I was robbed in Barcelona at the fag end of my stay there. It’s not that I hadn’t been warned. But the warnings had been expressly about being careful in crowded areas and essentially to be alert. But the universe sometimes has different plans for us despite everything.
Any woman will tell you that they are usually far warier than men when stepping out from home because women are more frequently on the radar of almost all sorts of miscreants. Keeping all the warnings in mind, I set out to explore Barcelona, alone for a bit and with my sister for the most part.
I can tell you what kind of a death grip I had on my phone. It was not only my lifeline back to home, it was my guide in a city where eloquent shrugs and rapid fire Spanish was the norm. My extent of Spanish was and still is restricted to salutations, please and thank you. Not much help when “grandpa” comes and robs you on the metro as I was soon to find out.
Even walking around a brand new city can be a bit daunting but I was so elated to take in the cool breeze, the lovely buildings and just the utter newness of everything that every day that passed without any incident led me to let my guard down a little bit more. And this is where the screw ups happen.
We are all more victims to our minds than the world around us. A “bad guy” typically needs to have a vicious air around him, it’s usually a man who is the perpetrator or essentially looks like trouble from the word go. People who look like they’d be more at home playing chess in Central Park and smiling kindly at kids aren’t the people you think about when mugging comes up.
Neither do you think that two innocuous looking women who insist very jovially that they are trying to get people to come to their flamenco show at the city’s square and are handing you roses because it’s a marketing gimmick, are either marking you out to their cohorts as an easy mark or will use the flowers as an excuse to come close to you and rob you blind.
If you really let your mind go there, paranoia will rule supreme. And it did for us, for a bit before our innate stubbornness reasserted itself and we said screw it! They’ve taken quite a bit from us; the peace of mind is ours to give away, or not.
Here is the thing- if you are traveling alone then be doubly cautious since the eager-beaver attitude you give off can make you stand out in a crowd. If you are traveling with a partner then you are slightly safer but the crooks work to divide and conquer. The safest bet seems to be to travel in a group because the more the people to manage, the lesser the variables in the control of the criminals.
So it boils down to common sense. Don’t do what I did and try and keep to this ready reckoner and trust your gut. It could mean the difference between being traumatized and hurt vs a safe and memorable trip for all the right reasons.
- Don’t stop to click picturesque balconies and building facades so often that you might as well be wearing a neon sign that says “Fresh Off The Boat”. If you’re a clickomaniac like me, just control your impulses. Your internal camera (mind) sees way more things than that which you’ll end up posting on Instagram and Facebook.
- Take a taxi when traveling with luggage that requires not only your focus but both your hands. Going through turnstiles at a Metro station and lugging your bags till the escalator or elevator is an inconvenience even if you’re built like He-Man.
- Avoid interacting with strangers. You know where your important documents and articles are; no need to keep checking and rechecking just because a person with a kind smile tells you that you’ve been dropping euros like Hansel and Gretel did breadcrumbs. The kindness of strangers can be experienced in a setting more within your control. A bit of bird poop on your shoulder or bag isn’t going to derail your life especially if it prevents you from stopping in your tracks and lets another set the stage for a malicious act.
- Avoid crowds as much as you can and do not be afraid to get in the face of people who seem to be pushing you or hemming you in. Seriously, think about it…who in their right mind wants to get into a cathedral at the speed of light. The structures have been there for centuries…5 more minutes aren’t going to make any difference.
- Don’t make eye contact with strangers who come up to you. Just register who is around and the place where you are in, is it crowded, lonely and how close you are to a landmark and just keep walking. In a country known for their tourism, you aren’t the sole individual another can turn to for help.
- Don’t overstuff your handbag or wallet. Keep it simple and neat and with everything within a fingers reach. If you have to stop to sort through your change and the notes, you are giving someone time to sneak up on you and part you from your money or any other important object from your bag.
- Avoid areas which are lonely. There are optimum times to go sight seeing. Stick to those since those are also the times when the local authorities will be available to help you. Note: many smaller police stations are closed in Spain on weekends. It may make you go WTF but knowing that beforehand may mean the difference between wasting time waiting for a closed door to open and getting the right kind of help and in a timely manner.
- Keep your country’s embassy’s address stored in your phone. You will need to go to them no matter how far away you are in order to get back home especially if your passport’s been whisked away.
- Schengen visas are NOT going to be reissued by the country that issued them originally because those are the rules. You will need to either fly back to your home country or request the intervention of another country near by for asylum while you get a fresh visa issued. Keep in mind though, no country barring your own is obligated to let you enter. Don’t bother crying- if it’s not protocol, they don’t give a damn.
- Do not attempt to evade immigration at airports by driving in or arriving by train to another country if your visa has been stolen. There is no guarantee that you may not be asked to show your papers. Failure to show your visa means deportation at best and a host of other issues at worst which may also include difficulty in getting a passport issued or even getting banned from international travel.
- A visa is linked to the passport it is issued on. No passport, no visa. If a new passport is issued, its validity does not extend to the earlier visa. Again, don’t cry. It ain’t gonna help.
These and many many more things can help in preventing any loss or harm befalling you while traveling aboard but the people who carry them out aren’t doing this for a lark. It’s what they do. Their commitment to getting your money outweighs all moral dilemmas so try and not get stuck in the “why did this happen to me” rut.
If you aren’t physically hurt, thank your stars, take stock of the situation and immediately set about asking for help in cancelling anything that can be misused by others and then find a police station or a police officer and keep asking for help till they do what’s required or lead you to the people who can.
But don’t be too surprised if you get a blase kind of a response from the authorities. They will take their time to type out the report, they will listen to you impassively and then gesticulate widely with their hands and shrug their shoulders a whole lot but thay may not commiserate. They see it too often and are quite desensitized to the occurences. Keep a hold on your temper and just go through the essentials like filling out a police report and asking for copies in triplicate. You may be lucky enough to find a police officer who doesn’t say, “Doesn’t your embassy have a copier?” Your only job then is to get the stamped report in hand and move onto the next step- reissue of your passport.
I intend to go back to Spain. I don’t know when that will be but I will try and make it back. The place is gorgeous and I know I liked what I saw there. This experience was a wake-up call in many ways albeit one I could have done without. But we escaped without any scars and whatever hits our minds took, we will continue to recover from it. A little paranoia never hurt anyone while traveling. Go with the gut and be ruthless about your safety.
You can also check out these articles for the MOs used by the pickpockets.
Forewarned is forearmed. Truly.