All posts by Deena

Our Worst Travel Moments — Robbed by a Gang at an ATM

We’ve had so many fantastic moments traveling the world continuously for the past five years. In spite of all the “regular” living, there have been challenging moments when things have gone wrong. To be fair, things go wrong even if you live in one place for five years.

We’re just thankful that it hasn’t been one of us waking up and asking the other “Who are you?” And we won’t write about the tsunami alert in Indonesia that turned out to be a huge wave of … wait for it … 2½ inches.

This is one of a series of accounts of our worst moments. In spite of these few misadventures, we are still loving the life of continuous travel!

Robbed by a Gang at an ATM

Cape Town, South Africa

How did it happen?

We like to think of ourselves as savvy travelers when it comes to making cash withdrawals at ATM’s around the world, but damn, we were outnumbered by slick thieves and there really was no recourse. We used an ATM in a sort of empty mall on a Sunday, which was our first mistake; and it’s the last time we’ll do that!

Cape Town panorama from our front balcony.

After we made our withdrawal, received our money and began to leave the area, the problem began. Someone called out to us that he was unable to use the machine because we had not completed the transaction and signed out correctly. He adamantly argued that whenever a foreigner uses the machine, there is always a problem afterward. He loudly beckoned us to return and while we hesitated, the queue of customers grew. They were all dressed like prosperous businessmen. Each of them complained that the machine would not allow them to use it now. Against our better judgement, we reluctantly returned and put our card back in.

The penguins of Boulders Beach near Cape Town

As soon as Ivan put the card back in, he had a sinking feeling. He knew this was wrong, but not quite sure why. Meanwhile, I let him know that there were many now queued and complaining about us ‘breaking the machine’. This prompted Ivan to take a cursive glance behind to see the mob of guys. That’s when the guy in front must have grabbed the card from the slot but neither of us noticed anything. While Ivan was trying to find his card, everyone quietly and suddenly disappeared. We now realized for sure that they probably had our card and the PIN.

We were getting money to buy a SIM card for our phone. So not having a working phone, we had to run back to our place to call the bank. By the time we could check our bank account, they had already taken out $400.


Our stolen money was replaced by the bank after explaining the circumstances.

Lesson Learned
Cape Town, standing on Table Mountain

We are even more vigilant near ATM’s and use only the ones situated inside banks with security officers during daytime hours. Even so, we inspect the card reader to make sure a skimmer hasn’t been installed. You can read about this scam by searching for “ATM skimmer scams.”

In spite of our best precautions, we still became the subject of credit card number theft in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It happened twice and we never figured out how because the card never left our sight. Our bank caught it each time, blocked our card and sent us an email. After talking to us, they had to overnight a new card.

Other stories in “Our Worst Travel Moments”:

Finding the Zen of Travel and Letting the Destination Take Over

Fish peddler in Simon's Town, South Africa.
Fish peddler in Simon’s Town, South Africa.

It’s a challenge to find what creates the pulse of a new city in our travels. The essence that really makes an area alive for me takes considerable time to recognize, and then takes even longer to actually find. I know that it’s breathing somewhere close by, but remains elusive to my untrained eye. Nor can every local I meet put their finger on this indescribable essence that defines their city or country.

Of course, what I naively call the core is different for everyone, be they local, expat or tourist. I’m not at all sure what I’m even looking for when I ask someone to reveal the secret to me. It takes NSA-style probing, and often I only scratch the surface of what’s waiting to be discovered.

Cape Town at night.
Cape Town at night.

I have a blurry preconception when we arrive at a new stop in our travels. My expectations have been colored by snippets I hear on the news, something I remember from a documentary or gems I discover from reading other people’s blogs. But what do I, or anyone, really know from the information that’s out there?

I dream of learning the country’s language, however difficult, joining groups particularly native to the area, attending courses about the history or geography of the area, going on wild and exotic safaris or meditating in a secluded mountain monastery. I try to find the essence of a place by exploring and reaching out in every direction.

Penguins of Boulders Beach.
Penguins of Boulders Beach.

There are a number of ways I search for the pith of each place we visit. Couchsurfer hosts can sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the area. Often they are familiar with some distinctive local flavor outside of usual tourist attractions like watching a performance of taishū engeki theatre or visiting the red-light district in Osaka, Japan. Chance meetings with locals in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, trains and buses have shown us parts of a country that we would not have otherwise discovered. Stopping someone on the street to compliment them on what they are wearing has led to not only being lead to the store where they bought their item, but to lasting friendships. Friends of friends, and sometimes even friends of friends of friends have so graciously also given us insider knowledge of their area.

When I arrive somewhere, I find so much of it unexpected, at least in the way I naively imagined. I was so shocked when I didn’t find origami or Suzuki instrument training in Japan.DSC03267

“Letting the destination take over” is what I strive for in my travels. It’s akin to the method of the Zen master who declines to teach a disciple how to hold the bow and shoot the arrow. Only if the archer can somehow achieve the right state of mind, will he be able hit the bull’s-eye. Like the archer, I need to relinquish conscious control when travelling and allow everything around me to guide me.

“If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.”  –Dogen


We’re Human Be-ings, so Why Do We Act Like Human Do-ings?

I’ve been indoctrinated into the culture of speed and busy-ness. Sometimes, I think I’ve hurried through life without really living it.

Rainbow over Bo Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa, seen from our balcony

Why is it so hard to slow down? Speed is fun, right? Slowing down could be equated with being lazy or not being mentally alert, or worse, with getting old.

I constantly busied myself with something. I filled my head with distraction all day long. Was it so I didn’t need to ask myself whether I was happy or content with my life? If I put those questions to the back of my head, then I didn’t have to think about them, isn’t that it?

Doing nothing, or even just doing one thing at a time, seems to be taboo in the Western world. At the gym, I sought out exercises that work the most body parts simultaneously so no time was wasted. I listened to Ted Talks rather than music in order to build mental acuity. Never mind that I couldn’t remember most of the content, I could just listen to them again. I told myself that this is preparation for a time in the future when my mind will benefit from the brain training I do now.

Racing through meals, I ate standing, sitting at the computer or watching a film. I didn’t taste the food. (It all tastes like chicken anyway!) I’d even found ways to prepare meals faster. I would hardly prepare anything from scratch any more. Prepared food is the answer to a hurried life!

Concert by the Quingshui Cliffs
Concert by the Quingshui Cliffs in Taiwan

Realizing how many training years that Tai Chi requires, I strived to find ways to master it faster because I certainly don’t have a lifetime left to me. Regretting that I hadn’t learned to dance decades earlier, I searched for ways to fast track those lessons as well.

Working with slow internet speeds ironically sped things up by forcing me to multitask. While waiting for sites to load, I could review Kanji charts or make never-ending lists of things I wanted to research online when the speed improved.

Meditating on a river that feeds Liyu Lake.

I’d figured out how to fill every bit of available time. I’ve been a champion of not wasting a second. I’m even good at making excuses for all my never-ending activity. I’d fallen into the path of Human Doing-ness.

Traveling has taught me there’s no need for constant busyness. I’ve learned to stop for the sunset seen from our balcony over the bay in  Ahmed, Indonesia;  for the end of the rainbow in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town that could be seen from our bedroom window;  for dolphins jumping off the starboard rail while sailing the English Channel;  for the sound of rain falling on the ancient grave markers of the spiritual mountain of Koyasan, Japan;  for the live Halverson Passacaglia (my favorite) played against the crashing waves with the 7900-foot Quingshui Cliffs as a backdrop.

Can I slow down? Can I choose the here and now? Can I find a way to become a ‘human being’ and not a ‘human doing’?

New Zealand sunrise