Of Laundry And Losing Everything

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Feng And Me In Front Of The French Embassy, Panama, January 2002

Feng And Me In Front Of The French Embassy, Panamá, January 2002

We didn’t do anything. Just tried to do some laundry. And yet, we ended up at the police station… got into a big mess.

In January 2002, we had just arrived in Panamá, after crossing Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We has spent Christmas in Boca Del Toro and a few days later, we had arrived in Panamá City, the capital.

We had taken a night bus, arriving at dawn. We had waited for a while at the bus station before going to an hostel. Unfortunately, it was closed and we eventually had to find another place to stay, nearby Casco Viejo.

We had unpacked, taken a shower — a ritual we both mastered by then. We were both tired. A few months of chicken buses, cold showers and various insect bites does that to you. I was really sick of doing the laundry in the sink at night and our clothes hadn’t been properly washed since Nicaragua. We put all our dirty clothes in a big garbage bag and decided to go look for a lavandería.

We were not familiar with the city at all. We crossed a busy market, busy streets and busy area. At one point, a woman stopped us and told us to go no further. But we kept on going. What could happen in broad daylight, in such a busy place?

Feng had just told me the place looked a bit seedy when we heard someone running behind us. It happened in a matter of second. One guy (I think they were two or three) grabbed my back, the other one grabbed my neckless and the third one was fighting with Feng who was carrying our clothes. I was so mad I fought back but they left as quickly as they have arrived. I collapsed on the ground and burst into angry tears.

We entered a nearby store. Everybody had seen the robbery and people we nice to us. I begged someone to get my bag back. At the time, I wasn’t sure what was in it (we had left the hostel quickly) and I was afraid I had left my passport in it. Physically, we were both fine except for a few scratches. Feng fought as much as he could but we had been taken by surprise — not much to do.

Someone had called the police and we were taken to the nearby comisaría. We filed a report and the police brought us some kids to try to identity our robbers. I barely looked at them. I can never identify the bad guy in the movies and I didn’t trust the justice system that much in Panamá. What good was it going to do anyway? I was pissed off but meanwhile it was our own stupidity. Time for action, not for revenge. We thanked the police and they released the kids.

Back at the hotel, I checked my backpack and realized I still had my passport. Feng didn’t lose anything (his had left his wallet at the hotel and only had small change). I had lost a neckless, my bag, my agenda and my wallet. There weren’t much money in it, so it was okay. Traveler cheques and US dollars were at the hotel. I didn’t care much for my French IDs but there was my credit/ debit card in my wallet.

Although I doubted the kids would attempt to use it (they didn’t have the code), I needed a replacement because it was my only way to withdraw money. Feng had lost his wallet in LA a few months earlier and he assured me he was a straightforward process. I had no idea. I was 18. That was my first bank card.

We then went to the French Embassy, which was located in Casco Viejo, the seedy district. Bars on windows, bulletproof doors, we got an idea by then. The people are the embassy were surprisingly helpful and a doctor that happened to be here looked at our scratches and bruises. Nothing bad, thanks God. I called Mastercard and my card was cancel. I ordered a replacement one and left the French Embassy address as I figured it was the safest and easiest way to pick it up.

We went back to the hotel. Our room was tiny with just a bed and a shower. We lay here and hugged. Panama was said to be the safest country in Central America… yeah, right. El Salvador, Nicaragua etc. are not always politically safe but people were nice in general. Petty thief could happened but violent crime didn’t seem to be in the air. I sensed a different atmosphere in Panamá. There were armed guards everywhere, bars on windows and bulletproof windows and doors. A different level of crime, probably. Drugs, money and trafficking. That was new to me.

Mastercard had told me it would take a few days to received a new card. Meanwhile, we hanged out a bit on Via España, the only safe place around here. We visited the Panamá Canal, got our yellow fever vaccination (required to enter Brazil) and Feng applied for a Brazilian visa. We ate tuna sandwiches, Pringles, Keeblers cookies, and watched U.S TV in the hotel room.

We started making a daily trip to the embassy to check if my new Mastecard was there. Days were going by and nothing, nada. I kept on calling Mastercard in France and they were positive they had sent the card. Eventually, one day, the Consul himself took pity on us and phoned my bank. Turned out these idiots had sent my new bank card by regular mail, rather than by FedEx or DHL, because they had been told “mail was reliable in Panamá“. The Consul literally yelled at them and I started to cry. Again, out of frustration.

