When My Car Got Stolen

Below is a series of Facebook posts I made when my rental car was stolen last year in Murcia, Spain, and from when it was recovered two months later at the opposite end of the city… on a street I’d never heard of, buried under a heap of parking tickets. I then returned to Spain to recover my possessions, almost all of which were still in the vehicle, minus a transmitter unit from the drone I often carry with me to record scenic videos. This is probably my strangest travel experience to date.

August 9, 2015 – post 1:
“Either I’ve managed to get utterly lost in a 1 block radius of where I parked, or else my car has been stolen in broad daylight. Passport inside, along with camera, drone, tablet, GPS, toiletries and clothing. At the police station now… This is a hell of a way to end my weekend”

August 9, 2015 – post 2:
“Used Google Maps history to retrace my steps to the exact place where I parked and there’s now a minivan where my car was before. Time to head for Madrid to get an emergency passport and hopefully tomorrow I can find my way back to Britain”

October 6, 2015 – post 3:
“It gets stranger with every step… And something stinks. I have proof of where I parked, and I believe I know now what happened to the car, although it may be pointless to pursue with the police. Oddly enough, the drone saved me from losing everything else… This story is worth a read.

When I got the car rental agency this morning, the manager showed me to a box of my things that they were holding. At first glance, everything appeared to be present… The manager even said the GoPro was still mounted to the windshield when the car arrived and that the GPS was on the passenger seat where I’d left it. But the lens on my Nikon camera was damaged. And the drone was broken in multiple places, the gimbal was partially pried off the body, and the transmitter for the monitor (FPV) was gone. In fact, the transmitter is the only thing appeared to be missing. (Only later did I realize the significance of this.) I asked if he had dropped anything; he said no. I asked if the police might have damaged anything, and he said he’d been told that they hadn’t touched anything in the car.

The location where the police found the car was in Murcia, but not on the street where I parked it, which was Calle Cartagena. No exact address was given, and there are several matches for the name of the street in question – Avenida Rio Segura – but all are 5+ km from where I parked, and all are on the outskirts of town and too far from the city center to have been reached on foot in the hour or so that I was there. But since this street was still within city limits, neither the rental agency (nor, apparently, the police) believed me that it had been taken. Everyone insisted that I simply forgot where I parked. I started doubting myself, but with the GPS history, the saved map pin of a shop across the street, and the photo of the car next to me, it just didn’t make sense that I could be so far off base.

According to the police, there were no signs of forced entry to the car, although in my view that’s not definitive of anything… but as a result they had no proof that it had been taken. The manager said there was no damage to the vehicle, and the police reported that it looked like it hadn’t been driven for a while. The fact that basically all of my things were still present would seem to corroborate the evidence that I had simply gotten confused. After all, with electronics in plain view, surely a thief would have made off with something inside? I asked if the police had taken fingerprints, but the manager said, “Do you know how many people have driven this car? And a thief could have worn gloves.” Point taken.

So I started doubting that the car had been stolen… And thought back to something a man in a café told me while I was pacing the neighborhood looking for the car. He said sometimes if a vehicle is parked illegally, a tow truck will take it to a legal space rather than impounding it. I mentioned this to the manager, who confirmed that it can happen, but only in small towns that lack an impound lot. In Murcia, he said, they don’t do this. Then he proceeded to tell me the car was found in a pay parking zone anyway, so there’s no way a tow truck would have taken it there, and there was a “montón” (heap) of parking tickets. So my theory was evidently wrong.

At this point, the manager told me I could either pay for the days lost or else they would have to take up a case in court. He said they might not be able to prosecute me since I’m foreign, but if I ever returned to Spain, they could arrest me at the border. I insisted that it wasn’t my fault and that someone took the car, but all he said was “sorry but there is no proof.”

So I paid. We negotiated a price, he came down from €1500 to €800, and I agreed. I mean, what more could I do? Considering the car was out of commission for 50 days, there was a pile of tickets, and they had to send 2 people to retrieve it, that didn’t seem like an unfair price. And I didn’t want to be banned from returning to Spain. So I paid and I left with my things.

After catching the train into town and checking in at the hotel, I started unpacking, and as I’m sitting here looking at my things, it hit me. Why would the transmitter be the only thing missing? It was secured to the body with a lot of duct tape, and being lightweight, there’s no way it would have fallen off. Then I realized the tape was gone as well, and that the damaged leg is the one where the wires are routed through (see photos). The only way this could have happened is if someone forcibly tore at the wires and the transmitter. And *then* it dawned on me that my tablet is also missing – also something with GPS tracking capabilities, and the potential (with the right software) to be traced.

