…on a remote island in the Philippines.
Any long-term traveler will have a horror story… or 2, 3, 4…. Ok they’ll have many. However, there is always the 1 that trumps them all. This is my story about the day I lost EVERYTHING on a REMOTE ISLAND in the Philippines. If you’ve ever been, you know this is already a nightmare to navigate… try doing it without a passport. I wrote this recap the day after I lost it all, so it is very much in real time. My phone was in my hand when I lost everything- but it died quickly and I didn’t have the energy that day to do much of anything. Survival mode kicked in and writing my recap wasn’t part of those instincts. I’m posting this over 6 months later… and still as I reread the play-by-play I literally felt all of the emotions rush into me. This story will forever be engraved into my body, mind and soul.
Tablas Island: 6/3; day 52
I arrive to another port an island away from my intended destination, a reoccurring circumstance here- at least for someone who likes to go beyond the touristy places. I arrived to ODI port on Tablas Island, the biggest island of the collective Romblon area. Just like when I got off the ferry in what I thought was going to be Boracay (in my last post), this time I got off onto an island I thought was Romblon. It turns out Romblon is a group of islands as well as a single island. Upon checking my resort location on Google maps… I needed to get to Alad island in the islands of Romblon. It’s about an hour boat ride away from this one. (I knew previously that I had to take a ferry here- it’s the only way to get to my resort but without internet on Boracay my final few days I had not figured the full logistics out- I also had no service on the ferry but was in contact with my resort when we docked). This big island, Tablas, is separated into provinces. I needed to now get from Odiongan to San Augustin and catch a Bangka boat to the other island. With all my bags in tow and what looked like a longer drive than normal, I opted for a tricycle.
A tricycle in the Philippines is essentially a motorbike with a welded on ‘cart-like’ side car. In total I have seen 8 passengers on a single tricycle. They do 2 people on the motorbike and 6 in the cart- 3 front facing and 3 rear facing. The enclosed cart is supported by 1 bicycle wheel and attached then by welded arms to the motor bike. Anyway, it seemed sturdy enough for me and my stuff. It would be a little more than a motorbike in costs and allow me to take my large backpack off. My bag weighs around 20kg or 40lbs. I don’t feel comfortable with it on a motorbike because it’s enough weight to pull me backward and sideways during acceleration and around bends and such. I can only hold on with one arm because I still have a purse and smaller backpack to handle. Tricycle it is.
I agree upon an 800 pesos rate (a motorbike would be 600- less than $4USD difference). I put my two backpacks on the floorboard and nestled my purse on the seat next to me between my thigh and the wall. As we rode I would check my Google Maps. The ride would be about 45 mins. Scratch that… 45 minutes in a regular car. This would take double the time. I remember as I was riding thinking about the things I’d write about the journey- this part. I was taking it all in; the views here were amazing.
I’d pass mountainous rainforests- so lush and green to my right with bright contrasting Azul blue colored water on my left- the Tablas Strait. The tricycle was climbing up and down a hilly road and the water would get further away- a drop from a huge cliff. We passed little villages I soon learned were provinces. We passed a school and a ton of kids were walking home- lots of girls! We also passed a bunch of rice fields. It really was breathtaking. I didn’t see any tourists anywhere. The locals waved and looked as I passed by, it was a rareity to see me. This is the kind of place I like to explore.
I still wasn’t at my final destination of course, but my journey to get there was promising. There were many missed photo opportunities as I didn’t want to fidget with the camera and miss anything. I’ve said it before… some things are just meant for my memory bank; better experienced than shared over pictures. About 1 hour in, my driver stopped and asked if I wanted to take a picture from the overlook. The ride was quite bumpy thus far and I thought back to my long ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh. I thought he could probably use a butt break, so I agreed. I went to grab my camera while he stretched his legs and lit his cigarette.
I couldn’t find my bag. It was missing. But I know I had it.
I moved my backpacks thinking it must be behind them. Then I look under the seat, maybe it fell. Oh no! *Heart sinks* There’s no physical barrier under the seat to keep it from rolling out the back! (The seat is shaped like an upside down capital T, the lateral part attached by welding- no under seat support or barrier whatsoever.) That’s when I informed the driver I lost my bag- he confirmed that it must’ve rolled out. I told him what was in the bag and insisted we backtrack our entire journey. There is a language barrier… I tell him “I have no way to pay you, we have to find it.” We slowly drove back, our eyes glued to the opposite lane. We also glanced at anyone on the side of the road to see if they looked like they may have found something. I said prayers continuously as we drove; I also made tons of lifetime promises (as one does to God in moments like this). Overall, I put my hope into others- I knew I had no control of the outcome. Somehow I remained calm.
