criminology 100: almost robbed in Barcelona

In 2011, after a glorious five weeks in unbeatable Italy, we arrived in Barcelona. It was a world of difference. Italy has an Old World feel to it. The buildings have that kind of vintage character that makes you want to take a picture of each one. The people enjoy living life slowly. The tables set up outside of restaurants are very reminiscent of the spaghetti meatball scene from Lady and the Tramp. We even had a guy playing accordion while we sipped our afternoon Spritzes. The city streets are paved with bricks that have been worn smooth over the past hundred years. There are hardly any billboard advertisements to be found. And here’s the true litmus test: for all the places we went we only saw one McDonalds, and it was tucked away in a corner mostly out of sight.

On the other hand, Barcelona is a fully modern city. It’s very classy. People drive expensive cars. It’s clean in an almost sterile way. The architecture is amazing! Gaudi’s buildings boast some of the best modern architecture in the world. The buildings’ contours and shapes and jutting pieces are unexpected, and they create exciting vistas for all the marveling tourists. And there are ads and chain restaurants all over the place.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Barcelona. It was just the contrast that threw me.

Our plan in Barcelona was to meet up with some friends and head out of the city to his parent’s summer home in the beach town of Sitges. We arrived a day early so that we could do some sightseeing. I won’t bore you with all the details, but if you find yourself in this city you simply MUST make it a priority to visit the Sagrada Familia and Guell Park. Jessie and I wandered around the downtown area for the day before sitting down to try the local fare, paella and Estrella. Our hostel owner, in her broken English, had informed us that there would be a rare light and water show at dusk at the giant fountain in front of city hall, so we headed there expecting something spectacular.

Fast forward one hour. We are smooshed into a crowd around the fountain, watching the water jets change from green to yellow to red as they sway back and forth to Disney movie songs broadcasted in Catalan over loud speakers. A surreal experience to be sure. As I try to capture some night shots with my DSLR camera I hear a man not far away screaming, “You’re a thief! Get out of here! This man is a thief!” A second later some dark character walks swiftly in front of me as the crowd parts. He is well-dressed and earnestly looking at something on his cell phone, pretending not to notice people are staring at him. I wouldn’t have taken him for a pickpocket for a second. But it puts me on high alert to watch my valuables.

Jessie and I are both fairly paranoid travelers when it comes to protecting our stuff. When I’m in a crowded place I always keep a hand draped over the camera case hanging at my side. We have a money bag that hangs around our necks and inside our shirts where it’d be very difficult to get at without us noticing. We bring a heavy lock with us to lock up our stuff at hotels and hostels. I even have secret hiding places for emergency cash in my backpack. Still, it’s very easy to let your guard down for a minute when you’re trying to take some good pictures or decide where to eat or see a new sight.

The next day we had scheduled to meet our friends outside the Hard Rock Cafe that sits at the entrance to Las Ramblas, the famous walking street. We’d gotten there early so we decided to sit and wait for them outside the metro entrance. We placed our backpacks against a building and sat in front of them on the sidewalk. I had the camera bag and Jessie had the laptop bag. The other day we’d noticed that you could pick up free wifi in this area so I pulled the laptop out and started checking email to make sure they hadn’t tried to message us.

A couple walked past us and as the man reached up to wipe his brow he knocked the sunglasses off his head without knowing it. Jessie was about to get up to help when a woman behind them ran over and grabbed them. She ran ahead and gave them to the man. As we were watching all this unfold a man came up and started pointing at a spot on the ground behind Jessie, so she was looking behind her and I was trying to crane my neck to see what it was.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a black object start to ascend and I felt something move under my leg. My camera bag. I was sitting on the strap. I swung my head around and there was a guy bent over behind me with my bag in his hand. As soon as I made eye contact he dropped it and said, “Oh sorry,” as if it was an accident. Before my brain had time to register that we’d almost gotten worked over by an elaborate heist everyone involved had vanished.

We were lucky that day. If they’d succeeded in their dastardly plans they would have made off with our $1000 camera, passports and a wad of cash. We know so many other people who haven’t been so lucky.

When you’re traveling with baggage, a healthy suspicion pays off. Don’t be so paranoid that it taints your experience or frightens you away from doing something you may never have the chance to do again. However, taking an extra few seconds to ensure your belongings are safe goes a long way toward theft prevention. If you take your bag off, make sure that you are always in physical contact with it. When we’re on a long bus trip I’ll put my leg through one of the bag straps so that if anyone tries to pull it away it’ll just catch on my leg. If you’re at a restaurant put your bag between you and a trusted companion. If your bag has zippers, you can put a lock through them.

As potentially scary as our situation was, I’m so grateful that it happened so early in our travels. The experience will be instilled forever in our minds and it has made us better, more conscious travelers.

Las Ramblas, Barcelona