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September 1998 Vol. 13, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Crime and the Diver

from the September, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Crime in the Caribbean is on the upswing. I don't mean the "grab you in the alley, pull you out of your car, club you on the head" kind of crime. The crime that's been a problem is the kind that happens when you leave your car unattended or leave valuables in your hotel room. One of our correspondents has had a run of bad luck recently. Here's his story.

We were robbed. These aren't words you want to associate with your vacation, but the fact is, we've been robbed on our last three land-based dive trips in the Caribbean: on Cozumel, on Cayman Brac, and on Bonaire. The thefts on Cozumel and on Cayman Brac were certainly no threat to our physical safety. The crime on Bonaire was more sinister.

Cozumel at Christmas was a balm for the senses, with blue skies, clear water, and plenty of fish. Thankfully, I came away with several underwater shots I can enjoy, because I lost my land camera and a pair of binoculars to a thief within hours of arriving. They were stolen from my secondfloor room overlooking the pool in the Fiesta Hotel.

Upon arrival, we hastily unpacked and then left to arrange the next day's diving. When we returned several hours later, we were unable to find the camera or binoculars. The thief apparently came into the room through the main door. He probably had a key, but he may have used a credit card to jimmy the lock.

Because the night before a dive trip in our house is never a model of logistical efficiency, I wondered whether I had left them behind. Rather than risk making a false accusation, I chose not to complain. Of course it turned out that I didn't leave them behind, and my loss was about $200.

After a day of diving out of the Divi Hotel on Cayman Brac, we went shopping for snacks to go with the Mount Gay rum at happy hour. When I opened my wallet, I found a couple of Cayman bills and a U.S. $20 where before there had been a couple of Cayman bills and several Franklins. Our thief had been kind enough to leave departure tax.

Our building, the last one in the Divi Tiara complex, felt nicely secluded, which meant it was also isolated. The second-floor balcony provided a beautiful view of beach and ocean, but the lock on the door was a flimsy device that could easily have been breached with a credit card. The sliding doors to the balcony had been exposed to the salt air too long; they slid with great difficulty, and the lock didn't work at all. Since we'd been told repeatedly how free of crime the island was, we thought little of it, and it never occurred to us to ask whether there was a safe in the room. (Later we found out that what looked like a rusted-out tissue holder in the bathroom was actually a safe.)

The thief took money from both of our wallets. Mine had been under a pile of clothes in a dresser drawer, my wife's in a small purse in a drawer of the night stand. Apparently the thief made a leisurely search of the room. Nothing was out of place to alert us to the theft.

The hotel manager was sympathetic, emphasized again how little crime there is on the island, and did little else. I informed the police, who took the information over the phone but never made it to the hotel to interview us. The constable told us, "if you find out who did it, please let us know. We hate to have this sort of thing happening on the island."

Petty theft from cars is well-documented on Bonaire, but little is said of more insidious crime. We stayed at Lions Dive; its two-story buildings arranged around a central courtyard and pool offer the comfortable, safe feeling of a small neighborhood. The only access to first-floor rooms is through sliding doors that open into the courtyard. When you pass through them, you immediately enter a small kitchen; there's an interior door that separates the kitchen from the bedroom and bath. The sliding doors worked well, but the locking mechanism was hard to use. Since the bedroom was the only air-conditioned room, we closed the door between it and the kitchen at night.

I woke up about 4:45, noting an indistinct form hovering over the chest of drawers in the bedroom, rifling through my wallet. I felt extremely vulnerable for an instant, and then overwhelmingly angry. I yelled at the thief to get out, jumped out of bed, and foolishly chased him out into the courtyard, yelling clichés like "stop, thief"! Apparently the only one who heard me was the thief's accomplice, who rounded the corner on the other side of the building just as I rounded the corner on my side and turned into the parking lot. When I saw him, I came to my senses and stopped the chase.

We lost only a small amount of money that night, but, as the police put it, the thieves had been on a "tour." At least three other rooms had been burglarized. But we were determined not to let a crime ruin our vacation, and we soldiered on with our diving.

Hotel management immediately fabricated "burglar bars" to use on the sliding doors, but, since both doors move, this device wouldn't work. I suggested a security pin through the center portion of the door where the door frames overlap. Management received the suggestion enthusiastically, and I hope the rooms now have security pins. We also received a $50 voucher toward the cost of a meal at a nearby restaurant. The maitre-d' had heard of the theft and covered the entire cost of the meal and drinks.

I travel to New Orleans, New York, and Washington, D.C. regularly, thus far without incident, probably because I am aware of the risk and on guard against dangerous situations. In the tropics, on the other hand, I'm complacent, although I shouldn't be: we stayed at a Tari in Papua New Guinea where highlanders armed with bows and arrows patrol the grounds at night.

Rather than expecting thirdworld hotel management, which is too often defensive, to fully protect you, take your own precautions, especially by blocking sliding doors that can easily be opened. Check your doors and windows. Insist on locks that work. If there is no room safe, store your valuables in the hotel safe.

And, if you do have a problem, don't dwell on it. Spending your time trying to retrieve a couple hundred bucks or tracking down perpetrators will definitely kill your fun.

-- Alan Eaton

P.S.: When I returned home from a peaceful, crime-free trip to the Turks and Caicos, I found that the glass on the sliding doors on my home had been crushed with a rock. Only a couple of old coins and a few dollars I'd left lying around were missing. The police noted that the thieves had carefully looked under clothes in drawers and the closet and under the mattress. "That's where 90 percent of the people hide money and wallets," he said, "and a thief who doesn't want to linger will look there, find what he can, and leave." If anything, fellow divers, be creative. Consider purchasing an alarm you can hang from your doorknob; if the door is jiggled the alarm goes off -- $25 for the Security Travel Mate from Brookstone at 1-800-926-7000; $69 for the Body Guard from Sharper Image at 1-800-344-4444.

To secure your sliding glass door, pick up a telescopic walking stick ($50 to $75) from any outdoor sporting goods store. About eighteen inches long, they can be extended and secured at a length proper to jam a sliding glass door -- and if you are headed to Dominica they can help you get to and from Boiling Lake.

For some security on the cheap, a bungee cord hooked around a door knob or sliding glass door and some other stationary object can offer resistance to intruders.

-- Ben Davison

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