Freiburg City Park
Freewheelin in Freiburg: WorkAway tour winds down
April 28, 2017
workaway family
Q & A: Post WorkAway interview with the traveling family
May 9, 2017

Midnight Run: Several Steps to Recovering Lost Passports

passports recovery

When I left you last time, we were still wandering from campsite to rest stop, meandering with indefinite direction to the eclectic soundtrack of my second generation iPhone. The ancient device continues to regale us with a shuffle of Bob Marley, George Harrison, euro-electronica, German children’s music and an audiobook from William Faulkner, keeping us always on the edge of our seats, with our toes a-tapping, just a few degrees shy of sheer madness.

Our Work-Away tour has now come to an end, and after a full year of international shenanigans, we are ready to lay down our hoes and hang up our work gloves. And crazy as it sounds, everything has actually proceeded exactly according to plan. Our aim was to travel Europe for about 12 month, do Work-Away exchange across Germany, France and Spain, and then tag on a bit of sightseeing and R & R at the end. Then, applying all that new wisdom and experience, we would either fly back to CA or select the ideal European locale to call our new home.

So after almost a month of visiting family and friends in Germany, we finally sped out of Baden-Wurttemburg, crossed southeast France, and raced toward the Spanish Pyrenees. Strolling across a sandy beach in Montpellier, watching the modest waves rolling in off of the Mediterranean, I observed that this could be, in a sense, the last day of our journey. The next day would bring us back to Sanilles, Spain, where we were to take an apartment and settle down.

What a year it had been. And what a week. Ten days of sleeping in a van and we were all looking forward to that new apartment, those hot showers, and some clean sheets. These were our thoughts as we settled in for one last night on the road, in a seemingly respectable truck stop and camping area just outside of Narbonne.

Yup, we really thought we’d seen it all. But around 3:30 the following morning, I awoke from an excruciatingly light sleep, on the lower bunk of our camper van. It sounded as if my wife, in the upper cabin, was also having a restless night. I cocked my head to one side, then to the other, to see if if she was climbing down to make a late night pee-pee run or something.

But then I detected, through the early blur, that the driver’s side door was just ever so slightly ajar. Had one of us neglected to lock up the bus after an earlier nighttime pee-pee run? A shock of realization rattled my brain. I bolted upright and swiftly threw open the sliding van door. No sooner had I done this than I saw my backpack disappear from the top of a tower of luggage on the driver’s seat, and a shadowy figure sprint into the dark and shrubby chaparral in front of our vehicle.

Without even a split second to consider the circumstances, my primal instincts went into overdrive and I shot out of the bus like a heat seeking missile. The perpetrator tore through the grass and bushes, knowing to avoid the paved and video surveilled parking lot. While just a couple yards behind him, I flew through the dark brush, with no shoes, no socks, no glasses, and no idea where this heated pursuit might lead me. My mind went blank. All I knew was that this backpack contained all six of our passports (the kids have dual citizenship, 2 passports each) and an assortment of personal effects. So I made the 300 yard dash of a lifetime.

The villain probably was not expecting me spring out of bed like a rabid predator. But I did. Nor was he expecting me to chase him across a four lane highway of early morning traffic to get to the rest stop on the opposite side. And sadly, he was correct. All I could do was stand and watch, barefoot, out of breath, in disbelief, as he made his way over one traffic retaining wall, and then another, and disappear into anonymous safety.

I made the walk of shame through the shrubbery and back to the van. My family had been aroused by the sudden rush of the sliding door, but had no inkling of what had just transpired. As I explained the sound and the fury which had woken them, they shared my ferocious outrage. My wife took the prudent steps of finding a security guard and reporting the crime, while I racked my brain, got dressed and tried to catch my breath.

The low level rent-a-cop found some scratch paper and made detailed notes, as I explained the unspeakable events and the magnitude of our loss, all through the intermediary of Google Translate on his smart phone. I requested some official documentation, which I would need in order to report and replace the six stolen passports. He proposed that we go to the Narbonne police station in the morning to file a complete report.

Returning to the compromised comfort of our van, it was impossible to get back to sleep. I got up numerous times to visit the restroom and pace about the rest area, scouring the parking lots for evidence, with the forlorn hope of at least finding an empty backpack stuffed in a bush or a dumpster. I even made my way under the highway to explore the opposite rest stop. But no matter how many haystacks I upended, the needle did not turn up.

Finally, around quarter to 8, with hope lost, faith crushed, and spirit broken, I staggered back to the bus, in that solitary, secluded corner of the camping area. I gently rolled the side door open, trying not to awaken the children, when what to my sleepless, unbelieving eyes would appear, but the familiar sight of my precious black backpack.

Had it all been a bad dream? Or had the backpack been tucked under the front seat the whole time? What was the meaning of this? It was more than my weary mind could comprehend. I didn’t know whether to cry or to vomit.

I opened the bag and rummaged through its contents. Even if we’d lost our passports, at least I might still salvage some important paperwork, my computer cables and my toe nail clippers. But there it was. Everything. Every passport, every optometric prescription, all my tax documents, even my Swiss army knife and my truster toe nail clippers.

It was all too good to be true, but the rest stop custodian and garbage collector had found my backpack lying in the bushes and reported it to the security guard who promptly returned it to our bus. Apparently the robber had discarded the goods while fleeing the scene, too terrified for his life to hang on to the stolen satchel. You’d be terrified too if you were confronted by yours truly at dark thirty in the morning before I’d had my granola and my rooibos.

So before your next vacation is spoiled by a similar fate, or worse, consider taking a few precautions.

· Keep your doors locked, even when you’re sleeping inside your vehicle. The presence of four people sleeping is not enough to ward off the determined burgular.

· Identify your most valuable valuables—passports, credit cards, cash money, etc.—and find an absolutely safe place for them. Think about a passport bag that you can strap under your clothes and keep on your body day and night.

· Take photos of your passports and keep them stored on a cloud. In the unfortunate event that they need to be replaced, it will be handy to have a record of your passport numbers, etc.

· While you’re at it, also back up the precious data on your digital devices to a cloud.

· If all else fails, be prepared to race through fields and freeways to retrieve your pilfered belongings.

Fred Hornaday once considered writing poetry for a living, but then thought better of it. Contact him with your questions and comments at


  1. Kurt Michels says:

    Well done Fred!!!!

  2. That one was too much for this early in the morning. Fortunately I kept reading and avoided a heart attack.

    I lost my entire daypack a few years ago on a Bolivian overnight bus. Everything of value had been stuffed into it so I could keep an eye on it rather than put it in the luggage section where I was afraid it might be rifled through.

    No happy ending for me, however.

    Nicely done, nicely told!

  3. Oh man, I thought you were headed for certain disaster until your quick reflexes and luck came your way. Phew! I remember reading advice on the surfing forums for travel in Mexico, to photocopy passports and ID’s and keep the real things hidden which is what I did, the authorities didn’t seem to mind the copies. (FYI, copying their money that way is frowned upon) Will keep the doors locked on future adventures. Thank you for the tales sir, quite harrowing!

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