pickpocket

Everyone should get robbed once while traveling. There’s nothing like that exciting feeling of not having any money in a strange country and wondering how you’re going to replace your stuff. I got robbed my second time to Europe. It sucked. I still have no desire to go back to Madrid. That was a long time ago and I vowed at that moment that it would never happen again.Guess what? It hasn’t. The question that someone who gets robbed asks a million times is “what would I have done differently?” Let me tell you my story:

I had been hitchhiking through Spain and encountered  a little difficulty getting rides from Barcelona to Madrid. I should have stopped in Zaragoza but I was determined to get to Madrid that night. My traveling companion and I were dropped off in the center of the city, an area called Sol, and started searching for an inexpensive place to stay. We both had backpacks, day packs and I was carrying a guitar as well.There were a fair number of people around but the strip of pension hotels were on a dimly lit street and had most of their lights off. We went to one and rang the doorbell. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some tall young Arab men walking the same direction and one of them came up and rang the same doorbell that we had pushed a minute before. These men didn’t look like travelers so there was some immediate suspicion. Before I had any time to think, they came up fast and grabbed my companion’s day pack. She held on screaming and one of them finally wrested it from her grip. I set my stuff down and started running after him, yelling “Policia”! At least a hundred people looked at me and did nothing. As I was chasing him, another man grabbed the pack that I had set down. I chased the robber down at least 3 blocks before he ran down a dark alleyway. I knew there were at least 2 of them together and I wasn’t really sure what I intended to do if I caught them. I made my way back to where the incident occurred and discovered that we were short 2 bags. The police showed up a short time later, filled in some reports, tried for a bribe to overstate the amount of damage (they assumed we had insurance and would be able to collect more money if they lied). Fortunately there was no cash or passports in either bag. I already knew the first rule.

Many of my friends are concerned when  I travel to a country that they don’t know much about. They tell me “be safe” a hundred times and ask me if I’m worried about my safety. The truth is I feel safer in other countries than I do some places in my own city. Most people I’ve met traveling would give me my wallet back if I dropped it and are very honest. However, that’s not very interesting news. People like a good story and getting robbed and travel violence is a good story. I’ve rarely had any issues in the last twenty years and it’s because I’ve talked to travelers who have had things stolen and I’ve learned what to do and not do. These tips will help take you off the target list:

1. Don’t put money and passports in a bag you carry- I see travelers do this every time I go on a trip. You should keep your important travel stuff on your body. Even if you’re in an extremely safe area, it’s still  possible to leave your bag in a bus or on a train. A dangling bag is the first and easiest thing a thief can take from you.

2. Don’t make a display of your wealth- Unless you’re doing a Zoolander photo shoot in Papua New Guinea, you should avoid wearing expensive jewelry, watches or anything that makes you look like a potential paycheck to a would-be-thief. Professionals are looking for things that are valuable and easy to steal.

tropical-tourist-costume

3. Don’t look like a tourist- Walking around looking at a map is begging for trouble. Dressing like a tourist not only makes it a little more difficult to get to know the locals but indicates that you are clueless about where you are and makes you more interesting to thieves.

4. Be aware- Knowing who is behind you and on the side of you is very important when you’re traveling. Thieves will often bump you or come close to you to see how you’ll react before they try to steal from you. Keeping an eye out and paying attention helps dissuade those looking for an easy target.

5. Arm yourself- I don’t mean this literally, or maybe I do. . I traveled for months in some isolated areas of Africa and one of the first things I did was buy a big knife and attach it to my belt. Other travelers made jokes about my “big unnecessary” knife (and it was probably was) but I felt like I was less likely to end up a victim if I had the potential of defending myself. That’s why sea urchins don’t get eaten as much as other fish. I was walking through a park in Nairobbery (I mean Nairobi) that has a reputation for thieves in the middle of the day pushing you down and while they’re robbing you, pretend like they’re playing soccer. I picked up a big rock and carried it with me. I felt a little like a little boy that takes his sword to bed to kill monsters in the closet, but I also realized that a would be attacker would think twice if he thought he’d get hit with a rock in the head. A little extreme I know, but it was Africa  and I figured that someone who wasn’t a thief  might just think I was collecting rocks.

6. Be aware of scams- There are some interesting scams around the world, some of them quite clever so that you don’t know what to expect. In China there’s a scam that usually start off with a pretty girl or a student who wants to practice English. They might take you to a tea shop, order some ridiculously high priced tea and disappear, sticking you with the bill. In Rome, a woman holding a fake baby will suddenly throw it in the air. When you go to help, kids pickpocket you. Knowing about scams in the country you’re visiting can save you time and money.

7. Watch your drink- There are quite a few cases where travelers have left their drink at a bar for a moment and would-be-thieves spiked it with a drug that either made the victim unconscious or put them in a trance where they actually helped the aggressors clean out their bank account or hotel room.  If anyone gives you a drink, make sure that you saw it opened or made by the bartender.

drugdrink

8. Use a moneybelt- I usually keep my “big money”, passport and credit card in a moneybelt and then use a wallet or coin purse to carry the money I plan on spending during the day. I have 2 kinds of money belts. I have a belt that I use as a normal belt with a zippered compartment and I also have a moneybelt that is big enough to hold credit cards, my passport and other important things.

moneybelt2

9. Hold on to your stuff in a crowd- Pickpockets love a crowd and I’ve seen people have their valuables removed on a crowded bus and even in a parade. I keep my money in my front pocket and if I’m carrying a bag , I make sure I’ve got a firm grip and that I keep an eye on it. Once I was talking to a traveler who had his fanny pack pick -pocketed by a little old lady standing between us on a crowded bus. As soon as he looked down and saw the zipper had been opened, the lady was out of the bus and down the street. She got away with all the money he had.

10. Don’t walk around in scary areas at night- I’m sure this is pretty obvious in even your own town. Take a cab or find some other people to walk with.

Don’t miss the opportunity to travel because of fear of getting robbed. It’s not the end of the world and as is  just as likely to happen in your hometown as it is on the other side of the world. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be a better traveler and feel a lot safer wherever you are.