I was rudely awoken from my fitful sleep by the buzzing of my phone – incoming call from MFA. I quickly answered, hoping for some good news about the processing of my temporary passport. God knows, I needed a win right then.
“Hi Ranjani! Yeah, I’m just calling to tell you that, actually ICA told us that they cannot accept the documents because they need to be higher resolution scans. If you can’t get a higher resolution scan, then you’ll have to send the documents by courier. And they need your travel itinerary in order to process the DOI, so please let us know which countries you’ll be transiting through.”
Not even close to the win I was hoping for, but there was nothing I could do about it at that moment so I told him I’d do what I could and hung up, before heading back to bed to catch a few more hours of sleep. The next morning, I was woken up by a far more promising phone call from PoliTur – apparently, they had worked through (some part of) the night and managed to come up with some leads. They asked me to head down to the PoliTur HQ immediately.
Excited by the prospect of maybe getting my passport back, I rushed down to the police station with Rosa in tow, who insisted on accompanying me even though it was her one free day of the week (bless her, the lovely soul). At the police station, the colonel informed us that they had tracked down and apprehended Lenny and that upon intense questioning, he had confessed to planning the whole robbery. From luring me to the river to arranging for his gang members to run off with my backpack, Lenny had masterminded the whole thing, and carried out his plot with his gang of four miscreants.
As the colonel explained this to us, Rosa broke down completely. She had known Lenny for years, and had had no idea that he was such a rotten person. I mean, can you imagine finding out that someone you’ve known for years and trusted and treated like a brother is a crook? What’s more, Lenny and his gang had been preying on tourists for years, and countless other tourists had lodged similar reports of being brought down to the river and then having their stuff stolen.
The only difference, it seemed, was the fact that with the other tourists, while the gang had stolen money and valuables like phones and cameras, they’d always left the tourists with their passports. And in all those other cases, the tourists had merely filed police reports for their insurance claims, chalked the loss up to a bad experience, and moved on instead of pursuing any course of action against the perpetrators. In my case, however, seeing as how I had no passport and no means of moving on, so to speak, I was somewhat stuck, and had escalated the situation to what it presently was.
Anyway, whatever the reason Lenny and his gang had been found out, the police weren’t able to return my passport to me despite having Lenny in custody. Well aware that he would be first to be arrested should it come to that, Lenny had left all my stuff with one of his four cronies, and the police were still trying to track them down. After meeting with various police officers who assured us that they were doing everything in their power to recover my passport (I didn’t doubt them – we spotted Lenny being interrogated rather aggressively in one of the rooms at the police station), eventually, Rosa and I were allowed to go.
Just before we left, the colonel warned me again to keep a low profile and avoid walking around town by myself because the other four gang members were still on the loose, and they might do something to keep me quiet. As we headed back to town to do some random shopping (with the money my sister had wired me), Rosa explained that it wasn’t uncommon for people to be stabbed or shot for 50 bucks, so by doing what I had done and going on TV to start a city-wide manhunt for these men, I’d inadvertently put myself in quite a delicate situation.
Well, nothing to be done about that at the moment, so we occupied ourselves with shopping and sorting out my documents to be sent to ICA / MFA. Thankfully, in the midst of all this, one of my friends who worked at MFA (shout out to David!) and my sister’s friend who also worked in MFA pulled some strings for me to get my case transferred to a more competent officer. The original officer who had been assigned my case was a junior officer who kept insisting that things be done according to the book, even thought I was clearly not in a situation to fulfill all his arbitrary requirements. The new officer was much nicer, and more helpful too, so after sending off my higher resolution scans, I received a text saying she would expedite my case with ICA and ask for some exceptions on my behalf. Yay!
The next day was spent uneventfully. I was accompanied by Rosita (Rosa had to work but refused to let me walk around by myself) as I wandered around the town taking pictures of this and that. Several times, I was stopped by random people on the street.
“Ey! Eres la chica del Show de Nelson! Encontraste tu pasaporte?” – “Hey! You’re the girl from The Nelson Show! Did you find your passport?”
I would answer in the negative to which they would titter and shake their heads while making some comment about the state of the city/ country/ world. There was even once when I went to buy something, and the shop owner, having recognized me from TV, waved away my payment and gifted the item to me instead. Being treated like a minor celebrity was fun, but I was truly humbled by how wonderful and generous the people were, willing to share whatever little they had or help me out in any way they could. It gave me hope that the world wasn’t such a bad place after all, despite what had transpired.
