GoNOMAD--Pickpockets in Spain

Fast Hands, Not Flamenco

By Jo Barney

We couldn't claim we hadn't been warned, a couple of times. First by the federal government who advised that Spain was safe to travel in but look out for pickpockets; the next time by our hotel whose information folder welcomed us in large print, "Do not carry valuables with you. Use your room safe." and then added, disconcertingly, at the bottom of the page, "We are not responsible for valuables left in room safes."

The four of us considered the odds, locked everything valuable, passports, cash, cards, in our safes, and headed out into the Madrid morning. My husband, manager of our travel monies, held out $l00 to cover lunch and dinner.

Surely, in a pocket almost as deep as his kneecap, protected by a hand in that pocket at all times, the money would be safe. His brother decided to keep his little pile of Euros zippered in an ankle pocket in his many-zippered hiking pants. We two women loaded our shoulderbags with water and sunscreen. We made our way to the Rastro, the famous Sunday open-air market.

Try and store all cash deep inside bags; the further away from zippers the better.
Try and store all cash deep inside bags; the further away from zippers the better.

Several of us like crowds and several don't. We agreed to split up and meet a half hour later at the booth with the Spanish shawls. I forged into the clot of people filling the narrow aisles and began to understand the dangers of thigh-to-thigh strangers.

I held my bag in front of me with both hands, like armor, and was relieved when I emerged some minutes later to find Sherry tossing shawls over her shoulders at our appointed booth.

She chose the red one, and Bob bent over and unzipped his money. We all laughed because it seemed so ridiculous, like keeping your fortune in your shoe.

Always be on the look-out for un-crowded side walks.
Always be on the look-out for un-crowded sidewalks.

I led the way out of the crowd, thinking that I should have bought a shawl, too. Don had offered, fingering the money clip in his pocket. Then a commotion broke out in back of me, and I turned to see several people clustered around my little troupe. They moved away, as my husband said, "That was the strange," and patting a little brown hole in his shirt shoulder. "Some guy burned me with his cigarette." We all noticed at the same time that both of Don's hands were out of his pockets. Oh, oh.

As we reconstructed the scene over coffee a few incredulous minutes later, Bob paying, we realized that four people had participated in that very coordinated performance: the guy with the cigarette, the guy in front who distracted by slowing down, talking, the guy who helped put out the fire, and the guy who came up moments afterward as Don discovered his empty pocket and said that he had seen everything and that the thief had gone "thataway."

Always be aware of your belongings in taxis; keep possessions in hand or lap at all times.
Always be aware of your belongings in taxis; keep possessions in hand or lap at all times.

$l00 seemed a bit steep a price to pay but we had learned our lesson. No more stuff in pockets. Reluctantly, we took our money belt and neck bag out of our suitcases.

Don said wearing that thing under his T-shirt made him look like his pacemaker had popped out. I said that that was better than looking five months pregnant at my age.

We both started out the next day carrying all of our valuables on our bodies. Sherry and Bob decided to stick with the safe and Bob's ankle pockets.

We stopped at the Starbucks a block or so from the only museum open on Monday, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. I was in charge of the itinerary, and it included a full day of walking and shopping. We needed to stoke up on lattes to get us started.

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

Then we headed to the museum, we women in front. As we approached the building, a well-dressed gentleman appeared at Don's side and nudged him, pointing to two young girls near the gate. "Be careful," he said. "Those girls are pickpockets."

A nanosecond later, I noticed that Sherry's small microfiber backpack was unzipped.

"You guys let me walk with the pack open!" she said, miffed, and at that moment we knew we had been hit again. This time her wallet with fifty Euros, at the very bottom of the pack covered with bottles, a scarf, and a book, had been lifted.

All three zippers were unzipped and she hadn't felt a thing, and I, walking beside her, hadn't seen a thing. Even more amazing was the second act: the two girls who had been pointed out as pickpockets came up to us as Sherry was trying to pull herself together and they held out the missing wallet.

Girls helping out - or where they?
Girls helping out - or where they?

"Your picture is in it, " one of them explained. "We picked it up and saw you." The wallet was empty, of course. The girls hung around for a few minutes even after we thanked them and later we understood that they had been waiting for a reward for being part of the team that robbed us. They did return the wallet, didn't they?

By now, all four of us had gone into various stages of paranoia. Sherry entered the museum with her pack in front, arms hugging it so tightly her face was turning red. Don kept tapping his pseudo pacemaker to assure himself of its presence.

I placed my large shoulder bag across my pregnant stomach and covered the hump with my jacket. No one would steal from a woman about to deliver, would they? Only Bob stayed cool, having distributed his resources into all five pockets on his legs which he kept moving.

We were all prepared to swing wildly at the slightest touch by a stranger. Somehow we made it through the museum and onto a couple of palaces.

We still hadn't recovered the next day. When a little old couple, all in black, approached Sherry on the Calle Tres Cruces and asked if she was traveling on their bus, Sherry clutched her bag, cried "No!" and leaped backward two feet into her husband's arms. The old folks moved on, either part of a gang, or convinced of the rudeness of foreigners.

On our way back to our hotel that evening, our paranoia was cranked up a notch when a man brushed by, causing each of us to go into a fist- clenched fight mode. As he passed, he dropped a cigarette lighter which he bent to pick up as he continued to fumble through a wallet.

Night time isn't necessarily prime time for pick-pockets, you should be aware at any time of day.
Night time isn't necessarily prime time for pick-pockets, you should be aware at any time of day.

Bob commented that if our percentages held, one out of every two tourists in Spain would be robbed.

It certainly seemed like it when we got home and told our stories, only to be met with those of our listeners. For one, my sister: same month, same Starbucks.

She and her husband were sipping espresso, looking at a map, considering what to do with the 24 hours they had in Madrid. A fellow sitting at the table next to them offered to help, and the two men placed the map between them and began talking.

Linda set her purse, with her camera inside, at Jerry's elbow and said, "Jerry, watch this. I'm going to the lavabos." He nodded.

When she came back five minutes later, the purse was on the floor at his feet. The camera was missing. Jerry hadn't seen, heard, or felt a thing. The helpful fellow was gone, too. These people are good. And everywhere.

The travel books tell us that a victim of robbery should report it. My sister went immediately to the police station where she stood in a line until she reached the desk and the officer pulled out a notebook labeled "English." She filled out a form, which was filed in the notebook and the notebook was placed back on its shelf, next to other notebooks labeled German, French, Italian, and so on.

Never leave exposed money out, even if it's in a money clip.
Never leave exposed money out, even if it's in a money clip.

As she stepped away from the desk, she noticed a white-faced, tearful woman in the line behind her. And then another.

She might not have spoken their languages, but she knew how they felt. And she knew there was no hope in hell that any of them would get their stolen stuff back.

Dogs, girls, cigarette burns, helpful guides. Who knows what else lies in the bag of tricks of Spain's talented and rampant street performers? I for one don't want to find out.

Months later, six thousand miles away, I still walk with my bag crisscrossed over my shoulder, banging into my stomach.

I wear my backpack in front in a crowd. I flinch when an unexpected hand brushes my shoulder. Will this residual paranoia keep me from going to Spain again? Not see the Alhambra? Not eat paella and grilled sardines on the beach? Never again cry in front of La Guernica? Are you kidding? I'll just resign myself to looking five months along.

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