Peace Corps Videos

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Getting Robbed in Tonga

I had my laptop, camera, passport and other valuables stolen on Thursday while staying at the Friendly Islander Hotel in Nuku’alofa. I didn’t know it at the time I checked in, but I quickly learned this is not a safe place to stay. In fact, Peace Corps removed all 29 of us from the Hotel because of safety concerns and moved us to another hotel. Unfortunately for me, I was one of the victims.

We checked into the Friendly Island Hotel on Thursday for what Peace Corps calls HILT or High Intensive Language Training. The Hotel is located in an industrial area across the road from the Ocean. It’s a collection of small Tongan fale’s (Huts) and at first appearance looks like a neat place. However, it’s a bit far from town, which is why Peace Corps chose that location, so we could concentrate on our language and not get distracted.

I checked into the hotel early and dropped my backpack in the room. I came back later with the rest of the volunteers in my group and noticed that all of our luggage was sitting on the curb, not inside the lobby. I grabbed my bag and went back to the fale where I would be staying. Because they all looked alike, I wasn’t sure which one was mine, so I went to what I thought was my fale, inserted the key and the door opened. It was NOT my fale. It belonged to a group of single women volunteers. I then made my way back out, found my fale, inserted the key and the door opened. On the bed, where I had left it, was my backpack containing my laptop, camera and lots of other things. I plugged my cellphone in and hung out for a while with the three other guys with whom I was staying: James, Stan and Bobby.

We decided to go to dinner, so we all showered and changed, leaving our belongings locked in the room. I double checked the door personally to make sure it was locked.
After dinner, Stan and I decided to pick up a couple of beers while James went back to the motel. When we got back, I found James coming towards us saying “I think we have been robbed. I need you to come check your stuff”. At first, I thought he was joking, but clearly he was not. I walked in and my clothes were everywhere. Both my backpack and James’ backpack were gone along with my cell phone. We left the room and I went to talk to the manager while another volunteer called Peace Corps security.

My conversation with the owner/manager went something like this.
ME: “Hi, someone broke into our room and stole our stuff”
HER: “Was your door locked?”
ME: “Yes, I personally locked it before I went to dinner I think someone used a key to get in”.
HER: “None of my employees did this.”

Of course as soon as she said none of her employees did this, it immediately made me suspicious. She then told me “We’ve never had a problem with Peace Corps before”. I went outside and waited for Peace Corps security.

As soon as he arrived, he called the police. When the police arrived, the officer told me he had been to the same fale where I was staying, three other times for break-ins. Perhaps none happened when Peace Corps was staying there, but clearly they have had problems. Later, when I told the owner what the cop said, she said, “Oh that was a long time ago”.

Most of the volunteers were awake and hanging around. We start talking about the keys and we soon discovered that one key will open almost every fale at the hotel. This freaks out a few of the female volunteers who fear for their safety.

At the suggestion of Peace Corps, James, Stan, Bobby and I were moved to another fale identical to the one where we were robbed except it was closer to the main building.

After we had moved and the police had left, Stan and I opened our beers and the four of us sat down in the room to decompress. The door to our fale was open and in comes the owner. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t knock, just comes in and walks into the bedroom where James and I are staying. We can’t see what she is doing, but then she walks out with a handful of clean towels, stopping to collect the clean towels from Bobby and Stan. I ask her why she is taking the towels and she says we can use the old ones from the other fale. She then leaves.

I hadn’t gotten upset about anything that had happened yet. But this really pissed me off. I mean, we just had all of our stuff stolen and she is worried about clean towels.

We drink our beers and go to bed. The next morning, James and I get up and head to breakfast. As we walk in, one of the other volunteers tells me that he was robbed at knife point last night while he was sleeping in his bed. The thief took his bag along with some clothes from a couple of other volunteers. He said he didn’t wake us because he figured there was nothing we could do. The Peace Corps staff including our acting Country Director (The Country Director is out of town) are there and they tell us they have made arrangements to get us out of there. They also say that barring some major security updates, they won’t be putting volunteers at the Friendly Islander Motel in the future.

The Peace Corps takes James and I away to start dealing with the logistics of the incident and they cancel classes that morning for everyone. While getting all of my stuff stolen sucks, the amount of support I got from my fellow volunteers and from the Peace Corps staff was amazing.

By Monday, I had filed the police reports, filed an insurance claim and had ordered most of the replacement items. It's been stressful but I remind myself that it is "Only Stuff". Everything can be replaced.

And by the way, the owner of the Friendly Islander Hotel is NOT typical of most Tongans. At work and at the guest house where we ended up staying, the Tongans were very sorry about what happened and offered to do what ever they could to help.

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