Friday, May 20, 2011

So Irritating

In the past two days I have watched two crimes happen to my friends, one was only attempted and the other was sadly successful.  Even though I've posted general tips for travelers, I thought perhaps I should post ways to avoid specific crimes. 

Crime Number One:  Ring Trickers
This is more common and successful than you think.  Generally, a Romani woman (for simplicity's sake I'm going to use the term 'gypsy' henceforth) stands in a tourist place waiting for ladies to pass by.  When they do, she drops a ring and then "finds it" for you.  After that, several things can happen.  Often, she will simply rob you while you look at.  Other times, she will offer it to you as a gift and then try to charge you for it. 
Best avoidance technique: This one's hard, because you'll be caught off-guard.  I have a very nice diamond ring, and the first time I saw this I asked myself "was I wearing that ring today?".  Ignoring simply won't happen; it's too unnatural.  Most likely she will be quick enough to at least show you the ring.  My best avoidance maneuver has been to knock the ring out of her hands and run

Crime Number Two: Petition Wavers
This one gets really annoying.  In the span of five minutes I've been approached three or more times on several occasions.  Essentially, younger gypsy girls approach you with a petition to sign.  You can tell them apart because rather than ask for a moment of your time, they simply stick the clipboard under your face and wave the pen close to your eyes.  Two known consequences of this crime are either (a) they manage to pickpocket you while you're trying to see what you're signing, and (b) you unknowingly sign it and it turns out to be a contract stating you'll pay them $___.
Best avoidance technique:  It's been fairly easy to simply run away from these girls, but on a few occasions they've followed me and gotten forceful.  In that case, my best technique has been grabbing the pen out of her hand and throwing it behind me (the most successful escape was when I did that while simultaneously knocking her clipboard to the ground). 

Crime Number Three: Cash-Machine Creepers
Yesterday's failed crime was at an ATM.  My friend and I were headed to a cafe to study for exams, and she needed to take out some money before going.  I saw two suspicious-looking gypsy kids approaching from behind, and even though we were bigger than them, aware of what they were doing, and in the midst of cancelling the transaction for protection, they still attempted this.  Essentially, these kids wait until you've punched in your pin, and then use all force possible to take your money as it comes out.  Yesterday they tried hitting my friend in the face with a newspaper, and we were fortunate that was all the force they tried.  I've heard horror stories of much, much worse.
Best avoidance technique: Even though we would have won a fist-fight, I can honestly say that even I couldn't simply hit a child.  That's why most of these kids succeed.  Try your best just to avoid the situation all together: don't take out cash alone, be attentive to them if they look like they're going to approach, and hit cancel immediately if they do come up to you.  If the worst happens, your best measure here is to yell for help and hang on to your cash for dear life.  We yelled for help yesterday and a lovely older gentleman pushed the kids off of us.

Crime Number Four: Bracelet Makers
Another surprisingly successful scam.  I've found that these men are often not Romanis, but of French-African descent.  They usually work in groups and are centered around areas from where tourists take pictures.  They find any sort of way to reach your hand (asking you to point to something, asking you to see your hand, simply grabbing it... if you're caught off-guard nearly anything will work) and in less than a few seconds, they've made a string bracelet around your wrist.  Then they tell you that you've purchased it and owe them $___.
Best avoidance technique:  Saying no doesn't work.  Walking away doesn't work.  These men are persistent and often violent.  If you see men holding string coming towards you, run away.  If, however, he manages to catch you in his trap, get angry and scream at him.  Rip off the bracelet, cause a scene; show him that you, too, are violent, and that you have the law (and all surrounding citizens) on your side.  It seems like it will just escalate the situation, but these guys get enough people out of fear and persistence that they're not going to deal with a crazy person.  It worked for me in Paris.

Crime Number Five: Map Questers
Having spent a lot of my life being a tourist, this crime enrages me.  I have legitimately been lost and needed help before, and so I always help people when they ask for it.  In this trick, someone approaches you and asks for directions.  Sometimes, it's not a trick.  Sometimes, they steal from you and run while you're left standing and pointing out the corner they need to turn at.
Best avoidance technique: Seriously, as a plea on behalf of people like me who tour a lot and are bad with maps, answer people on the street who need help.  That being said, never ever ever help someone without first taking a strong hold of your bag.  It takes a bit of training, but this should become your second-nature.

