So! Since I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, I thought I’d use my Wanderlusty Wednesdays to talk about some of the things I’ve learned on my travels over the years.
First up: what to do when you get pickpocketed.
February 2007: my friends and I were in the middle of a backpacking trip around Eastern and Western Europe. Our last stop of the trip was Prague. We arrived bleary-eyed after an early-morning bus from Vienna, withdrew some currency, and boarded the metro.
At this point, I considered myself an experienced traveler. I’d been through Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and countless other European destinations. My wallet was zipped inside my purse, which was zipped inside a larger bag I was carrying. I wasn’t stupid.
Or so I thought.
I remember standing in the metro with three large men standing nearby. I was leaning against a pole, trying not to fall asleep. I assumed the men were standing so close to me because the train was crowded. At one point I looked up and realized the train wasn’t that crowded at all–but I didn’t move because I didn’t want to bug them to get out of my way. I knew people had different concepts of personal space in Europe than they do in the US sometimes. I didn’t want to offend them.
At one point, one of the doors on the train wasn’t opening, and one of the men made a big show of trying to force it open. I remember watching him. Then at the next stop, all three men got off the train. As soon as the train doors closed, something clicked.
I looked down. The zipper of my bag was opened just an inch. Barely noticeable.
But my wallet was gone.
My friends and I jumped off the train at the next stop. I yelled some profanities. I considered crying. Then I calmed down, we got to our hostel, where after a few attempts in broken English, the woman at the desk was able to convey to me the location of a store to buy a phone card. I borrowed money from my friends, purchased a phone card, located a phone booth, then immediately called to cancel my credit and debit cards.
I then had to borrow money from my (broke) friends for the rest of the trip. And I was out the cash I’d just withdrawn from the ATM, roughly $100, which is a lot for a teaching assistant on a budget.
How could this have been prevented?
1. Be aware of your surroundings. Even when you’re tired, even when you think your wallet is secure, even when you think you’re too experienced to have this ever happen to you. Know where your wallet is and where other people are at all times when on the metro or in a similarly crowded place. I do this daily now on my commute in NYC, which is a much safer place.
2. Trust your instincts. I thought it was weird those men were standing so close to me on the train. I thought it was weird one of them was playing with the door for so long. But I didn’t move away from them because I didn’t want to bother them. Your safety is more important than offending people. Remember that.
3. Keep some cards, pieces of identification. and cash separate from the rest. Luckily, I’d had to pull my passport out at the Czech border, so that wasn’t in my wallet. But everything else was–all my money and everything that would give me access to money, along with my license, student ID card–everything. I was lucky enough to be traveling with friends who could pay for me for the rest of the trip, but I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been traveling alone. Keeping just one card in a separate place would have prevented them from getting everything.
All of this seems obvious in retrospect.
So to make myself feel better: what did I do right?
1. I had written down my card numbers, as well as the numbers to my credit card companies. I didn’t have to run to an internet cafe to track down how to contact them, which made the process of canceling them quick and painless. I didn’t even have any charges on them from the evil pickpocketers before they were cancelled.
2. I cancelled my cards before trying to talk to the police. Which was the right thing to do, because the police in Prague basically laughed and shrugged. Pickpocketing is common. They can’t help you.
3. I didn’t panic. I did drop an F-bomb the moment I’d realized what happened, but then I calmed down and got my shit together enough to deal with the situation. It was not the end of the world. I had to order new cards and I was out $100, which sucked, but it could have been worse. It can always be worse.
4. I didn’t let it ruin the rest of my trip. Prague is not on my list of favorite cities on earth for this reason among others (creepy clock, creepy graveyard, creepy churches with severed arms hanging over the door–it’s just such a creepy place), but my friends and I did manage to have a good time over the next few days. It involved drinking a lot of beer.
Have you been pickpocketed? Do you have any advice that I’ve missed? Would love to hear!
Image of Prague taken by me, February 2007