Lightening the Load (Thievery in Europe)

Pickpockets Love Tourists

This is a guest post by Libby White.

Swinging my legs back and forth sitting in the main square of Prague, I indulged in one of my favourite past times of people watching. Instead of innocently watching the crowd, I uncovered a hidden side to the main square, a group of pickpockets working together. Switching to investigative mode, my eyes burned into the circle of thieves as I realised their tricks. Should I alert someone…should I stop them? Going against my nature, I decided not to intervene; perhaps this was why I received my karma over the next couple of weeks.

It all started when a man in his thirties, wearing an arsenal football shirt stretched over his beer-friendly stomach, came over to talk to me and my travelling companion.

inca trail“HEEY ENGLISH…you like football?!”

Friendly enough. My partner and the man went on to have an animated conversation about football. We bid the man a good day and handed him our spare change.

My eyes picked him out through the crowds as I saw him ramble back with ease to a small group. There was a man with a bandaged leg and crutches in scruffy clothes, his wounds clearly oozing through the stained bandages, a petite skinny woman who later weaved in and out of the crowds with lightning speed, and a smartly dressed man in a suit: a very strange group of companions. They homed in on an unsuspecting tourist and deftly made their work quick.

The man with the bandage used different tactics, begging for money from the tourists walking by. And our football friend used his charisma to strike up a conversation in the hope of receiving small change in return.

It got me to wonder; they all had their own personas, and had crafted a way of collecting money from the square. Earning a day’s wage is a skill, however it is done.

On our way through Slovakia, we were on an overnight train. Sharing our compartment with three American girls, the space was tight, so my partner rolled his sleeping bag out on the floor to get some well-deserved rest.

frozen river in russiaI had never experienced the cramp in my legs which rudely woke me hours later when we reached our destination of Budapest, Hungary. Stretching out my legs, I knew something was immediately wrong. Everyone else was in a deep sleep. I noticed my phone and purse had disappeared from my bag. Waking up my partner he discovered that his phone, camera and wallet had also disappeared. The initial panic escalated as the girls realised all three of their passports had been stolen along with personal items. One of the girls even had hers stolen from a bag she had tied around her waist and under her top for safe keeping.

How had five passengers failed to wake up, in a compartment locked from the inside, and where a thief would have to step over a sleeping person taking up the entire floor of the carriage?

As we emerged franticly from our carriage, the whole train seemed in disarray. Every compartment we passed, the travellers had been robbed the entire length of the train. At Budapest, a sad group waited to speak to the local police after filling out extensive forms. We could only be relieved that we still had our passports to continue on with our travels. We were informed that thieves target overnight trains, pumping sleeping gas through the air conditioning systems, which explained how terrible we all felt when we woke up, and the fact that none of us even stirred when we were being robbed.

Later in our travels, we found ourselves on the busy beach of Barcelona. Putting our clothes in a shared bag, with our money and cameras stuffed in the bottom, we lay on our towels soaking up the rays, dosing and drifting in and out of the sun’s warm touches. Moments pass. Eyes open. Bag gone. Back at the hostel, the receptionist was furious our room key had been stolen, “Stupid travellers…NEVER leave your bags on Barcelona beach!!”

surf spot portugalThe devastation of being taken advantage of again was offset by a hilarious event that happened later on in the day by the harbour in Barcelona. As we sat wallowing in our misfortunes, we saw a policeman on a moped creep silently towards the promenade. A very overweight man was standing there with two large full bin bags. As he caught sight of the policeman, he started running, swaying from side to side with his heavy load. A flyover for the road had a curved set of steps to the top. He sighted these and made a run for it. As we saw him sweating his way up the stairs, round and round and twirling upwards, the policeman coolly rode his moped to the top and waited there to arrest him. Were the bags full of stolen goods from the beach? I can only imagine.

These experiences did not taint my view of life, although it definitely toughened me up around the edges. Although travelling can seem a world away from the realities of life, the bad experiences still need to be taken with the good, and once you realise that belongings aren’t essential to your existence anyway, this can actually lead to an even greater freedom. There are two paths of life, struggling to the top of the stairs with your heavy burden weighing you back, or free of the materialistic sitting by the promenade.

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bio pic libby whiteSince graduating, Libby White has travelled across most of Europe, braved the winter of Russia, surfed the west coast of Portugal and survived the Inca trail in Peru, to name a few destinations. Preferring to discover places that are not found in the tourist guides, she aims to ‘scratch off’ as many destinations as possible from a world map. Libby currently lives and works as a journalist in Norfolk, UK, where she can be found at the beach or attempting to surf the mostly non-existent waves. Visit her blog, Scratch Off The Map to read more of her stories.

2 Comments

  • Wow, that is terrifying. I’ve yet to experience anything like this on our travels; it definitely pays to have adequate insurance and photocopy your passport.

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