The last thing I remember from yesterday was that I was looking at my phone’s screen which said 9:51 pm and indicated 13% battery charging status. I put the phone in silence mode, took the silk liner over me and soon fell asleep in the comfort of my air mattress. Little I knew that I wouldn’t hear my phone ring again.
Earlier in the day, I arrived in Tecamachalco, a city in Puebla state in south-eastern Mexico, just before the sunset and headed straight to the municipal palace. Someone had told me that instead of camping in the wild or spending money on the hotels I could stay in municipal palaces which can be found in every Mexican town no matter how big or small. Obviously, no private rooms or beds are offered there. One can either pitch the tent or sleep on the ground but it is safe and free. After coming to know this, I had spent a few nights in different municipal palaces without any issues.
So when I asked the police officer in Tecamachalco if I could sleep inside the municipal office, he went to his boss to seek permission and soon returned with a yes. He opened the gate of the municipal palace and told me that I could sleep anywhere I wanted while pointing his finger to the grassy area and the corridors. He then jotted down my personal details in a small notebook with colourful pages. When I pronounced my name Kamran, he misspelt it Cambram. It was not the first time that a Spanish-speaking person had spelt my name like this. His handwriting was so illegible that he himself couldn’t differentiate the letter G from digit 6 after he had written down my passport number. After he left, I located a suitable place near the entrance and started pitching my tent. While I was fixing the tent poles, the policeman returned and told me that his colleagues had found an even better place for me to stay and that I should come with him. I packed my tent and went with him to the police station. A bunch of policemen and policewomen stood outside who looked at me with curious eyes and whispered “turista!” into each others’ ears. I was told that the place to sleep was a five-minute drive from there. I was willing to cycle but they insisted on taking the ride. We loaded my bicycle on the back of the police truck. I sat with the bicycle in the back while four policemen sat in the cabins.
After few minutes, the van stopped in front of the Centro Comunitario (Community Centre). It was a fenced property which was still under-development. Behind the fence, there was a guardhouse which faced the main street. There were two empty rooms in it with Caseta de Vigilancia” (security hut) signs on the doors. The police gave me the first room to sleep in. They introduced me to the nightwatchman, also a policeman, and told me, “it is very safe here. There would be two more policemen here on duty tonight!” I thanked them for going out their way to help. After they left, I chatted with the nightwatchman whose name was Philipe. I shared with him a pizza I had bought earlier and orange juice. Philipe said I could leave my bicycle outside the room so that I had plenty of space for myself.
“Don’t worry! The area is fenced and the gate is always locked. We will be here tonight!” he said.
However, I like to have my bicycle in view all the time so I showed disagreement and took the bicycle in the room.
“Goodnight Ali, we will be in the next room, if you need anything, let us know.”
“Thanks, Philipe. Goodnight!”
The guardroom was empty and had long panels of glass across the walls through which direct light from the street lamps entered. I covered some wall panels with my tent and cardboard to create some darkness and rolled out my air mattress on top of a given foam mattress. There was no electricity in the building so I resorted to using my external battery pack to charge my Samsung S5 phone and Garmin Edge 800 GPS device. I put them right next to my mattress. As I was preparing the bed, two other policemen arrived and went to the other guardroom where they gossiped for a while and then went to sleep. One of them came to my room get the cardboard and the other came to get the mattress. Whereas cold wind blew outside, it was pleasantly warm inside. I placed the sleeping bag under my head as a pillow, took a last look at the phone, turned off its screen and closed my eyes to sleep.
Deep in the night, I woke up due the cold. I removed the sleeping bag from under my head and as I was wrapping the sleeping bag around my body, I noticed that the door was open and the cold wind coming through it. I stood up and closed the door thinking maybe it was left open before I went to sleep. “What time is it right now?” I groped for phone near my mattress with half-closed eyes but all I could feel was a cold floor. Suddenly I was fully awake. My phone, GPS and battery pack were not there. I looked under the mattress and elsewhere in the room. I clearly remembered placing them right next to my bed, something which I always do when I am camping. “How could they disappear when I am alone in this room?” I held my head in disbelief for a minute. Then I stepped out of the room and saw that the main entrance door was half open too and there wasn’t any lock on it. It was now clear that it wasn’t some act of a ghost but a thief had broken through the property and stolen my stuff. I knocked at next room, Philipe came out rubbing his eyes. I told him what had happened and showed him the open entrance door. He said that he had locked the door and that only he had the keys. He might be saying the truth but here the lock was missing. It was 4:00 am, we searched the property using a flashlight but there were no signs left by the thief.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. Just imagine someone first coming to know a valuable target, breaking the metal lock and opening the main gate, entering a room where I was sleeping, locating valuable items among other stuff spread across the room, extending his arm over me to grab the phone, GPS, and battery pack which were on the other side of the mattress, and then leaving without getting noticed. Yet, this happened, while I was in the “vigilance room” while three policemen were in the next room. There was a CCTV camera inside the room where I was sleeping and giant CCTV cameras outside the building, but either the thief didn’t notice them or was aware that there was no electricity in the building. Could it be that either Philipe or one of the policemen were involved in it? Maybe, but why would they risk their jobs to steal something for which they had been appointed to guard? The irony of this theft is mind-boggling to me. Police offered me this place claiming it was safe and indeed it looked very safe. After all, there were three policemen next door and I myself was present. It was a very daring act even if was an insider’s job. In Urdu, we say, “haath ki safai” (sleight of hand, or hand’s skill). It was truly that sort of act.
