It is a sweltering day. The temperature holds steady at 40 degrees as I spend the day in a crowded bus bumping along the winding, dusty roads of the Madhya Pradesh province of India. When the bus reaches its destination, the nondescript tourist-repelling city of Satna at dusk, the heat of the day fails to dissipate. Instead it rises from the trash-strewn streets in a sticky, overwhelming vapour which dulls my senses and shortens my temper.
I wait impatiently on the platform of the train station. The locals loiter with professional ease, while I, the unyielding and efficient Westerner, pace up and down wearing my 30 pound backpack despite the persistent mugginess. I am so preoccupied, so irritated, that I never saw it coming. All I know was that, seemingly out of nowhere, I begin to itch...furiously!
The exquisite pain of a thousand tiny needles pricking my skin ripples over my neck and arms. It is so sudden and intense that it takes my breath away. I walk over to the communal wash basin and bathe my exposed skin to no avail, the tooth-grinding pain is unabated. I claw at myself in desperation while trying to maintain a shred of dignity.
Around my neck I wear my small day bag. It's woven strap feels like a serrated knife where it rubs my skin.
I'm standing in the train station's main foyer. It's early evening, the place is crowded and bustling. Feeling secure in the publicness of my surroundings I take my bag off from around my neck and place it at my feet.
Immediately my attention is diverted by a man waving his stubby-fingered hand in my face.
"What?!" I demand.
The man is short, with a pot belly testing the limits of his polyester shirt, a broom-cut mustache obscures his lips and his bright eyes beseech me as he points aggressively at the floor. He's pointing at a pile of crumpled rupee notes littering the foyer.
"No, those aren't mine!"
The man bends down slowly and collects the notes into a shabby bouquet, then proffers them in my direction.
By now I am thoroughly incensed. I'm hot, I'm tired, my stomach is arguing with the dosa I had for dinner, and my freaking skin is on fire! And now this 'dude' is bothering me with this nonsense!
"No, that's not mine! My money is in my ba-"
I drop the end of the word as I look down at my feet to see, not my bag, but empty floor. Passport, wallet, guidebook and camera, all...gone.
And that's how I got robbed.
"You have to be more aware of what's going on around you," explains David Begg. "When you're at home it's very easy to tell when something's out of place, when something's not quite right. We don't have the resources to make that same call when we're outside our comfort zone."
Begg is the Coordinator for International Engagement at Ryerson University in Toronto and prepares hundreds of students every year to face the risks and dangers of international travel.
Of course in the hellish heat of the Indian dry season I wasn't being aware of my surroundings. And I should have known better. The rupees-on-the-floor ploy is a spin on an old thieves' trick. In this scenario the victim is distracted by someone spilling a drink on their shoes or jacket, someone drops their groceries, or falls down in distress -- whatever! -- while your attention is diverted a second thief takes the opportunity to pick your pocket or swipe your stuff. In my case some nimble street children were able to grab my day bag and be out of sight before I even noticed.
Begg suggests doing a healthy amount of research on your destination before you even leave. A good guidebook will lists scams that you are likely to encounter at your travel destination. They've wised me up to numerous scams so that I've been able to recognize them right away and not get conned.
The one thing I did do right in the wake of being robbed in India was that I informed the police immediately. It helped that there was a uniformed officer standing only 10 feet away when my bag was swiped.
Frantic and hysterical I grab his arm and shout, "my bag! my bag!" Knowing immediately what has happened he runs out of the train station door followed by an entourage of curious hangers-on. I attempt to follow the posse down an unlit road in the pitch dark but my heavy backpack and an even heavier sense of despair slows my pace to a crawl. A second police officer catches up with me and commandeers a passing motorcycle to take me back to the train station.
In a shabby office at the station I wait, itchy and miserable, to make my report and I wonder, "how could I have been so stupid?" Despite my lengthy travel resume, I'd been had. It took a combination of itching powder (a common tactic used by thieves in India and Nepal) and the old look-over-here-not-over-there technique to fool me in the end, but the moral of the story is that you're never too wise or too well-travelled to get tricked.
Chances are if you travel enough, eventually you're going to be targeted by a thief or pickpocket. But the best way to stay off a thief's radar is to reduce your visibility as a tourist.
"Not standing on the street corner with a great big map in your hands" is a good place to start, suggests Begg. Even when consulting my guidebook I always turn away from the street and face into a corner, away from the view of passers-by. Also, research what the norms and customs are in terms of clothing for countries you intend to visit. When visiting a devoutly Muslim country, for example, dress in a manner consistent with local custom and you'll minimize negative attention.
It should go without saying to never carry anything of value in your back pockets. As Begg points out there are few nerve endings in that part of your body and you're unlikely to feel a pickpocket's practised fingers reaching for your wallet, or even a razor blade slitting the pocket right open. This can also be an issue with using backpacks as day bags, your valuables are out of sight and you won't notice a thief slicing it open like a gutted fish until you take it off. A shoulder bag which you can keep in sight and securely at your side is a much better choice.
After what seems like an eternity the officers begin filling out my report, by hand, on triplicate carbon paper that seems like a throwback to another century. As I go through the list of items that had been in my day bag it's a laundry list of valuables; passport, camera, credit card, bank card, cash etc. The irony is that my passport and plastic had been safely tucked into a money belt that had then been tossed in carelessly with everything else.
"I've seen people with a money belt hanging out of their back pocket," says Begg. "The most common ones you see are those belt style ones and those are really uncomfortable, especially if you're travelling where it's hot. Within a couple days people stop wearing them."
Money belts come in a multitude of styles and sizes, Begg recommends buying one that is comfortable, suits your personal needs while travelling and, of course, one you'll actually wear.
If I'd been wearing mine I could have saved myself a long train ride back to Delhi, days of bureaucratic red tape at the Canadian consulate and several painful (and expensive) conversations with Visa over crackling, ancient phone lines.
As unofficial as my Indian police report seemed, handwritten in Hindi on paper so thin and delicate that it had to be handled like a butterfly wing, it saved me a lot of grief when dealing with my consulate and the insurance company once I got back home. The loss of a passport must be reported within 24 hours and, as Canadian passports can fetch as much as $20,000 on the black market, you want to take all the steps you can to make it seem like you weren't in on it.
Though getting robbed seemed like a terrible ordeal at the time I never let it ruin my trip. After a few days of yoga and some drunken nights in Goa, my mood, if not my valuables, was restored. In the end it's just stuff and it can all be replaced (except for those pictures of me at the Taj Mahal dammit!). The most important thing is to stay safe. All the advice in the world can't replace the greatest asset you possess as a traveller: your instinct. If your 'Spidey senses' start tingling, get yourself out of your situation and get somewhere you feel safe. Combine your instinct with common sense and some research, and you've got a recipe for a life full of breathtaking travel memories.