Photo by Allard Schmidt, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Allard Schmidt, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

University of Baltimore Asst. Professor Marion Winik has recently returned from her trip to Peru with Roland Park Middle School on an emergency passport, as faithful readers will be unsurprised to hear.


Date: 23 June 2013, Hour: 12:10 PM

In the city of Cusco in the Office of the Tourist Police, the tourist MARION LISA WINIK (55), a U.S. national, single, a teacher, presented herself without personal documents or papers of transit through the city. The aforementioned tourist had suffered the loss of her brown handbag in a cafeteria …



Date: 23 June 2013, Hour: 6:10 AM

In the unheated breakfast room of our hotel, I was writing a journal entry titled “Cranky in Cusco.” Though I’d been having a pretty good time on my educational tour of Peru with 25 seventh graders, their teachers, and some of their parents, Day Six found me in a snit. Hoping to get it out of my system, I wrote at length about the smelly hotel, the boring food, the effects of the endless walking on my arthritic knees. Having broken a fifty-five year ban on organized travel to take this tour with my daughter Jane, I’d begun to remember why I might not like such a trip. I also remembered that I was not all that interested in ruins or the brutish ancient civilizations behind them. Machu Picchu, I admitted, was the best of the bunch. If you like mountain scenery. Which I don’t.

When Jane came down with a group of six girls for breakfast, I suggested we skip the daily rolls and margarine and try our luck elsewhere. A few blocks away, we came upon a fancy pastry shop where I was only slightly surprised to find almost all the other members of our tour group already dining. Things were looking up, I felt. So much so that I pulled out my journal to note the fact. Cafe Valeriana. Good quiche.

When I put my journal back into my bag, I saw I had a text message from the short-lived boyfriend who had broken up with me on the eve of this journey. I had just begun to reply, stabbing at the touchscreen keyboard, when the waitress brought our bill. I reached down for my purse, which had been wedged between me and the girl beside me on the bench. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t on the other side of me, or on the floor.

Since none of us had even seen anyone approach the table, this was clearly the work of a magician.

So much for Cranky in Cusco — the journal was now history, along with my money, credit cards and ID, and the novel I was reading. Jane’s iPhone was in there, too, but thanks to that texting ex, mine was not. Worst, I had lost my passport. I say “worst” but I had no idea what I was in for.


During the time I was at the police station filing my report, four other robbery victims came in. Officer Juvenal Zerceda Vasquez regretfully explained that this was the weekend of the Festival of the Sun, when professional thieves come to Cusco from all over the country. I pictured a chartered bus, Oceans 11 on the DVD player and umbrella drinks.

He proceeded to type up a detailed description of every item in the purse, then printed the report using a dot-matrix printer and a sheet of carbon paper. My wrinkled copy is all that remains of the “estuche multicolor conteniendo lapiceros y maquillaje,” (multi-colored pouch containing pens and makeup), the “cuadernillo personal,” (personal journal), and the “billetera floreado” (flowered wallet. Actually, it was polka-dot but I couldn’t get that across.)

Next, he let me use the phone to call the U.S. Embassy. The woman who answered brusquely informed me that I would need to change my flight to Lima, get passport photos, fill out DS-11 and DS-64 online, and by the way, the Peruvian immigration office closes at noon. Since all this would cost a pretty penny, I should immediately message my contacts in the United States to explain my plight and ask for money. (God, I thought, are some of those emails for real?)

“When are you supposed to fly home?” she asked.

“Tuesday evening,” I said. It was Sunday.

“It’ll be tight,” she said grimly. “Tomorrow is a national holiday.”

“And there’s nothing you can do for me?”

“No,” she said firmly. “Nothing.”

I returned to the hotel in a police cruiser. Too depressed to remain conscious, I fell into a deep sleep of many hours. When I awoke, any complaints I may have about organized tourism were forgotten, for it had become my fairy godmother.

The director of our tour group had been on the phone to the head office in Boston. They had changed my flight and arranged for a local to meet me at the plane. I was handed a xerox copy of my old passport and an envelope of cash for cabs and fees. In the meantime, I was advised to relax and enjoy the national holiday.

Believe it or not, I did.

My escort Martin turned out to be an ex-skateboarder whose band once played the Warp Tour. With his help was I able to negotiate taxi fees, maneuver through traffic, fill out forms, get photos, swear I told the truth and nothing but the truth, then race across town with my brand-new passport to the Peruvian Immigration office, which as you know closes at noon, but where the line to find out what line to wait in is a mile long, where armed guards are charged with preventing you from asking questions, where you need two copies and a receipt for your payment from the bank, where at 11:45 a fat man puts everybody’s passport in a pile and gets on the phone to order lunch.

