Torsten has asked me to post this on behalf of him.
“After 5 days in Kampala, Uganda, I was dialing in this city and after a great time exploring, I was looking for a last night of sleep at my Airbnb apartment.
The apartment I had rented was a little basic but in a great neighborhood in Kampala – easily the safest and glitziest neighborhood in the city. I had trouble with money being taken from my backpack at the Sheraton, but the amount wasn’t much.
The apartment had barbed wire all around and there were plenty of security guards for the property and adjacent properties. The neighbors had rented there for years and had reported no issues either.
I had set my alarm to 8am that morning but woke up at 6am. It was raining heavily and I was trying to find my phone at the nightstand. It wasn’t there! I was assuming I had set it up on the other nightstand, but it wasn’t there either. I switched on the light and noticed my bag of clothing was missing from the bedroom! The living room was in worse shape, with the door wide open (I was sure I had locked it with keys inside) and my laptop bag and all contents were gone!
I was really alert and wanted to make sure the robbers weren’t still around, so I got dressed and walked out and found the guard. I expected him to be subdued, but he had no idea anything had happened!
Minutes later, he found my Travelpro bag in the gardens, all thrown around, but most contents intact. That was good news and I was hoping to find more stuff thrown away.
I kept searching through the gardens and found another apartment door open. The Airbnb tenants there reported the exact same issue – their door was broken into and electronics had been taken.
Their door showed no obvious sign of force used, but later investigation revealed the way both doors were opened. Two apartments were robbed while tenants slept. Both were Airbnb guests (it didn’t happen to non-Airbnb guests) and both were on the ground floor, away from the main guard post. I can’t shake the feeling that after years of no activity, someone was using inside information to plan the heist.
We later discovered the escape route used, which led through a temporary wall that had been put up just days before the robbery, showing that the robbers clearly planned it down to the last detail.
Luckily my phone was left behind. iPhones are trackable and many thieves are not sophisticated enough to switch off the tracking! My phone became my lifeline.
The property manager eventually arrived around 8am, but offered little help. The other Airbnb guests and I both had flights scheduled that day, but now no passport, no cash and no credit cards!
The US Consulate has an emergency number in Uganda that I called, to be told to make an appointment on the website and bring the police report. The next appointment showed 14 days away! I called again and was told that there might be a chance to be served the next day if I showed up at 8am.
The German Consulate does not require an appointment for an emergency passport, but requires you to bring cash – I had found my Chase Sapphire bundled in my clothing (not my wallet), but they would not accept a card payment.
I called United to cancel/change my flights and they immediately offered help and waived a cancellation fee. Since I was not sure if or when I would be able to fly, I cancelled my ticket for a full refund.
The police were called but never made it to the apartment, so we went to the nearest police station which was a rusty container with a completely overwhelmed police officer. After giving our details, we drive off to the main police station, which was in a very sorry state and did not inspire any trust. Think of a few basic walls, muddy floors and some rather disinterested-looking police officers.
We were told to wait and so we did for two hours. Suddenly some good news transpired – a bag was found with passports inside! After another hour of waiting, the other property manager showed up, actually with the other guests’ bag but it held lots of contents from my bag in it as well! It included all my passports, most of my credit cards (I had already canceled most of them) and my wallet. Of course, no money and no electronics. My camera, my lenses, my laptop with all the data, my SD card with pictures on and all the little helpful items I possessed were gone 🙁
However, the good news was that I was ready to travel right away! The police officers finally took our statement and gave us a file number. Even better, the other property manager also confirmed that the property has insurance and provided the details!
Now my challenge was twofold – get cash (as credit card acceptance is spotty in Uganda at best) and get new flights.
While I got most of my cards back, they had been replaced already with my prior calls and also I now had no PIN for the credit cards to use for a cash advance function. I went to a few local banks and none knew how to process a cash advance. It just wasn’t something they have ever done, so I gave up on that.
I had a phone, but no battery left. Uganda is not iPhone country- there are plenty of smartphones ( everyone seems to have one!) but it’s all Android phones. I had seen a store in the mall earlier but the price for a USB cable was $100. Also, almost all shops refused a credit card payment. Talk about being in a bind!
American Express has an emergency service called Global Assist and they offered to send a Western Union transfer. Now this was offered only when having a valid passport. This hadn’t been an option a few hours ago, but now it was seemingly easy. A friendly agent promised to set it all up with my information but this call would stretch out for hours as we went through multiple back and forths with the Amex team and Western Union. Essentially what the team does is send you a free cash advance using your credit line and then sends that out via Western Union. The exchange rate is very competitive and it comes with just a $15 fee. Western Union is very widely used in Africa and was readily available!
The local bank manager was ready to help and very friendly but it took another 30 minutes to get the money, but it happened eventually! That was a wonderful feeling!
I had some clothes, some cash, a credit card and a phone. Plus I had a passport.
There were precious few flight options for the same day to my next destination of Mombasa and they were $800 one-way…”
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]om.
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