Crime Number Six: Table Approaches
Today's successful crime really blew me away.  I was eating lunch with a group of five other girls, all of whom you would call world travelers and big-city girls (Melbourne, Cologne, San Fransisco, New York, Toronto and Ottawa).  And yet, even though we knew what was happening, our reaction time was too slow and one of my friends lost her iPhone to two gypsy girls.  I still cannot believe it.  These people come up to you while you're eating and distract you in some way.  They work in teams and use a paper or something to block your view of whatever they're taking.  Today, we launched towards the purses and kept them safe, without realizing the iPhone was on the table under their blank blue pages.
Best avoidance technique: Besides being generally aware of where your stuff is, the best maneuver here is to rip the papers out of their hands and yell.  The owner of the restaurant will come and will probably help you if they managed to get anything, and by grabbing the papers you'll throw them off-guard as well.

Crime Number Seven: Item Borrowers?
Do you have a cigarette?  Lighter?  Tissue?  Euro?  I've heard them all. 
Best avoidance technique: Say no.  Don't be polite, don't be kind and don't ever open your bag.  Hold tight to your position and get loud if you need to.

I know some of these seem mean or over-dramatic, but it's often what it takes.  You'd be surprised how persistent and even violent some of these criminals can be.  It's hard, but don't forget that they are committing a crime.  Not to mention that -- assuming you're in my financial position of school debts -- they likely have more money than you do!  Don't let pity get in the way of keeping yourself safe.  Life can be tough for these kids, but life's not easy for anyone and it's not impolite to keep your own stuff safe from crime.

Monday, May 16, 2011

You Start Missing Everybody

I am too honest on here sometimes.  Today I'm allowed to be a little cryptic.

 MGMT -- Fated to pretend

I'm feeling rough, I'm feeling raw
I'm in the prime of my life.
Let's make some music make some money
find some models for wives.
I'll move to Paris, shoot some heroin
and fuck with the stars.
You man the island and the cocaine
and the elegant cars.

This is our decision to live fast and die young.
We've got the vision, now let's have some fun.

 Yeah it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?
Get jobs in offices and wake up
for the morning commute?

Forget about our mothers and our friends.
We're fated to pretend.
To pretend
We're fated to pretend.
To pretend

I'll miss the playgrounds and the animals
and digging up worms.
I'll miss the comfort of my mother
and the weight of the world.

I'll miss my sister, miss my father,
miss my dog and my home.
Yeah I'll miss the boredom and the freedom
and the time spent alone.

But there is really nothing, nothing we can do.
Love must be forgotten.
Life can always start up anew.

The models will have children, we'll get a divorce,
we'll find some more models,
Everything must run its course.

We'll choke on our vomit
and that will be the end.
We were fated to pretend.
To pretend
We're fated to pretend
To pretend
I said Yeah yeah yeah
Yeah yeah yeah
Yeah yeah yeah

"Don't ever tell anybody anything.  If you do you start missing everybody."
JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is the Hole You Dig Deep Enough at All?

I like people who smoke, drink and curse.  I like coffee addicts and pill-takers.  I like those who can't fit in and gave up trying.  These people wear their vices on their sleeves; what you see is truly what you get.  There is never any disillusionment when you encounter the "real them".  I like the rejects of society; the strange groups of people who roll their own cigarettes, brew their own drinks, write their own songs and learn from their own mistakes.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It Sounds Like Someplace I'd Like to Go

Before I began my female solo backpacking travels, I tried to look up some tips on what to expect.  (It's a scary world for a young lady traveling alone in a strange place!). I wanted to find some previous female travelers who had traveled alone and who had some good advice.  My search was widely unsuccessful.  Perhaps females are less likely to travel alone, but I hope to see more embracing this in the future -- it really helps you grow and it's just an awesome experience.  Of the 14 (soon to be 15) countries I visited this trip, only two of them were with other people.  And I managed to stay safe the entire time besides a near-robbery in Amsterdam.  So I would like to offer the tips I've collected these past 8 months. 

1.  Stay in mixed dorms.
Say what?  Yes, I really do mean this one.  Why?  I have several reasons!  Firstly, girls tend to travel in groups, whereas boys tend to travel alone.  If you stay in a mixed dorm, you'll have a higher chance of making a single-serving friend who will accompany you for a while.  And to be wholly honest, nothing bad happens between fellow travelers.  It's some sort of mutual dependence and acknowledgment of loneliness and fear, and it's a beautiful relationship, I assure you.

