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Horrors: Bangkok

Robbed Blind

October 18, 1998|K.E.S. KIRBY | Kirby, a former editor at The Times, is an American freelance writer based in Thimphu, Bhutan

I'd taken leave of my job--or my senses, some might say--and, unemployed for the first time, set forth for a prolonged stay in Bhutan, the tiny Asian kingdom that was my second home. It was a flight I had made dozens of times without incident.

But this time it even starts off badly: Unusual queasiness sets in before the plane boards in San Francisco--and remains for the better part of the 17 hours to my first stop, Bangkok. The post-midnight immigration line moves languidly as scores of Korean newlyweds, the women still in traditional wedding dress, inch their way through. Considerably less opulent in traditional T-shirt and jeans, I am set free at last to retrieve luggage and settle in on the fourth-floor observation deck for a six-hour layover. (Because of the bureaucratic complexities of my next flight, the oh-so-easy transit lounge is not an option.)

Once on the familiar observation deck, I pick a choice spot near--but not too near--other sleeping lumps, erect a fortress of suitcases, store my glasses carefully in my purse and wedge the purse between head and wall. It's 1 a.m. Though exhausted, I am still restless at 2, thanks to the unyielding floor, bright lights and overactive air-conditioning. A fond squeeze of the purse reveals it's still there.

Eventually, sleep. At 4 a.m. I awake, happy to start the final phase of the journey. And the first thing my myopic, blurred eyes discern is . . . the purse, containing $5,000 in cash, and a nearby tote bag, are gone. Someone has stood right over me and made off with all the cash, travelers' checks, credit cards, passport and airline tickets--plus my glasses and their spare.

None of the sleeping lumps proves helpful, but a Japanese man just stepping off the escalator onto the fourth floor offers hope. "Black bag?" he says. "Hold on, I get police."

Within minutes, we are barging into the third-floor men's room. There is the tote bag, dumped in a stall, with everything intact: books, language tapes, the detritus of travel of no interest to a thief.

There is, however, no sign of the purse.

In frustration I pound my fists against the wall, which I can at least see. Then I lift a heavy chrome ashcan from the floor and overturn it, scattering its kilos of sand the way my possessions are now scattered across Bangkok.

*

The next 11 hours are spent filling out forms and dealing with credit-card companies, giving me ample time to consider how integral glasses have always been to my life. My first pair, a striking gold cat's-eye shape, had been fitted at age 7, in the early 1960s, after I had been able to pick out only the big "E" at the top of the eye chart.

Now, as I sit in the airport police office, I've been reduced to a mewling infant, imploring the indistinct gray-brown uniformed blobs to buy me a Coke because I don't have even $1. Yes, they commiserate, those "gangsters" who are operating in the airport--10 had been arrested just a week earlier--have really been doing bad things to travelers.

One cop, probably unused to seeing a Westerner beg for money, fills with sympathy and hands over the equivalent of $40.

"I think," he says solemnly, "you have big problem."

For a while, the biggest problem is getting real money, more than the cop can provide: cash advances on replacement credit cards. Because it is a Sunday morning (Saturday night in the United States), no banks are open, and contacting the U.S. Embassy for help is out of the question.

I'll spare you the full story of the American Express travelers' checks representative, a decidedly bovine woman who accuses me of fabricating my plight. Instead, let's examine the collect call to Visa International. Antoinette at Visa has good news, she says: We can get you a card tomorrow. But--she speaks very gently now--your bank has refused a cash advance.

I don't take this well. My voice rises to a wail: "What? I'm a preferred customer with them." I pay my credit card bills on time--in fact, almost always in full. I don't bounce checks. I have a better portfolio than most people. I'm not a deadbeat. I'm preferred, dammit.

Sensing barely concealed hysteria, Antoinette says she'll get the bank on the line again. Please hold.

If you wait too long in silence, you get cut off, so I start talking into the dead air: "Please come back, please come back, pleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease come back." Over and over. Twenty-two minutes into the call, Antoinette is back: "We're trying. Keep holding."

Pleaseohpleaseohplease. Thirty-seven minutes. "We got them to approve the advance. You can get cash and a card tomorrow." (After my return to the United States some months later--and a blistering letter about the experience--the bank concedes a wee error of judgment and apologizes, in the form of several hundred dollars.)

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