The Misworn Money Belt: Or, What Not to Do on Your Summer Vacation
Life could not have been better that fateful morning in Madrid. I was riding the Metro with my buddy Pete, with whom I’d been backpacking around Europe for nearly six weeks. We’d just seen Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia museum. A recent college graduate, I was having the time of my life and would go home in five days as World Conqueror. Nothing could go wrong.
Then I stepped out of the subway car and into unmitigated disaster.
When I reached inside my money belt for my fare card, I realized that, in the short ride from the Reina Sofia to the Plaza de Toros, I had been robbed. While Pete and I had been engaged in an intense conversation about which European city’s public water tasted best, a pickpocket somehow reached inside the narrow pouch of my money belt — which I had carelessly left exposed under my shirt — and lifted its contents as I held on to the car’s overhead rail. My ill-advised tendency to use the money belt like a fanny pack (instead of like a locked safe) had caught up with me. I lost my European railway pass, my passport, my Air India ticket from London to New York, my positive
mood and much of my perspective on the trip’s direction.
In the previous weeks, I had hiked up a Bavarian mountain and played cards with Franciscan friars in Rome. I had picnicked under the Eiffel Tower, seen Coldplay live in Berlin and swum in a secluded Swiss Alpine lake. Now, a final unexpected, unwanted adventure was about to begin.
It was Sunday evening, and we were to fly two days later to London from Bilbao on Spain’s northern coast. We raced to the train station to replace my railway pass with a ticket to Bilbao, but the station required that I show my passport. New plan: Get a new passport from Madrid’s U.S. Embassy, which of course had closed for the day.
The next morning, we arrived at the embassy to find a long line filled with similarly aggrieved tourists. One woman we spoke with, a Seattle teacher, was the victim of a thief who’d sliced open the bottom of her purse and captured the contents in a sack. We admired the pickpocket’s skill, if not the deed.
After an hour in line and two more waiting for my passport, I paid a $90 fee and got a motherly scolding from a Foreign Service worker. We then rushed back to the train station and nabbed the last seats on the night train to Bilbao.
Having decided we would work on replacing my airline ticket back to the States from London, where we were to arrive in a few hours, Pete and I enjoyed our morning in Bilbao. I’d had a Ryanair e-ticket to London, so I didn’t need to replace it. (Another break: The pickpocket had not grabbed the wallet in my side pocket, where I kept my cash and credit cards.)
When it was time to head to “BilbaoSantander Airport,” as Ryanair’s Web site had billed it, we asked our cabdriver to take us to Bilbao’s airport. Upon arrival, we learned three things:
1. Santander is a city about 62 miles west of Bilbao.
2. Its airport is used by the low-fare carrier to fly Bilbao-bound travelers who opt for cheap tickets over convenience.
3. We were nowhere near it, and we’d certainly miss our flight.
We were now stuck in Bilbao’s airport, 10 minutes or so from downtown. Our astounding lack of research and preparation, along with a fondness for winging it, had proved costly.
Luckily, we found an evening flight (for about $215 each, compared with the $50 we’d paid for our original tickets) to London on EasyJet, which meant we’d spend the next eight hours in the airport lamenting our misfortune. It also meant I’d spend my afternoon on an airport pay phone, figuring out how to replace my stolen Air India ticket home.
After multiple calls to New York’s Kennedy Airport, London’s Heathrow Airport and Air India’s New York office, I had pressed about 978 buttons and needed my prepaid calling card minutes replenished. I would have to call my parents and ask them to do it for me. Gulp.
I had resisted contacting my folks the entire time I’d been in Europe, so I dreaded the prospect of calling for a favor. I was a vagabond, a young man on the greatest adventure of his life, and vagabonds do not call their parents for extra calling card minutes. In fact, I wasn’t sure vagabonds even had parents.
I called. Mom answered. I pleaded for 500 extra minutes, told her I would explain later, thanked her and hung up. Considering the brevity of my phone call and the lack of information disclosed, I figured I hadn’t violated any sort of vagabond code of conduct.
With more minutes, I called Air India’s Mumbai headquarters and was told I would have to visit its London office to have my stolen airline ticket blacklisted. Blacklisted? Uh-oh. I’d done all I could on the phone, so I nervously looked ahead. We arrived at our London hostel after midnight.
Never mind that London is one of the world’s most dynamic cities, with its endless array of museums, monuments, parks and neighborhoods. We were visiting a real-life Air India office! Opportunities like that don’t come around every day.
At the Air India office that Wednesday, a friendly employee let me know that such pickpocket predicaments routinely were handled. She told me the airline would blacklist my ticket and give me a new one. I could not have been more pleased.
Then she explained that I’d have to call the company that issued my ticket, StudentUniverse in Massachusetts, and have it call Air India to confirm the information. StudentUniverse would then have to fax a copy of the ticket to London. From there, Air India would send the info electronically to its headquarters in Mumbai. Then the headquarters would relay the blacklist confirmation back to the London office, which would contact Heathrow Airport and tell its employees there to hand me a new ticket.
It would all have to happen if I were to board my flight Friday morning.
I immediately contacted StudentUniverse, which agreed to call Air India in London and help. Thursday afternoon, I stopped in Air India’s office for an update: It had received the ticket copy from StudentUniverse and had sent the information to the Mumbai office. All I could do was show up at Heathrow and hope for the best.
Early Friday morning, I stood in line at Heathrow’s Air India customer service counter with a young actor from New York named Jason. He’d been backpacking himself and had been robbed in Paris a few days earlier, losing his airline ticket, money and credit cards. He’d paid for food and his train ticket to London with change he collected by playing his guitar on a Paris street corner.
At about 10 a.m., Jason and I began begging the unrelenting Air India staff to reissue our tickets, sans blacklist transmittals. The airline’s database showed we had bought tickets, our passports matched the names in the system and our thieves had not shown up at the airport wearing “I WNY” Tshirts. Reason enough to reissue the tickets, right? Wrong.
As I wished Pete a safe trip home, the man behind the Air India counter called me over. I figured he was going to recommend the section of the airport floor he thought most comfortable for sleeping. Instead, he delivered extraordinary news: Heathrow had received the blacklist confirmation minutes before.
I got my boarding pass, and Pete and I ran through the airport to catch our flight. We arrived at the gate at last call. As we boarded the plane, I realized how lucky I had been. Jason was nowhere in sight.
Pete and I now see the Pickpocket Fiasco as a fitting end to our trek abroad. However, we did not speak of it much on the flight to New York, because we had much more important matters to discuss.
After all, in the midst of sorting through my calamity, we’d visited Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral; walked around Westminster and listened to a debate about a proposed dental plan in the House of Commons; surprised my childhood friend, singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, before he played an acoustic show in Covent Garden; and managed to get tickets to a women’s semifinal match at Wimbledon.
We also decided, by a 2-to-0 vote, that Munich had the best-tasting public water in Europe.
The author, left, shows how not to wear a money belt. He and friend Pete Kelley met Amy Mueller, left, and Sarah Mitchell of Toronto while backpacking in Europe.