Pickpocketed In Barcelona

When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY.

Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe.

During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.

How It Happened

It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing another woman bumped him on the other side. As the doors were closing they jumped off the car, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.

We were shocked, angry, and unsure of what to do. A lady who saw what happened suggested we go back to the stop where it happened and check the garbage bags in case the thieves took the cash and threw everything else away. Fortunately, the bags were clear and not too full so they were easy to check. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any of Steve’s items.

We decided to go to the police station but had no idea where it was so we asked a young man on the street. He pointed us in the right direction but we arrived at the station only to find it was permanently closed. Struggling to maintain our composure, we asked for help at a nearby store. The owner helped Steve find the next closest police station while I stood on the street calling our banks.

We easily found that station and couldn’t believe it when we saw a sign that said, “Temporarily Closed for Renovations”. This was truly an “are you kidding me?” moment. Luckily there were several policemen just leaving a meeting and they directed us to a third station. It was a tense walk down the Ramblas as we wondered if it would be open.

And after a short wait, we were able to make a report with a policeman who spoke English. He said we must go to the U.S. Consulate first thing Monday morning to report the stolen passport. He prepared the police report and asked Steve to sign it. It was all in Spanish, but Steve had no choice but to sign it since he needed it to get a replacement passport.

Statistics on the number of pickpocket incidents are hard to come by. We knew the number in Barcelona was high, but we were shocked when the police officer told us that they process 400 reports a day. Of course, not everyone is going to report a pickpocketing incident, especially if the only thing stolen was cash. They know they will never see that again. Sometimes people don’t even realize they have been pickpocketed. They may think they lost their wallet or phone.

Over the weekend Steve looked up information on the consulate. The website said you must make an appointment online, and the next available appointment was more than two weeks away.
We opted to go there in person on Monday and plead ignorance about the online scheduling. After all, the police officer did tell us to go first thing Monday.

While at the consulate we met several groups of Americans who had either been pickpocketed or had their rental cars burglarized. We bonded over our misfortune. When it was Steve’s turn he was informed that his passport had been found and was waiting at the Metro station lost and found. Good news since a replacement costs $145.

As frustrating and time consuming as this experience was, it could have been worse. The thieves tried to charge $900 worth of shoes, but our credit card company declined it. Luckily I still had one debit card in my name that we could still use while we waited for our replacement cards. And we had enough cash in our apartment to cover us for several days. The fact that we were still going to be in Barcelona for three more weeks was also good. We would be there when our replacement cards arrived and the loss of Steve’s passport didn’t have immediate repercussions. Several of the people we met at the consulate had to change flight and cruise plans because their passports had been stolen.

After this Steve bought a camera bag that he refers to as his purse and his first money belt. We no longer carry all of our bank cards in the same place.

Cities With the Most Pickpockets

Petty crime can happen anywhere. However, there are several cities that continually make the list of the most pickpocketed cities in the world. This list is from an article published by Clever Travel Companions in 2018:

1. Barcelona, Spain
2. Rome, Italy
3. Prague, Czech Republic
4. Madrid, Spain
5. Paris, France
6. Florence, Italy
7. Buenos Aires, Argentina
8. Amsterdam, Netherlands
9. Athens, Greece
10. Hanoi, Vietnam

Common Pickpocketing Scams

Pickpocketing scams are limited only by the thieves’ creativity and acting ability. Here are just a few to be aware of:

1. Being offered something out of the blue. A woman offers another woman a pretty flower as if it were a gift. The second woman takes it and quickly finds out that payment is expected. I saw this happen to one woman. The thief was so bold that she tried to take money from the money holder around the tourist’s neck.

2. Being bumped by a person. Of course, you look their way, giving their partner a chance to pickpocket you. This was the one used on Steve.

3. Being asked to fill out a petition, usually by a young, harmless-looking woman. While your attention is on that, her partner in crime is relieving you of your valuables.

4. Being distracted by a shell game. I have not seen this one on any lists I’ve checked, but I believe it has to be a scam. We watched a man running a shell game near the Eiffel Tower. He would pick a spectator and ask him to watch while he moved three cups around. It ended with the spectator making some easy cash. I am sure that easy cash was a pittance compared to what was lifted from other unsuspecting spectators during the game. When we tried to get a photo of the group many of those gathered around covered their faces.

