The Mis­worn Money Belt: Or, What Not to Do on Your Sum­mer Vacation

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Christo­pher Coff­man

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.

BY ROBERT BROESLER JR.

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.

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