On October 9, 1994, I visited Westerplatte, just outside of Gdansk, Poland. On the way back, I foolishly put the following into one bag:
- My US Passport
- The USD 3,000 I had just earned from teaching some computer classes
- My computer
- My Eurail tickets
- My plane ticket home
And then, even worse, I saw the bus leave with that same bag in the front seat. I tracked down the bus, but I never saw that bag again.
That said, nearly twenty years later, I can say it is possibly the best thing that ever happened to me.
Now, to be sure, I was devasted at first. In spite of the initial trauma (and trust me, it was trauma) made a few quick decisions that saved me in the short term.
I resolved not to ask for a wire transfer. My dad would have gladly sent me the money, and I would have been okay. But I was way too much of a cheapskate to pay what was then a $40 wire transfer fee. I don't know what they are now, but I doubt they've gone down. Instead, I was able to convince a Polish bank to reissue my Visa card. It involved getting the Polish bank to talk to Visa who in turn, called up my roommate. But that credit card was the lifeline that let me continue to travel. That credit card, with a $1200 balance, was all I needed for the next month. It got me by. Moral of the Story: TALK TO PEOPLE
I sold my watch to a Russian guy in order to pay for the train to Warsaw. My idea was to get my passport reissued in Warsaw - and that was a bad idea (more in a minute). What was great was that a Polish guy (Henryk Gut, if you ever read this, you are still my hero!), who it just turned out, had gone to school in Michigan, where my parents grew up. Just having that Michigan connection (and being well-shaved, polite, and not looking scary) was enough for him to take me in for a week while I got my head back on straight. He encouraged me not to stop travelling. He was right. Moral of the Story: TALK TO PEOPLE
I tried to get my passport issued in Warsaw. That was going to take forever. An embassy in a big city is way over-crowded. You'll be in line and always be a number. After a week, I got nowhere. Then, I took a train down to Krakow. The consulate there gave me the forms, walked me through filling them out, and gave me my passport that day. Moral of the Story: Bigger isn't always better. Oh, and it's so much better when you can actually TALK TO PEOPLE
I learned to stay cheap. Yes, you save money, but you also are forced to interact with more people that way. I, for example, had never had alcohol in my life prior to this trip, but I learned to have a social drink with people in hostels, and learned so much. Likewise, knowing a language - any language other than your own breaks down barriers. I remember asking some guys in the hostel if their room was full. They only said, "yes, full," but I heard enough of the German accent to ask if they were German. They lit up, when I asked them auf Deutsch. They were visiting Auschwitz the next day and had a Trabant. Tell me, how many Americans can say that a bunch of Germans took them to Auschwitz willingly? But seriously - it made the difference because I didn't have the resources to splurge every night. What would have been a sightseeing trip became a journey. Moral of the Story: TALK TO PEOPLE
One mistake I learned the hard way, once you are reduced to a credit card, is to always have some cash. I crossed into the Czech Republic with only a credit card, on a Sunday. And then, my credit card (having gone 10 days without a verification) suddenly stopped working. I eventually phoned the credit card company, and got them to reauthorize the card, but not until after a forced 48 hour fast, while I waited for local currency. Moral of the Story: Don't count on the credit card for everything.
When it was time to fly home, even in the days of paper tickets, I was able to show my passport to get the airline to honor my ticket home. Sadly, with the Eurail tickets, I had no such luck. Had I had a Dropbox and a picture of the tickets, now that would have been something, but no. Moral of the story: Always ask the vendor if they can help you. In other words, TALK TO PEOPLE
One thing that saved my bacon was that I had stashed a 1,000,000 Polish Zloty note in my bag, because I thought it was so cool that I had a million of any currency. Grant you, it was only worth about $40, but it made a difference. Moral of the story: Don't put all your cash in one basket!
Finally, I learned self-reliance like you wouldn't believe. When I got home, my dad's first reaction was "What the !*@! were you thinking not calling me! I would have gotten you home safe!" That lasted for about a day, though. Then, my dad realized that I was able to get through. I was calm. I continued on, and I made the best of a very bad situation. That was the day I truly became a man. (Yes, I was 22 already, but that was the day I became a man!) To this day, my dad trusts me over even my older brother, because I proved that I could handle it.
Does it suck to lose it all? Yes. I feel for your loss. But stay calm. Think through your actions, and this could become a turning point for you too.