2.  Don't sleep on trains.
This also seems like an odd tip, as it is quite efficient to travel and sleep at the same time; it leaves you more time in a city to "see the sights".  But this really can be dangerous!  You can sleep through your stop.  Or you could awaken to find your bag stolen.  Least likely, but most frighteningly, you could be harmed in any number of ways.  Just don't risk it.  Besides, hostels are fantastic.

3.  Be careful with alcohol.
This seems like a simple rule, but I also really want to encourage you to enjoy the nightlife of a city (cities are so different between the day and the night -- you really need to experience both!).  So simply seek a balance.  If you find yourself entirely alone, limit your alcohol intake to one or two.  If you are with a single-serving friend, however, you can let loose a little bit.  Understand that this takes a bit of mutual trust and it can be scary to put your faith in others, but I enjoyed Berlin and Bratislava so much simply because I was able to let loose and dance with some amazing guys I had met in each city.  I trusted them 100%, and in both cases everything was perfectly fine.  That all being said, I caution you to nonetheless know your limits and stick to them.  Mutual trust and understanding or not, no traveler wants to drag you back to your hostel if you're getting sick or you're unconscious.  It ruins the night for everyone.

4.  Don't put all your money in your wallet.
Some people feel it's a good idea to carry only one wallet to which you will cling with your dear life.  I, however, feel the opposite.  I carry a small burlap sac and in there I place the majority of my cash.  It sits in the bottom of my big backpack.  In my handbag I only carry a wallet with a few bills (usually what I have planned to spend that day).  Why?  If someone took either bag, I would be upset.  However, this way, I have enough in case of either bag being stolen. 

5. Look tough.
I know this can be difficult if you don't look tough naturally.  I am lucky to be relatively tall (except in the Netherlands!) and relatively... stocky...  I manage to look relatively threatening if need be.  If you are short, thin and blonde, this may be difficult.   But try your best, especially if you feel threatened.  Put on your "walking face", set a quick and assured pace and make everyone believe you have been traveling solo since birth. 

6.  Learn English.
Admittedly, since I am writing in English, I can assume this one is already mastered.  But I really do believe that mastering English is more important than learning pieces of the language in each country through which you might pass.  It's really tough to learn 15 (or more) languages, and you likely won't succeed.  So instead, learn what you can for some countries, (I've found French, German and Spanish to be the three most helpful) and then embrace the use of English in the rest.  It really is the traveler's language right now.  If you happen to have the gift for learning languages, try to pick up 'please', 'thanks', and 'hello' in every place you visit; you'll make the world a little brighter. 

7.  Write it down.
7(a): get a journal and use it daily.  Contrary to popular belief, you actually will forget a lot of this experience.
7(b): write down your addresses, train station names, hostel names... anything to which you may need directions should be written down.  This way, you can show it to people instead of trying to pronounce it with an assuredly horrific accent.

8. Don't take cabs.
I adored Central-Eastern Europe.  But my greeting to Budapest was terrible: a 48 cab ride that lasted less than 5 minutes.  (This was exceptional.  After wandering for a few hours I realized I wasn't going to find my hostel.  I tried to question the man's abuse, but he refused to cede, and I walked away knowing full-well this would cost me a meal or two down the road).  Financially they are a poor choice, and sometimes they give you a terrible prejudice of the city.  Just don't take a cab. 

9.  Embrace the corners.
Need to snap a picture?  Step into a corner.  Need to look at the map?  Back into a corner.  Need to tie your shoe?  Lean into the corner.  Waiting for someone?  Worried about theft?  Feeling tired?  It's impolite to take up the whole sidewalk, and it's safer to have your back against a wall than out in the open, especially if your attention is focused elsewhere. 

10.  Be able to run.
Here we arrive at the worst-case scenarios.  In Amsterdam, I had to chase a thief through the whole of Centraal Station to rescue my wallet, computer power cord and camera.  I am not a big runner, but having frequented the Parc Monceau just prior to that trip, my fitness level was able to hold out just longer than his.  Chasing thieves, running away from creepy people, or even trying to get a train before it pulls away... you will be glad for even the slightest hint of training beforehand.

Happy adventuring, ladies!  I hope to see more of you out and about on the road when I head up to the United Kingdom!