My, who could that be with the shiny camera, the smartphone searching for a current location, and the wallet full of money in several currencies?
Even if you think you are a ‘traveller not a tourist’, chances are, you stick out like a sore thumb and your pockets, I’m afraid to say, are ripe for the picking.
Now, you may think this will never happen to you, because you are a savvy traveller who is careful with their possessions. I hate to say it, but that’s what I thought. The fact is, sometimes it’s just going to happen, but it’s not the end of the world.
1: Be careful
Of course, prevention is always better than cure, as the saying goes. Try your very best not to look like the traveller described above, all gadgeted-up and eager-eyed. As stupid as it may sound, I had a mantra when arriving into any new place, which went along the lines of: ‘This is my town. I belong here. Back off.’ Look at maps – even do a virtual tour on Google street view – of your destination in advance, so that you don’t look quite so lost when you arrive. Keep expensive, shiny things hidden away, and not in obvious things like a camera bag – be discreet about it. As soon as you can, dump the majority of your luggage in your room so that you are not such an obvious target.
2: Keep things separate
When I got pickpocketed, it wasn’t the disaster it could have been, since I had left all my important documents, including my passport, as well as my credit card and most of my cash, locked in my room. I only had a debit card, my phone and a small amount of money on me. Only take out with you what you need – and make sure you leave at least some back-up funds at your base. It is also a good idea to separate money into different bags and compartments when you are on the move, so if one thing is opportunistically taken, you still have the rest.
3: If the worst happens… get coffee and make phone calls
The getting coffee bit is important, trust me! It was early on a sleepy Sunday morning, the morning of my birthday as it happened, when I stumbled into a small cafe in the Peruvian highland town of Huaraz, I tried and failed to hold back tears as I sat down at a small, wooden table. It was my third day of a four-month trip.
“Chiquita, no llores! Que pasa?” asked the motherly waitress, bringing me coffee without me even asking for it. She comforted me as I gave a garbled version of events. The night before, I had been out with some new-found friends, celebrating election night and my birthday. At some point, some light-fingered passerby had relieved me of my phone and purse. I hadn’t realised until I was on my way home.
The kind lady gave me directions to the only internet cafe which would be open at that hour on a Sunday and she generally restored my faith in humanity.
At the internet cafe, I phoned my bank and got my card cancelled, had the last transactions checked and got them to send out a new card. Then, I phoned my mobile company, who blocked my phone and recorded it as stolen.
If you are pickpocketed, your priority has to be cancelling your cards and blocking your phone so that the thieves cannot use them. Once you have done that, it is a bit of an inconvenience, but nothing bad is going to happen. You may then have to go to the local police station to get a statement about the stolen item, particularly in the case of insurance claims you will have to make. Don’t expect there to be any chance of recovering your possessions; in Huaraz, stolen phones were blatantly on sale in the markets, being the most coveted item of the town’s youth.
4: Realize that it is not the end of the world
The most important thing is that you are safe. Objects, even money, can be replaced. You cannot be. Yes, it’s annoying, but it’s not disastrous. I had to wait 10 days for my new bank card to arrive. But thanks to #2, I still had a credit card, a loaded prepay card and a fair amount of cash at my disposal. I really had no problems at all. The more I thought about it, the more I understood why it had happened, as well. Here I was, a Westener in a poor town. I didn’t think of myself as particularly flashy – but I had probably got my smartphone out a few times that evening – an item which was gold-dust in Huaraz. People just didn’t have them, so it would earn somebody a decent amount of money.
5: Enjoy your new-found freedom
Being pickpocketed on my third day of the trip was the best thing that could have happened to me. I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I would have spent every day worrying about my belongings and whether they would be stolen. Once they had been, I realised it wasn’t so terrible and that I could deal with it.
I could have easily bought a cheap phone from the market – I could have probably even found my phone at the market, come to think of it – but I decided that I didn’t want to. For the next four months, I kept in contact with family and friends via skype and email and pre-arranged to meet people locally. It was incredibly freeing.
When I arrived back home and contacted my insurance company, I had a new phone sent to me within a couple of days. It was bizarre to be so connected again, with texts bleeping and the phone ringing whenever it liked. There is something to be said for disconnecting for a while.
I hope you never get pickpocketed, but if you do, please don’t worry and don’t get angry. It’s not nearly as terrible as you think.
Have you ever had your pockets picked while travelling? What did you do?