This evening I watched a Netflix episode of what seemed to be a low-budget Canadian television series highlighting travel mishaps. There was a guy who was robbed in a taxi in Lima that made me think of my brother. There was also a girl whose backpack was stolen in Barcelona that made me think of every person I know who’s ever been to Barcelona. My travel robbery stories are too numerous to list in a single post, but here are a few highlights from my younger years when I tended to make more irresponsible choices…
Gdansk, Poland, Age 18
My seven-person high school Odyssey of the Mind team went to Poland for a competition and along the way we kept passing teams of gypsies holding babies and begging for money. Though our chaperones instructed us not to give any of them money, when we had free time to wander through the town square, my bleeding-heart self decided to give away $5 of the $65 that I had brought for the entire trip.
The woman I gave the money to was so grateful that she wanted to give me something in return. She would give me a palm reading. After deciding this in conversational English, she asked if I spoke any other languages. Upon learning that I was less-than-proficient in German, she decided German would be perfect for the reading.
She spun some generic tales about how great my life was and how many men were in love with me and then she asked me for some coins. I told her I had no coins. She became angry and demanding, telling me she didn’t want to keep my money she just needed to touch the coins for luck. It didn’t matter if it was for luck or not, I told her. I didn’t have any coins.
Then she stuffed her hands into my jean pockets and before I could stop her, she was holding my $60. I watched her very carefully. Very, very carefully. She told me to blow on the money. I blew on it, without taking my eyes off those bills. Then she stuffed the $60 back in my front pocket, while I watched her so, so carefully. And then suddenly she was gone.
I stood there for a moment, thinking about how odd our exchange was, how confused I’d been trying to converse in German, and how weird it was that she ran away. I put my hand into my front pocket. The $60 that I had watched her stuff into my jeans was not there. In its place was the $5 bill I’d originally given her.
Right then a few of my classmates walked up. One of them spoke German, so I had him tell the gypsies that I wanted my money back auf Deutsch. The leader of the pack talked to him with a face full of sympathy, explaining that she did not know the lady who took my money, but she had seen her run off and jump into a taxi.
After a few minutes of this circular conversation, I saw two police officers across the way. I went to speak with them and the women watched. The police did not understand a word I said, but our conversation of gestures included me pointing at the women and the officers signaling me to come with them to the station.
The gypsy leader saw this, and likely wanted no trouble with the police, so she had my friend call me back over. When I walked up, she pulled the $60 from her own pocket and told me she would return it, but she wanted the $5 I had originally given the woman. Though I was annoyed to agree to this, I agreed. Robbery problem solved.
Barcelona, Spain, Age 22
I spent the summer studying in Munich and a friend of mine was studying in Rome, so we decided to meet up for a weekend in Barcelona. We were having lunch with two Italian guys and I had my purse on the back of my chair when a beggar walked into the cafe.
I’d seen this maneuver several times. Beggar enters establishment and places a laminated card on every table. This card explains why they need money in 12 languages. Then the beggar walks to each table and stands there for a moment with outstretched hands. If ignored, they collect their laminated 12-language explanation and leave.
The beggar stood at our table for an uncomfortably long time before taking the hint. After he left, it dawned on me that I should move my purse to the inside of the back of my chair rather than the outside. As I moved my purse, I saw the zipper was open. Camera and wallet were missing. I was too late.
The four of us went to an Internet cafe so that I could Skype my dad and have him cancel my ATM card. While there, the two Italian guys were robbed next – their backpacks stolen while they sat typing at computer terminals. They also lost their cameras but, unlike me, they had left additional money and credit cards in their hotel room, so every way they had to access money was not cut off in a single pickpocketing incident.
When my friend and I went back to the youth hostel that night, everyone we spoke with had already been robbed in Barcelona. Someone even had a pair shoes stolen at the beach when they left them on the sand and walked down to the water. Literally the only tourist I interacted with in Barcelona who did not have a personal robbery story was my friend. And had we been making predictions about the person most likely to lose all of their possessions on any vacation, she would’ve had my vote.
I talked my friend into sneaking me into her bed at the youth hostel. It was the grossest place either of us had ever slept. The building had no air conditioning or air circulation and the sheets reeked of weeks’ worth of sweat as they were obviously not washed between visitors. We were already sleeping in other people’s sweat, I told her. We may as well sleep in each other’s.
I’m not sure why I didn’t borrow money from my friend and just pay her back when we were stateside, but for whatever reason, I did not. This meant that I had zero access to money until stepping off the train in Munich and walking back to my apartment. And in my apartment was simply a Discover card.
This was 2001, before you could use a credit card for every little purchase. It was also a time when very few establishments took Discover. So I spent the rest of the summer using an Irish Pub as my ATM because I’m pretty sure the staff misunderstood their owner’s directive.
The staff was not allowed to charge less than 50 Marks ($35 USD) on a credit card, so if your tab was under that threshold, they would run your card for 50 DM and give you the change in cash. Thank goodness for that Irish Pub because without them, I’m not sure how I would’ve had money for the grocery store (who didn’t take Discover) or public transportation (who didn’t take Discover) or every other establishment I found Germany (none of whom took Discover).