Having been in a state of extreme stress for eight hours, I was starting to lose it. I slumped to the floor in exhaustion. I wondered vaguely where I would sleep that night, what would happen to Jane when she got home.

Martin was a mild sort, but he rose to the occasion. Braving the guard, he stormed the counter and got my passport back. At which point the fat man returned everyone else’s passports too, so that we walked out of there like Olympic heroes.

Then we returned to the airport and met up with my tour group, and we all came home.

Regular readers of this column know that this is the second theft of my purse this year, not to mention the robbery of my mouthwash from my car last month. There is a reason these things happen to me and not other people, who lock their doors and use belly packs abroad and don’t take their passports out of the hotel. My son Vince has kindly called it an “aura of vulnerability.”

May it fail to kill me and continue to provide amusement for us all.

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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

17 replies on “Robbed in Peru: It Happened to Me on Summer Vacation”

  1. I got nauseous just reading this! Don’t know how you held up under such stress! I’m reading “Highs in the Low Fifties” and loving it — good for you for turning these awful situations into wonderful reads! That’s a talent/gift — and the upside of being a “sh*t magnet.”

  2. I told you, my neighbor is a Peruano, and I’m going to have a word with him about this. Scrumptious funny piece as always, but I love that line about the thieves and their chartered bus and umbrella drinks.

  3. Amused is right, Marion. One of my favorite columns so far. I had a passport stolen from me while I was taking a shower in a hostel in London in 1981. Having just seen EVITA, I was filled with kindness towards all humanity…and should have my worn my passport between my knees.

  4. Where did the xerox copy of your passport come from?
    How did you enjoy the national holiday?
    What were you getting/doing at the Peruvian Immigration Office?
    Guess I know when and the whys can never be answered.

    1. 1. They made us hand in xeroxes of our documents before the trip!
      2. The national holiday was a “free day” so we ate street food, went to the market, and talked to random locals and travelers. All my favorite things as you well know, missy.
      3. I had to get a stamp saying I had entered the country in order to be allowed out. Nonetheless, there was an uproar from the immigration police in the airport.
      4. When? Why? Oy!

  5. “Aura of vulnerability”–very funny. So glad you didn’t tell me all this at CVS when I saw you the morning after return. Much more fun to read it!

  6. Too Funny!! Can’t wait to purchase “Highs in the Low Fifties” tonight at Book People and finally meet one of my very favorite writers! Been a fan a very long time.

  7. Sweet ending, Marion. And I know I’m in for a great read when the word “snit” is used in a sentence.

  8. UPDATE: I am receiving many messages of sympathy from readers who are concerned about my romantic status. Good news on that front. Raised by Wolves and I are giving it another try. Details sure to follow at some point.

  9. I’m so sorry this happened to you! Losing my passport abroad is my worst nightmare. I’m glad you got back to the US safely. I am about to travel to Peru in September, is there anything you recommend I do to prepare for the trip that you didn’t think about until you were there? Thank you!

    1. Well — kind of obvious, but leave passport at hotel and don’t carry a handbag! Peru is beautiful, you’ll have fun.

  10. What a bummer! But glad everything worked out! I am on the fence about writing about my own personal “vulnerabilities”. For some reason, terribly stupid sh*t happens to me at an almost comical rate…but I’m super lazy and therefore, I mostly just b*tch about these events rather than write them down.

  11. I lived in Peru twice and never was robbed. Always carry your passport separate from your purse or wallet-preferably under your clothes in a moneybelt.

  12. I will forward this delightful (to the reader only) article to my granddaughter Cat Jiranek in Old Greenwich, CT. She is 17 & 1/2,and just returned from a school trip to Peru. She was in Lima for a week working with special needs children, and then went to the ruins of Machu Picchu, where she took on the challenge of long hikes in the hills with a backpack on her back, and slept in a tent every night. I haven’t heard her stories yet, but I’m looking forward to hearing them. She kept a journal, and as far as I know did not encounter any “slippery” thieves. Thank you Marion for sharing YOUR Peruvian Adventure. Cat will enjoy reading it! -Carrington Hooper

  13. Amusing. Mary has a similar ability too. I think it was in Peru that she lost her passport (stolen) and we had to go through the tralala too. I particularly enjoyed that we had to start from square one for a new passport, then leave the building to get a passport picture, then reenter security to proceed. It only took us a day, but I fear worse.

    Alas, Happy Travels. I loved Peru and Machu Picchu. Incredibly beautiful. I can’t help it you were raised in New Jersey and think onlyMalls and freeways are magnificent.

  14. Hysterical! Being a frequent international traveler, I can sympathize. Peach and I were at Book People and enjoyed hearing you read from the new book, which I will read in Canada with Carole Price at the end of the month.

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