May 20, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Travel, Travels in Spain

It was last weekend that I waited in the abnormally chilly Madrid weather for my casi-suegra (almost mother-in-law) to meet me in downtown Madrid. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place, so I called her and was met with her quivering voice which was barely audible on the other end of the line. My first thought was that my Spanish was getting a little rusty, but in reality, I knew something wasn’t quite right with her.

Gran Vía

Five minutes later, my casi-suegra showed up, pale and shaken. On the verge of tears, she explained to me that while in a shop making a purchase, someone came in and simply ripped her wallet right out of her hands. Just like that. I started having flashbacks of my first memory of Madrid when I was only seven years old and my grandmother had returned from a trip to Spain and recounted the story of how someone had robbed her on the Gran Vía (Madrid’s busiest, most touristy, and consequently probably most theft-ridden street). For the next nearly 20 years of my life, Madrid remained in my mind as the place where people stole wallets from innocent grandmas.

Whether it’s pickpocketing, stealing a purse from someone’s side in broad daylight, breaking into cars, or even houses – burglary is alive and well in this country. The fact that the country is playing defense is evident in the abundance of steering wheel locks in cars and bars on every set of first floor windows from here to eternity. Why this is the case is indeed another story, but in a nut shell, the punitive system here for theft (along with pretty much everything else) is far too weak.

So what does this mean for you the tourist? How does one avoid being a victim? I’m pretty sure this blog post is going to jinx me, but I can proudly say that I have never been robbed here. Yes, me the Starbucks-coffee-cup-carrying American (as a Spanish fellow at the market so gracefully pointed out the other day) has somehow managed to not have “victim” written on my forehead. Maybe this is luck, but I’d like to believe that there are a couple of ways to avoid the fate of my casi-suegra and grandma. Perhaps some of these rules seem obvious, but I think they are worth elaborating on (particularly considering the number of tourists I see NOT abiding by them).

    1. Don’t let your guard down: I believe the main distinction between getting robbed and not getting robbed (aside from hanging out in dark alleys by yourself – but this falls under the category of “duh”) is not being so overly comfortable in your surroundings that you think you are in Anytown, USA and not Madrid, Spain. Always be aware of what is happening around you. Which brings me to my next point….

    2. Pretend like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t: You always have to look more or less like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Standing on a street corner with your nose buried in a map says nothing other than “I’m confused, lost and paying attention to nothing. Please take my stuff!”

    3. Hold on tight to your items at all times: Always make sure you’ve got a secure grasp on all your goods. I’m not saying you should unearth your fanny-pack or anything, but be smart about how you keep track of your items. Ladies, this means NOT hanging your purses on the back of your chairs, or setting them beneath either – in touristy areas, burglars will take it right from you without a care in the world whether anyone sees. The best place for your purse is in your lap.

    4. Beware of strange distractions: If someone does something really peculiar to distract you, whether it’s a small child tugging at your shirt, or someone giving you a hefty shove, be aware that this may be an effort to distract you so that you let your guard down (and therefore don’t notice that someone has their hand in your pocket and is robbing you blind!).

If something does happen, you can report it at the Comisaría de Policía or call 091 from any Spanish phone (it should be free from a pay phone). On a lighter note, both my casi-suegra (when she’s sadly had her wallet stolen in the past) and my grandma have received their wallets back in the mail (minus the money and credit cards of course). The Spanish government may not be hard on theft, but when they receive a stolen wallet, they’re apparently diligent about returning it to the owner!

Now certainly Spain isn’t the only place that you should be concerned with in terms of travel safety. For this reason, a bunch of us Lonely Planet Bloggers have come together to share our international travel expertise by creating a blog carnival around how to travel safely. This blog carnival will take place this Monday, May 24th and will be followed by future carnivals focusing on a different subject each time. Come join us for the ride!

Ok, with that I’m going to go try my luck and see if I don’t get robbed for the first time.

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