There are many more scams. This article by The Professional Hobo shares some travelers’ first-hand experiences.

How To Avoid Being Pickpocketed

Protecting your valuables from the grubby hands of pickpockets should start before you leave for your trip. Here are three things you can do ahead of time:

1. Make a copy of your passport. When you are sightseeing there is no reason to carry the original. Keep it locked safely away in your lodgings.

2. Record the information on your bank cards: card number, account number it ties to, and the phone numbers for customer service.

3. Activate text or email alerts for your bank cards and accounts.

Continue your vigilance while you are traveling:

1. Don’t carry all your cash and cards in one place. Consider leaving what you don’t need for the day safely in your lodgings.

2. Use money belts or other devices designed to keep your valuables safe. Pockets of pants are not a good choice whether in front or back. The harder it is for you to get to your money or cards, the harder it will be for thieves.

3. Trust no one! I know this goes against how most of us feel, but particularly when you are in a crowded place, make it obvious that you are protecting your bag or backpack. Honest people should not be offended by this. It is not uncommon to see people wearing their backpacks in front in places that are notorious for pickpocketing like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.

4. Be skeptical. If someone tries to give you something you didn’t ask for or asks you to answer a survey, walk away. Remember that pickpockets can be any age and may look very respectable. They are also great actors.

5. Get aggressive if necessary. While Steve and I were sitting in a nearly empty metro station in Paris a woman approached me and said something in French. I did not understand and let her know. My actions should have made it obvious that I wanted no further interaction. She got closer and I held up my hand in a stop gesture. She continued to get even closer, so I loudly said “get back”. I got some looks, but she got the message.

What to Do If You Are Pickpocketed

If in spite of your best efforts you do become a victim of a pickpocket there are the things you need to do:

1. Take a deep breath and let that anger out.

2. Check nearby trash cans. Most pickpockets are looking for cash. They may toss everything else.

3. File a police report if your passport or insured items were stolen. This will probably be the hardest part since you may not speak the language or have any idea where the nearest police station is. Stay calm. It will all work out. Be aware that you will be required to sign the police report if you need it to get a new passport or file an insurance claim even if you can’t read what you are signing.

4. Call your bank card providers and have your stolen cards canceled. You still have other cards and cash tucked safely away because you have prepared for this, right?

5. Contact your embassy if your passport was stolen to make arrangements for a replacement. Be aware, these are not cheap. All the more reason not to carry your passport if you don’t need to.

6. Contact someone back home if items with your home address were taken. While most pickpockets just want your cash, some may have bigger plans in mind.

Final Thoughts

I think one of the reasons we find pickpocketing so frustrating is that the chances of a pickpocket being caught are very small. Don’t let these vile creatures ruin your next trip.

Safe and happy traveling,
Linda

Hospitalized in Bulgaria!

In January of 2020, Steve broke his pelvis while skiing and had to be hospitalized in Bulgaria. It was a painful, frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening experience.

Our Take On Bulgaria

Before I get into the details I must say this:

Bansko was the fifth city or town we have visited in Bulgaria. In 2018 we enjoyed the capital of Sofia, the second-largest city, Plovdiv, and the smaller towns of Byala and Varna.

All of our experiences in Bulgaria until Steve’s hospitalization have been positive. The people are warm and welcoming, the accommodations and restaurants are clean, and the food is delicious. Many people speak English which we never expect but always appreciate.

That is why our experience in the hospital was a shock.

One of the Bansko ski chalets
The beautiful scene as we headed off to ski.
The Doctor At The Base of The Mountain

As Steve and I were waiting in line to get on the gondola to go up the mountain I noticed a door at the end of a hall. The sign on it said Doctor.

Little did I know that just a few hours later I would be walking through that door to see if Steve was in there after we got separated while skiing and I couldn’t find him anywhere else.

He was lying on the examination table after having x-rays. We were told he had fractured his pelvis.

