I was riding on one of Manila's famous Jeepneys – those wonderfully painted and decorated icons of the Philippine transport system which ferry upwards of 20 passengers at a time along predetermined routes through the grimy streets of the capital city.
It was a hot, sultry afternoon and my friend and I were travelling back to the hotel when one of the other passengers pointed out that there was something sticky on my collar and the back of my shirt. Upon closer inspection I found I had been drenched in tomato sauce. "Probably one of the street kids throwing things through the window," remarked another passenger as people from all sides started finding scraps of material with which to rub me down. "They're always doing that. They obviously think it's funny."
I thanked my fellow passengers; and shortly after, there was a mass exodus from the Jeepney; and shortly after that I realised that I had had my wallet lifted. Expertly done. I had never felt a thing despite it being entrenched deep in my pocket. Almost all my money; my ID cards; my credit cards; nothing short of a disaster.
First things first – straight back to the hotel to ring the banks to stop the credit cards; and then, after a change of clothes, round to the Police station to report the theft; or in this case TOPCOP, which stood for Tourist Oriented Police, Community Oriented Police.
Below a sign reading MMP – Pride of the Community sat the station sergeant. Behind him was a cage which was filled with a motley collection of individuals who had been nabbed for some misdemeanour or other. He handed over a piece of paper and asked me to write my details down – passport, hotel, what was stolen and so on. And having filled it all up he then apologised that as it was a Friday evening, nothing could actually be done until Monday morning when the clerk was next in. Could we come back then?
But an hour later an SMS message appeared on the phone summoning me immediately. There was no clue as to who had sent the message, nor where I was supposed to go, so on a whim we returned to Topcop who said that they indeed had sent the message. Could we please report to the Chief Inspector, no less.
We eventually found the way – down to the very end of a badly lit corridor, and we edged into a seedy little room where the Important Inspector was questioning two people who, it subsequently turned out, were a security guard and a student shoplifter who had pilfered four bottles of shampoo and other essential lotions. It was all good natured.
Though the conversation was all in Tagalog, there were smiles all round and a lot of nodding of heads as the Inspector turned to us and pointing to the student advised that he'd be locked away in the cage until Monday when he would appear before a magistrate. He only hoped he had some friends who could bring him some food and drink since, because of budget cuts, there was no way they could provide any.
And then it was my turn. I was given special treatment, it appeared, as I was a foreigner. The locals had to pay for the sheet of paper on which he would make his report; but for me he would find a sheet, which he duly did.
A series of questions bouncing to and fro then started. Important Inspector would ask my friend in Tagalog about the details of the heinous crime. She then translated the question to me; I replied in English, she translated for the Important Inspector and there would then be a long pause before the next grilling.
Eventually all the details had been recorded – and we sat back as the Inspector composed his little essay, finally whipping it out of the printer and handing it over to me with a flourish. And there were all the details of the sordid little tale, all written in perfect English!
This is a new scam, he told me, now in faultless English. He had never heard of the tomato sauce caper … and he laughed at his little bit of humour. He would make sure this story was sent around the other Topcops though unfortunately this wouldn't help me.
Naturally I never expect to see any of the contents of my wallet again. And in terms of nuisance value alone in getting replacements for all those cards it struck me how perfectly stupid it was not to have removed any non essential contents and left them in the hotel safe.
But it's easy being wise after the event. At the time you just know it will never, ever happen to you. Which reminds me of another well known truism…. For, as we all know, lightning never strikes twice in the same place….. does it?