It became clear that I would never get my Mastercard, which was my only debit and credit card. But I needed my money. That day, I went out at 3am to call my bank in France right when they open. I was tired, sick and frankly a bit scared to hang out nearby the payphone, a few streets away from the hotel. But Feng needed his sleep and frankly, because I was speaking French, he wouldn’t have been much help anyway. A solution was found: the bank would send me the remaining of my account balance by Western Union and the transfer would take place immediately. I would still be without a credit card but at least, I could change my money for Traveler Cheques (thanks God the currency of Panamá is $US).

It took another few days to get the money from Western Union. More phone calls to my bank (I would cancel my account upon coming back to France a few months later). Meanwhile, we bought our plane ticket to Quito Ecuador. We would not go through Colombia, as we had thought.

Eventually, I got the money from Western Union, about $2,000 in cash. We carried the crisp biils in my bra and Feng’s socks to the nearest bank and bought Travelers Cheques. A few days later, we flew to South America. Bye bye Panamá.

This December, I will make sure we don’t need to go to the lavandería. I swear.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. What a horrible story! Good thing no one was hurt severely. Indeed it was a lesson learned and I hope nothing bad will happen on your upcoming adventure. I think European banks are very helpful to its clients…they seem to be very understanding.

  2. You remind me of the first time my wife and I were in Rome and a pair of boys snatched her purse from an outdoor table where we were having a drink. On grabbed it on the run and jumped on the back of the other on a motorbike a few feet away on the street. I gave chase but the motorbike was faster. I had our passports and travelers checks in my jacket pocket but our airline tickets were in her purse. Needless to say the next day was a hassle but we lived through it.

    We were very young then and kind of stupid about such things but made it home sadder but wiser. That moment just after you realize that you have been had is one you never forget. May your next trip be less exciting.

  3. Oh my goodness… what a story, and you remember so many details! That is scary and sad, but it’s good there were some people who were so willing to help! My sister and brother-in-law also got mugged in Panama City once.

    Hey by the way, your comments always get through (thanks!) but I have to approve comments made by CommentLuv, the plugin I use that tracks your comments back to your blog. I approve the comments every day… go see on my blog and you’ll see your comments leave links to your last posting here. 🙂

  4. It’s really sad what happened and even with that I can tell you that Panama keeps being the safest country in latin america.

    As an example, yesterday a friend of mine got robed in Venezuela with a gun inside a house in a party. So you can’t even go to parties at a friend’s house.

    It’s really sad what I’m going to say but I really really prefer -30 degrees here than worm in latin america. 🙁

    I hope you have a great time this time and no sad stories!!

  5. Terrifying tale! I hope your upcoming trip is a safe and happy one!

    Btw, I love the name Feng. You said bye-bye to Panama but did you also say bye-bye to Feng? 🙁

  6. That is a very bad experience… but if I can give you an advice…never fight to keep your belongings.
    Some people kill if you fight back… and in the end it is not worth it to die for your belongings…

    I hope you will have better luck this time…

    Yes…what happened with Feng ? 😉

  7. @Agnes – Oh yeah, definitely! We still talk about it. I mean, it was a pain in the butt but nothing traumatic.

    @Bluefish – European banks suck in my experience, but then, Canadian ones too so… must be a bank thing. My bank really didn’t help actually, the whole story is much longer 😉

    @Bill Miller – As you say, it is a hassle but it’s not a major problem. Any paperwork can be replaced… It’s a life experience.

    @Aiglee – Oh, I can understand you! We are still pretty careful but I feel safe enough in most countries. I wouldn’t go travel in some… Venezuela is I’m sure a great place but not on the list for now.

    @Brenda – Ah, so we are not the only one who got mugged in Panama! All the other travelers in South America were like, “oh, no way, Panama is safe”. Yeah… right.

    @Scarlet – Feng is sitting on the sofa besides me – we are married now 😉

    @Sidney – I know, I guess I wouldn’t think of fighting back usually, it was a reflex, the mix of shock and surprise. Feng is doing fine and we are living together, traveling together etc. 😉

  8. Rather scary when such a thing happens, but it was good you both escaped with only a few scratches (and much wiser!).

    Is the first time I have seen a pic here with both of you together? 🙂

  9. I like to travel and see new places, but I think I’m getting more and more apathetic about it. I hate packing and flying and not knowing exactly where everything is or who to ask for help. I like everything to be planned down to the last detail and that’s so exhausting. Maybe I’m just getting old? 😉

  10. 🙁

    I lost my cellphone before, and it really sucked.

    I once accidentally “lost” my card too, because the attendants weren’t paying much attention. In that case, it’s always a good idea to call the bank immediately.

