Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It’s All Fun and Games Until I Get Robbed

Just a few days into my Mozambiquean experience, I took a short walk out of my swish hotel through the seedy neighborhood in which it was situated to haggle for a dress shirt and buy some milk. With my Tommy Hilfiger knock-off firmly in stow, I swerved through hawkers selling everything from cheap sandals to AC adapters, all spread out on the sidewalk from both sides. There was a tight walkway between all these sellers, and one young guy, coming towards me, tried to push past me on my left. At the same time, two young guys behind me kept moving and pushing on my right. I was essentially in the middle of a big sandwich, with them swiping by me on both sides.

Annoyed by their impatience, I turned to the two guys behind me, “Will you just chill out?” I kept walking to get the milk, and less than 15 seconds later, it happened again. I was scissored between three guys. This time I felt their hands go at both my pockets. I caught the guy on the right, and turned to the guy on the left. He unabashedly held out my hotel card, giving it back to me with a grin on his face. It was almost like he was lightly saying, “Oh, you caught me, but I’ll getcha!” I had a few choice words for them, but not knowing Portuguese, it was to little effect. I continued my walk, much more wary of their little trick, but the fact that they had failed twice didn’t stop them. Another one of their hooligans walked right past me from behind, looped around me and had a go at my left pocket. I grabbed his arm just as he got inside my pocket and threw it away. I turned and all his friends were laughing.

By the way, did I mention this was 2:30 in the afternoon?

Just a couple days prior to this, I was having lunch with a few TechnoServe colleagues. Iris had had things stolen from her hotel room by the cleaning ladies, and both her and Tricia’s credit cards had been “cloned” (don’t ask me how it works) at ATMs in Johannesburg. With just over a half a year left to the World Cup, the Johannesburg airport is plastered with promotional ads reading “SOUTH AFRICA 2010: ARE YOU READY?” Well, “Organized crime is!” Jake Walter, TechnoServe’s Country Director, joked. We all had a good laugh, knowing the inherent dangers we live with being abroad as foreigners.

As a single international traveler with white skin and everything you own on your back, you have to know you’re going to be a target. Fortunately, I learned my lesson well in 2007 when I had my wallet stolen aboard a crowded Chinese bus. Now I’m a little less naïve and a bit more vigilant.

This served me well in India a month ago. On a bus packed like a clown car, there were arms criss-crossing around my head to find handles, completely blocking out my left field of vision. Every time the bus made stop, I was essentially thrown into the woman in front of me – bless her soul – but I couldn’t feel if my wallet was still there. After consecutive bumps, it got to the point where I was certain I felt a hand tugging at my wallet. I threw down everyone’s arms, and sure enough, found the hand of a middle-aged Indian right next to my pocket. I said something to the extent of, “I would appreciate if you left my wallet alone.” Knowing he had been caught and not wanting to pursue it any further, he silently and quickly pushed toward the middle of the bus and away from me. Quite angry at the time with fists looking for action, I almost wanted to catch him with it in his hand.

This makes me wonder why people steal, but also gives me great hope for humanity, as lame as that might sound. Unfortunately, I think most of the time desperation isn’t the main motive or only part of the reason behind theft. But if it were, at least the victim would be funding someone who really needs it! Instead, I think it’s just because it’s so easy. I once heard from someone who had experience shoplifting from Wal-Mart that “The bigger it is, the easier it is to steal.” Naïve tourists like myself are particularly easy, especially in these developing countries where the police force is abysmal. It always saddens me when someone tries to rob me, but it also gives me hope because I feel confident that most people aren’t like this, even despite the ease of the whole operation. As I was walking home that day after buying my milk, a Mozambiquean teen came up to me and said through broken English, trying to support me, “They try rob you. Bad men.” It wasn’t much, but it made me smile a little bit.


  1. Dang! I made it 2 months and only had my cellphone stolen. Watch out if you ever take a tchapa to Praza Combatente. When you get there, you'll know it's not the best place to be. Oh well. That's life in the developing world. Keep up the good work!

    I definitely agree with you. It really ticks me off at first when people try to rob me, but it is encouraging how few do.

  2. Rob,
    Reminds me of the time I had my pocket picked in Bogota - think I maybe mentioned it to you. I believe the majority of Colombians that were there were actually embarassed that this was happening, which is probably why I got it back. I would also agree with you that it is encouraging how few people actually do this.