There comes a moment, as I suspect it happens for most people who travel or live abroad, when it really hits you that you’re living in an entirely different country, a country with a history and cultural references completely different from the ones you know well.
This happened for me two weeks ago, and it’s a really funny story (in hindsight).
It all started on the first official day of my vacation. I was at the beach and I’d just gotten up, finished breakfast, and was settling into the hammock for some reading before heading out into the waves. My phone buzzes and I’m thinking “Damn, I didn’t think I had any reception here! Serves me right for booking a hotel on a hill.” I look at the phone and it’s my next door neighbor, Hayley, sending me a text message. It says, ominously, “Hola. Could you please call me now.” I’m convinced she’s contacted the wrong person, so I write back “Me? This is Phillip.” To which she responds: “Yup.”
So I call Hayley to find out what’s up and she says “Your lock box is gone.”
You see, just a few days earlier I’d received a delivery from Toronto of an Abus lock box for storing keys to your apartment outside, so that people can get in, i.e., real estate agents, cleaners, etc. They grow on trees in Toronto, literally: in front of almost any condominium you’ll find something covered with twenty or thirty of them, a fence or a post or what-have-you. Logistically, they make so much sense! You just put your keys in there, lock it, and the person who needs access just comes and enters the combo and voilà! they’ve got your keys — no awkward and clumsy drop-off at a friends’ required.
This was just what I needed in Oaxaca, I thought, because I’m often heading out of town and having friends stay at my place while I’m away. The only tricky part is the key exchange, because incoming guests usually don’t have a local phone to use to coordinate with me or my friends for the key pick-up, which leaves us waiting for their arrival — and, like most travel, there are typically delays and confusion and so on. The lock box was my answer! I would simply provide guests with the combination and then lock this sturdy bugger to the iron bars that cover one of the street-facing windows near the front door.
That was my plan. Some of my local friends thought that I was being naive. They couldn’t put their finger on why, exactly, but they were sure it was naive.
Anyway, I was certain it would work. So, on Monday morning before heading to the beach, I attached the Abus lock box with a complete set of my keys to the iron bars outside the apartment. Then, off I went…
Back to Hayley’s phone call the next day. So, my friend Mara has come to pick-up the keys to stay in my apartment and low-and-behold the lock box is gone. Vanished. No one has any idea where it went. No one heard a thing. This is particularly strange, because it’s a really, really sturdy little piece of metal and it would take some serious pounding to get it off the iron bars, or some of those seriously large bold cutters. What the hell happened in those twenty-four hours? Should we change the locks pronto?
Hours later, I get the first update. My good friend Rodrigo, a local graphic designer, has been recruited to help solve the mystery. First call is to my landlady, a holistic medicine doctor, who is confused by his call and says, basically, “I have a set of keys, I can bring them over.” Rodrigo clarifies the situation: they don’t need keys, but they’re worried about the missing keys, and should they change the locks? The story then starts falling into place, as my landlady shares that she had the lock box removed on Monday night.
Phew! At least we don’t need to rush to change the locks… well, maybe. We decided to wait until my return to make that decision.
When I get back, I run into my landlady outside my apartment and we sit down for a chat. I’m really disappointed by the unnecessary destruction of a $60 lock box; more than anything, it’s probably my pride that is wounded at the failure of my great idea. But I am still curious why the lock box was removed without consulting me or my neighbor! So I ask, and the conversation goes something like this (paraphrasing, as it was in Spanish):
Me: I’m curious why you didn’t call me, or Hayley, to ask what the box was?
Landlady: Why didn’t you tell me you were putting it there?
Me: You’re right, I should have e-mailed you. I was in a rush that morning and I didn’t think about it. Still, I’m curious why you would have it cut off without asking me or Hayley about it?
LL: Well, when I arrived on Monday night there was quite a spectacle underway.
LL: Ten neighbors had gathered in front of the apartment, including the president of the neighborhood association. They had gathered to discuss this box hanging from the front window. They had wrapped it in black cloth and were having a lively debate about what it was. Just then a pick-up truck full of municipal police pulled up, brandishing machine guns, to disperse them. That’s when I arrived: the police were trying to tell the neighbors to go home and the neighbors were arguing about this box.
Me: You’re kidding, right? What did they think it was? A bomb?
LL: Well, yes, a bomb was one of the options being discussed. The reason they had wrapped it in cloth was because they thought it was a hidden camera.
Me: A hidden camera!? Filming who? The ladies who make quesadillas in front of the house?
LL: Well, yes, the quesadilla ladies thought it might be filming them, which they didn’t like one bit, but also they thought it might be filming the priest who runs the church across the street. You know, he’s “political.”
Me: (“Political?” I don’t even want to ask…)
LL: So, when I arrived, I went to get your other neighbor, Guillermo, because of all of the police. Because of the commotion, the police recommended that they remove the box, and I agreed. Moments later they pulled a huge bolt cutter out of the pick-up truck and click off it came.
Just like that. Robbed of my lock box and a great idea! By the police no less. It did make my ponder: who am I more afraid of having keys to my apartment, some random thief, or the local cops? Sigh.
Almost two weeks later, and I’m still waiting for word from the police on the lock box; they won’t admit or deny that they have it.
No sign of my pride either. It has been terminally wounded on this account.
Oh well, chalk this one up to a lesson in cultural differences I guess.