On Being a Wanderer - MasterClass

PROTECT Thyself – On Being Safe

Pocket Safes

Question: Which pocket is safest from pickpockets? I’ll give you a moment to think about it. (Insert music from Jeopardy here ….) Ready? And the answer is … none of them.

Seriously. Unless you’ve got it zip-tied, super-glued, and hermetically sealed, it’s vulnerable. Just ask us how we know. But that doesn’t mean that you have to leave your house with empty pockets, it just means you need to change your mindset.

The old advice of nothing in your rear pockets is absolutely true. As is, don’t leave anything on your table that you don’t want stolen. Bags never get hung on chairs or left unattended. All of that is basic. But it’s not enough. Let’s go through some common scenarios and facts around pickpockets:

  • They almost always work in teams. Partners, or larger groups. You might see one, but the other one is always nearby.
  • They will not always look “criminal”. We’ve seen happy couples, even a mother with a baby in a stroller who were out to rob us. They could be young or old. They could be anyone.
  • There are some telltale signs, like someone wearing a hoodie on their head indoors or in a subway car. Especially in warm weather. Same with anyone carrying a messenger-type bag with the flap open. Or someone with a coat flung over their forearm. The hoodie is to shield them from the cameras and your eyes. The bag is to drop the loot in. And the coat conceals their hands and the grab.
  • Anyone in a subway car or a bus who is looking around is either diligent against robbers, or they are the robbers. Take a look yourself. You’ll see almost no one is watching their surroundings. If you see someone eyeballing others … did they look away? If they did, watch out.
  • The police won’t care as much as you care.

You might find yourself with someone pushing a clipboard at you, asking you to sign a petition against this or that. Think about it for a moment. You’re in Spain, a visitor, and someone wants you to sign an English document about something you have no legal rights to protest for or against. Why? Perhaps it’s because they want you to be distracted? To set your bags down? Maybe they’re trying to steal personal information? In any case, there is absolutely no valid reason to sign a petition in a foreign land in a language not of that land. These are scams.

That blob of mustard on your shoulder? Or more than likely, the bird poo? It wasn’t applied by chance. Some dude put it there and is now being helpful to get it off. You set your bags down, they wipe, you smile, your bags are gone. Shit!, you exclaim. Your new friend stands there saying how they’re sorry. How they wish they could help and ain’t it a tragedy. While their partner is digging out your worthwhile stuff and tossing the rest in a nearby dumpster. This is super-common. Seriously.

And here’s my favorite (and this happened to a local friend of ours), your stuff is firmly in front of you. Safe. You’re at a table or on the beach and someone leans over with a menu or other large piece of paper. Trying to get you to buy something or another. You say No! and push them away. Grumbling they do … and you later realize that your stuff went with them. That menu/paper covered your things long enough for them to grasp them, and when pulling away it hid the theft. Poof, gone.

And don’t start screaming at that person with the menu/paper. They no longer have it. Their partner slid behind them and they slipped it to them. Your stuff could be anywhere.

I suppose by now you don’t ever want to leave your home, right? Well, don’t fret, on our side of the coin we have our tools as well.

The old saw about predators circling the pack looking for the weakest member is completely applicable here as well. If you’re looking diligent and buttoned up, they will go after a weaker member of the herd. Pickpockets are basically preying on the weakest and safest. They are not like in Hollywood Movies where they want to pull off a perfectly scripted heist. They want quick cash. If you’re not their easy-ATM, they will move on. So what can you do?

  • If you must use pockets, use your front ones. Zippered if possible. Tighter the pants the better. Keep you hands moving and check that pocket often.
  • Don’t flaunt anything. Don’t display your new Apple iPhone x99 to every passing Jose and then slip it in a pocket with the top showing. What the bad guys don’t know you have is what they can’t swipe.
  • Very thin waist pouches are great! If they can be slipped inside your waistband, super great. I have a very thin nylon one with two pockets. Phone and wallet go in the rear compartment and the tug cord on that zipper is removed. If they unzip me, it’s the wrong compartment. If they slash at my bag, they won’t get the rear one. And I always wear my shirt out and covering it. And I have never had an issue. (I have with zippered front pockets, which are way too easy, apparently).
  • Avoid crowds, or at least double your protection response when in them. Here’s a real life example of how it works. (Sigh) You’re in a crowd waiting for the subway train doors to open. Everyone starts surging in and the girl in front you stops short. You have so slide around her to get in and your purse gets pushed aside and slightly behind you. Her partner just unzipped your bag, reached in, and took your wallet. He exited the car and the “blocker” did too, just as the doors closed. You immediately look down, see your purse open, and before you can look inside, the train is moving. Your wallet is now long gone.

