There are so many stories I have to share about my most recent trip to Beijing, Rome, and Madrid. But the one story that has me reeling, that has consumed me for the past three days, and made all other stories impossible to tell first, is this one.
Before I left for vacation, everyone and their uncle warned me about Rome. Everyone had a horror story about mugging, pickpockets, gangsters, and thieves. My supervisor even told me a story about her and her friend running for hours through the streets of Rome trying to escape a band of mobsters.
Fair to say, I was on edge.
For the three days I spent in Rome, my bag was glued to my side. I clutched onto my belongings for dear life, kept my bag in front of me, never left even a sandwich unattended. But oddly enough, I felt quite safe in Italy. Cops were genuinely EVERYWHERE, workers were very friendly, and 80% of the population was tourists. I left Rome completely unharmed and actually pleasantly surprised. In Spain I would be with my sister and her family, who had lived in Spain for years. I wouldn’t have to worry with them. I thought I had made it.
After meeting my sister I told her how pleasantly surprised I was in Rome after all the horror stories I had heard. She warned me that Spain was no better. She told me she had been robbed EIGHT times since moving to Madrid, and that wasn’t even including her husband’s count. Understood, I would continue to be careful.
I kept my bag clutched tightly in front of me, never left my belongings unattended, and kept close to my family.
The point of this story is not to complain or act a victim. It also isn’t to bash on Spain or Spaniards. Spain was a beautiful country and other than this incident I had an amazing time. I would recommend anyone to visit in a heartbeat.
The point of this story is to warn you, no, to arm you against falling into the same trap I did.
It was my fault I was robbed. I was ignorant, I was naive, and I was easy.
You will not be.
If you have any thoughts of travel abroad, or if you live in a high theft area, keep reading and you will be bullet-proof against pick-pockets and thieves.
I was sitting at a charming empanada restaurant in Madrid with my sister and her daughter. We had all of our things on the table where we could see them. We had ordered jamon sandwiches, but my sister decided she wanted some empanadas too, so she went to the counter to order. As she was choosing her empanadas, the sandwiches were ready. My niece went to get them and stepped out of the restaurant to take a good picture of her sandwich.
So I am sitting alone at the table, with all of our stuff, but my family is only 5 feet away from me, and only for 5 minutes, tops.
Enter main villain, play scary music.
As I’m watching my niece photograph her sandwich, a skinny, lanky boy only 17 or 18-years-old approaches her with a folded map. I can’t hear them, but it seems like he’s trying to sell her something. She firmly tells him no and walks away.
As I’m watching this happen, he locks eye-contact with me. Whenever a stranger locks eye-contact with you you should definitely look away. But he’s only a skinny, awkward-looking kid, and I’m in a hipster empanada shop with my sister 5 feet away. I don’t feel endangered.
He comes straight to me and shows me the map. I tell him no and shake my hands that I don’t want it. He puts the map on our table and tries to show it to me, but I keep telling him no. The restaurant worker comes and starts yelling at him. Not talking to him, yelling at him. With the worker coming to my defense I feel completely protected. The boy mumbles something that doesn’t sound like words. I realize maybe he’s just crazy, or stupid, and feel even more safe. The worker continues yelling at him, so the boy begrudgingly picks up his map and leaves the cafe. The worker returns behind the counter.
After the boy leaves the restaurant, he stands outside the door and stares at me intensely. He seems to be expecting something of me, but I look at him bewildered and unsettled.
Just as he leaves, my sister and her daughter both come to the table. We grab our food and head for the Madrid City bus tour. Once on the bus, I look in my bag for my phone to start taking pictures.
It’s not there.
Dread envelops me, drowning me. The past hour flashes before my eyes and all of the nonsense and mystery makes perfect, terrible sense, like an episode of Sherlock.
That skinny, awkward looking kid that seemed too stupid to sell a map was anything but. I had let my guard down, and he had done a classic disappearing act. He put the map on my table and when forced to leave grabbed my phone from under the map. No wonder he stared at me so intensely. He was waiting to see if I had noticed. My brand new Galaxy S8 with all of my unbacked-up vacation photos was gone.
Pictures of the Vatican, the Bridge of Angels, the Spanish Steps in a Roman Holiday outfit, of Spanish policemen on horses, and videos of Flamenco dancers. GONE.
I had purchased 7 new outfits, an entire Carli Bybel make up routine, and woken up at 4AM every day to get photos of Rome without people in them. Forget the phone, those pictures were priceless. They were going to transform my blog. I was beyond heartbroken.
The thing is, it would have been SO EASY TO PREVENT.
Here are the steps to protect yourself against something stupid like this happening to you.
1. First, BE AGGRESSIVE!!! I understand I was in a foreign country and couldn’t understand the language, but if I was just a FRACTION more assertive I would have ripped his map off our table and I would be happily texting on my phone right now instead of sitting on the subway using my iPad as a watch. If someone invades your space, DO NOT leave it to someone else to save you. Be your own hero.
2. Appearances can be deceiving. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated based on someone’s age, height, weight, race, or clothing. I can only imagine that if the lanky teenager that approached me had been older, more disheveled, or stronger, the first thing I would have done would be to grab my phone. But real-life thieves don’t look like Disney villains, and don’t have villain theme music. If it was easy to recognize every thieve there would be a lot fewer thieves.
3. BACKUP AND SYNC your phone EVERY DAY on vacation. 20% of my pain is from losing my phone. 80% is from losing my photos of Rome and Madrid. Like a fool I thought that because wifi was difficult to find abroad, I could wait a few days. NO. You never know what will happen on vacation. Your phone could get stolen, fall into a river, be forgotten somewhere you’ll never visit again, who knows. If you’re taking your vacation photos on your phone, make it a priority to back up those photos.
4. I’ve never tried this next one, but I’ve heard about GPS tracking stickers like TrackerPad, that can locate your items by GPS just by putting a sticker on them. Now I’m thinking of putting these stickers on all of my expensive purchases. If I had put the sticker on the back of my phone and hidden it beneath a normal sticker, I could have chased that kid through the streets and punched him in the face before snatching my phone back. But now it’s just a daydream.
When I’ve told this story to my family and friends, everyone has told me the same thing, “Let it go, it’s just possessions, don’t be materialistic.” I disagree.
“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”
I don’t have the best memory. I take photos because my memories are the only things I care about from my travels. Not cups or magnets. When I’m old, and my memory is even worse, my photos will be my only proof of a life well-lived.
So I won’t forget, and I won’t forgive. I’ll learn, I’ll grow, and I’ll be ready next time.
And hopefully from reading my story you will be, too.
If you’re interested in the GPS tracking devices I mentioned in this article, you can try one out here:
And this was my beautiful phone, the best I ever had: