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September 30, 2012

Mugged in Buenos Aires

No, not like that, for real!

I have a short tale to tell you, friends. I write this in the hopes that someone (e.g. me) learns from this experience, and also, so I can just type it up once and then link to it when people ask or I forget.

Last week I was in Buenos Aires to attend the ekoparty security conference. First, quick shout out to Fede and the rest of the ekoparty organizers for, yet again, putting on such an excellent event. Many of the talks were extremely technical (e.g. Thai and Julliano's CRIME attack, Trace Surfing) or interesting (e.g. Literacy for IC reversing) or just kinda funny (e.g. Welcome to your secure /home), the translations were pretty decent, and the effort the organizers put into the venue and decor solidify it as my favorite industry security conference. Where else can you get a mariachi band interlude to a Java vulnerabilities talk or have Nitro-laser man crash close off the con?!

Anyways, I decided to stay the weekend because Buenos Aires is great and far from home and empanadas are yummy. I spent a lot of time in the city last year, so I thought I'd spend my Saturday visiting Tigre, a town on the ParanĂ¡ Delta about an hour outside of the central business district. I checked out of my hotel Saturday morning, left my luggage to pick up later (when I could check in to my new, cheapo hotel), and stuffed my valuables into my camera bag and set out for the day. I decided to stop by the Google Buenos Aires office to print some papers to read on the hour train ride, and then left my backpack and laptop at the Google office to cut walking weight.

I left Google and headed toward the Retiro train station, walking on Av. Eduardo Madero, a major street that runs along Puerta Madera. Outside of the busy traffic, I was mostly by myself until a young professional woman stopped me and pointed to the back of my coat, which had some bird-poopy-cleaning-solutionish looking thing spilled on it. For the experienced traveler reading this, yes, this is a common travel scam. I know that quite well now! If this happens to you, ignore the kind woman and run along! Unfortunately, I was in happy sunny Saturday dazed mode, and said, "Ugh, what the heck is that?" and let her wipe off some of the gunk on my shoulder with a napkin she pulled (in hindsight, all too conveniently!) from her purse. She pointed to the back of my jeans and bag and sort of coaxed off my bag to the ground and continued to wipe my jacked. A guy in front of me got my attention and pointed up toward some window cleaners in skyscrapers behind construction fences on the street, and too slowly, I got a pang of fear... I looked down, and my bag was gone. My bag with my camera, lenses, money, credit cards, and ... sigh ... passport. I usually walk around cities with a scan of my passport, but today I was carrying all the goods. And it was gone and the two accomplices just shrugged and walked off in either direction, surely headed to meet whoever the mysterious third person was that snatched the bag. I've replayed what happened in my head a dozen times and I still have no idea who snatched my bag and where they came from or disappeared to. It was all so incredibly smooth.

So, after an initial shock, I snapped out of it and went back to the Google office. Luckily, I still had my work badge, so I asked the physical security guard from Google if he could help me get in touch with the U.S. embassy. We had a lost in translation moment when I told him, "I was just robbed and lost everything." and he smiled and nodded in agreement, in that way you smile when you sorta know a language, but have no idea what someone just said. It often works out OK, but this was not the reaction I was in a mood for. I repeated myself, he continued to smile, and then I think my face gave it away quite clearly that he was misunderstanding.

I eventually got in touch with the embassy and an officer from their emergency hotline informed me I had to wait another three days for the embassy to open since it was a long holiday weekend. Oh, and I should figure out how to get $135 to pay for a new passport. At this point, I started cancelling credit cards, trying to change my plane ticket home, and finding green dots in Google chat to beg for money... Julien saved the day and offered to meet me with Rafael and Sofia to give me cash and pesos and get me a hotel. Jorge also offered cash and shelter at his parent's place within a few hours. I am so lucky to have such awesome friends willing to waste a vacation day and their money on me.

Fast forward a few days to Tuesday and I'm at the embassy bright and early. The officer from the embassy said come at 8:00 AM with money and any identifying documentation I still have, and I can get a passport picture taken somewhere nearby. I got there at 8:00 with some scanned printouts of my passport and driver's license (which I'd taken earlier in the year) and then waited until 8:30 AM when the emergency passport window actually opened.

I filled out some "I lost my passport, gimme a new one" forms and asked where I could get passport photos. The woman helping me said, "Ah yes, there is a man in a white van outside. Go there to get your photos."

Umm... I'm not dropping off a ransom payment!

I gave her a double take and she reassured me that "the man in the the white van" is a regular photographer for passport photos and gave me a printout with photo requirements. So, I went outside the embassy and looked for, well, the man in a white van.

I found one van, but no man. Then walked further down the street, and found another van with a photography sign in it, but still no man. I knocked on the windows, and a man smoking a cigarette popped out of the car parked behind the van and waved me down indicating that he was the "man from the white van." He opened the van and inside was a large mirror, some video recording equipment, and a broken down wooden swivel chair.

What to do, what to do... step into a stranger's creepy photo van with the hope of getting a passport photo, or run screaming?

Thankfully, I didn't have to decide. The man looked at the photo requirements sheet, and said he can only take cell phone pictures of me and can't do print outs. I figured I must have misunderstood, but no, he said he can only take and charge me for cell phone photos. Tempting as that was, I used the last of my patience and good manners to thank him for the offer and walked off toward Palermo to find a photo store.

An hour and a number of dead end leads later, I had some photos. They were taken with a cheap camera and manually scaled so that most of the resemblance to my actual face was lost, but I had some photos. After another 4 hours at the embassy, where I promised to tell the truth, got my signature analyzed, and answered some questions, I had an emergency passport, and after another 5 hours and some hassles at the airport because I didn't have an entrance stamp in my passport, I was flying home to San Francisco.

So, this whole ordeal was a pain and blow to my naive faith in humanity, but really, it just left me feeling really lucky that nothing violent happened. Filing a police report was a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, and now I don't have to worry about the hassle or decision of selling my 40D or 10-22mm EF-S lens as I upgrade to a full-frame camera! Above all, I'm just really really appreciative that I had so many friends and acquaintances around the world willing to help in whatever way I needed - forged passports, pesos, dinner out, Western Union, whatever. (It's good to know if I ever do need to phish them! :)
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