I like to think of myself as one of those people who doesn’t really need any of those “guide books.” You know, the ones for tourists…I’m in no way a tourist! So, when I read Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door it wasn’t because I needed to, nor did I need any of that advice he had for “tourists.” Little did I know that even the most hard-core of travelers (like myself, of course) sometimes needs to get knocked back into reality.
It happened during my first trip to Paris a few months ago. I was thoroughly prepared and ready to take on anything that came my way. I’ve learned a few things while living in Switzerland that I didn’t know about when living in the US, such as how to use public transport. So, I felt completely at ease on the Paris metro during the first few jaunts.
Then, the unthinkable happened. I was with several friends and we boarded the metro during what seemed like rush hour. It was hot, crowded, and extremely awkward. Of course, we tried to make light of the situation, laughing and joking while doing our very best to avoid eye contact with our fellow travelers who were squeezed in all around us, lurching about with every tired movement of the rickety, overloaded train.
I suppose it’s in people’s nature to want to block things out in awkward situations, and that’s probably the main reason why I was caught off-guard. Even though I was fairly distracted, I remember noticing three women who seemed a little more awkward than the rest of us. One of them was pregnant, so in my mind she had every right to look awkward. Right after I noticed them, the pregnant woman edged in a little closer in front of me, as the others moved in another direction behind me. At this point, she was much too close for me to feel comfortable looking at her, so I looked away, silently praying for the next stop to come quickly. I must add here that I was being very careful — I had been warned of the dangers of thieves and therefore had my bag zipped and in front of me, feeling quite secure with this arrangement.
It’s very hard to detect when someone is touching you deliberately when at the same time there are about ten people touching you because they have no choice — but something at that moment made me look down. When I did, my heart leapt into my mouth in shock and horror at what I saw.
The pregnant woman had one hand unzipping my bag, and the other already inside and clutching my wallet (I have no idea how she was keeping her balance while multitasking so well…). I felt frozen with fear but at the same time compelled to action. Without thinking, in one fell swoop, I grabbed my wallet away, shoved it into my bag, and zipped it closed (thank God for adrenaline!). By the time I looked up, the lady was gone! She and her friends had already made their way to the other end of the car and there was nothing I could do.
I looked around helplessly at my friends, who were completely oblivious to what had just happened. Still stunned, I got off the metro at the next stop and saw the women running to the next car in order to avoid being caught (and doubtless to try again). I told the story to my friends and we all decided upon a few good rules to help us in the future.
1: Never leave your stuff unaccompanied
This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s worth mentioning. It’s good to have at least one hand on your bags at all times. When eating out, don’t put your bag beside you or leave it hanging on the back of your chair. If my bag is small enough, I keep it in my lap. If it’s too big, I will set it under the table, normally with one strap wrapped around my leg. It may sound silly, but you can never be too careful.
I met someone while traveling a few weeks ago who lost everything when he was eating at an outdoor café because he set his backpack down next to him and was deep in conversation. The next time he looked down, it was gone — his money, passport, camera — everything. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
2: Keep your eyes peeled
No matter how much you’ve traveled, or how experienced you are — even if you’re in your hometown — stay vigilant! Even though I was taking some precautions, I still almost lost my wallet. Staying aware of your surroundings and not getting too comfortable or confident is a surefire way to keep you and your stuff safe.
3: Don’t draw attention to yourself
I and my large group of babbling Americans no doubt had a large sign above our heads that said: “HEY! We’re easy to take advantage of!” If at all possible, refrain from standing out. That doesn’t always mean just keeping quiet — several things come into play here. For example: clothing, language, body language, and items like maps, cameras, and (gasp!) guidebooks can also peg you as a tourist. Of course, maps, cameras, and guidebooks are sometimes necessary, but it’s good to use discretion.
4: Find what works for you
Everyone has their own way of packing around their stuff, so I’m not going to say here that one kind of bag is better than another. What I will say is that no matter what kind of bag you carry, you need to put some thought into it ahead of time. Take for instance someone who carries a backpack. Some guides say that this is a no-no because they are easily accessed from behind (obviously) where you can’t see. I for one am not a fan of backpacks, but I have a friend who has quite successfully used a backpack for some time now while traveling. She puts locks on all the compartments to keep would-be thieves away. You could also take off your backpack and hold it in front of you when you find yourself in crowded situations such as the one mentioned above.
Personally, I use a shoulder bag with a strap that crosses in front of me. I keep the bag zipped and in front of me at all times, and I have found this the most convenient way for me to carry things. Rick Steves encourages travelers to use a money belt underneath their clothes. I’ve used one of these a few times but find that it’s inconvenient if you need to get anything out of it. However, the concept is still a good one — it’s better to not have all your important belongings and money in one place. However you choose to split it up is your decision, but NEVER get anything out of your money belt in public — that will definitely get you pegged as a tourist with valuable things on your person.
5: Have fun
My goal in sharing this story isn’t to scare anyone and I definitely don’t want to deter anyone from traveling — on the contrary. Traveling is exciting, with lots of unknown adventures around every corner. Staying aware is the best thing you can do for yourself to keep your trips full of fun and thrilling experiences! Happy traveling.
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Co-written by Craig Martin of Indie Travel Podcast and ex-UN Safety and Security trainer Craig Bidois, this is road-tested safety advice for all travellers.