On the Road

Theft and the Traveler

You’re like gold to the pickpockets, bag-robbers, and scoundrels of the world.

There are many dangers faced by the traveler on the road– – violence, illness, losing one’s grip on reality etc. But one of the ever present perils is that of theft. By the luminescent colours of rucksacks you might think the manufacturers were in league with the pickpockets and hustlers in every bus station in the world. Exhausted and confused, pouring over a guidebook attempting to work out where the hell he is, the traveler is god’s gift to the thief.

South East Asia is famous for the age-old trick where a heavy sedative is slipped into a drink and offered to a backpacker, who often accepts if only out of fear not to cause offence. These thieves have even devised ways to slip knock out drops into cartons of drink of yogurt without breaking the seal.

On the other hand the paranoia of such a prospect is equally costly. Whilst hitchhiking into Turkey for the first time some years ago, the man who had picked me up suddenly drove his car off the road onto a dirt track. We continued up the hill to an old cabin all by itself in the hills. Inside was an old man and his two sons who at once set about preparing the tea in the Turkish samovar tradition.

The tea tasted so strange that I was convinced I had been drugged. I began to feel dizzy and wondered if I could run back to the road for help. My panic only died down about half an hour later when I realized that I was just tired and dehydrated. Embarrassing to be so paranoid in the face of such beautiful hospitality.

In some places theft has become so standard as to be integrated with normal business practice; the bus companies on Khao San Road in Bangkok offer ticket prices to the islands that could not possibly make a profit for a company – but at around 3am the bus will take a 30 second pause to let on board thieves in the employ of the company. Dressed as beggars they crawl along the aisle, probing each bag for loose passports and cameras.

Two friends of mine lost all the had in this way and when they went to the office of American Express to reclaim their traveler’s cheques they were met with a polite refusal. So many people commit traveler cheque fraud by selling them on the black market and then reporting them stolen that the TC companies have gotten tough.

But what’s the point in buying the cheques if they can’t be replaced? It took my friends 2 weeks of telephone calls, arguments, legal threats and fierce interrogation to get their money back. Amex stopped just short of insisting upon a lie-detector test.

In other places the penalties are so severe that theft is virtually non-existent. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states you can leave your wallet lying around for hours in a public place. No one is that keen to lose their hand or be beaten with a stick. But then again no one is enough in need in those wealthy countries to be driven to crime in the first place.

Necessity is certainly the mother of invention. In Goa I had to repeatedly warn people not to leave their valuables lying around in their rooms. One German guy just assumed I was paranoid when he heard this and wished me goodnight. He next morning he discovered that a thief had pried open the window to his room a few inches and slid in a bamboo fishing rod. With a few dexterous flicks his money belt and camera had been hooked from right under his nose and whisked away.

In South America some young children are trained to pick pockets by practicing on a human dummy. Inside and around all the pockets are lined little bells and if their touch is not discreet enough then these bells ring. The more ruthless gang leaders attach razor blades to the sides of the pockets.

I’ve had money stolen from me, a tape player and worst of all, my guitar – I was sleeping on a park bench in Prague and two early morning opportunists picked it up and walked away. As unfortunate as it was it did make my bags lighter and taught me not too be too attached to material things.

But it’s always a shock. Recently whilst living in a settlement of teepees in Spain, I buried my passport and money in a tin on top of a slope. Two weeks later I hiked back up to take out some cash and discovered that someone had dug it up. I spun around wondering what hippy with binoculars had seen me bury it. But then I saw the tin a few meters down, perched precariously on the edge of a slope. Some animal had got curious and dug it up – fortunately tin is quite inedible.

One of the best examples I’ve seen for a relaxed state of mind in these respects was in India. I met an Indian businessman on the train who carried all his business documents in a small, unlocked briefcase.

“I have traveled for 17 years now like this,” he told me, “And never once has anyone tried to rob me. It is karma. I trust to God to let happen what is best.”

Which reminds me of a another Indian story. A man went from his hometown by train to the city where he could sell his silver. He made a fortune on the market and was just getting on the train back home when he realized that a notorious thief was following him. Of course the thief came into his carriage and waited for him to fall asleep.

But when the train passed through a dark tunnel, the silver merchant hid his money in the one safe place he could imagine in the carriage. That night the thief searched everywhere in the carriage, even slipping his hands inside the merchant’s pajamas in search of the money. All in vain.

The next morning the train pulled into the safety of the merchant’s hometown and thief shrugged and said.

“Okay, you win. But tell me, I have to know – where did you hide the money?”

The man leaned forwards and said:

“Why, in your pockets!” He grabbed his money and ran.

But not all thieves are cold hearted. Some friends of mine were living on a beach in Greece and had walked into town with their instruments to make enough money to buy bread. They returned to find that thieves had searched through all their belongings.

Having found nothing at all of value, the robbers had felt so sorry for them that they left behind enough money to buy food for that day.