Travel Tips

3rd January 2008

We choose an outside table and order a couple of caipirinhas to battle the heat.

“Towels?” a street vendor holds up a handful of dishtowels for us to consider.
“No, gracias.”
Another visitor moments later,
“No, gracias.”

And so on every few minutes until a drunk man approaches and sways toward us.

“Can I have money for the bus?”
“No. Lo siento.”

My purse is sitting in my lap, and I feel uneasy. When the man leaves, I place it on the ground against the wall. The table and chair legs are substantial enough to block anyone who might reach and run from behind me. We chat for a while until a woman rolls up a large, janitor-style cart filled with small boxes.

“No, gracias.”
“But it smells very good, see?”
“No, gracias.”
“This one? Patchouli?”
No. Gracias.

She begins to wheel the cart away, and then stops suddenly. She leans in close to my girlfriend and mumbles something incoherent. My friend looks confused.

“What beaaaautiful earrings,” the vendor says. “So beaaaautiful.” She comes even closer to admire them.
“Uh. Thanks.”
My girlfriend and I exchange a look, and she’s on her way.

Oddly, she’s the last visitor we have that evening, though several vendors approach other tables. We finish our cocktails and when the bill arrives, I look down for my purse. Of course, it’s gone.

After some conjecture, we figure that it was most likely the incense woman. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for someone to grab it from the sides, so I’m fairly sure there was a child or small person hidden on the bottom of her cart who reached in between our legs from the front of the table and grabbed it. Whoever it was had a bit of difficulty (the purse was really crammed in there), and hence the prolonged and awkward earring admiration.


-About $100 in cash. Ugh.
-My gorgeous green wallet with bright pink interior that was a gift from my father in law.
-My very favorite, silver lamé clutch that I got for $2 at Goodwill. Irreplaceable.
-My notebook. My awesome Moleskine travel notebook filled with Argentina goodness.Ugh.


-The knowledge that, for the first time in about five years, I left the house without my camera. Suck it, incense lady.
-I am impressed enough by the thief’s skill that I didn’t punish myself for too long over stupidly putting my purse on the ground.
-Someone found some of my abandoned wallet contents the next day and emailed me, because most people are goodies.
-After four years of marriage and a child, I finally have the incentive to get a driver’s license and credit cards with my married name on them.

In conclusion, when in doubt, shove your purse up your skirt.

48 thoughts on “Travel Tips

  1. Pascha

    Wow, now that’s some skill. I was a waitress in my early 20’s, and a woman sat her purse on the ground on the side of the table that I was standing on, so I asked her to push it under her chair so I wouldn’t keep tripping over it. She did so, and someone ended up stealing it. She blamed me for taking it, and said I told her to move it so I could have easier access to steal it. Luckily, my manager stuck up for me, because, um, where would I have put her purse? We didn’t have lockers for ourselves, we just kept our stuff in the managers office. I felt bad, but I couldn’t believe she would accuse ME of stealing it.

    Glad you got some of your stuff back.

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  3. Michelle

    This is why I spent the entire three months I lived in Italy with one backpack or purse strap wrapped around my ankle whenever I sat down. Still got pickpocketed once (ha, ha, Florentine thief, have fun with the map of Rome from my back pocket!) but otherwise escaped without incident.

  4. Katherine

    That whole mumbling in your face is some kind of pickpocket trick. That happened to me in Spain shortly before I noticed my wallet was missing.

  5. Katherine

    That whole mumbling in your face is some kind of pickpocket trick. It happened to me in Spain shortly before I noticed my wallet was missing.

  6. She Likes Purple

    For those who don’t you know, your calmness and ease exudes off every word you write. This has happened to me and I screamed at a 400-pound man who very obviously was carrying a weapon because I thought he knew he stole my purse. Something tells me I could learn a thing or two from complete strangers, such as you.

  7. Josh

    Everyone makes fun of people who wear fanny packs for the way it looks, but they’ve got their stuff stuck to their body – they’re no dopes.

    Though they may occasionally look like dopes.

  8. Cathy

    That sucks.
    I had a similar thing happen to be in Italy. Some street kids were trying to sell newspapers, shoving them in our faces and what not. After brushing them off I realized soon after that my wallet was taken out of my pocket. Smart kids, aren’t they?

  9. Spandrel Studios

    Oh, what a pain. It’s amazing how brazen thieves can be: My mother-in-law had her purse stolen off her lap as she ate breakfast in the restaurant of her Paris hotel, and she didn’t feel a thing! Granted the purse was small, but still.

  10. Riayn

    I can’t get over how calm you are about this. I would be a blabbering mess. Having something stolen like a purse would feel like such a personal violation.
    Thanks for the great tip about never letting your valuables leave your hands no matter how safe it may look.

