How I lost my phone in Morocco and came back with no pictures

Once I got to the airport, through security, ate some food and settled down near my gate, I had about 30 minutes before boarding. I called my mom. She didn’t know where I was going yet, so we started with a guessing game. She didn’t guess Casablanca. “Why don’t you tell me these things ahead of time?” she asked. I was hit with guilt. “I guess it’s probably a good thing,” she continued. My dad told me to try not to get kidnapped. Both my parents are worriers, they just express it in different ways.

I’ll always remember the coffee on the flight, which was rich and sweet. I’ll remember the scrambled eggs with cumin my Airbnb host made for me each morning. I’ll remember going for a run my final day in Casablanca, and slowing down as I went past the low-key resorts lining the ocean, still quiet during the tail-end of the slow season. But I won’t have pictures of it, because my phone was stolen within hours of landing at the Casablanca airport.

Language barrier

I’m not much of a planner, even when traveling overseas, apparently. This trip wasn’t to be about much sightseeing anyway — I was scheduled to work overnight shifts at my job, and chose a destination where the time zone allowed me to work during daylight hours and airfare wasn’t terribly expensive. I was traveling alone.

At the airport, I couldn’t find a cab driver who recognized the address for my first Airbnb, where I was planning to stay for just the first night, because the second place was already booked. I finally asked the driver to take me to a Starbucks, as I had already confirmed there were several in the city. He spoke only French and Arabic, and I speak English. He didn’t understand. I pulled a Starbucks cup out of my carry-on, which I had for no reason kept with me from the airport in New York. He still did not understand. I asked several people where the public transportation was. They did not understand (I later took the train back to the airport, and it’s just one floor below the airport). Finally, a cab driver knew where I was going. Forty minutes later, he dropped me off — confirmed I was OK? I double-checked the address, and said, “Sure.”

There was no answer at the door of what was presumably the Airbnb for about 20 minutes, but we had driven by a couple cafes with free Wi-Fi advertised from the windows, as well as a Starbucks. So, I set out to walk back through the neighborhood the way I came. No, not that way. I backtracked. No, not that way. I kept crossing back by the nonresponsive house so I wouldn’t get totally lost. It was morning, and I wasn’t alone — there were women walking by, perhaps to the store. Men going to work. Construction workers, working on something. It was a quiet, pretty, peaceful neighborhood with houses that seemed like small fortresses with a closed-in driveway and locked gate in front of each entryway.

I heard footsteps behind me and realized a kid, probably a young teen, was grabbing my phone out of my hand. “No .. no .. no.” I really couldn’t think of anything else to say, because it was too late to have put my phone in my pocket. I tried to hold onto my phone until my bag dropped off my shoulder — the one with my work laptop, passport, and cash in it. So I turned to pick that up while he ran off with the phone — which was inside a case that held my drivers license, debit card, one credit card and a few nearly empty Metrocards.

In the following days and weeks I thought more about what I could have done, and what I didn’t do. Why didn’t I yell? Why didn’t I try to grab him? Could I have asked him to take the phone out of the case, and what if he did, and left the case on the street, and I just didn’t think to check? Most of all, I came face-to-face with my own vulnerability.

I guess I would have to admit that I’ve fantasized about being attacked before, even at gunpoint, always somehow saying or doing the right thing, sometimes protecting someone with me who I loved. I always assumed that some sort of adrenaline would kick in, that I would know what to do. It didn’t, and I was helpless.

Being the victim

I walked back to the house. Sat down with my duffel bag and shoulder bag. Still felt unsafe. I asked a man passing by to look at the address, and he seemed to think I was in the wrong place. He walked with me to his car — saying I could borrow a phone — but we got to a cafe with Wi-Fi (literally, two blocks away) so I told him I’d stay there. Then I found a new kind of human instinct kick in as I figured out how I was going to survive two weeks in Morocco without a smartphone.

First, I had to cancel my credit and debit cards. Luckily, I had a Gmail account with voice calling credits and was able to do this with my laptop and a pair of headphones. I looked up the credit card I still had and realized that I hadn’t set a PIN for it, so I was stuck with the cash I had with me. I would have to pay with the credit card itself as much as possible so I’d still have cash to, well, get back to the airport. I got a cab and checked into a hotel. I looked up the next flight out of Casablanca and whether it would conflict with my work schedule. I wondered if I should write down the address of the US embassy in case I somehow lost my computer. I couldn’t sleep. I had to download an alarm clock application onto my Macbook so I’d be able to wake up for work each day.

I wasn’t angry at the kid who stole my phone. He could probably sell it and make good use of the money. I had an old phone at home that still works, and could (and did) upgrade to a better phone once I got back to the U.S. But is it fair to see everything through a lens of inequality? Maybe he was just a kid on a dare, maybe he got in trouble from his parents later — maybe he felt guilty. I might be privileged, but I still felt sad and scared.

In the hotel I cried hysterically, shaking. I wondered why I had come to Morocco — why anyone would? Thinking the obsession I’ve had with the developing world, since raising money for starving children at my church in junior high, then visiting Liberia with a college group in 2007, I might finally be able to admit, was misguided. That I couldn’t have made it as a conflict journalist. That I’m out of touch, and shouldn’t leave the more manicured settings I am used to. There were layers pulled back and I wondered if, what excites me so much about world travel is something I wrote in a college literature essay — that the closer to death you are, the more alive you feel. What I was really chasing wasn’t world travel, it was being vulnerable.

If I just needed to be vulnerable, why had I gone all the way to Morocco (perhaps putting myself in harm’s way, and scaring my parents in the process). Why couldn’t I just fall in love again — that was completely terrifying the first time around, and I wouldn’t even need to pay for airfare.

When I got back, I wondered if I would have to remind friends that I had ever left, since they wouldn’t have seen any photos of the trip pop up on social media. I wondered if I would actually remember much from the trip, not having photos resurface in Timehop years later. In fact, it worried me enough that I took a couple pictures with my Macbook from safely inside my Airbnb room. For better or worse, more than one friend greeted me with “Did you post any Instagrams?” and “Where are the pictures?” which each time resulted in a retelling of this story.

After I talked to my parents at the airport I still had a few minutes before boarding. I closed a bunch of apps hit the sleep button on my phone and enjoyed a moment of stillness, thinking back to how past trips often came with some sort of discovery or life transition. What will this trip be about, I thought. Maybe becoming less dependent on my iPhone.