I am no Indiana Jones, but I have done a bit of travelling in my time. My passport is tattered and nearly filled with stamps. It is frayed at the edges and warped from water damage and I always get trouble at airports and border crossings due to an unfortunate black mold which developed after a rainy slog through the Amazon.
But I bear this inconvenience with a sense of pride, in spite of the judgmental stares I frequently get from TSA agents.
I certainly didn’t get the travel bug from my parents. I’m currently teaching English in Madrid, and my parents took their first ever international flight to see me for my spring break. I was so excited to finally share my passion for travel and adventure with them. We met in Rome, and spent three weeks together, one in Italy and two in Spain.
They came prepared with locking zippers and money belts, and Rick Steves audio guides to all of the major attractions in Rome, which my father played on speaker phone in the bustling streets, as if the fact that we were tourists was not obvious enough. I’m just glad that they didn’t show up in matching khaki safari outfits.
Naturally, they were constantly fretting about theft. No one was to be trusted.
“Tara,” my mother told me on our first morning in Rome. “Rick Steves says you should never leave your passport in the hotel room. You can’t trust the cleaning ladies.”
“I think it’s rude to think so little of the sweet Italian cleaning lady.”
“I don’t feel comfortable, Tara. Rick Steves says -”
“Rick Steves is a fear monger, Mom! The world isn’t out to get you.”
In spite of my protests, Mom guarded my passport in her money belt; the most obnoxious form of touristic protection, in my opinion. To me, the belts seemed to be saying “I don’t trust you people,” without actually stating it. Every time we paid for a coffee, we held up a line of impatient Italians as Dad fiddled with his belt to get to his cash.
My personal philosophy on theft prevention was basically ‘shit happens.’ Everyone knows someone who knows someone who got robbed in every major city in the world, but I didn’t think you should live in perpetual fear because of it. I had a higher level of faith in humanity—that’s the way I framed it in my mind, anyway.
I now recognize my ‘faith’ as a form of naivety. I knew bad things could happen, but, as far as I was concerned, they didn’t happen to me. I believed that for my trust in others I would be rewarded with personal protection in the form of good karma. Besides, I’m a traveller, remember. I thought petty thieves only went after tourists.
It didn’t help that my parents were showering me with comments like “Well, aren’t you little miss traveller pants!” as I wove us through the twisting alleys of Rome, or “Isn’t she competent!” as I ordered food for the table in Spanish.
My family’s praise inflated my growing ‘traveller’s ego.’ As I led them around Madrid, I felt like a local. Like it was my city, even though I had only been living there for nine months. It was a nice feeling.
One evening, after a day of drinking wine and eating tapas, we were walking across a big, populated plaza. I was texting a friend as my brother told us a story in loud, American English. I turned to put my phone back into my backpack and saw that the front pocket was unzipped.
My wallet was missing.
I had been picked. In broad daylight. In my own city. My faith in humanity crumbled and my heart sank into my stomach. Why me? Why now?
I had been dumb, of course. Careless. I was a tourist out with a family of tourists. I was wearing a skirt and sandals in April in Madrid, while the locals were still bundled up in boots and winter jackets. I was pale, preoccupied and, idiotically, I kept my wallet in the front pocket of my backpack. I was a sitting duck.
I was out ninety euro and a bunch of important identification cards, but the worst and most immediate blow was to my ego. I had validated all the fears and stereotypes that I had so passionately defied.
In my head, I saw Rick Steves chuckling as he patted his trusty money belt. “Karma’s a bitch.”