Article By Jimmy McIntyre
Please scroll down to skip the story of how I was robbed, and go straight to the tips.
Please note: articles like these tend to give future travellers a sense of dread. I know very few photographers/travellers who’ve had real difficulty while abroad. Most adventures are memorable and completely free from incident. And when problems have occurred, they’re rarely serious.
Some memories have a tendency to burn harder and brighter than others. Witnessing a beautiful sunrise from the peak of an active volcano in Yogyakarta, for example, will forever be vivid in my mind.
Or waking up in the middle of the night to find rats under our bed and in our bags in a wooden hotel a mile out to sea, with no way of us getting to land. Absent of other guests or staff at the hotel, our only company was a captive shark that swam around a small pool in the centre of the hotel. While uncomfortable at the time, this is a memory my wife and I can laugh at now.
Some memories, however, will never become a thing of fondness. Like the time we were robbed on a train going from Yogya to Surabaya. Every single piece of camera equipment I owned was taken. That was more than 3 years ago and it is still an uncomfortable memory.
The fault was ours. We’d spent a number of months in Indonesia, learning the language and experiencing the culture. We’d become too relaxed.
We got on the train and found our seats. Behind us sat a little old couple. I had a shoulder camera bag. I sat in the window seat, and put my camera bag and tripod on the floor against the wall. We’d paid to sleep in the most expensive class, which we assumed would offer more security.
It was already late, so we covered ourselves with blankets. At this point, for anyone to get to our bag they would have to somehow reach over us, lift up two layers of blankets and lift up my feet which were resting on the side of the bag.
Yet, when morning came, Rachel woke me up saying the bag and tripod were gone. Surely enough she was right. Behind me the little old couple had left. Under my seat, which I forgot to check beforehand, there was a small gap roughly the size of my bag.
At some point the couple got off the train, and the thieves reached under the seat and nabbed my gear. When I asked the lady to our left if she’d seen anything, she simply shrugged and said ‘Who cares! You’re rich’.
I managed to find an undercover police officer who said that organised gangs work these trains. They would have seen us get on the train at Yogya, called ahead to their members on the train, who no doubt waited for their opportunity. The gear was long gone, he said.
Being optimistic, I decided I needed to upgrade anyway. The gear wasn’t overly expensive – about £1,300 – but that didn’t make it feel any better. The kicker, however, was that since we’d been away from the UK for so long, we were no longer UK residents. Literally no insurance company at that time would insure our gear. So that day we lost a decent amount of cash.
Anyone who read my article How I Support A Travel Photography Lifestyle, will know that my first year in business I made a significant loss. This was a difficult moment in a challenging first year as a professional photographer.
Nevertheless we found a camera store hours after leaving the train in Surabaya and decided not to let this moment ruin our trip. We’d had a great time in Indonesia up until that moment, and these things can happen anywhere.
Since this experience I’ve been incredibly vigilant. I’ve travelled to North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia and nothing has been stolen from me. Below is a list of tips that will help you stay safe and your gear remain in your possession while on the road.
Ways To Keep You & Your Gear Safe While Travelling
1. Get Insurance. If you’re able to get insurance, do it. That includes health insurance. This should go without saying.
2. Invest In A Quality Backpack. Lots of camera backpacks make it difficult for wondering hands to snatch any expensive gear. For example, some open only from the back, so you have to remove the bag in order to get to equipment.
3. Make Sure The Bag Has A Waterproof Cover. Apart from protection from the rain, a waterproof cover is a huge deterrent for thieves. I have my cover pulled over my bag all of the time, so that no pockets or zips are exposed.
4. Use Clips. If you don’t like the idea of using a waterproof cover, you could also use clips to make life difficult for would-be-thieves. On top of covering my bag, I also clip together all of my zippers!
5. Don’t Take Your Bag Off While Shooting. It’s much easier for us to put our bags on the floor so we can quickly get to our gear. But while we’re shooting, we need to be able to focus on the shot, not on whether or not someone is about to run away with our bag. It’s a little bit more time consuming, but keep your bag on your back instead of on the floor.
6. Chair Legs Are A Thief’s Enemy. If you’re sitting outside at a cafe or restaurant, be sure to place the strap(s) of your bag under the leg of your chair (and place the bag under the table). If someone is going to run away with your stuff, they’ll be taking you with them!
7. Do Not Buy A Fancy Looking Bag. Recently a new range of camera bags came out, with the company saying ‘camera bags don’t have to be boring’. Yes they do. Camera bags are dull for a reason. They should not be attracting attention. Don’t purchase a bag because it looks sexy. A potential thief might think so too.