It’s weird, like a possessive calm- a superpower? In times most people panic I have an overwhelming calm. I can physically feel it. I remind myself that there is nothing more I can do but search and pray. Panicking never helps a situation, it definitely only makes it harder to think clearly. I concentrate on the road for an hour as we drive back. At this point I am also figuring out logical steps to how I will get home and all the things I need to do. We stop 2 times but find just bundled black shirts. I remember a specific time from our initial drive when my driver swerved to avoid being hit. I think it might be there, I’m holding out for this bend in the road- lots of hope! No luck. My driver announces to me ‘it is officially lost’ as we end up by the port where we started. He remembers me sitting it on the seat as well and is very sorry. He said he never had to drive so far from the port and didn’t have this happen before. I assure him it’s not his fault. The circumstance although avoidable was really terrible luck. Had I looked under the seat I would’ve kept my purse over my neck and not just have the strap lazily over my shoulder with all the slack. I assumed there was a solid barrier/support to the seat. Quite literally mesmerized by the scenery I never saw it fall and I wouldn’t have heard it over the motor and road bumps.
I ask him to take me to the police station to make a report. He agrees and first makes 3 stops. The first stop was in San Andres where he buys me a cigarette because I’m beginning to stress and asked him for 1. We smoke one together while we advise a plan. He is going to need to stop to his wife because she has been calling him. I also assure him how I can pay him as I have figured it out in my head (discussed below).
On the way to his wife we will stop by his work to let his boss, the owner of the tricycle, know what has happened and also inform him of the payment situation. I agree, as I read this in hindsight it kind of terrifies me that I agreed to all these stops- but I know my American fear is not valid. I was in a vulnerable situation and of no real value to him- but I trust him by instinct. His boss just asks him to grab a copy of the report for their records. His wife comes out to talk to me while he gets me filtered water- she works at a hotel. She holds my hands and says a prayer- I feel her genuine spirit and I tear up a bit. She is very sweet and decides to join us on route to the station.
Upon arrival she offers to stay with my other two bags- they only have clothes and a tripod in them. We think it will be quick, protocol, and plan to also stop at the radio to broadcast on the island to create a search. We were in the station for a couple of hours. Both I and Reynaldo, my driver- I learn, recounted what happened. I also listed off everything in my bag to the officer. I continue to remain calm at this point. While we had been in route I’d contacted my resort and my family back home. It was 16:00, so 04:00 in the states (EST). When I finished up the report they let me plug in my phone- someone there had found a charger and allowed me to plug into their computer.
I sat with my phone as they discussed options. I watched the time go by and began receiving worried responses from family. I began tearing up as I always do when people express their love and care toward me. It wasn’t so much losing things as it was the amount of support yet also the disappointment in having to end my trip. I lost everything. Below is a text I sent to 5 family members- I never shared this story with friends until I came home and still to this day I am sharing it in conversation for the first time.
“Soo… I lost everything. I was in what’s called a tricycle and my purse fell out of the back on an hour ride to my next pier. In my purse: passport, wallet with all my money and credit card/debit cards, my go pro and even my big camera. I lost all of it. We back tracked the whole route and found nothing. I’m at the police station now to make the report. Then we will go to the radio station. I’m nowhere near an embassy. Debating if I should just fly home after all this. I’m really hoping someone turns it in but I’m doubtful.”The text I sent to family
The police officers keep telling me I’ll have to stay the night on Tablas. They said the boats can’t leave after dark because of the coast guard. My host from the resort insists that they’ll get me- they provide a private boat pickup. I feel better going there because I know I can use PayPal from my phone to overpay her and she will give me cash like an ATM and I won’t be a burden. I feel helpless. My mom is the first to respond to my text. She pretty much is panicking and telling me to come home… as if that’s really helpful. First of all, the panic is unnecessary and counterproductive. It causes me more stress and then to think I can just come home without a passport…that’s a big step to jump to. Then she nagged me on things I already knew- obvious things like freezing my cards. I told her to let me handle things; I honestly didn’t need additional shit in this moment. I know she is a worried mother in the situation, but to project her anxiety and fears in panic on me whilst in the middle of the fiasco was really just adding to my issues. I immediately regret telling her. I just knew if she had found out from someone else she might be hurt. I didn’t need her help or advice, she has absolutely NO idea how much more stress she added to the situation. There was nothing she could do that I wasn’t capable of myself. I really just wanted to keep her informed, to keep her in the loop. Our family seems to have communication issues otherwise so I just wanted to make sure everyone knew what was going on before the story got skewed.
