An Exchange (Mis)Adventure: When You Lose Almost Everything

Every semester, many students go on exchange, and most come back with nothing but warm memories of their time abroad. When I embarked on my exchange journey to Germany last August, I was looking forward to travelling around Europe, trying out new cuisines, enjoying myself and having a stress-free four months.

All was going swimmingly until a week in Spain changed the trajectory of my exchange entirely.

I was robbed in Spain. Twice.

First, my phone was picked in Barcelona, just one hour after landing at the airport. It was running low on battery and I had connected it to a portable charger. Fearing it would get swiped, I held onto both items tightly in my hand. As I was tapping past the ticket gantry whilst changing metro lines, I tripped whilst passing the faregate. When I gathered my bearings a few seconds later, my charging wire had been disconnected from my phone.

Just that couple of seconds. On hindsight, I suspect that the pickpocket had tripped me and in that split second where I loosened my grip, he swiped my phone.

It didn’t help that five minutes later, on the platform when my friends and I were trying to regroup, somebody tried (but failed) to unzip my friend’s bag. Whilst I wanted to give chase (I suspected the same person had my phone), I was stopped by my other friends, who said that it was risky to do so as they might be operating in a group.

That rattled me, but I continued on with the trip. I just left a message on my Facebook, telling people to contact me through other means.

As it eventually turned out, I wasn’t going to be back in Germany on that Monday…

In the meantime, I had padlocked my bag and kept my valuables in there instead of my pockets, to ensure that no one could pickpocket me anymore. A huge mistake, as it turned out.

Five days later, I was at a Llaollao (the frozen yoghurt place) in Madrid with my friends. I needed to go to the toilet, so I left my bag on the floor beside the chair my friend was sitting on and told them I was going. There was a man that had gone to the toilet right before me. I thought nothing of it then. However, when I returned, I saw the staff speaking to my friends, advising them not to leave a bag on the floor. Upon walking over, I realised that my bag had been switched, most likely by the guy who had used the toilet right before me. I suspected so as he was holding a bag that pretty much looked like the switched one.

It wasn’t a one-man job, it seemed. Two of my friends later mentioned that they had seen someone fiddling with a pineapple prop near the counter. It was bait to distract them so that the switch could be executed. And it worked.

Everything was in my bag, except for my laptop, which I had left in Germany. Everything – my DSLR (which I had only bought in 2017), my wallet that contained my credit card, my IC, both my matriculation cards, even the police report for my stolen handphone, but most importantly, my passport. All gone in a flash.

I instantly thought, “Oh no. Not again.” And that’s when the real nightmare started. It didn’t help that it was a Sunday and the Singapore Honorary Consulate was closed.

My friends and I went to make a police report. It took us four hours, such was the volume of cases the police station was handling. We were due to fly back to Germany that night, but one of my friends kindly stayed with me, especially since I had absolutely no form of identification on me, and only had a bag of clothes that I had stored in a locker.

Whilst at the police station, I called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) emergency line. MFA helped me greatly by advising me on the way forward. I also called the NUS Campus Security for help as it was after office hours and there was no one else in NUS I could call for help.

As it turned out, the honorary consulate was only allowed to issue me a Document of Identity back to Singapore. This was because I was not working or studying in Spain.

I started to panic. My exams were taking place in a week, and I may not be able to get back to Germany in time. I hurriedly booked the next flight out of Madrid with the help of my friend. I got in touch with my host university, and they were extremely helpful. At one point, they were even considering allowing me to take my exams in Singapore instead.

In the end, I was able to take my exams. However, due to some issues with replacing my visa, I had to cut a portion of my post-exam trip. It left a really sour taste in my mouth, especially with the way the German embassy in Singapore dealt with replacing the visa, reasons of which I will not go into detail here.

This ordeal taught me a lot of things, and a couple of lessons that I feel that students going on exchange should remember:

  1. Be vigilant at all times. Cliched as it sounds, all you need is one momentary lapse of judgement or concentration – in my case, it was leaving my bag on the floor. Do not rely on your friends for this. Ultimately, when things go wrong, it is your responsibility: you deal with the consequences of the loss, not them.
  2. If you get robbed, make a police report as soon as possible and call MFA if your passport/travel documents are involved. Because I had gotten into contact with MFA earlier, I was able to get my Document of Identity almost immediately. It would have needed some processing time otherwise. That said, the police report is essential: most insurance claims require you to make a police report within 24 hours of the incident occurring. In some countries, you will be able to file a police report online, before going down to a police station to sign and collect the physical document. On a side note, if you are in contact with MFA, there is no need for anyone else to call MFA up, especially if they do so without your knowledge. One of my friends’ aunts actually emailed MFA without me or that friend’s knowledge regarding this. The thing is, I had already gotten in touch with them, and it unwittingly ended up confusing the officer.
  3. Get more insurance – NUS student insurance covers little when it comes to lost items or travel document replacement. There is a per item cap of $500 for lost items, and an overall cap of $2,000 as well. It’s manifestly insufficient, especially for me, when my DSLR cost well over $500. And it would scarcely cover the cost of a mobile phone or laptop. The travel document replacement cap was $1,000, which might not even fully cover a one-way flight back to Singapore depending on where you are. If you are booking Blue Ticket flights through STA, their insurance is not too shabby, and it provides higher per item covers, and a much higher overall cap, for the price of around $260 for a four-month exchange (too bad I found this out after all this). It might seem a steep sum, but when things go horribly wrong, it does provide you with peace of mind. It’s not just STA – there are other insurance providers out there as well. Just ensure you have cover over and above NUS student insurance.
  4. Hedge your belongings. In my quest to stay secure, I put everything in my bag thinking no one could steal my bag when it was on me. But I didn’t factor in the potential of the whole lot being swiped. That hit me hard because it left me with pretty much nothing at all.
  5. Call the Global Relations Office, or Campus Security if you really need help. During the pre-departure briefing, this was actually said, and many people laughed at the mere mention of Campus Security’s number (6874 1616). Don’t underestimate what they can do – they have helped people when things have gone wrong, especially when it’s after office hours. They managed to give me some guidance. I actually called the Student Services Centre whilst on the way to the Honorary Consulate but ended up getting asked why I called them to tell them my passport got stolen. On hindsight, I felt that I should have called the Global Relations Office instead, who would have been in a better position to help.
  6. Thefts can happen anywhere. I have had friends being robbed in seemingly safer countries, like Sweden and Switzerland. Someone even got robbed near his host university in Canada. It’s not just the hotbeds of crime that you see online like Spain, Italy and France. It can happen in any country. It is true that Singapore is much safer than many countries out there, where you can leave a mobile phone on a food court table for 10 minutes unattended and come back and still see it there. That’s not going to happen overseas. All the thieves need are a few seconds or a momentary lapse of concentration.

On a more personal note, I still kick myself and look back on this incident with many regrets. What if I had taken my bag to the toilet instead? Why did I leave my bag on the floor and entrust it to my friends? Why did I put everything in the bag? I thought I was quite resilient, but this incident told me otherwise. I have lost count of the number of times I burst into tears that week, when I realised the extent of the situation. I also felt a little bad placing my emotional baggage on one of my closest friends whilst this was all happening. It also left me heartbroken when I saw my friends embarking on the post-exam trip that I was supposed to be on with them.

In the first incident where my phone was stolen, I felt an adrenalin rush and the whole situation did not hit me until much later. In the second incident, I felt so much frustration that I felt like punching a wall. This incident taught me a lot about how I deal with such adversities, and I discovered a lot more about myself than I would have imagined.

However, time waits for no one, and I had to move on. Before I knew it, it was back to NUS and back to the grind of studying. It’s harder than it looks – especially when most people ask “How was your exchange?” after you return to NUS again, and you have to surprise them with your response. (That said, don’t feel bad if you’ve asked me that – it’s a perfectly normal question to ask.) It wasn’t easy to write this, and a lot of raw emotion engulfed me whilst writing this. However, I find it necessary for me to put it out there once and for all, because it can happen to anyone. We are all wired differently, and in all honesty we all deal with adversity in vastly different ways. Don’t judge one by how one reacts, because you will never know how you would react when put into such a situation until it actually happens.

This whole incident might have cast a pall on my overall exchange experience, but I still ultimately feel privileged to have had the opportunity to do this. I got to travel to a lot of places, and experienced things I will treasure for the rest of my life. But this is an ordeal no one should have to go through, and I definitely would not want anyone going on exchange to encounter this. Stay safe, be vigilant, and look out for one another.


Pictures by the Author


About the Author

One of many Ryans in Treehouse, Ryan Quek is a Year 3 Business and Economics Double Degree Student, and a little shaken by his exchange. He loves photography and food, and likes to delve into socio-political issues, tech and sport. Also has a passion for trivia quizzes.