8. Don’t Be So Trusting. Anyone Can Rob You! This sounds like a pretty terrible thing to say, especially when you’re an open-minded traveller. However, I know people who been have robbed by the smiling staff at their hotels, conned by nice old ladies in the street, and even robbed by fellow travellers.
When travelling, it’s great to meet new people. You shouldn’t have an attitude of complete distrust, but you must always be aware that as a tourist, you are an easy target, especially if they see that fancy equipment. Trying to find the balance of being friendly, yet guarded, is a tricky one.
I’ve been naive and overly polite to people who have later tried to con me (when I first started travelling), and openly rude to people who were just being nice but at the time I couldn’t decide their motives (you always feel guilty about this later).
9. Portable Safe. We once met a Dutch couple who, on the first day of travelling, found their hotel busboy rifling through their bags in their room. Not a great start to the trip. That is why I own a Portable Safe from Pacsafe. As long as there is something sturdy to attach it to, no one is getting to your stuff with this.
10. Don’t Wear Your Camera Around Your Neck In Certain Countries. We stayed at a nice hotel in Vietnam once. When we arrived, the Vietnamese hotelier said to us sternly ‘do not wear any necklaces or cameras around your neck’. He then told us how many hotel guests had these things cut from their necks by thieves on passing motorbikes. Make sure your camera is in your hand, with the strap around your wrist.
11. Learn About Common Scams In The Countries You Are Going To. A quick search on google will reveal the most common methods used by locals to con tourists. They can be very inventive. Do your homework beforehand.
12. Arrive During The Day. If you can, arrive at your destination in the middle of the day. Arriving at certain destinations in the middle of the night is not the safest feeling.
13. Don’t Close The Taxi Door. If you have anything in the boot (trunk) of the taxi, when they stop the car, pay them, get out, but leave the passenger door open. This prevents them from driving off with your stuff in their trunk. Get your stuff out and then close the door.
14. Taxi Homework. Because of the huge problems illegal and distrustful taxi drivers have caused, many governments have set up taxi booths in airports. Here you pay a set fare before getting in a taxi, and the taxi which you take is easily traceable. Never get into a taxi where the driver has approached you. Most of the time this is illegal.
15. Organise Your Cash Correctly. Firstly, money belts are supposed to be used for hiding cash. The number of travellers I know who keep most of their money in a money belt which they carry in their bags is scary. The best way to handle cash is to put it in different locations. I have cash in a chained wallet, in my camera backpack, in my suitcase, and in a money belt (when I have one).
Guess how much money you will need for that day and put that in your wallet. Don’t put too much in and flash it about when paying for things. Like your cash, separate your credit cards too.
16. Beware ATMs. If you’re travelling for a long time, at some point you are going to need an ATM. If that is the case, do your best to use ones that are attached to a bank. There is less chance of it being tampered with.
17. Check Your Credit Card Statement. After a trip to the Middle East, one of the photographers I was with checked his statement as soon as he got home. Good thing he did as an illegal purchase had been made.
18. Travel With Others. My wife is the only person I feel truly comfortable travelling with. I like to spend time alone. However, when travelling I make it a necessity to travel with others. A lone traveller with all of that equipment is a very tempting prize. Two travellers, on the other hand, is a very different story.
19. Plan Your Locations Well So You Don’t Get Lost. Two of the best applications we have today are Google Street View and Maps.Me. With Google Street View you can virtually walk to your hotel/destination so you know the way, before even getting on a plane. And with Maps.Me we have offline GPS maps for our smart phone so that we can never get lost (just be careful about flashing a smart phone around). Taking a wrong turn down the wrong street is a very uncomfortable experience!
20. Do Not Leave Things In Your Car. I personally know two photographers who left their gear visible in their cars while they weren’t present for just a few minutes. They both returned to broken windows and an empty car. You simply cannot leave your equipment in plain sight.
21. Lock Your Doors While Driving. This actually concerns the back doors. We often put our camera gear in the backseats. Which means that if the doors are unlocked, as soon as we stop at a traffic light, we are immediately vulnerable to opportunistic thieves opening the door and running off with our stuff.
22. Pay A Little More. This applies to guides and transport. A close friend of mine and her boyfriend paid next to nothing to go from Bangkok to Changmai. They couldn’t believe the price. They also couldn’t believe it when they were gassed unconscious and kicked off the bus in the middle of nowhere at 2am. You often pay for what you get.