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I had only been gone about two hours – a walk around town, some dinner and a couple of drinks – when I got back to my hotel room around ten thirty. Immediately I knew something was wrong.
The key didn’t turn in the lock and, when I looked to see why, I realised the door was already unlocked and slightly ajar. Apprehensively, I pushed it open and turned on the light. What was I about to reveal?
I was in Montenegro, at the coastal resort town of Budva. Generally it felt like a safe place where the biggest security fears were my insecurities from all the good-looking and tanned Euroflesh parading unclad through the streets.
I was staying just outside the centre in – although I describe it as a hotel – what was really an apartment block. In one apartment lived the owners, a young married couple about my age with two cute toddlers and a couple of caged budgies named after characters from the movie ‘Rio’.
I know this last bit because the wife had explained it to me when she’d kindly let me into her home to do my laundry.
And so it was up the open air stairs of this apartment block that I had walked after my dinner in downtown Budva (grilled lamb, fries, salad and two large beers for ten euros, for the record). There was no security gate or front door and my apartment was the first you came to.
I think this might come to help explain what happened.
And so, pushing open the door and turning on the light, I stepped inside and looked around. It confused me.
My clothes had been pulled out of my bag and thrown around. This might not normally have looked so out of place if they hadn’t all just been washed and folded neatly. So someone had definitely been in here.
I quickly looked to the bed where I had left my laptop open with some unfinished work. It was still there. Slight relief mixed with an increase in confusion.
I went to where I had left my passports and money belt, my stomach sinking slightly. But they were still there. So what had this mystery intruder taken?
Ah – my camera! My camera bag with all my equipment and lenses. I couldn’t see it anywhere. So I searched, double-checked, threw my clothes around the room a bit more for good measure, but couldn’t find it.
I had officially been robbed. Not just of equipment worth about $2000 but of vital tools of my trade. And of my innocence… for anyone hoping for some emotional depth in this story.
What do I do? What are you supposed to do in these situations?
I went to look for the woman who runs the hotel but she wasn’t home; I updated my Facebook status (of course!); I walked around outside for a bit looking for clues; and I started to research online how to make an insurance claim.
About 30 minutes after I had arrived home, the hotel owner did too – it was the patter of tiny feet and incoherent gibberish from her toddlers that first alerted me to her return. As she came up the stairs, I greeted her grim-faced and explained what had happened.
She was a tall elegant woman, glamorous in a young Montenegro mother kind of way. Wearing a well-fitting and low cut light brown dress and a warm smile, she listened to my story and then started to respond.
She had only got a couple of sentences in before she began to cry. They were the kind of tears that just appear out of nowhere and don’t impede your ability to speak.
I’m not upset or angry, I reassured her. But she continued crying. Her mother is sick, she told me. And she just found out she might be pregnant again, she added. And now this!
I patted her on the shoulder reassuringly – this being the usual extent of my sympathetic abilities. Especially after I’d just been robbed.
She stopped her sobbing and I continued to explain how my camera had been taken but, oddly, not my laptop or money belt. I also joked that they didn’t take the lovely clean laundry she had helped me with.
Her eyes lit up slightly. Not at the joke, though. She told me to wait five minutes – she might know what happened. OK, I replied, wondering how this might turn out.
She reached for her phone and went off to make a call. She told me not to worry in the meantime. I wanted to say the same but I wasn’t sure if the potential pregnancy was good or bad news so I just tried to give off an air of confident concern.
Five minutes later I heard her on the phone again and then she shouted ‘super!’ excitedly. Another few minutes passed and she appeared at my door, my camera bag in her hand!
I was stunned, relieved, ecstatic and still confused. Only ten minutes had passed since I had told her of the robbery and already she was returning my stolen goods. It was time for an explanation!
The kind woman with the light brown dress and the warm smile told me everything
Apparently in the neighbourhood there is a “local kleptomaniac”. He’s a man about 25 years old with no parents who has been in and out of gaol. But he’s not violent and the locals feel sorry for him. He’s not inherently bad, apparently, just mentally ill.
She had immediately thought of him when I told her my laptop had not been taken. It didn’t sound like a professional thief but someone with a stealing addiction – albeit one who had used a screwdriver to break open the lock.
So she had called her friend who is a police officer.
This cop knows the young guy well and even looks after him and feeds him sometimes. The police officer had gone around to his house and, as hoped, my camera bag was just sitting there untouched.
He probably never intended to do anything with it – it was the excitement of the theft, not the financial reward, which he had been seeking. So the cop took my equipment back from him and had dropped it around at the hotel.
The woman didn’t ask directly but suggested that I not make any official complaint. Of course, I had no desire to. I had my stuff back and it had happened so quickly. I had assumed I would never see my camera again and I was more grateful than anything else.
I joked that I would double lock my door from now on but she told me not to worry – the sick kleptomaniac had had his fix and it would be a couple of months before he would strike again. It sounds like this is a semi-regular event in the neighbourhood and the locals know where to go looking for their things.
After travelling constantly for more than two years now with no theft, I felt like I’ve been pushing my luck and something like this was inevitable.
I was expecting the perpetrators to be drug addicts or a criminal gang or victims of poverty. I never expected my first brush with crime to be from a mentally-ill man from Montenegro who is protected by his local community.
So what is the moral of all of this? I’m not really sure. The whole story seems so odd and surreal I don’t know what I can take away from it. Perhaps it’s that for every bad deed there is a good one and it’s nice when they fit together so well.