Budapest, Hungary, Age 23
On a train heading for Budapest, my friend and I were sitting in the dining car when passport control came through. After showing our documents to the officers walking through the car, we set them on the table. Moments later, the waiter approached and while clearing our plates he quickly scooped up our passports and darted to the end of the car.
I jumped up and chased him, catching up and confronting him in front of a border officer. The officer looked at the waiter and spoke to him in Hungarian, perhaps translating, as the waiter didn’t seem to speak much English.
First the waiter showed an expression of false confusion, then he dropped his act and laughed, pulling our passports out from under his vest. He dangled them in front of me then made a gesture with his shirt, lifting it in such a way that I took it as a demand to see my tits.
I looked to the officer for help, as I thought he was my ally, but he, too, was patiently waiting to see my tits. I smacked the waiter’s arm, gave him a mouthful of curse words, and grabbed the passports from his hand. He thought this was funny and in his international language of gestures, he shrugged as if to say, “Well, I tried.”
Munich, Germany, Age 23
Same friend as the passport robbery was with me at Oktoberfest and we were too cheap to get a hotel room that time of year. However, from an earlier visit, we knew a hotel that didn’t require a key to enter and had a private bathrooms, complete with a shower, on every floor.
We left our valuables in a locker at the train station and decided to sleep in the hotel hallway. We figured that if we were questioned by someone, like a maid, for example, we would act really sad and explain that we were most certainly hotel guests, but that we were fighting with our boyfriends and that is why we chose to sleep on the hallway floor. It was as genius of a plan as when we set our cruise control to 95 on Interstate 95, intending to tell any officer who pulled us over that we had been confused by the signage.
On our first night, Oktoberfest left me in rare form and I just wanted to sleep, so I left my friend early and headed for the hotel hallway. However, as I was en route, walking down the sidewalk, an automatic door opened. I realized it was one of those private ATM rooms and it was unoccupied.
It was so cold outside and so warm in the ATM room and I decided I didn’t need to walk all the way to the hotel to sleep. There was a cardboard cutout of a cartoon fox, the bank mascot I’m guessing, and I curled up behind him in the corner. The fox wasn’t too helpful though because the next thing I knew, I was being woken up by a flashlight in my face and two paramedics hovering over top of me.
I explained that I was fine and had a small case of the giggles, finding the whole situation rather funny. The female paramedic seemed to agree with me, smiling and laughing, but the male had a different idea about humor. After proving that I was not dead or dying, I left the cozy comfort of the ATM room and made my way to the hotel hallway.
When I arrived, my friend was already there. And with her was some guy we’d met earlier who turned out to be a trust fund baby who spent his nights back home in Canada flying to different nightclubs via helicopter. I know this not because he told us, but because my friend later met him in Canada and that is precisely what they did. And I include this detail because his obvious wealth and willingness to spend money makes it all the more absurd that he decided sleeping on the floor of a hotel hallway was a good idea.
My arrival woke them up and my friend quickly realized that our bag was missing. Apparently someone had stolen it from under her head as she slept and neither of them had noticed. It wouldn’t have been a major deal that the bag was stolen, as we only had toiletries and a change of clothes in there, but for some reason, my friend’s only pair of glasses and every pair of contact lenses she owned was also in that bag. The thief stole a lot of worthless things plus my friend’s vision.
The next day she walked around virtually blind and that night someone slipped a drug into her drink. The Canadian guy was still hanging around and thankfully they accidentally exchanged drinks so he got the full dose of whatever she was dosed with. I say thankfully he was drugged because whatever was in that drink left him bedridden for three days. She weighed all of maybe 110 pounds and he was normal guy size, so he was better equipped to handle it.
When we had a drugged-out Canadian on our hands who needed a bed, we opted to call it quits on our cheap hallway plan and phone a friend in Munich. He graciously accepted us into his home and let our new friend recooperate. Not only that, but in a random coincidence, our friend had received Lasik surgery the month prior and had a stash of contact lenses he no longer needed. His prescription was identical to my friend’s, so she was able to continue traveling with full vision.
The Netflix series reminded me why I prefer to avoid television. What I thought was going to be a funny series about travel mishaps wound up being quite terrifying. It highlighted people who had been shot, stabbed, and beaten simply walking down the street or riding in a cab. I don’t think that kind-of entertainment does any good for people who are considering taking a vacation or for people waiting for a friend or family member to return from a vacation. The program even served up an unhealthy dose of fear to me, making me rethink future travel plans, and I certainly know better.
Yes, the worst-case scenario is a possibility and some people unfortunately experience the worst of the world. However, in my experience, the times I’ve been robbed have been (1) fairly insignificant and (2) quite preventable. I’ve actually had more stolen in my own country than I’ve ever had stolen abroad, including thefts by former employees who I trusted (twice!) and a home robbery that my roommate walked in on (scary). So, no thanks Netflix – not watching anymore of your travel horror series.