I'm forever writing about the amazing things we see and do along our travels- the warm and interesting people we meet and the good times we have together and that's because that's the travel norm. But I also believe it's my responsibility as a travel blogger to report on the more sinister side of traveling the rare times they arise. Maybe this story will merely entertain some travellers (and I hope it does) or maybe this story will help others in making a better decision than the one I made or at least as a reminder to not let your guard down even when you're having the time of your life. Traveling is a gateway to amazing new experiences and encountering amazing and interesting new people. But for every 100 great experiences you are bound to have one bad one and for every 1000 wonderful people you meet there will always be that one you wish you didn't come across at at all. This is a story about one of those experiences and one of those people.
There are no short distances in Africa, and, together with poor roads, old and unreliable buses and inconvenient transport schedules, said distances can make for long and grueling overland journeys. 30-some hours after leaving Mzuzu we arrived in Tanzania’s largest city and unofficial capital, Dar es Salaam. It was late and pitch dark so we checked into the first scuzzy guesthouse we found in the Kisutu area which sufficed for a night but the next morning we relocated to a slightly less sketchy place down the block… the Econo Lodge – the setting for our only horror story during our travels through Africa.
Upon checking-in the staff advised us to leave our valuables in the storage lock-up behind their desk when we went out which made sense at the time… Dar es Salaam has a sinister reputation and at times it seems as though there’s a certain pride in upholding that reputation! Anyways, we had bus tickets to shop around for and some supplies to replenish for our next destination, Arusha- the gateway to safari lands. So left our valuables in the hands of the staff we did and then slipped off into the city to run our errands. A few hours later we returned to the Econo Lodge to retrieve our bags only to discover that one of them had disappeared. Hyo Jin’s bag containing our passports, some money and other important travel documents was still there where she had left it, but my bag containing every piece of camera equipment I brought had vanished. Panic instantly sunk in and thus began the ensuing 10 hours of chaos. It was 7 in the evening. Of course I started yelling and screaming at the guy who remained behind the desk. If awards were handed out for epic fits thrown at hotels by guests I’m sure that I would have received top honours. I insisted that he call the police and he insisted that he didn’t know the phone number for the police! Hmmm. So I then insisted that he called the owner, manager and all the other staff who were on shift that day. I was seeing red but who can blame me? Within that bag was over $12,000 of camera gear not to mention all the images that I had captured thus far on our trip… this would be a devastating loss to say the least and I wasn’t about to let it go without a fight. One by one the other staff members started returning to the Econo Lodge including the owner (and his family). It was now 11 p.m. Then came the hours of dodging responsibility and offering of excuses. “Maybe you didn’t leave your bag in our storage room”, “perhaps you should have another look in your room”, “maybe another guest has taken your bag by mistake”, “this has never happened here before”… this wasn’t doing me any good! The fact of the matter is that the Econo Lodge in Dar has a piss-poor system for keeping their guests' belongings safe. Yes there is a room behind the desk which they encourage their guests to utilize for the safe-keeping of their valuables but this room isn’t locked and there is no system of identification whereby each bag would be tagged and a receipt offered and when retrieving your bag you would have to hand in said receipt. On top of this, we saw other hotel guests and who knows who else entering and leaving this “secured” room every few minutes at their leisure. Yup, this place was a nightmare and had we known this is how they ran their hotel we never would have entrusted them with our valued possessions in the beginning. We did however come up with a definitive timeframe in which the bag disappeared since we had checked on it just an hour and a half before we came back to discover its disappearance. During this time the nice day-shift ladies left for the evening and only one employee remained at the desk. This was the same employee who said he didn’t know the number of the police. From the offset we suspected that this guy was the dodgy bugger responsible for the heist, but what can you do with a suspicion? As we talked to each of the staff members they seemed to share our suspicions though. By 2 a.m. things were going nowhere fast and emotion-induced exhaustion was starting to set in. I told the owner that we were not leaving the hotel until my bag was found and if by morning I wasn't reunited with my bag that I would personally be bringing the police to their establishment and informing any potential guest who walked through the door to go elsewhere. I had also showed each of the staff pictures of my camera bag which I had on my phone and requested that every guest who was leaving in the hours to follow be checked for that bag and their rooms searched once vacated, although I knew very well that it wasn’t fellow travellers that had taken it. At one point during the night the owner had taken the guy who we suspected all along to the office where it appeared that a serious talk was taking place. At 3 in the morning the owners and the day staff left the hotel and returned to their respective homes and we retreated to our room where we tried to get some rest and give whoever was responsible for my bag heist the opportunity to get it back without our prying eyes on them. We were supposed to leaving on a bus to Arusha at 6 o’clock that morning!
The only person who remained on the desk was the dodgy dipshit! At 4:30 a.m. there was a knock on our door. I opened the door to find Mr. Dipshit himself standing there. He informed me that he thought he located my bag and that a taxi was outside waiting to bring me to it. Of course I was excited at the prospect that my bag was found, but this was Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and it was 4:30 in the bloody morning- there was no way in hell that I was going to get into a car with a guy I’ve never seen and driven off to a location that I didn't know. It would be very good fortune from the perspective of the hotel and the dipshit if I were to just disappear! I told the Tanzanian Devil to just send the driver to retrieve the bag and we would wait in our room until it arrived. He agreed and 45 minutes later I was reunited with all of my camera equipment. The story he came up with was that another traveller had accidentally taken my bag and checked-in to another hotel in a different part of the city. Once there he discovered that the bag did not belong to him and at 4:30 in the morning he called the Econo Lodge to report his folly! No doubt that this concocted story was a big ‘ol sack of hipposhit, but this moron believed that we believed his fabricated tale and he was now the hero not the villain. Whatever! We had my bag back and now had about 30 minutes to be on our bus to Arusha… and we were! But on our way out the door of the Econo Lodge, Hyo Jin and myself both heard the Tanzanian Devil mumble a few last words to us… “my wife is in hospital”. It took a while for us to process this statement, we were after all in a rush to catch a bus. But once on the bus we took the time to think it over and come to the conclusion that those words were offered to us as a confession and explanation. Either way, that man and that hotel was responsible for the worst day and worst night of our three-and-a-half months in Africa. That whole experience was unbelievable on so many levels. But the most unbelievable part is that we were one of the lucky ones who won our battle. Theft occurs all the time in Dar es Salaam. Muggings are commonplace in that city and much, much worse. But we came out of that ordeal with my bag and all of my camera gear unscathed. If it would have gone any other way, you would not have seen any of the photos you have seen so far on this blog and you wouldn’t be seeing any of the photographs to come (isn't that a sad thought!). In fact, it is difficult to say if our trip would have continued at all.
One of the functions of travel blogging is to offer other like-minded (budget) travellers advice to the places they are planning to visit. Of course I do not recommend staying at the Econo Lodge in Dar es Salaam, but if you do (or wherever else you stay), keep your valuables on you at all times or invest in a sturdy lock and chain and lock your bags to something solid in your room. This is something we usually do but for some reason we let our guard down in Dar. Nothing will ruin a trip quicker than being separated from your most valued possessions so it pays off to be cautious.
Distances are long in Africa and you will experience long trips in uncomfortable buses and long waits in the middle of the night to catch them. But let’s put things in perspective… if this is the worst part about your journey through Africa, then you’re doing everything right!