenship) through sites such as www.escapeartist.com from small island countries such as Dominica; prices start at $50,000.

TICKETS
Strangely, your plane tickets may be the most difficult and expensive items to replace. E-tickets are great when it comes to guarding against theft but aren't always available in rougher parts of the world. If you lose paper tickets, prepare for financial pain. You will need to purchase another ticket (usually half the fare if you used one of the legs) and wait 90 days or more to get a refund if no one uses your stolen tickets. A guardian angel at home can purchase a new ticket for you—but you'll still need ID to pick it up.

Ask Pelton Do you have a burning travel question that only the world's most dangerous writer Robert Young Pelton can answer? After all, getting kidnapped in Colombia and bumping elbows with Special Forces in Afghanistan are just a few of the stripes that make Pelton the savviest traveler we know. Send us your question by e-mailing adventure@ngs.org, subject line: Pelton. It could be answered in an upcoming column.



Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, September 2004

Where to Live and Play Now: Spend a week in these enticing base-camp burgs and you may never go home.
Pelton's World: Surviving a foreign fleecing
The River Wilder: Maine's classic American river trip
K2 at 50: The controversy surrounding the world's most vicious mountain


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More from writer Robert Young Pelton

Afghanistan's Shadowlands
Pelton's photographs of Afghanistan reveal the dangers facing coalition forces and the hopes of a battered nation.

Q&A: Grabbed in the Gap
Robert Young Pelton literally wrote the book on traveling in dangerous places. Good thing: All that hard-won experience came in handy when he was abducted while hiking Panama's Darién Gap.



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September 2004



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