My old friend Avis perused my blog just before her recent trip to Spain. Then she wrote me, doubly concerned. She and her 25ish son were heading to Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, and day trips from those places. She was mostly worried for Zac, who didn’t take the threat seriously. She planned to use a small backpack for herself.
Immediately, I replied:
Briefly, I don’t recommend a backpack unless you plan to carry it on your chest. It’s totally out of your control back there. Try to find a bag with a short strap that fits close to your armpit. More later…
The next day, when I had more time, I provided more thorough advice to my friend:
Great trip you’ve got planned but, yeah, you have to be careful. Zac should not carry a wallet in his back pocket. Tell him that the easiest victims are the ones who say “it won’t happen to me.”
Strip your wallets of anything not necessary. It’s best to carry your passport (when you must carry it) and big cash in a pouch under your clothes. It can be one that hangs around your neck under your shirt, or our favorite, one that hangs inside your pants and has a loop that your belt goes through. These come in several sizes and different materials. Pickpocket proof!
Use a credit card for most purchases so you don’t need to carry a lot of euros. Make photocopies of both sides of all the cards in your wallet, and your passport first page, and keep the copies in your largest luggage. If you can, email the copies to yourself. That way you can get them from any computer any time.
Watch your bags at all times. In the airport, getting out of the taxi in front of your hotel, checking into the hotel, renting a car, etc. Don’t put your bag on the floor or back of your chair in a cafe. If your (or Zac’s) jacket is hanging on the back of a chair in a restaurant, make sure the pockets are empty. Don’t let yourself get distracted by someone asking an innocent question. I know I’m making it sound scary but really, if you pay attention, nothing will happen. If you look away, something might disappear.
Be especially careful on public transportation, getting on and off buses and trains, and going down the metro stairs. If your stuff is in front of you or tucked under your arm, you’ll be okay.
Search barcelona on my blog and read those stories for examples of the creative ruses that trick people into losing their stuff. The pigeon poop ploy, the swipe off tables, fake football, pseudo-cops, and endless good samaritan tricks. Sorry, but it’s true.
A new website just started called RobbedInBarcelona On twitter they’re @RiBCN, and they have a fb page “I know someone who got robbed in Barcelona.” They’re trying to shame the city into doing something. Just read the quotes they translated.
Still, bcn is one of my favorite cities in the world. The food, the mood, the architecture, the galleries…
Pretty good advice, I thought. But not good enough. Avis reported back after her trip:
There’s no other way to say this or to soften the blow, my shame… I had my wallet with my 2 credit cards and debit card and drivers license and 150 in Euros and ?? US money stolen on the metro after landing at the Madrid airport on my first day! The rest of the trip was great. Honestly I can’t figure out how or when the theft occurred, those guys are good, and yes I had a terrific traveling money thing to stick in my pants, but I was going to do it all when I got to the hotel, I did remain vigilant and yet I was got. Zac sez I manifested it and maybe I did.
Sounds like the boy’s gloating. Schadenfreude, anyone? Impressed with the slickness of her thieves, Avis related just how diligent she’d been:
I was careful to bury my wallet in the bottom of my zipped bag. On top of it was a book, glass case, papers and my passport, which was in the “travel wallet”Â on the very bottom. The bag was my everyday purse: a woman’s purse-type backpack that I could wear with the straps on my back (in other words nice fabric and small; not a school or travelers’ backpack). It has zippers and a pocket in the front which were untouched.Â I did not have it on my back EVER, rather on one shoulder so that I could hold it with one arm,Â or in front of my body. My best guess is that the theft occurred on the escalator when it must have swung behind me and when I obviously couldn’t see behind me and movement was occurring. The zipper was only open about 5 inches (amazing!)
I told Avis that pickpockets do try to close the zippers they’ve opened, if they have time. Gives them a few more seconds to get away if the victim should happen to glance at her bag. I’m sorry that I didn’t warn my friend to prepare herself immediately, even before stepping off her plane. After a long overnight flight, groggy, distracted, burdened with luggage, navigating an unfamiliar Metro system and trying to find a hotel you’ve never seen, you’re at your most vulnerable. Pickpockets know this. As proof, Avis added:
The receptionist at our hotel in Madrid said 3 other guests (currently staying in the same hotel) were robbed at the airport. 3!!!!
The lesson I learned from Avis’s experience is this: at the risk of sounding like an alarmist, stress early preparedness. Stress that bags don’t have nerve-endings, and therefore need to be in line-of-sight. Emphasize that while we are busy with travel concerns, thieves are focused on finding the chink in our armor. A moment of distraction is the gift of an opportunity to a pickpocket.