I could go on and on about pickpockets, but seriously, go to YouTube and search for the topic. Watch a few dozen videos. And then put on your game face. Which is actually the best advice I can give you. Just be aware. I’ve personally gone from “It couldn’t happen to us” to “I’m never leaving the house and f*** Barcelona I’m not staying in this crime infested city” to “It’s no different than anywhere else”. In the United States, you can visit the nation’s capital and still need to worry about violent crime. In places like Spain, that’s not really an issue. So if you can learn to watch your neighborhoods and watch your environment in Washington DC, why can’t you practice pickpocket protection as a normal way of life in Barcelona? Just a few simple changes, keep them as part of your everyday existence, and you’ll be fine.

Worse Than Robbery?

Every country is different. Every city and town is every more diverse. When you plan a trip somewhere, you immediately go to Trip Advisor and look for things to do. Why not also take a little stroll around a crime heat map? Get a feel for what might happen and where. And use that data to plan accordingly. You might be surprised.

As is such with many of my posts and videos, I’m going to fall back on Barcelona for a bit. There really isn’t violent crime there. Yes, there are some knife-point robberies, but they usually only happen in certain areas and in certain circumstances. We’ve walked home many a night through the tightest and darkest of alleyways, at four in the morning, and never once felt threatened or concerned. There are areas in the old city (parts of El Born and Raval to be precise) where I would be more cautious, but generally speaking, all throughout Europe I always feel free of worry of bodily harm. Which I cannot say about a single American city I’ve ever visited.

Bottom line is … life outside of the states is different. In some ways completely and in some ways slight. Even with crime and crime prevention. Seriously … use Google and YouTube to find information about your destination. Join online groups and ask. You don’t need to turn your entire trip into an armored tank of an experience, but you do need to incorporate some basic changes into your ways. Again, not that I wish bad things on anyone else, but try to not be the weakest member of the herd.

The Lies You Were Told

Here’s a fun one … it’s almost midnight and you’re in a Muslim country. Old city, tiny and winding alleyways, and it really feels rundown compared to your hometown’s pristine cleanliness. People everywhere are looking like what you were told were terrorists. You know, dark and swarthy men with beards? Arabic spoken loudly and gestures a’flying? Are you worried about crime? Hmmm?

You shouldn’t be. I just described Fes Morocco, for instance. And I would walk around that place at midnight waving my wallet in the air and never once feel threatened. There is no crime there to speak of. Just because you’ve been told something doesn’t make it true. So again, do your homework. Use reputable sources and don’t give into either fear or extreme ignorance. Find the middle ground and just be aware.

Not Just Because I’m Huge

This is a hard topic for me to talk about. I’m 6’2″ tall and well over 200 pounds. I’m a trained black belt. I’m not going to be the same target as a person half my size. But still, there are some basics that I can comfortably share. My size doesn’t stop pickpocket attempts. Not at all. In fact, it might make for easier pocket dips. But no matter your size, there is a lesson in life that holds true everywhere … think for yourself. And think always.

When you’re somewhere new, look around. Without dwelling on all of the possibilities, what are the probabilities of crime for the area? Is your shit buttoned down? Are you aware of your surroundings? Are you with a group if the neighborhood just doesn’t feel right? If you can’t answer each of those with a happy feeling, backtrack. Go back to where you were comfortable, make some changes (including direction), and try again.

Safety is an important part of travel. Obviously. Just don’t let it ruin a trip because you were over-zealous in your fears. And don’t skip it and have your trip ruined as well. There is a happy ground.


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