Danger: Thieves!

Last night I told this story to some friends, so I’ve decided to break away from the “life” posts and re-post an oldie but goodie. It’s about my tug-of-war with a thief in Spain. This answered the age old question: Are you FIGHT or FLIGHT? As future experiences would prove again and again, I continue to be all “fight” and never “flight” — for better or for worse. It’s not necessarily the smart move, but it is the way my body responds to danger. Which do you think you are: Fight or flight? (Originally published by http://glimpse.org/ in 2006.)

After living in Barcelona for four months, I was almost robbed three times. Out of the 40 Americans on my study abroad trip, only about eight of us had avoided the extreme inconvenience of losing money, credit cards and passports in another country. Somehow, I was one of them.

Week after week, I passed grown men and women sobbing on the gritty sidewalks of La Rambla, showing empty wallets and cut purse straps to unsympathetic police officers who silently nodded their heads at yet another hapless victim caught off-guard at the epicenter of Barcelona’s pickpocket scene. These people served as a reminder that I had made it another day without becoming one of them.

View from my apartment in Barcelona, with the Mediterranean Sea and La Sagrada Familia in the distance. Barcelona, Spain.

When I arrived in Barcelona, I was fully aware that the odds were against me if I wanted to get through the semester without being robbed. Unfortunately, the city has a reputation as a breeding ground for petty thieves—artists in their own right—whose clever ruses for robbing tourists would almost demand a certain type of respect if they didn’t evoke so much anguish from their victims.

It is hard to determine exactly why Barcelona has become so infamous for pickpockets. Some Spaniards believe the thieves—many of whom are Northern African immigrants—are attempting to recover lost riches from the English tourists after four centuries of war. With its myriad tourist attractions, Barcelona has no problem attracting a constant, year-round influx of wealthy visitors who wander La Rambla in a haze of naïveté, distracted by the many sites and sounds of the vivacious neighborhood while their bags and wallets bounce temptingly at their sides.

Constant reminders to guard my belongings were sprinkled throughout the city, as well as within the literature provided by my study abroad program. I knew to be careful and to never, under any circumstances, leave my valuables unattended. It was important to remember that the thieves could be anyone: the guy who looks like a bus-boy in your restaurant, the little old lady who asks you to help her cross the street, the friendly young tourist who can’t speak English, or even the little boy who asks you to help find his mother. Thieves in Barcelona have taken their tricks to a level that could almost qualify as performance art. They are so good at what they do that sometimes even the savviest travelers become unknowing victims, unaware they have even been robbed until they try and buy a glass of sangria and find their pant pocket has been cleanly slashed open.

Spray-painted image on a corner in Barcelona, Spain.

My favorite warning was a simple, black, spray-painted image that appeared on the corners of stone walls in the tiny, dark, romantic streets of the Gothic district. In it, a two-dimensional silhouette of a woman throws her arms in the air while a male silhouette runs away with her bag. Underneath the drama of the cartoon-like image are two words of precaution written suggestively in English: “Danger: Thieves.” These two words served as a blatant reminder that tourists like me are easy and attractive targets for the professional Spanish pickpocket.

For several weeks, I saw these signs and found them funny. But the stories about my friends getting robbed kept trickling in until the signs began to take on a more ominous tone. I even began to imagine that I heard a quiet tick-tock sound every time I passed one by. Yet despite my fears that soon I would be the black, spray-painted woman with my hands up in the air, on my last day in Spain, I had yet to be robbed and I thought I was in the clear. It wasn’t until around 11 p.m., approximately six hours before I boarded a plane that would end my four-month Spanish adventure, that the spray-painted man came to life.

Since my flight was leaving early in the morning, I figured I could fit in one last night of partying before my entire Spain experience would be tied up and packaged with a nice little bow to be stored on one of the cluttered shelves in my memory. I met up with a friend of mine, who was visiting from her study abroad program in France. She had some other friends in town, but we decided to meet up for dinner together before joining the rest of the group.

Sidewalk in the Medieval city of Girona, Spain.

As a temporary resident of Barcelona, I had learned by now that Plaza Catalunya, located just at the top of the most popular street in the city, was like a flytrap for robbery victims. Unfortunately, my friend Jessica had naively planned to meet her friends in the center of the circle at 11 p.m. so that we could all go out together from there. As soon as she told me this, I had the feeling that something was going to happen. My gut, my brain and everything I had read told me not to enter the Plaza, but we had to take the risk. Jessica’s friends did not have cell phones and they were in a foreign city without guidance. We had no choice but to find them in the dreaded Plaza Catalunya, and then get on with our night as safely as possible.

After a couple glasses of wine at dinner and the euphoric excitement of meeting up with a friend in a foreign country, a slightly tipsy Jessica and I made our way toward Plaza Catalunya, arms linked and my guard stiffly up. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jessica was all smiles, unaware of the potential danger that lay ahead. Without trying to sound too worried, I asked her if she could keep her voice down, knowing that as soon as we were identified as Americans we would be an easy target for thieves.