I’ve also just now reviewed my GoPro videos, and the last video is of me pulling in exactly where I thought I had, two spaces down from the same badly parked car on Calle Cartagena that I took a photo of. So it turns out I’m not delusional.

So what actually happened? Here’s my theory: After stealing the car, the thief noticed the GPS unit on the seat, got to thinking of tracking devices, and decided to see what else was in the car. So he pulled over and opened the trunk. He proceeded to open my backpack (containing everything else I had), and messed with my camera, looked at my photos (it was halfway through the set when I turned it on), and proceeded to fumble and drop it, damaging the lens. He put it back, then pulled out the drone… And saw the transmitter and antenna. He panicked, thinking it might be tracking the car and he was about to be caught. He tried to pry off the gimbal unit with a screwdriver, and only partially succeeding, he tore off the transmitter and threw it away or took it with him. He did the same with the tablet, again realizing the threat of being traced. He hurried to abandon the car, leaving everything else behind. The car then sat (luckily) unperturbed for weeks until the police happened to notice the excess of tickets and realized it was stolen.

This accounts for the damage, the relatively short distance from where the car started, and the fact that it hadn’t moved in a long time. It also explains why the two items that are missing were taken, while everything else was left behind. But now, is it worth pursuing?”

Nov 5, 2015:
“Tried to open a case with Chase bank to contest and investigate the €800 rental charge in Spain for the recovered stolen car, since the company never provided me with proof of their theft insurance policy, or proof of the assertion that their policy wouldn’t cover losses incurred due to the theft in this case.

Unfortunately, Chase said they can’t retract the charge and can’t do anything to help me, since I recognized and approved the charge previously. Even though I’m arguing that this involves a potential misrepresentation of services, maybe even insurance fraud on the part of the merchant, the bank can’t (or simply won’t) help me. Fun. I guess it’s time to suck it up and let it go…

Tried to open a case with Chase bank to contest and investigate the €800 rental charge in Spain for the recovered stolen car, since the company never provided me with proof of their theft insurance policy, or proof of the assertion that their policy wouldn’t cover losses incurred due to the theft in this case.

Unfortunately, Chase said they can’t retract the charge and can’t do anything to help me, since I recognized and approved the charge previously. Even though I’m arguing that this involves a potential misrepresentation of services, maybe even insurance fraud on the part of the merchant, the bank can’t (or simply won’t) help me. Fun. I guess it’s time to suck it up and let it go…”

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“Why Don’t They Come Here?” A Cypriot’s Take on the Refugee Crisis

Had an interesting chat with my B&B host in Larnaca about the refugee crisis and Cyprus’ role, or lack thereof. He said: “Cyprus is only 200km from Beirut. We’re the closest EU country to Syria, and it’s very safe here. If migrants wanted safety, this would be a natural place to come and a fairly easy journey. They could even settle in the Turkish occupied north to avoid religious conflicts with the Greeks. Yet they don’t come. We’ve had almost no asylum seekers. So why not? Because this has never been about safety, for most migrants at least. What they want is jobs, and Cyprus is a small country and there’s no money to be made here, so they don’t want to come here. They target big states like Germany and Britain with large populations and economies, and they want to be able to move freely between countries to pursue work, which they can’t do in Cyprus since we’re far from the rest of Europe. They’re just exploiting the safety concerns to get a free work visa, and the mass media is trying very hard to hide this.”

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Crossing a Line in Nicosia, the Cypriot Capital

Crossing over to the Turkish-occupied side of Nicosia, dubbed “the world’s last divided capital,” is the only time I’ve had to go through passport control within the same country (or is it?). This is a city split by prominent walls and barbed wire, patrolled by military on both sides as well as neutral UN peacekeepers. Crossing over is an abrupt transition of language, currency, faces, music, and religion. Turkey regards it as a separate country, but thanks to its acquisition / “independence” by way of a Turkish invasion in the 1970s, the rest of the world considers it an illegally occupied territory.

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Why I rent cars, even in Europe

People have asked me repeatedly why I hire cars so much when I travel. This weekend I didn’t, mainly because I didn’t initially intend to leave Berlin, but I’m reminded why I prefer to have a set of wheels:

1. Shelter from the elements. When I arrived Friday night, I was welcomed by a thunderstorm and a lot of wind, a fun combination when you’re on foot. I could take a bus, but I’m still stuck waiting outside. I could grab a taxi, but that’s hardly an affordable option in northern Europe.

