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Petty pilfering – a cautionary tale

“Problem.” I explained. Assertively. “Or militia. Zharkent.” He knew exactly what I meant. I watched carefully as he and his son followed me to the room where I’d spent the night, along with all my kit. Made it clear something was missing and I wanted it back. My video camera. Now. A few words exchanged between father and son, the mattress lifted and the item retrieved from a box beneath it.

Sabit

I’d met the father, Sabit, the previous day near the entrance to the military zone that flanks the border with China. The unexpected closure had meant I was at a dead end, for the time being at least. He’d kindly offered me tea at his home in a nearby village, in itself a not uncommon gesture. I’d accepted, cautious as ever whilst I got a measure of the situation.

With Emma, my trusty steed, and all the kit supposedly secure inside his house, a little time spent meeting his wife and some of his eight children and we’d headed out to explore the village, take a few photographs. Nothing unusual in that. One of his young sons had taken a good deal of interest in Emma and the kit, but, in itself, that’s also not unusual. Curiosity of youth.

When we returned I’d noticed one of the panniers had been opened, nothing missing, but some rummaging had taken place. Amateurish stuff. Childish even. I’d a good idea who might have done this. But nothing more than curiosity, no suggestion of malice.

Almost every day I encounter unfamiliar situations, meet perfect strangers who offer hospitality, or who are just curious as to what I’m doing. Constantly assessing risk, plausibility, whether to accept offers of help or politely decline. Looking for tell-tale warning signs. Remembering most people are good, honest, individuals. Genuine. But all countries have rogues. And Kazakhstan, or indeed the UK, is no exception.

Mostly I rely on instinct, body language, simple observation to judge situations. And if I do find myself becoming a little unsure, thankfully a rarity, a few simple measures come into play. In this instance I’d decided it was impractical to depart before the next morning, but would secure everything in the room I was to sleep in. And I’d not disclose my intention to leave until I was about to depart.

If there was a problem later, I’d want to be sure of people’s actual identity. For the militia. Surprising what can be coaxed out of people, like their full names, dates of birth, even their identity documents and driving licences to validate who they are. And not that difficult to capture all as high resolution digital images with the camera. Discreetly of course. And a GPS satellite fix on the location, plenty of time stamped family photographs, lots to show we’d met, that I’d been where I’d said I’d been, and when. Simple, precautionary stuff, done on just a few occasions.

I’d offered to treat everyone to ice cream, some soft drinks, and a few beers for Sabit and I. Just by way of a thank you for their hospitality. Oddly, the village shop seemed to be just out of change, the equivalent of a few pounds. Curious. So I just stocked up on more rations for my as yet unannounced travels the next day.

Supper

Back at the house, supper then the suggestion of a walk around the village. This suddenly didn’t seem right, quite enough photographs taken earlier in the day. Sabit was persistent in his offer, so I chose to compromise. A few minutes fresh air, then I’d need to sleep. Told him I was tired from all the day’s events and his generous hospitality. A brief stroll, the son I’d been suspicious of absent.

Back in the house a brief check of my belongings seem to show everything in order, the tell-tales I’d set undisturbed. But what did Sabit do? Ten mouths to feed wouldn’t be easy, and no evidence of any other members of the family going out to work. Smart DVD player and TV in the corner. I retired early to bed, intrigued rather than concerned. Slept with my socks on to be on the safe side. Only to discover next morning the absence of the video camera. A final pre-departure check, making sure I’d not inadvertently left anything behind.

Ordinarily I’d have left the abortive theft of the camera as a parental matter. But Sabit made an unfortunate slip. He’d said ’video camera’ before the item had been retrieved. I’d never used the expression, nor had his son. I’d been watching, and listening, carefully. Scam. In some senses clever perhaps, but mostly amateurish – I’d had niggling suspicions fairly early on, and choosing to remain, employing some simple, precautionary disruptive measures.

If the attempted theft of the video camera had been an opportunistic act by a stranger, I wouldn’t have minded so much. Put it down to experience, be more careful in the future. But this was a breach of trust, an aggravating factor. Some might say poor people just trying to eke out a living. I’ve met many poor people. Amongst the kindest, most generous folk I’ve encountered, invariably willing to share what little they have, even with perfect strangers. So I don’t buy that.

And I’m a rich Westerner, fair game? Actually no. I’ve a limited budget, and replacing the rear bicycle lights and my cheaply acquired Azeri mobile phone I later found had disappeared is about three days living allowance. Some might think I’m a bit harsh, lacking compassion. You’re meant to. That’s what scammers play on, the predicable Western response, the tug at the heart strings. You have to get over this, adapt to the culture, the environment, you find along the way. Not easy. Remembering, of course, that most people are good, honest and very genuine.

What happened next? I’d like to think I deal with such matters in a fair, lawful, proportionate, and measured way, not coloured by emotion. So that’s what I did. A cautionary tale. For travellers. And thieves.

[Author’s note: This account has been published, after very careful consideration, to assist fellow travellers, wherever in the world they may be, in avoiding similar circumstances.

The post is deliberately factual – for example, the use of the word theft – the permanent deprival of property without the owner’s consent – above is, in context, a statement of what actually happened, not the expression of an opinion – I’m the owner and I did not give consent, either implied or explicitly.

Locations and names, other than that of Sabit, have been withheld as a matter of editorial policy. The decision to publish his photograph, obtained, incidentally, with his consent, as any facial portrait would imply, is deliberate. You might meet him]

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One response to “Petty pilfering – a cautionary tale”

  1. Louise Bamford says:

    Hi Ken,

    I have been following your travels on the blog and by the postcards that you have kindly sent to me and it looks like you are having quite an adventure. I hope the translations have been of some use to you during the different stages of your trip so far.

    Keep up the good work

    Louise Bamford (Lifeline Language Services Ltd.)

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