We approached the Plaza, which is a big circle, and I felt the presence of danger like a cat senses ghosts. As we entered the circular walled-in area, a homeless man interrupted his public urination to stare at us with a threatening smile. My instinct was to turn around and get out of there as quickly as possible, but we had to find Jessica’s friends, if only to warn them to be careful, so we kept walking toward the center.

Sure enough, Jessica’s friends were late. While Jessica talked to me about France and the wonderful places she had visited, I noticed six men sitting on a bench nearby, laughing and staring at us. I wanted to get out of that circle. I wanted to play it smart, like I had all semester, but instead I had to pretend I was in control. Just beyond the walls of the Plaza were hordes of people embarking on the earliest stage of their Saturday nights. Buses were slugging along and music was overflowing from nearby restaurants, where people casually drank beer and smoked cigarettes outside without a care in the world. I wanted to be outside of the Plaza with all of them, laughing, having a beer, safe. But I wasn’t.

“I see them!” yelled Jessica, blonder and with bluer eyes than ever.

My tension began to give way as we were finally allowed to leave the circle and shed ourselves of the giant bull’s eye that seemed to follow us inside the Plaza. As we made our way from the center to the periphery, I felt someone’s glare piercing through me, so I clutched the strap of my bag tightly and picked up the pace. Jessica, still laughing and talking, motioned for her friends to stay where they were. Then, I felt someone getting closer to me from behind my back. The walls to safety were right in front of us, but we were still in Plaza Catalunya, still vulnerable, and someone was following us. We were so close.

My left arm was linked with Jessica’s right arm and my bag was slung over my left shoulder in between us, which I also clutched tightly with my left hand. Suddenly, I felt an aggressive tug that whipped me around with unexpected force. Jessica screamed and jumped to the side. I found myself on the tiled floor of Plaza Catalunya, resting on one knee and one foot, facing a young man who must have been twice as strong as me, but I still had one hand tightly gripped around the strap of my bag. I wasn’t about to let go.

What took place after that initial shock was something I cannot fully explain. The man who had pierced my sense of safety with his eyes from a distance was now standing less than a foot away from me trying to pull my bag out of my hands. He had one hand on each strap of my bag, and I had one hand holding the center of the strap. At that moment, a surge of energy overtook every inch of my body. Much to my surprise, I was not scared at all; I was furious.

I managed to get my other hand around the strap and decided the strap would have to rip from the bag before I let go. I think that is the decision that carried me through the next few seconds. Everything else in the world just dropped out of focus; there was only me and my determination not to let this thief win. As he yanked angrily and fiercely at my bag, I yanked back just as fiercely, just as angrily, while staring him right in the eyes. His look of aggression and intimidation began to fade with each extended second of our tug-o-war until my eyes began to pierce through his confidence.

Me (Tavel) looking for the famous frog on the fascade of the Universidad de Salamanca building. The bag pictured here is the one they tried to steal. Salamanca, Spain.

I don’t know where it came from, but in the loudest voice I could muster, fueled by adrenaline and anger, I yelled, “Get off!” at the man. He gave my bag a couple more yanks, but I yanked back harder, until … he gave up. Before I knew it, the man had let go and was sprinting back into the darkness of Plaza Catalunya, leaving me on the ground with a new hole in my jeans and a couple spots of blood soaking through the knee area. But there in my hand, I had my bag, which somehow—like me—did not break.

When I got up and looked around, I had chills. People were everywhere, buses and taxis and cars were just doing what they always did. Jessica was covering her mouth, looking at me, asking me if I was OK. I think I could have lifted up a bus with the adrenaline still surging through my body. As I walked away, chills still running down my spine, I realized that I was going to beat the odds after all.

This third time someone tried to rob me in Spain was the most aggressive encounter I experienced, but I didn’t throw my hands up in the air like the spray-painted woman who had warned me on random stone walls of the city to beware of thieves. And the thief lurking behind the walls of Plaza Catalunya hadn’t become the spray-painted man running away with my purse.

After the ordeal, I was still in Barcelona, I still had all the valuables I had arrived with, and I had only one more night to complete the experience of living there for a semester. When I looked down at my watch, it was only a few minutes after 11 p.m., but after four months of thinking I had gotten to know Barcelona, those few minutes after 11 p.m. changed everything.

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2 Comments

Filed under Life Stuff, Spain, Travel, Travel Disasters

2 responses to “Danger: Thieves!

  1. andiperullo

    I had about $2k worth of stuff + my beloved passport all stolen in Madrid. It was a heartbreaking experience. C’mon España!!!

    • travelswithtavel

      You see! Almost everyone I studied abroad with was robbed… One Russian girl’s parents were visiting her and they rented a car. They parked it outside the hotel to check-in and when they came back to it, the windshield had been shattered and every single item including their passports had gotten stolen. It was horrible. That was week 1, so we got the message pretty quickly… So sorry you had to deal with that type of loss! That’s a lot of money, and a passport is even more valuable in these situations… I guess every traveler encounters the scary moments. But glad it hasn’t stopped you 🙂

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