  11. Emily

    Ohhhh snap, Maggie. I am so sorry to read this. When I lived in Ecuador I used to loop the handle under the leg of the chair and nestle my bag in between my feet. Paranoid? Si- pero mi bolsa nunca fue robada.

    Lo siento, mama!!!

  12. sarah

    My brand new awesome purse was stolen three weeks ago off the back of my chair in a restaurant. I lost my phone, some cash, makeup, etc. but I miss the purse and my prayer beads the most.

    They only managed to get a tank of gas and $12 at Wal-Mart before I shut down my debit card. I don’t have a credit card, but they got $45 in gift certificates and $60.

  13. sue

    Popping in for a quick “Happy New Year!”… and amazed that someone actually returned a few of your items. Sorry about the losses you can’t replace. Hope 2008 is a wonderful year for you and yours!

  14. Super Jen

    I had my wallet stolen by a band of gypsy children while I was in Nice – out of my fanny pack. I had stress dreams about it for about a month, kicking myself for not chasing them down. Of course, I probably would have end up stabbed or something. Glad your incident was semi confrontation-free, at least.

  15. Recovering Overachiever

    Those thieves are nervy! Sorry that you got your purse stolen, but it made quite a story.
    I (thankfully) don’t have any similar stories of my own to regale you with, but my friend had her purse stolen while she was studying abroad in Luxembourg. The strap was wrapped around her ankle and they just cut the strap and took the purse part!

  16. Shannon

    This sucks. The same thing happened to my friend while she was vacationing in Argentina, except they got her passport and a lot more cash!

  17. h

    I was once in the middle of two jackasses in the Miami Airport trying to get stuff off me. They sucked at the game. First of all, I saw them together when I entered the building, then they split up and a few minutes later one dude’s all “Do you know where the NWA desk is? Do you know when such and such flight takes off?”. I could hear his friend walking behind me. I had a suitcase on wheels that I was dragging behind me and my laptop bag slung around front with my hand over the zipper.

    I was wearing fat midwestern tourist lady clothes, sporting a sunburn so bad that you feel the heat emanating off my skin and I had a bright pink stripe running through my hair. Without slowing my stride I finally just said, “Do I LOOK like I work here?” He acted all offended, but I figure it’s better to be an asshole than risk a jackass.

  18. CV

    Something similar happened to me in Rome – my dad and I were walking on the sidewalk and a gypsy woman came up to us with what appeared to be a baby in her arms. She was shoving the baby in our face while all these kids swarmed us. My dad yelled at them and got us out of it but not before their slimy hands got into my purse. All of this went down in about 5 seconds flat. But I got the last laugh – all they managed to get was my cheap cover girl compact! ahhhahahahaaaaa. Take that gypsies!

  19. Matthew

    Got my pocket picked thrice a decade ago, while serving as a volunteer in the Bolivian Peace Corps. I keep my wallet in my front jean’s pocket even to this day.

    And the secret to putting bags down while in public places is to put one leg of your chair through the strap before sitting.

  20. Kizz

    It’s the irreplaceable part that kills me. Years ago when there was a rash of drive by purse snatchings here in NYC I worried more that they’d get my unfinished reading material than my wallet.

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who admires the skill of criminals like this. What they did sucks but wowee, they know their business and that’s kind of sexy.

    I try to put my bag where it’s touching me so there’ll be a physical change in me if it disappears but I’m loving the suggestion here of looping the strap around a chair leg. I do often do that but it’s because I’m clumsy and like to sit close to the table and everything gets all tangled and I fall on my face when I try to get up to pee. Now I can call it a safety measure and feel all smug.

  21. HeyJoe

    That sucks ass. Purse and wallet thieves should be strung up by their thumbs and publicly caned.
    Scratch the “purse & wallet” part. ALL thieves.

  22. Erika

    Sucks about your stuff. Glad you didn’t lose your camera.

    The most aggressive/super-powered pickpockets I’ve ever encountered are in Rome. The last time I was there, the guy I was with paused to reply to an old woman with a baby who approached him in a train station. Two steps later he realized that his wallet was missing from his front pocket, where he had tightly wedged it as a defense.

    We confronted her and amidst her denials and feigned confusion, the wallet fell to the ground intact and she scurried off. I guess she didn’t have quite enough time to cram it into the baby’s diaper.

    The most peculiar thing I noticed in Rome was the clucking sound people would make as they approached to scam or rob you. It seemed like fair warning.

  23. Sarcomical

    wow, you seem to be handling it really well. when anything of mine has been stolen i tend to bounce back & forth on the spectrum from really pissed to weepily grieving.