I had to tell my dad and sister because I had high hopes one of them had a copy of my passport. It was only fair to tell my mom because I told my dad’s girlfriend, Tracey, too (parents are divorced). I told Tracey because she is also a traveler, and similar to me, remains very calm and acts logically in chaotic times. I also knew she would be awake and my dad would be nearby sleeping- he is VERY careless with his phone and a horrible texter. She responded second asking what she could do to help. I told her I thought my dad had a copy of my passport from an email in March. I didn’t have Wi-Fi to search my emails so she woke him up. He could not find it but said he would contact his work. We had previously gone on a trip to Prague through his company and they had required some documents including my passport in the paperwork.
Finally my sister replies. She was the first one I texted; I actually texted her as soon as the purse was missing before the backtracking- sometime after 15:00/03:00 EST. She also asks how she can help. She doesn’t have a copy either. She sort of acts like a mom to me (shes older) and had me send her a picture of my Passport when I was travelling to France and Spain specifically for a moment like this… It was her chance and she failed me. haha. I memorized my passport number from filling out airplane ticket purchases online- I quickly text it to her so I don’t forget in all the craziness of the moment. While everyone at home is waking up and responding the police are using my phone and talking to my host. Don’t forget there is a HUGE language barrier. The more remote you go, the less likely you’ll find many locals to speak more than their native tongue. Because they are talking to my host, I am delayed on texting; this causes my mom to panic more because I’m not answering. (One of the reasons I become so annoyed with her now is because her anxiety is taking precedent over me figuring out the ACTUAL situation). Again, I only told her so she was informed.
I try to answer her texts to calm her nerves; I didn’t mean to get her so worked up. Now she thinks someone else is texting as me… she doesn’t even believe it’s me anymore; I try to prove to her that it’s me. She is demanding pictures for proof and I am also figuring out plans with my host all while moving to another vehicle- I’m being transferred to another place. (Once my phone is unplugged it’s draining- its maybe at 25%). I am trying to talk with the officers to understand where they want to take me- they do not want to take me to the boat, I INSIST; instead they decide to drop me off to a tourist officer. I officially part ways with my driver and his wife and grab my things. I didn’t know at the time but they followed through with radio station stop- making a broadcast. He must’ve gone straight to there. I promise him I’d get him the money I owed. I had requested my host to send the boatman with cash. He only requested the 800 pesos and told me to give it to the tourism officer.
The tourism officer, Mary Jude, was very kind-hearted. I could tell she was sympathetic. She also is an expert in her field I soon realize. The officers at the station had brought me water and tissues while we were there. Then at Mary Jude’s house I asked to use the restroom. I needed to be alone for a second. It was hard being in another country with a foreign language, helpless. I also needed to pee. The water was turned off so unfortunately I couldn’t rinse my face. I just wanted a moment to cry, look in the mirror and recollect myself. Well I did all of that… and no rinse.
When I came back out I thought we would ride to the pier. Mary Jude had other plans. We rode in a police vehicle to get some food. She insisted I go in at least for a snack. I told her it would be hard to eat right now but I’d go with her if she was hungry. I could feel a lump in my throat; she insisted I order food even though I had no money to pay. I looked at the menu and it offered up a peanut butter French toast. If I’d be able to eat anything, it would be this.
As we sat at the table Mary Jude created a Facebook post to ask the community for help in the search for my belongings. She even posted to tell them they could keep all the cash but to please return the wallet, passport and memory card from the camera. I knew my camera wouldn’t work after the fall. It was thrown in a leather purse with no padding. The memory card would still be fine though. (This is not the first time the camera had fallen- see an upcoming post from Death Valley where I break a lens).
