It’s every traveler’s worst nightmare: You’re happily sightseeing in your Hawaiian shirt and bright green crocs when you reach down into your fanny pack to grab your wallet and pay for your I Love _______ t-shirt when you realize your cash is missing. And so are you credit cards and…your passport, naturally? So what do you do now? Every travel guide you read practically begs you guard your passport as if your life depends on it. Well, I am here to tell you I am a travel guide writer who didn’t take my own advice.
Let me set the scene: It was late at night. I took an overnight bus from Panama City to David and had about 4,048 bags with me. When I arrived in David, I gathered my bags (at least I thought so) and sleepily headed to the front desk of my hotel. The kind lady somehow believed I actually worked for. As usual, the concierge asked for my passport. It was then that it occurred to me then that I could not have my passport because I did not have my purse. As any normal person would do, I started panicking. The kind concierge promptly called the hotel cab driver, and together, we raced down the Panamerican Highway in hot pursuit of the bus.
The following part of my story is a testament of what NOT to do when one is in a foreign country with no money, no cell phone, no credit cards and no will to remain awake despite significant extenuating circumstances. On the way to the border – I have forgotten my cab driver’s name so I will just call him Sr. Taxista for clarity purposes – Sr. Taxista tells me that he cannot take me to the border because the border police will detain me and if my documents aren’t found, they may detain me for longer than I’d like to be detained. When Sr. Taxista tells me this, I look around at where he wants to leave me. I am not pleased, to say the least. On one side are about six boarded up shops, on the other side a dim, aluminum-looking cantina that has the words “Aguila” painted on the side and appears to be vibrating with the sounds of unfaithful cowboys lamenting their transgressions from an aggressively loud music system . Upon analyzing my options, I beg Sr. Taxista to please let me go with him, I will happily hide in the trunk, but he refuses, telling me he doesn’t want to have problems with the border police. If he intended to abandon me in the middle of nowhere, why did he even bother bringing me? But seeing Sr. Taxista is unwilling to budge, I reluctantly get out of the car. Sr. Taxista promises me he’ll be back in approximately 15 minutes and drops me off in front of the boarded up shops.
Let me further set the scene by explaining that I am wearing a short blue dress and gold high heels. I know this isn’t intelligent bus attire but what’s done is done. I am in need of a shower and my hair has not been brushed in at least 24 hours. It’s nearly 1am and I’m exhausted, so you can imagine the state I am in. I did not look like a reputable woman. For a while, I stood in front of the boarded up shops recalling all the crime mysteries I’ve watched over the years, and unsure if it’s better to hide behind the building where no one can see me, stand in the middle of the highway so passing cars see me or stand in front of the cantina and hope there is safety in numbers. For a while, I alternate between the highway median and the boarded up shops, trying to make it clear to anyone watching me that I am waiting for someone. I am in the tropical lowlands of Panama and that means there are animals and animal sounds everywhere, and eventually, the sounds of croaking frogs becomes too much and I decide to cross the street and stand in front of the cantina.
Initially, I thought this was my best option and it appeared to go well in the beginning. A thin, middle-aged man named Pepe, who’s wearing a farmer’s hat and a plaid shirt tucked into light wash jeans and holding a beer approaches me, asks me what I’m doing standing on the side of the highway by myself at 1am in the morning and that he has daughters and sisters and wouldn’t want anything to happen to them and he’ll keep an eye on me. Then he asks if I’d like a beer. I say no thank you. But either way, I feel ok. Well, by this time it’s been 30 minutes and no sign of the driver. Pepe comes back to check on me with a couple of friends and by now, all are decidedly inebriated. Pepe tells me he is heading home and do I want a ride. He does not appear to be aware of the state he is in. I say no thank you. But even so, I am upset that he is going home, because he was my protector. So Pepe gets in the car and shortly there after, his friends come over to admire my physique and make competing propositions, all of which include me, alcohol and privacy. I am not the type of person who easily becomes scared, but I am terrified. I am seeing myself lifeless in a gutter somewhere on the Panamerican Highway. And it will take weeks to identify the body due to lack of I.D. but at that moment, Sr. Taxista arrives with my purse, which, of course, is empty. Gone is my cash, all my credit cards, my driver’s license and my passport. Mr. Taxista tells me that’s the way he found my purse. I have my doubts, and ask myself if this was just a ploy on his part, but I’m exhausted and paranoid and besides, I have no other way to get home.
Anyway, he drives me back to the hotel (luckily I’m there with a complimentary stay) and send emergency e-mails to my family that read: URGENT: LOST PASSPORT, CASH, CREDIT CARDS IN MIDDLE OF HIGHWAY, NEED MONEY. I spend the rest of the night using the hotel’s computer to cancel all my credit cards via skpye and feel sorry for myself.
So now that I’ve so eloquently shared my dire tale, I’ll let you know what I did about it. It turns out you can’t have money wired to you when you have no ID, so I had to frantically look for someone in Panama City who happened to not be working and have time on his hands. I find him. I have money transferred to him. I go to the American Embassy’s site and print out various documents I’ll need in order to request my new passport and get new pictures taken. Later, I go to the police station to file a stolen passport report because the embassy requires this in order to process the new passport. I am about half an hour into my tale of highway theft when the police officer stops me and asks me what I want. I tell her I want a police report saying my passport was stolen. “Oh, well, that’s easy,” she says, takes out a paper, and has me sign on the dotted line. With my police report in hand, I head to the American Embassy. I am dreading long lines and waits, but its surprisingly organized and quick; my number is called in less than five minutes, I pay the clerk, and am told my passport will be ready in about one week. A week later, the embassy e-mails me and lets me know my passport has arrived. Much easier than I expected.
(1) E-mail yourself a copy of your passport so you can just print out a copy if necessary. It makes getting your passport replacement much quicker. If you don’t have a copy of your passport, you’ll have to produce a birth certificate or other form of ID or possibly wait a long time to have your request processed.
(2) Get the name and number of at least one person in the country you are visiting. That way, if you lose all your documents and need money wired to you, you’ll have someone to fall back on. I’m lucky in that I know quite a bit of people in Panama.
(3) Don’t head straight to the embassy. Call or check out your country’s lost/stolen passport requirements. The last thing you want to do is make the long trip to the embassy and realize you haven’t filled out the paperwork, don’t have a required police report or you brought the wrong size photos.
(4) Go in the morning. The lines are only going to get longer later in the day.
(5) If absolutely all your money’s been stolen and you honestly have no way to get more, don’t panic; the embassy can issue you a temporary, emergency passport card valid for 60 days. Within 60 days, you’ll just need to go through the normal stolen passport replacement process.