I was checking out of the last hotel on the final day of a week dashing around some islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Three of them to be precise. Australia, South NZ and now North NZ.
My colleagues had left at midday, leaving me with a fee afternoon to walk around Auckland. I’d been up the Sky Tower, chugged across on the ferry to Devonport and watched a contortionist do 30 minutes of impressive street theatre. Finally I spent the evening sat in a very classy Japanese restaurant eating sushi and steak, before returning to the hotel to complete my packing. I had enjoyed the “me” time.
Lone – who had made the travel arrangements back at the office – had very wisely booked me in for an extra night in the Crowne Plaza, which meant I could have the room until I was ready to leave. It was now 10pm and my flight was in three hours.
I leaned nonchalantly on the reception desk, all packed and ready to set off home, with my faithful black shoulder bag perched on top of my big brown suitcase behind me. Strange to be checking out of a hotel -rather than in – at this time of night. But all was good and in control – or so I thought.
Having approximated which items I had used from the minibar, I asked the nice receptionist for a taxi to the airport. She told me that there was one parked outside and asked me how would I like to pay? Normally I would just settle with the driver on arrival. But she offered me the option of paying in advance and adding this to the hotel bill. It would be one less receipt to type into the expenses claim spreadsheet when I got home, so I took the prepayment option.
That was my first mistake. She said it might take a little while for her supervisor to get a voucher for the taxi from the safe. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have bothered. But so be it – I was well ahead of schedule, and the taxi would wait, I guess. As she took my payment and printed off the receipt, a man came up behind me and offered to take my two bags to the taxi. I thanked him as he helpfully wheeled them away.
I began to get a little worried when the receptionist suggested I take a seat whilst I waited. The taxi was no doubt clocking up a fare already. The company would pay, so that was fine, but I was feeling a little guilty at keeping him waiting. As it turned out, I need not have worried about that.
After 5 minutes I began to wonder where the duty manager was and where exactly this safe was? Maybe in some deep underground vault? After 10 minutes I decided he must have forgotten the combination. I was starting to get irritated.
Finally the voucher arrived and the receptionist handed it over. I thanked her and said goodbye. I had enjoyed my stay in Auckland. The room had been lovely with a great view down the street to the harbour. The breakfast bar in the top floor (exclusive to elite members of the hotel chain loyalty scheme) had a stunning view over the city and the sea.
As I walked towards the hotel exit, I reflected on how much I had enjoyed the trip. But I was pleased to be taking the taxi to the airport for the first of three flights to take me home, back to the right side of the world. I had climbed the mountain, thoroughly enjoyed the view, but was now happy to be on the way down.
I smiled a goodbye to the commissionaire at the desk near the door and stepped outside to rejoin my luggage in the waiting taxi.
As with many hotels – the Crowne Plaza, Auckland has a crescent of road in front of the door where the taxis can drop you off and pick you up. I looked left and I looked right. There was no taxi waiting.
Lost Luggage, and no way home
I blinked and checked again. The road was empty. I felt a rush of adrenaline. Where the was my taxi? More to the point, where the was my luggage? Even more to the point, where was my passport?
The last question was the easiest. It was in my luggage. That had been my second mistake.
It took a millisecond to register all at once, disbelief, despair and distress. I could not be further from home. I had a flight booked, but no passport. And you cannot board a plane without a passport.
All I had been left with were the clothes I was wearing and my phone. And the only possible explanation – my luggage had been stolen.
How easy had it been for the driver to take my luggage, put it in his boot and drive away! An audacious, but stunningly simple manoeuvre. I wondered why I had never heard of it happening before.
When the Icelandic volcano erupted and filled the skies with ash, I was in Budapest. I had a flight booked then too – but it was cancelled along with all the other flights. I had thought I would never get home. Between you and me I had a bit of a melt down – a full sized panic attack. Eventually we hired a car and drove back to England. But the experience had left its scars. Ever since, I have had some anxiety about being a long way from home. I had managed it on the way to Australia, but never expected to have to manage it on the way home.
Budapest was a mere 1,800 km from home. This time I was 18,000 km from home, and as far as I am aware there is no easy way of driving from New Zealand to England.
So the first thing I had to say to myself – despite a seemingly hopeless situation – was “don’t panic”.
Despite the obvious absence of a taxi, I walked up and down the street to be absolutely sure. No hidden or invisible taxis were to be found. Like any bloke though, I was determined to keep looking for something I’d lost in the same place.
Calling all Drivers
Eventually, in despair, I went back inside and explained, calmly, my predicament to the commissionaires. They scratched their heads. Nothing like this had ever happened like this before, they told me un-reassuringly.
They said they only used one taxi firm and that they would contact them and ask them to put a message out to all of their drivers. I could not see how this could possibly help. In the unlikely event the thief was with this firm – he would be equally unlikely to respond to a polite request to return the stolen goods. Particularly there was a laptop, iPad and a nice pair of headphones in the bag with the passport. It would be like shouting after a mugger to kindly bring back your wallet.
I stood outside and messaged my wife on my one remaining possession. She had only questions and no answers. Ahead of me, days of waiting to get a new passport somehow and re-book all of my flights. It was a nightmare.
One of the commissionaires came outside and stood beside me. We stood together looking ruefully at the empty road. The message had gone out – maybe the taxi would magically come back. They had cameras – maybe they would catch him on the camera. He told me again that nothing like this had ever happened before. He was only trying to help. He went back inside. I was beyond help.
I wasn’t panicking yet, for some reason. I think I was suspending belief, living in denial.
Hope springs eternal.
And then, the guy came back outside and told me that they had identified the driver and the car. Not only that, he was on his way back to the hotel with my luggage. He would be ten minutes.
This was fantastic news – in the sense that it seemed like a fantasy. Why would a taxi driver drive off without a passenger and then respond to a request to come back? Had he just fancied a drive around? It made no sense. I would believe it when I saw it.
I stayed outside – and scoured the road. Five and ten minutes passed. But then – like a mirage – a smart looking taxi was coming down the road, turning into the hotel and drawing up in front of me. A smart man in a cap wound down his window and leaned across, “I have your luggage” he said. Maybe there was to be a price to pay, a deal to be made. But he didn’t look like a criminal.
Seeing is believing. I asked him to open the boot – and there it was. My black bag and brown suitcase neatly arranged. I was pleased, relieved and still completely perplexed.
And then he explained. Have you worked it out yet? I hadn’t.
The Case Solved
Very apologetically, the driver explained. It was a porter from the hotel had brought out my bags and the driver who had opened his boot for him to put them inside. The driver had waited a while – whilst I was waiting for the voucher. Then another man had come outside and got into the taxi. The driver assumed this was me, the owner of the luggage. Fortunately the man only wanted to be taken 10 minutes away. Then he had heard the message. And now here he was.
Three lessons. Firstly – always keep your passport within 6 inches of your person. Secondly – there is always an alternative explanation for everything. Thirdly – don’t panic until all other options have been exhausted.
The driver apologised again as we drove to the airport. He had no need to – in my mind he had transformed from being my worse enemy to becoming my best friend.