Our food came out quickly and I finished my entire plate before Mary Jude was even half way done. I thanked her for encouraging me to eat. Her post continued to be shared. After she finished we had two new officers to drive us to the pier. They were switching shifts as we ate. As we climbed in the back one of the previous officers rode up on a motorbike with my water and tissues. She made sure I took them with me. This was the second time they chased me down to give me these ‘gifts’- it made me giggle. Off we went toward San Augustin. This ride would only take 45 mins because we were now in a true vehicle. I again kept my eyes peeled on the road not allowing the beautiful sunset and scenery to distract me.
All of a sudden Mary Jude had a big smile on her face. “They found it!” She proclaimed. *Chills ran down my entire body* I was elated. “At least they think it’s you”, she followed up. I was so happy. I let the chills come over me. I knew it was mine. I didn’t need to see a picture. We turned around immediately. She requested a photo from the contact and… it was mine. We arrived to the door of the lady who told her, the mayors wife, and they were not home. Mary June called and she said the person had returned it to the radio station. I was confused. And that’s when I realized Reynaldo must’ve gone through with our original plan from that cigarette break in San Andres.
We arrived to the radio station shortly thereafter and I received my belongings. Every. single. piece! Nothing was taken. I check the contents of my wallet: I notice my cards were all moved, maybe they took pictures? I know I can refute any purchases so I don’t bother worrying. I’m so relieved. And on top of it all, my camera works perfectly. I can’t call it luck because that’s what got me into this predicament.
I’d rather attribute this to a higher power and the community surrounding me- the people of Tablas Island.
I repeat this throughout my blog: I rely heavily on the kindness of strangers in this World. I use my intuition to keep me from danger and my faith in humanity to do all the things. I absolutely was so grateful. I wanted to run to an ATM and take out 30,000 pesos for Raymond Rubia, the guy who turned in my things. Instead the radio asked me to make a broadcast, to thank the community. So they recorded me on air.
“I would like to say thank you to omps and the tourism officer and people who helped find my belongings especially Raymond Rubia and thank you to Awe aranis. I’ll make sure to hold on tighter to my things next time!”My radio statement assisted by Mary Jude
I couldn’t stop smiling; I was ecstatic at this turn of events. I don’t think I could take any more emotions. At this point I only wanted to show my gratitude. Mary Jude thought 30,000 was way too much- LUDACRIS actually (just under $600USD). She said 1000 pesos was more reasonable. 1000 pesos is less than $30 USD. The bag itself had over $1,700USD worth of valuables not even counting the passport and bank cards. I decided I would use only the cash in the bag to divvy up. I figured if he returned it, he must’ve done it on moral principle; if he wanted the cash he could’ve kept it as I had previously gave permission. Again, in hindsight I realize this was announced on FB and he returned it based on the broadcast- either way he was a great human with respectable morals. Therefore I had 8,000 pesos to disperse. I gave the most to Raymond at 3,000 pesos- about $60USD. I gave Reynaldo (my driver) 2,000 pesos- about $40USD. Mary Jude didn’t understand why I was offering more than the 800. I told her he took me there and back, then to the police, and even waited with me; he offered me water, a cigarette, and went to the radio. It was the least I could do for his efforts. I knew the 800 was partially company money so this left him with 1,200 pesos- $23USD. Then she suggested I give the police a tip. So I gave them 1000 pesos to cover the drive there and for them allowing me to go against protocol on the boat in the night. I offered money to Mary Jude for paying for my meals and helping but she refused. Instead I left her the water and toilet paper. I noticed on my brief walk to the bathroom she didn’t have either in her home. She gladly accepted this new offer. It was a gallon jug of water. I later find out (in Coron) water is scarce on most islands in the Philippines.
The last 2000 pesos was used to pay my boat driver who had been waiting for me since around 16:00- it was now after 19:00. On our ride to the San Augustin police station I could see all the stars; the first clear night sky on my trip with no light interference. It was beautiful I immediately saw the big dipper- I felt like I was home. The big dipper holds a very special place in my heart and brings me immediate comfort and happiness. It reminds me that I’m safe. Seeing this immediately following this crazy day was much needed.
I found my driver waiting for me at the police station by the pier (another jurisdiction) and he helped get my things and we jumped on the boat. I had 1 more hour until I’d finally reach the island I came to the Philippines for- and my resort. The boat ride was calming. I saw more constellations than I’ve ever seen. (I later learn this is because I’m in a new hemisphere- it’s the Southern Cross- the Crux!) I closed my eyes and rocked with the boat. The cool night wind hits my face and I felt like I could trust in the World.
