Barcelona: Police interviewing a victim of pickpockets on La Rambla, Spain, Travel Safety 3.
Travel Safety 3: true crime
Don’t get drugged (by someone you don’t really know!)
Henry, a British Council teacher in Venezuela in 1982 was travelling on a bus across Colombia. This was the big one. Two months exploring the cultural quilt of the Andes, from Quito to La Paz, and everything was in position for a great trip. He’d worked hard at his Spanish, read all the right books, and saved enough to avoid staying in flea pits.
The money, $3, 000, half cash and half dollar cheques, was mostly in his money belt. But Henry had learnt a few tricks in Venezuela, and so he had his passport fitted into a special pocket sewn into the leg of his jeans, just above the hem, on the inside.
Henry didn’t have to use buses, but he wasn’t due in Quito for another couple of days so he thought he’d see more of Colombia on the way, maybe meet some good people.
So there he was. Tough, safety conscious, amiable, talkative. And next to him on the bus was a small, friendly, middle-aged Colombian. They got on well, talked about politics, food, la vida dura, Venezuela vs. Colombia, and about rateros.
Henry’s neighbour was scathing about the low moral standards of the younger generation. It was all the fault of the cocaine traders, he said, for creating greed and envy, and for demonstrating that the legal work ethic is no longer sufficient in Latin America. But, he said, Gracias a Dios, we’re not all cast from the same mould. He produced a packet of biscuits, took one himself, and offered one to Henry.
Henry woke up 12 hours later, stiff and cold, by the side of the road. He had his T-shirt, his jeans – including concealed passport – a crippling headache, and nothing else.
His moneybelt, wallet, backpack, sports shoes, his friend, and the bus had gone.
Hours later, having begged the fare from some sympathetic europeans, he was sitting, dazed and depressed on another bus, when he saw a plastic notice that had been torn off the back of the seat in front of him. He picked it up and read, in Spanish, ‘Do not accept food or drink from strangers. ‘
That is one travel safety rule that Henry will never forget.
Travel Safety 3: Bag snatchers
South America does not have a monopoly on street crime, of course. For example, bag-snatching by motorcycle pillion riders, the scippatori, originated in Italy, though now it’s a global caper, much favoured in Peru.
Ratero is the colloquial Spanish term for thief, literally meaning big rat. These two-legged rodents are rampant in many cities in Latin America – particularly Bogota, Lima, Cuzco, Arequipa, La Paz, Rio de Janeiro. Let’s not even mention Caracas. Generally they steal non-violently, picking a pocket, cutting a handbag or snatching a camera off a cafe table, but as travellers develop defences against these assaults, the rateros develop new systems of penetration.
Try to avoid market areas or railway stations, especially if you are well dressed.
Peru: On their way to dinner in Cusco’s (safe) Plaza de Armas, the bugcrew started following a surprise procession through the exquisite old Inca capital and down to the market, by the railway station.
The market (photo top left), packed with Indian women in bowler hats and multicoloured petticoats and backed by muntain views, was a photographer’s dream so the crew abandoned the procession in favour of the (unsafe) market, trying to take pictures discretely from a bar doorway, but their cameras and outfits were shouting rob me!
When the shootist stepped into the bar to pay for a beer, a teen ratero dashed by, whipped a camera out of the bag the partner was holding and disappeared down the street in a blur of tatty trainers. Pursued, but to no avail.
In the border town of La Gaujira, between Venezuela and Colombia, the bugcrew and a group of Venezuelan housewives had to walk 30 meters to the next bus, which they accomplished in a paranoid gaggle, hustled on by touts, vendors and rateros. On arriving in their seats the group discovered that 8 out of 15 shopping bags had been slit in that short distance and many kilos of onions had been stolen.
The best defence against snatching and slashing is to wear a tough shoulder bag diagonally across the body, not just over the shoulder. Tough so the strap cannot easily be cut, and it must be worn at the front of the body to avoid the razor rats who invariably approach from the rear. If the pack is too large to go on your front, put chicken wire inside it to blunt a blade.
The squeezy sauce bottle. Naturally the rateros have developed a weapon against safety conscious travellers, it’s saucy.
One day in the dazzling white city of Arequipa, a bugcrewist left his mother happily snapping, camera and bag securely around her body, while he consulted a travel agent. Suddenly a smartly dressed gentleman pointed out that she had acquired some yellowish gunk on her sleeve. In no time at all he had helped her off with her bag, and was trying for the camera too when the bugcrew returned. But rateros can be even more discrete than this…