In the morning the police shift changed. I went to the police station and recounted what had happened. They said that my phone was last connected to the TelCel network at 3:20 am. As my phone wasn’t password protected and the thief could access all my apps I had to change the email and social media account passwords. The Samsung and Google findmymobile apps were unable to locate the phone as the phone was not connected to the internet. The police needed IMEI number to locate my phone. Unfortunately, I didn’t have it so I had to go to TelCel office in the nearby city Tehuacan to get the IMEI. I had cycled from Tehuacan yesterday which is located 60 km from Tecamachalco. What took me half a day by bicycle yesterday took only one and a half hours by bus. I obtained the IMEI number in Tehuacan and then returned to Tecamachalco and gave the IMEI to police. I met the director of the police who showed interest in solving the case and assured me of full cooperation. He said that an investigation was already underway. They asked me to wait for one more day here.
“Do you have a place to stay here?” the director asked me.
“Ummm, no?” was my reply.
“Would you like to sleep in the same room? We are going to tighten the security.”
“No way. I will rather spend 200 Pesos and sleep in a hotel room. I came here looking for a free place and now I have lost my phone and GPS without which I cannot navigate!”
“Hahahaha, he is right!” another policeman said and everyone laughed and nodded in agreement.
I found a hotel just a few blocks from the police station and am still wondering at the series of events that happened during last night. Just a couple of weeks ago, my odometer had been stolen from the bicycle in Mexico, and now GPS too. I am someone who likes to keep a close eye on the ride stats and upload GPS activity tracks on the web so losing a GPS device is a big bummer. I am also wondering who might be holding my phone right now and looking at many photos that I took with it over the course of three years as I cycled through 22 different countries with this phone. I hardly published any of those photos or took any backups of them because the phone camera wasn’t perfect but the photos captured with the phone were the most candid moments of my journey. I just hope that Mexican police will be able to recover these things using the same magic with which Colombian police was able to when my laptop and Kindle were stolen from a hotel’s room in Pitalito. Otherwise, the thief can keep these things as a reward for being so bold!
Update 1 (12.11.2017) – I went to the police station in the morning. The commander of the police assembled the policemen of his group and made an animated speech in front of them and warned them to produce my belongings within an hour. The commander took the full responsibility and apologised to me for what had happened. He offered me a breakfast and sent a policeman to escort me to a nearby restaurant. When I came back from the restaurant the commander told me that they couldn’t find the phone and that he had suspended the three policemen who were on duty that night. He said a full investigation was already underway. Upon his assurance, I decided to get back on the road and cycled 60 km to Puebla. This was the first time on my journey that I didn’t have any navigation device, neither phone nor a GPS or a map. I also didn’t have an odometer or a watch. I had lost them before as well. So I had no idea about my exact location on the road, the distance left to my destination, or even time of the day. I only relied on the road signs and asked people for directions.
Update 2 (13.11.2017) – In the early afternoon, I checked the Samsung findmymobile website and it showed the last location of my phone on the map. The phone was still in Tecamachelco and was connected to the internet yesterday for the first time after it had been stolen. I immediately sent the screenshot of the location map to police director whom I was in contact with on Facebook. He told me that he would immediately send his team to check.
After two hours, the director wrote me that they had been looking into the CCTV footage and couldn’t trace the person. For the rest of the day today, I stayed in the hotel room in Puebla and kept refreshing the findmymobile page. At 5:44 PM, I noticed some activity on the page and saw that the phone was again connected to the internet and was very close to the central square, just one block from the police station in Tecamachelco.
I immediately made a voice call to the director of police and sent him the location map. He took a group of policemen with him and rushed to the location. From there he called me and said there was no one in the street. I asked if there were any buildings or houses in the street? He said, “plenty of houses.” I suggested him to start a search operation in the houses in the area. The diameter of the location circle was very small. I haven’t heard back from the police yet. The findmymobile page is quite impressive and even showed the battery status of the phone which went from 98% to 96% within five minutes of use. If the thief keeps connecting to the internet he might get caught very soon!