2. I don’t have to carry my backpack everywhere, nor do I have to find a locker for it, and I can splay out the contents in the trunk if I want, rather than constantly having to repack everything. I bring a lot of electronics – DSLR camera, drone, GoPro, and spare batteries, chargers, and USB cables. I also have either a laptop or tablet in tow. I tend to do a lot of walking, and particularly when it’s hot outside like it was this weekend, carrying a big weight around isn’t much fun, and my back and feet are aching as a result.

3. I can control the air temperature during my journeys. Two of the three trains I rode this weekend (Berlin-Leipzig, Leipzig-Dresden, Dresden-Berlin) were quite full, and air conditioning was limited. The train cars didn’t smell too great as result, either.

4. Trains aren’t cheap, especially for the impulsive traveler. My tickets this weekend cost a combined €95. Add to that the locker fees (€10) and inner-city transit (trams, buses, etc. – about €15) and I’m up to €120. I’m confident a car + fuel would have been cheaper. And this is with German trains, which are cheaper than British ones (and dramatically cheaper than in Japan). Granted, a car has to be parked, but I can pretty consistently find accommodation with parking that’s either free or under $10, which seems a small price to pay for the added comfort and convenience. Some countries have toll roads, but I can usually avoid these without adding too much time to my journey.

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Sample cost breakdown #1 – weekend road trip in New Zealand

2012-11 - NZ North Island 3 IMG_6375  IMG_6510  IMG_6244  IMG_6657

What follows is a weekend road trip I took on New Zealand’s north island in  of last year, going from Wellington to Auckland and back by way of a one-way car rental and then a one-way flight back. Bear in mind that I was living and working in Wellington at the time, so I didn’t have to book an international flight to my starting point. However, this nonetheless serves as a reasonable model for weekend trips anywhere, and also highlights the importance of taking advantage of regionally available deals. Below is a complete list of all costs to give an idea of what you might expect. I list the individual prices in New Zealand dollars, and convert the total to American dollars at the end.

In total, this comes to NZ$385, or about $310 American.

That might sound expensive for a weekend trip, but bear in mind that this was a fairly ambitious journey for 2 days (about 12 hours of driving and a one-hour flight, plus half a day of hiking and spelunking), so something more modest could probably be done more cheaply. In addition, even with this itinerary, there is room for improvement on cost. First, I was traveling solo, which isn’t a very cost-efficient way to go. By traveling with just one other person, you could halve the rental car, fuel, and hotel costs. In this particular case, I took advantage of a local deal, so the car was essentially free, but you could still split gas and hotel, and shrink the total by around $65 USD to $245, by taking someone with you. You may benefit slightly on food costs as well.

Also bear in mind that my itinerary included a paid cave tour in a private park for about $65 USD. I could have eliminated this in favor of, say, hiking in any of New Zealand’s regional or national parks, all of which are free. If you subtract this cost, you’re down to about $180 if you travel with a partner.

There’s a third way reduce costs even further, and that’s by staying in a hostel instead of a hotel/motel. Personally, I’m a very light sleeper and usually struggle to get enough rest in hostels, due to the noise of slamming doors and drunken partygoers dragging in at all hours of the night, but if this doesn’t bother you (and it’s often not an issue in smaller towns), then you could probably reduce your housing costs to around $15-20 per night by staying in a shared room.

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A simple introduction

My journey, like many, began from humble roots. Not long ago, I was stuck in a financial and emotional rut, and barely did anything or went anywhere. But in the last two years, my life has transformed into a nearly nonstop reel of global and domestic travel, the diversity and frequency of which has led a number of friends to ask me, “How the hell are you doing this?”

This is a fair question, because as a full-time working American, I have only three weeks of vacation a year, and I spend at least 40 hours a week in the office. I’m not independently wealthy, and I’m not making six figures either. Yet, I’ve accomplished an intense amount of exploration in spite of these constraints.

I’m here to share my adventures as well as my approach to taking them. To the disappointment of some, there is no simple answer. But there is indeed an answer, and I hope this blog can be of use to others who wish to see the world under time and budget constraints as well.

If you’re independently wealthy or have six weeks a year of vacation to throw around, then you may not like my approach. In fact, it may strike you as completely ridiculous, and you’re probably best off looking elsewhere for travel advice. On the other hand, if you’re short on time and don’t have a high-roller’s bank balance, then this just might work for you.

I acknowledge that my M.O. is not for everyone – it’s intense, it’s tiring, and it works by way of meticulous planning, sleuthing for deals, and skimping on luxuries. You do need some money to pull this off, but not as much as you might think. With the necessary will and diligence, you too can travel regularly, even if you don’t have that much time or cash to spare.

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