    I hope you’re ok now. 🙂

  11. I’m so sorry you had to go through this mess! Getting robbed is a terrible feeling. You feel so helpless and angry and really violated. A man tried to rob me in Nice once, but I fought him off. It was still a scary experience, I cried because it was just so overwhelming!

  12. Hey you look so different in this photo. I just could not believe that was you 😀

    Overall it sounded scary; I know must be more scary to feel it. Good part was you were safe and sound and so was your passport 😉

    I am sure this time you will be more careful. Have a lovely time!

  13. Lis of the North on

    Oh Zhu what a disaster for you! I can’t believe the silly bank sent your card by regular mail. When I first moved to France, I had to go the branch to get my card because they wouldn’t send it by post. In France!
    I’m glad neither of you were hurt and things got sorted out in the end. And I’m glad it never put you off travelling, that would have been a damn shame.
    Enjoy your trip!

  14. It is such an ENORMOUS hassle to get robbed in a foreign country. I’m sure it puts off a lot of people from travel.

    This was me one year ago, my second time in Barcelona and my second time to get robbed in Barcelona! And it was WORSE the second time around! The first time was relatively benign, a small amount of euro cash. The second time they got my wallet and made another attempt for a bag (it had my passport in it) but I grabbed it back.

    Normally I would be much more alert, but I had just flown from Morocco and I was sleep-deprived and alone and vulnerable at the bus station. I was an easy target. I saw nothing of Barcelona, only two police stations and a cold night in the airport.

    It’s good to tell these stories, since we take safety for granted in Canada.

    Here’s hoping your trip has no theft stories.

  15. What a terrible story, Zhu. I was reading and kept saying to myself “How could this have been possible? I had such a great time in Panama last year!”. Well, yes I did, so what? You can’t say a place is safe just because nothing happened to you…

    I’m very sorry you had to go through such an ordeal, but relieved that it was just a few material items. I agree with Gail, we feel so safe in Canada, that we lower our guard when we go to other places. My son Santi (13) is in Argentina visiting the family, and I can’t stop thinking that he’s going to go out with all his money, the camera, the banking card, thinking that nothing will happen to him there… (shudder).

    Anyway, Zhu, I also wanted to thank you for coming to visit my blog so often. I hope you like what you see there! I have added you to my blogroll and will soon post a review of your site, if you don’t mind.


  16. Hi!
    Awesome blog..those are the few words that I can say(and really sorry about this post´s story)!.

    Greetings from one ex-Ontario resident going now to Alberta, originally from nothern Spain.

    I´ll add a link in my blog, if you don´t mind.

    Take care!

  17. @Shantanu – Probably, I keep Feng to myself 😉 You guys will see more as we travel!

    @Jennie – I wish I would quit traveling and get a steady life sometimes but it’s a drug to me, can’t really explain why…

    @Baoru – Canceling a card is usually easy I learned, just the replacement is a pain.

    @Tanya – It was scary, we talked about it for days, half laughing, half… traumatized. I guess it’s still rare though and I’m not scared of traveling again.

    @Annie – Are you saying I now look old and fat? You’re being banned from this blog! 😆

    Just kidding 😆

    Yeah, I was just 18 in the picture, and I’m 25 now, you can see wrinkles already… No, seriously, we were both very tan and also very thin, from all the worries. I think I was sick too that day.

    @Lis of the North – My bank (Credit Agricole) was such a drag all the years I was between France and Canada too. They could never get anything right… I was glad when I switch to a Canadian bank for good.

    @Gail at Large – You’re so right, Canada is so safe… can’t believe it. New Zealand too, I remember when we were there, Feng lost his wallet and a guy chased us across the city to bring it back.

    @Gabriel – I think it was just bad timing, but I’m positive that I found the atmosphere quite different in Canada. More dangerous, higher level of crime… can’t explain. This is just true to the capital and the infamous Colon and Darien Gap though, Boca was quieter.

    I’m sure your son will be fine, don’t think of all the bad stuffs 😉

    @Javier – Of course I don’t mind, and thanks for visiting! I’ll visit you back, I’m curious about Alberta.

  18. This story you remember on the cusp of heading off to Panama? That doesn’t bode well. But I am sure this time it will b e amazing. Now that you know where and where not to go! Have fun!

  19. You have to wonder at it…whoever got your laundry would also have got your chore of washing it! But I can see why a laundromat would make a target – so many travellers passing by, carrying everything they own. So scary when it happens. I agree that pointing youths out in a line up wasn’t going to help much – you never know why these folks feel they have to steal too.

    • Yeah, and looking back, it was actually a good experience. I was 18, well, I learned that sometime, the world isn’t so friendly. Beside, it wasn’t the end of the world, just a bit of a shock.

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