I Was Also Robbed on Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday in Doula, Cameroon was eventful before I got the airport to find my flight canceled, visa unextendable, and bought a walk-up ticket to Central African Republic.

I ventured out into the misty streets of Cameroon’s commercial center on a holiday Sunday. I went past city hall and ascended the hill to the cathedral to dip in to Easter Mass. Sunday finest to the nines.

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I continued in a loop through the commercial heart of town, past the Chinatown with its many construction materials vendors.

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The main street connecting back to my hotel turned out to be the Grand Market. I generally eschew market visits. Repetitive and no fun for me. With few altenrate streets and the market quiet, I proceeded.

A few vendors were open and some families were shopping.

I was prepared. I had nothing in my trouser pockets except my dummy ‘rob me’ wallet with about $15 in local currency. Passport, etc back at the hotel. I did have my camera in a secure zippered pocket on my chest. I also had my phone with offline map for navigation and my travel umbrella as it was raining on and off.

I let my guard down. Outside the market I had checked the map on my phone. I’ll blame the heat but really it was carelessness. Rather than store it away, I held it in my hand against my folded umbrella. It would take sharp eyes to notice the phone. Sharp eyes were there.

A few blocks into the market, after I read a Chinese for-lease sign on a stall, with a Chinese shoe vendor ahead, I was blocked into on the side and the phone wrestled from my grip. The umbrella fell and the assailant pushed past me on his escape.

His escape was slowed by getting around me and I instinctively lunged after, catching him in a couple steps. I have held back writing this because I cannot say I am proud of my reaction. He could have been armed. He could have been in a gang. Something about the moment, the peace of Easter Sunday, the onlooking families, I chased.

I had him wrapped up and dead to rights. I grabbed the phone back. I then saw his face, perhaps 20 years old, half my size, shaking with fear.

I could have seriously harmed him. Three things flashed through my mind and it wasn’t Easter Mass.

The night before I had been watching the concluding episodes of The Sopranos. (Spoiler alert) The image of Tony’s battered face after the car accident and putting Chrissy to sleep. Did I want to be that?

Then pure selfishness. I had a flight to catch and didn’t want hassle with the police.

Finally, maybe more admirable, what would hurting this kid do? Would he even have access to medical care?

I locked eyes with him for several seconds, then let go. He stumbled off.

A local elder in skullcap came to check if I was alright. A smiling young boy ran over to return my umbrella. A mother gave me that concerned mother’s look. I said, ‘I’m ok, I’m ok, thank you,’ and kept moving out of the market. I should have lingered a moment to properly acknowledge them.

I was back on the broad streets back to my hotel. A perspiring jogger passed by. At another street an elderly man with lawn chair shouted in English, “Walk faster, it is good to sweat!” I was walking fast and I was soaked. I smiled and wished him a good day.

The Easter Angel of Bangui was waiting in the ibis Hotel lobby, the hotel shuttle was going to leave at 9:30 with or without me.

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In all my travels I had never been robbed. Once as a student in Shanghai I had my backpack unlocked and forgot the otherwise empty backpack had my electronic dictionary in the bottom. I was taking my parents to Yu Gardens and it vanished in a moment.

I have met countless kind people such as all those in Doula who showed concern for me. My memory of Douala will be the smiling boy who brought my umbrella. I think he will do great things in life.

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  • Val

    Sorry you had a bad experience, but what do you mean you are “not proud” that you took a few steps and grabbed your stuff back? Are you saying that people should passively accept any abuse from others because of what “might” be? Someone once tried to rob me in a Paris underground station. I shoved him away. At that point I realized the other guy standing next to me was his accomplice, as they both ran off. I’m proud of myself for not being a passive victim and I would do it again, even knowing I might have to fight 2 of them. I say good on you for not being passive and perhaps not making it seem so easy to make a living robbing tourists.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Val – my concern about setting an example that someone might replicate with unhappy results. I have broken up pickpockets of others before. I just feel uncomfortable if it is perceived as showing off in how I reacted. And the risk I took myself over a phone that in a year or whatever I will probably replace.

  • Pablo

    Hey RTC,

    Thank you for sharing your heroic traveling story in Douala, and it was really fun to read. I am glad that you have retrieved your phone back, and boy, those details are so vivid!

    Talking about coincidence here, I also happened have my stuff — something way more important than a electronic dictionary — my passport stolen at Yu Gardens (豫园)three weeks ago. It was such a hassle for me as I have to apply for a new passport and new visa because of that… Definitely not a pleasant experience…

  • Val

    @Rapid Travel Chai – I would just say that not doing anything guarantees unhappy results (for you). Just grabbing your stuff back can’t be perceived as “showing off” unless you go all Dirty Harry on the guy. From your description it sounds like there were plenty of people around and the risk to you was tiny. You are a good person to worry about the thief, but to paraphrase – all that is needed for badness to triumph is for good people to do nothing, is wisdom to live by.

  • frank

    I really liked your narrating of the story! Very well written. I completely agree with you about the “not proud” about your reaction. In a split second you could have retrieved your phone, or being shot. You never know with these people. In many countries they will shoot for less than a phone.

  • DaninMCI

    So why is it you avoid markets again? Seriously it’s refreshing to hear a travel person say they don’t care for markets. I’m so, so tired of Rick Steve Types telling me how some little town is awesome because the market is so great. I always have to ask myself what would I do with some chicken or fresh fish from a market where I have no place to cook it.

    I’m glad you chased him down and got your stuff back. Maybe he’ll think twice the next time.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @DaninMCI – they are all the same, crowded, same piles of stuff, nothing appealing to me unless interesting fruit (Peru). Also, in Europe and Latin America no more town squares for me, and everywhere no more old colonial town/forts.

  • Chris R

    Situational awareness is high on my priority list when traveling, but anyone can lapse. I was pick pocketed at the Buenos Aires airport which caused me grief, but I still had my passport thank goodness. Paris metro I was taken by a ticket scam artist, and on another occasion was nearly assaulted by young immigrant gang types in the notorious RER train CDG-to central Paris; that section goes through some tough ghettos. The bottom line is to keep valuables locked at the hotel, and put some cash/a credit card in your shoes – not joking. The rest, if you’re a victim of a robbery, is to let them have it, and be on your way – you can always buy another umbrella or camera. Such an assault in a fourth, yes, 4th, world country could be a nightmare times 3: Medical care is iffy, language barriers, and corrupt police/judicial system. One has to figure what’s more important: your money/goods or your life. You got out alive, be glad.

  • Shannon

    this story touches my heart. and it is probably one of the best post since your North Korea series. I felt so sorry for what was happened to you and really wanted to give you a big hug.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Shannon – a virtual hug will do!

  • Wow. Well written and exciting to read!

  • DaveS

    I’m not a shopper, so markets hold little appeal to me for that reason, but as a photographer I do enjoy them. Obviously sometimes it’s important to be discreet and careful, depending on the situation.

  • Shannon

    @RTC a big hug and many kisses to you!

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