We were very happy with the care here. The doctor and staff spoke English and explained everything that was going on. They took three x-rays for a cost of $118 USD. Everything else up to this point was covered by the mountain insurance we had as part of our ski rental package.

Given the professionalism of this office, we didn’t balk when the doctor suggested Steve be transported to the hospital in the next town, which is Razlog.

Things Take a Downward Turn

Razlog is a town of 13,000 people about 4 miles (6.2 km) from Bansko. Bankso’s population is 8,600.

When Steve arrived at the hospital he was taken to the emergency department. The area was very run down with tiles missing from the ceiling, holes in the sheets, and what looked like a piece of linoleum laid across the foot of each bed.

It took quite a while for the doctor to be located and for Steve to be registered.

Sunset over the mountains in Razlog, Bulgaria
The view outside the hospital was much better than inside.

He had been put on a stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while being transported. He had to lie on this board for several hours after he arrived at the hospital before he was put in a bed. All this time he did not receive any pain medication.

In addition, he was slipping to one side badly enough that I feared he would fall so I stood alongside the stretcher pressing into his side to keep him from falling. No one seemed to care that he was incredibly uncomfortable.

When it finally came time for Steve to be put in a bed there were only two men to do it. It ended up being quite painful for him as he was basically dropped onto the bed.

Things Aren’t Much Better Here

Luckily the floor Steve was transported to from the emergency department was in better shape, though far from what we expect in a hospital.

Even though many people we met in Bansko spoke English, most of the hospital staff did not. Fortunately, one of the doctors treating Steve did.

The only time we were able to get information about Steve’s condition was the few minutes every morning when the doctors came in. The nursing staff was not the least bit helpful and seemed impatient when we stopped them and used Google Translate to ask questions.

This was particularly frustrating because they were not very busy. There were only a few patients on the floor and often when I went looking for help several nurses would be eating, chatting, and watching TV in the break room. Yet they never made any effort to do more than the basics.

I was shocked that patients in the hospital were kept in their own clothes. Unless they change their clothes themselves or have a family member help they are left in the same clothes day after day.

Patients and their families were also on their own for basic care like washing, brushing teeth, and tending to more personal needs.

I fear for anyone who should find himself in this hospital without someone to help him.

I realized that the only way to get the nurses on our side was to kill them with kindness. It worked with some of them but not all.

Lie Still and Carry a Big Stick

I walked into Steve’s room on his second day there and he proudly showed me his newest possession. A long piece of PVC pipe.

Unlike U.S. hospitals where the patient is tethered to multiple machines, the only thing Steve had was an I.V. He was lying in bed the first night watching the fluid in the I.V. bag getting too close to the end. He wanted to alert a nurse, but the call button was on the wall a few feet away from his bed. Fearing an air bubble entering his bloodstream, he threw the I.V. bag to the floor and used the stand to hit the call button.

After this, he got a pole so he could reach the button. You can see it in the first photo. That pole came in handy for many things. I am still amazed that someone was able to get the pole for him.

Appalling Hygiene

Most shocking to us was the lack of hygiene. Steve was in a room with three beds, but until the last few days, he was the only patient. The room didn’t have its own bathroom, but it did have a sink. However, there wasn’t any soap or towels so I brought some from home.

There were three restrooms on the floor. The women’s room did not have toilet paper or soap. The second one was not marked male or female and surprisingly it had soap. But it was still BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I didn’t check the men’s room.

Then there was the food. Breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with a large blob of butter but nothing to spread the butter with. It sometimes came with a hard-boiled egg or some cheese.

A plate with a slice of bread, a pat of butter, and a hard-boiled egg.
Breakfast time.

Lunch was soup and bread, but no spoon to eat the soup with. And even if he had a spoon Steve would not have been able to eat it since he was lying flat and could not sit up.

Even worse than the lack of utensils or care about being able to eat was the fact that the bread that came with the soup was not on a plate, it was carried in by hand and set on the bedside table.

Dinner was, you guessed it, more bread, this time with cheese, both wrapped in a plastic bag.

At one point Steve watched a nurse drop a piece of his bread on the floor and return it to the table

Needless to say, he did not eat the food they provided. What little he ate during his stay was all brought from home.