I’ve needed this moment for a long time.
In case you were wondering who the 5th person I told was, it was my cousin’s wife and my close friend- Ann. She has had a similar situation happen in another country but her things were stolen I believe. I want to say she was in Amsterdam but I cannot entirely remember. She was in Europe and had to go to the embassy and figure out her own travel nightmare. She also has been routinely checking in on me. She seemed like the perfect person to inform. I also knew she wouldn’t panic.
Also, my family was still panicking and worried- I told them everything was returned but even my sister started questioning if it was me on the phone- it seemed too good to be true. I couldn’t send photos because myphone was too drained to use flash and it was dark. My phone died at the resort. It is an eco resort with solar power and I couldn’t charge when I arrived. Unfortunately, they’d have to go through their day on faith while I slept in peace.
A few days after the incident I shared my experience on a travel forum I am part of- a private group created by Kristin Addis, the woman who inspired me to do it all. I wrote on there to restore hope in the people who are fearful but was met with criticism… I was also met with recognition and later found out I had restored faith in Kristin and inspired her to share here her own horror story on her route to the same resort- something she had not yet released.
“Following that, a reader reached out to tell me that she had been following my footsteps on Tablas and had accidentally lost her bag with her money and camera in it, and that it was actually returned to her in its entirety! It almost feels that everything is canceled out and in harmony again with that amazing gesture.”Kristin Addis
For the full post click here.
Or watch the video below of her personal story.
I want to encourage people to travel to the remote places you don’t see all over the internet, to experience real cutlures and people in the countries they visit. Why put all the effort into travel if you can’t fully immerse yourself?
Take the journey to Alad- I’ll share about my time on that island I worked so hard to get to next. But ALSO give yourself a day or two on Tablas- I wish I had. I’ll be back there someday. I wouldn’t have wanted to lose my stuff anywhere else.
I have a lot of love for that island and all the wonderful people I met that dreadful day.
*I know my recount regarding the feelings about my mom comes off harsh. It is, but I didn’t cut it because it’s real. I am not a parent and yet I try to understand that she was acing as a mom. She doesn’t travel far and have the full understanding of what I was going through- like I don’t understand the fear she felt thinking I was in danger. BUT FOR ANY PARENTS READING THIS: In moments such as these (bigger or smaller) PLEASE do not show your emotions- trust your child and the tools they have. Do what you can to help, but remain calm so that the person in the situation can focus ON THE SITUATION. It really became such a nuisance in the scheme of things. Yes, she sent me a copy of my birth certificate- but I already had that! I only needed a picture of my Passport. In hindsight, I needed nothing but the people of Tablas. Yet having the supportive messages from home were also comforting because I felt very alone and…. (just realized) scared.
The alternative plan: I also would like to note, reaching out gave me options I did not expect. Tracey had a cousin in Manilla- where I would have to go to the embassy. She countacted them and I’d have a place to stay and sort everything out- someone I could trust. I also already had my ferry purchased for Manilla, with a ticket on my phone. The only thing I was trying to sort was if I could get on the ferry- the police report should’ve sufficed. I would’ve taken out cash through Paypal at my resort as I’d mentioned previously. Chase would send me a new credit card I could use to purchase a plane ticket- they’d already sent one to me in Vietnam when I was compromised. I was confident in organizing my way home.
Side Note: This was not my first trip abroad… nor was I inexperienced. Travelers all know it’s important to keep your essentials separated in case of scams. As in, when you go out- leave a debit card or credit card and an ID in your bags in the hostel. This is smart- and it is something I practice. I separate my wallet and lock up belongings in bags and lockers. The problem was I had everything on me, so I didn’t think twice about it. I had my essentials in my most important bag because I never hand my purse off whereas often times my drivers will hold one of my backpacks (motorbike). So maybe this is a lesson for travelers like me who think it doesn’t matter in situations where you have everything. It’s important to factor in the accidents and not just the scams.
I think being American I was naïve to how I’d lose everything- like if I was robbed in the states, dispersing my belongings wouldn’t matter. If someone is pointing a gun at me asking for my things… dispersing them really would make NO difference.
Other than the photo at the top- these are all screenshots from that day or a few days following- taken by the people helping me. The featured photo is from Romblon- on the water sorrounded by the Romblon Islands.