Anyway, a little bit of a backstory into how I ended up in Santiago in the first place. I’d sailed down from Ft Lauderdale, USA to Luperon, Dominican Republic on my friend Ian’s sailboat. We’d had a falling out at that point, which is why I had come to Santiago on my own, but Ian was still in Luperon. He was preparing to set sail from Luperon in a couple of days, but given my circumstances, I was in no state to join him on the boat again, nor was I going to be returning to this part of the world again any time soon. Despite our falling out, I still cared about him deeply, and so I decided to visit him in Luperon the next day to say good bye.
So, early the next morning, I headed to the PoliTur HQ to ask the colonel about any updates on my case and to inform him about my plans to travel to Luperon for a few days (I’d been told to report my every move to PoliTur and I also had different officers calling me to check in on me during the day). The colonel didn’t have any new information for me, so he sent his constable to accompany me to catch the van to Luperon. I got a window seat, and stared out of the window as the van rumbled to life and sped off down the road toward Luperon.
About midway through the journey, the bus conductor came around collecting the bus fare. I’d just handed over my fare and was putting away my wallet, when my phone rang. It was the colonel.
“Hola?! Hola!! Vuelve a la estación inmediatamente! Tenemos…” – Hello?! Hello!! Come back to the station immediately! We have…
A bus roared past the little van and drowned out the rest of what he was saying. He probably has some new information about Lenny, I thought to myself. The phone signal was also really bad, so I quickly yelled that I was on the bus to Luperon, and hung up. Within a few minutes, my phone rang again, and this time, the signal was much better.
“No me entendiste! Tenemos tus papeles! Tu pasaporte! Vuelve a la estación ahora! Tengo tu pasaporte en mi mano!” – You didn’t understand me! We have your papers! Your passport! Come back to the station now! I have your passport in my hand!
Upon hearing those words, I yelled for the bus driver to stop (good thing they don’t really have designated bus stops there) and he immediately let me off. I jumped on the next bus back to Santiago and rushed to the station as fast as I could, hardly daring to believe that they had recovered my passport. At the station, everyone was all smiles as they congratulated me on having gotten my passport back, but the colonel had not actually arrived with my passport.
Finally, after what seemed like an interminable wait, the colonel showed up, beaming and holding in his hands, my little purse. Grinning like a little kid, he handed it over to me and I eagerly opened it up. My heart leaped with joy (I’m not saying this lightly) as I removed the distinct, bright red passport, and *bonus* credit card and driver’s license.
I was literally crying tears of joy and I hugged the colonel and all the other officers, thanking them profusely for all their help in recovering not just my passport, but also my credit card and driver’s license. I called my sister back in Singapore (just in time) before she submitted my DOI application to let her know the good news – if she’d submitted the application, my current passport would have been worthless. I also informed the rest of my friends who had been so helpful throughout this whole situation to let them know that their efforts had not gone to waste.
I later found out that they had managed to track down the other four culprits and one of them finally gave up the location where they had hidden my purse. The police went down to recover it, but unfortunately had not been able to recover any of my other belongings. They suspected that the items had long been distributed and sold at the thieves market. At that point, I was just so happy to get my passport back – after all everything else could be replaced. Well, almost everything. I had in my backpack my hard drive where I’d saved all the photos from my trip so far (18 months of travelling), and that was all gone. That aside, I was thrilled to get my passport back and very glad that I could say goodbye to the terrible ordeal that Santiago had been.
After heading to the main police station to sign off on my belongings, I was free to go . Apparently, so was Lenny, because I saw him at the chino when I went to inform Rosa about the events of the morning. I avoided talking to him and seriously questioned the police department’s decision to release him, but I didn’t quite feel like starting another struggle of putting him behind bars. I took the rest of that day to get a few more items that I needed and packed up my things (the few things that I’d collected in my time there), said my goodbyes and thank yous to all the lovely people who had helped me out in such a tremendous way in these 10 excruciatingly painful days.
The next day, as early as I could, I hopped on the bus to Luperon, where the next (boat) adventure awaited.
—–Stay tuned for Boat Adventures!—–