There’s Always Something Positive

While dealing with the hospital situation was unpleasant, there were good things as a result.

Children performing a Kukeri ceremony in Razlog, Bulgaria
I happened upon this Kukeri festival on my way back to the hospital.

While in the hospital I met a lovely young woman named Aleksandra from Razlog who had recently had surgery. She is a university student who wishes to visit the U.S. someday. We will stay in touch through Facebook.

I also got to meet Anna and her family at Succuk Burger House and Cafe in Bansko where I enjoyed the cheeseburgers and fries way too much. They were so gracious in helping me with taxis and even arranging a ride to the hospital one day. If you are ever in Bansko make sure to visit Succuk Burger House and Cafe and meet these wonderful people.

Our luck with people continued once we settled into our new apartment. I struck up a conversation with Dimitar at breakfast one morning and it turns out he is a physiotherapist. He has already offered several helpful suggestions.

For the life of me, I don’t understand why the hospital personnel are lacking in the friendliness and hospitality the most everyone else around here has in abundance.

A Goodbye Argument

Release day finally arrived. We knew Steve would be transferred by ambulance to the apartment where he would be recuperating. We requested four people to help because he is a large man and we didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when he was transferred into the bed.

Around lunchtime, two men arrived with a stretcher. We were surprised that they did not have the stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while they lifted him. We really don’t know how they intended to move him from the bed to the stretcher without causing pain or aggravating his injury.

We used Google Translate to let the paramedics know that we were expecting four people and we wanted Steve on a stretcher board. This request led to a ten-minute discussion with four paramedics and two nurses all talking at once.

After getting everyone to quiet down we said Steve was not leaving unless he was on a board. They finally brought a board in and we were on our way.

Thankfully the ride was only about eight minutes long. Not only was Steve not strapped to the stretcher, but the stretcher was also not locked down in the ambulance.

You Get What You Pay For

You know the old saying “you get what you pay for” meaning if something is inexpensive you can’t expect much. This has not been true for anything we bought in Bulgaria except for the hospital care.

We had no frame of reference as to what a nine-day stay would cost. I was pleasantly surprised when I paid the bill. It included the ambulance ride to the hospital, nine days of “care” including X-rays, two ultrasounds, and medications and the ambulance ride home from the hospital. The cost for all of this was just under $2,000 USD!

We do not carry a medical travel policy because in most cases medical care outside of the U.S. is very affordable by our standards. We do however have evacuation insurance through Medjet to get us back to the U.S. in case of a serious accident or injury.

We didn’t expect much when we submitted a claim to our U.S. medical insurance company since our treatment was out-of-network. We were delighted to receive a check from them for $1,800 USD, leaving our out-of-pocket hospital and doctor costs at $300.

What Could We Have Done Differently?

I have read several accounts of U.S. citizens’ experiences with medical care while traveling abroad. They were all positive, but none of them had taken place in a small town in Bulgaria.

Once we saw the situation at the hospital I asked Steve if he wanted to be transported to Sofia on the assumption that the hospitals in the capital would be superior to this one. He was adamant that he did not want to be moved because he was in so much pain.

Looking back, I wish that I had asked the doctor what the different options were and where he would send one of his family members.

So the only other thing we could have done differently would have been to not ski in this area. I doubt that any warning about the lack of quality medical care would have deterred us. No one expects to get hurt.

Our travels have taken us to some off the beaten path places and will no doubt continue to do so. In order to keep exploring we have to believe that things will work out for the best.

All’s Well That Ends Well

It was a challenge to find a place to stay for four weeks while Steve recuperated. We needed somewhere that would allow him to be brought in on a stretcher and placed in bed. I spent several days looking online, sending emails, and visiting hotels before I found a suitable place two days before he was due to be released.

We ended up at the Redenka Holiday Club about 6 miles (or 10 km) from the center of Bansko.  Luckily they weren’t particularly busy and had some first-floor apartments available.

Our four-week stay includes not only the apartment but also breakfast and dinner every day for about $2,000 USD. There is also a gym, indoor pool with jacuzzi, and a spa. Hopefully, Steve will have a chance to enjoy them like I have been doing.

Indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club
The indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club, not a bad place to spend four weeks.

As of this writing, Steve is recuperating well. He has been improving every day and has just been able to be upright with crutches for a short period of time. We are thankful that he left the hospital without becoming sick.

His spirits have remained high and he is looking forward to seeing something besides the ceiling.

Happy (and safe) traveling,
Linda

Stranded on the Road in Peru

As we left the breathtaking oasis of Huacachina, Peru to head to Arequipa, we had no idea that we would be stranded on the road for 16 hours.

Large sand dunes
From this…
A street in La Joya, Peru on the Pan American Highway.
to this.
Are We There Yet?

Our tour bus was making good time through southern Peru on our sixteen and a half hour overnight trip from Huacachina to Arequipa. The bus stopped at 5:30 am and we were all awakened. We thought we were at our destination. We soon found out that we were still one hour away, and that most likely that hour would become many.

What The Heck Is Going On?

The reason for the delay was a strike by the residents of La Joya and other towns in the Tambo Valley in southern Peru. The residents were protesting the granting of a construction permit by the Peruvian government to the Southern Copper Corporation for their proposed Tia Maria copper mine. The protesters are concerned about the mines effects on the environment and the agriculture of the area. You can read more about the issues here.

A street with remnants of burning tires.
Remnants of burning tires on the Pan American Highway.

Unfortunately, they decided the best way to make their point was to block roads into and out of towns along the Pan-American Highway. Large rocks and small boulders were strewn across the roads for many miles. Hundreds upon hundreds of protesters lined the roads, making the option to remove the obstacles unwise.

A long line of trucks standing still on the Pan American Highway.
And we wait. At least we had nice weather.

We heard that the protests could last for up to 72 hours and that most of the local businesses were remaining closed in support of the protesters. We wondered where we would get food and water.

We Have Priorities People!

But there was a bigger problem. There was a restroom on our luxurious double-decker bus, but it was only to be used for urine. Where would we go if Mother Nature had other ideas? We looked around. There was a sign that said “bano”. This is Spanish for what we needed most. Several of us walked over and encountered a young woman who indicated that she would open up for us. Part of her business was providing a public restroom for 1 peso (about 30 cents U.S.). The other part was a restaurant. Eww. Especially since there wasn’t a sink between the restaurant and the toilet.

This is where it gets interesting. She opened the half-sized door that is so common in Latin America and led us in. The dark, narrow hallway led to a very primitive toilet. A young woman ahead of me was the first to enter and quickly announced that it was just a “hole in the ground”. Actually, it was more than that but very little more. There was no seat and or flushing mechanism. Once you were finished you had to get a bucket of water from a huge barrel and hopefully flush what you had produced.

That poor woman used three buckets of water then gave up, apologizing to her friend who was next in line. By the time it was my turn I learned a valuable skill. You must thrust the water into the toilet if you hope to force anything down. I am happy to report that I perfected my technique that day.

And Now We Wait

The rest of the day was not nearly as eventful as our early morning experience. We read and dozed on the bus, walked the streets aimlessly, and kept our ears open for news, any news. Our tour company arranged for a large restaurant in town to provide lunch for all of us. This was no mean feat since virtually every business remained closed throughout the day.

On The Road Again

After fourteen frustrating hours, the roads were clear enough for trucks and buses to pass. However, they had to go slowly to avoid the remaining rocks and small boulders still left in the road. We arrived in Arequipa sixteen hours behind schedule. Most importantly we never felt like we were in danger and we did eventually arrive at our destination.

An idle tour bus
Our very dirty bus

When you set out on the road you know things like this will happen. If you are fortunate they will happen infrequently and will not prove to be dangerous or costly.

We are very fortunate that our travel plans allow a lot of flexibility. Many of the people on the bus had planned to ride straight through to Cusco, an additional twelve-hour drive, to start their Machu Picchu adventures. Because of the delay, many of them missed out on pre-planned and often quite expensive activities.

It appears as if the protests had the desired effect. Here is an article about the status of the mine permit as of July 25, 2019.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Ronaldo Oliveira on Unsplash.com