    BIG plus you didn’t have your camera. ouch. that would’ve been even worse. i love that you’re looking on the bright side!

  24. Judith Roenke

    I’m sorry you lost the irreplaceable clutch and the moleskine. I left a moleskine on an airplane to Thailand, I am still sad about it. In Viet Nam and the Ben Than market I was in the middle of 2 vendors vying to sell me a diet coke. The older woman pushed me out of the way nearly knocking me down in order to attack the younger one. A day later I realized the equivalent of $50 American missing from my ‘secret’ location in my bag. I can’t believe I was knocked over and mugged/pickpocketed by a woman less than half my size who looked to be in her 80’s. (I am a 5’8″ white athletic female.) I’m sure the young woman was her family.
    It makes a great story, but at the time that money was a lot to me. I’m sure the money went far for the Vietnamese family. Glad to hear you have a good outlook and that people are still nice.

  25. Melanie at Beanpaste

    I was with a group in Paris, and one of the guys refused to use a moneybelt or move his wallet from his back pocket (on principle?)and, lo, we rode the Metro and his wallet was gone by our first stop.

    You gotta respect the craft.

  26. Raych

    I spent my whole three months in Europe with a money belt shoved down my pants (the clasp was broken) and I was fine. Two weeks after I got home, I was out with the kids I nannied and had my purse in the stroller basket (like I do) and someone thieved it right out of there, while I was distracted by one of the kids. For all they knew, I was a nineteen-year-old mother of two! Who steals from a poor young mom?

  27. Maggie

    Tip from a small-town girl turned city-dweller and traveller : When sitting keep your purse wedged between your feet so you can feel if anyone attempts a tug, or sling the purse strap over your knee and press it with your leg against a chair or table leg. When out walking, keep purse tucked under arm or keep your hand in/over any pocket containing your phone/camera/wallet. Anytime someone gets unusually close in a crowd I feel about and check that no hands have snuck into a zip. I’ve never lost more than a change purse set carelessly on the table in front of me. But I can certainly sympathise – my stolen change purse was an heirloom worth more to me than its contents tripled.

  28. PinkPoppies

    Better yet, along with those fab tips, tie those small christmas jingle bells to your zips and change purses. Anyone trying to swipe will jingle.

  29. Cristen

    I’m so sorry! Without trying to sound smug, since I’ve only learned this by travelling lots and losing lots, the safest way is to leave everything at home. I leave purse, wallet, everything except a driver’s license, a debit card and two credit cards at home. Ditto for jewelery including my engagement ring. ‘Course I haven’t had my house robbed yet so maybe I’ll change my mind later…..

  30. Samilja

    I’m most sorry for the loss of your Moleskine but I love that you still managed to find the ‘Wins’ in this tale. Plus, ‘Suck it, incense lady’ – that’s a laugh-out-loud line that made my day.

  31. Barbara

    Your friend better give you those damn earrings. So sorry. I chased a thief who was wearing a red hat down a hallway in the Chicago Merchandise Mart. I described him to security, (“He was wearing a red hat!!!”) They assured me he probably took off his hat. So much for my crime-fighting ability.

  32. NaysWay

    I hate to say it, but after the third vendor passed I had a really bad feeling about that whole set up. Dang it! Guess that’s the benefit of growing up in the ‘hood and never trusting anyone. I know they’re mostly for old people but perhaps a fanny pack may be in order?

  33. Rebecca

    You have such a positive outlook. I agree that most people are goodies. One time I lost my wallet on a bus in NYC, and it was returned to the bus driver with everything in it.

  34. kimblahg

    aw, why couldn’t the artful dodger of argentina leave the moleskine too? mahybe this is the universe’s way of giving you permission to get fabulous new things.

  35. Jaime

    The same thing happened to a professor of mine on a trip to Italy. It was a gypsy woman who had a small child under her garments pick pocket my professor. Happened in the Vatican City!! I couldnt believe it when it happened!! It’s frightening to think that little children grow up learning this. Sorry to hear about your unfortunate incident.

  36. Samantha

    Oh, dear, those pickpockets do get better and better don’t they? Bells do seem like they’d be a good idea. Glad you were able to be reunited with at least some of your things.

    I once chased the thieves of my mom’s camera back down to the tube platform we’d just left, saw one culprit standing nonchalantly with the camera around his neck, and fueled by adrenaline and rage, grabbed it and ripped it off, shouting “That belongs to ME!” before I turned and fled. The police were less impressed with my bravery than they were relieved I didn’t get knifed. I was just so upset that the pickpockets made my mom cry that I was unable to think of anything beyond getting her camera back for her. It was exhilarating to get the camera back, but we were jittery in that city for the remainder of the trip.

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