They say that catastrophe doesn't happen as a result of one mistake. Instead, it's a series of little mistakes that act together to create the perfect storm, and the stories that follow usually start with a "wrong place, wrong time" heading.
Such was the case with our mishap at the Barcelona bus station last year: looking back, there were a lot of things that could have been done differently, and we would have stayed on track for a lingering journey up the Danube to Dresden, before veering off towards our ultimate destination: Prague.
Here's a play-by-play of our sequence of events, which I'll follow up shortly after with a list of things we could've done differently:
- T-minus 10 minutes: We arrive at the bus station via Barcelona Metro and seek out the ticket office
- 5 minutes: Set down backpacks next to a bench. I went inside for bus tickets, leaving Asriel on the bench with all of the gear
- 4 minutes: A man stands to one side of Asriel and speaks to her in rapid Spanish, pulling her attention away from the gear
- 2 minutes: I return with bus tickets and sense something is awry, but ignore the feeling
- 1 minute: I go inside (a second time) to fetch coffee for Asriel & myself
- 0 minutes: I return with coffee, and we realize that each of our small backpacks are missing…
While I'm thankful that we were't robbed in a more dramatic fashion (getting mugged on the street, for instance), the sinking feeling at "zero minute" was one of vulnerability and numbness—not to mention feeling like complete idiots. Poor Asriel felt especially responsible: the man who had been speaking to her in Spanish was counting on her attentiveness, and proved to be only a diversion. As he tried conversing with her, the man's accomplice snuck up to the other side and made off with our backpacks.
We lost quite a bit—in addition to the hard goods (including a camera and a netbook), I lost over 1,000 photos I had taken through three different countries, as well as a travel journal that had nearly 100 pages filled with content.
We had heard of friends traveling and being robbed before, but felt that their stories lacked a sense of awareness. Motorcyclists are taught to keep their head on a swivel, and travelers should do likewise—especially in crowded terminals.
Unfortunately, years of travel experience can be reduced to a story like this in the brief instant when one's guard is dropped. It can happen anywhere, and at any time. Still, there were measures we could have taken to prevent getting robbed, or at least minimize the impact:
I made Asriel responsible for both my backpack and my camera bag: Sure, it felt nice to take off my backpack and not have to worry about it for a few minutes. But I shouldn't have pinned the responsibility of all of my gear on a friend. She was busy enough keeping after her own things.
I didn't separate my gear: My netbook was in my camera bag. So was my iPhone, travel journal, and video camera. Had I swapped out a few things here for less-critical items in my backpack, I would have lost less hard-to-replace items and might have kept one or two critical items, like my photos or travel journal.
We broke off from each other: This one doesn't seem like such a big deal, but around train and bus stations it never hurts to have an extra set of eyes. Thieves run amok in places like this, and they're counting on travel groups temporarily separating to purchase food or tickets, use the restroom, etc. Having each other's back means being
Asriel's compassion got the best of her: Asriel is one of the sweetest people I know, and she'll go out of her way to help a stranger—unfortunately, that's what the thieves were counting on, too. I hate being rude, but before going into a known "den of thieves" (pardon the expression), we should have evaluated our priorities and placed being polite below keep our stuff together.
We ignored our sixth sense: Both of us had that nagging inner voice alerting us that something was amiss, but we ignored it. We should have kept abreast of our environment, and evaluated the inner alarm accordingly.
Travel is a long road, and being robbed makes it seem even longer. In the end, things worked out as best they could: we got emergency passports, and insurance covered a lot of what was lost in hard goods. But the journal entries and photographs were gone forever, and I couldn't help but feel that the emotional cost jaded me—ever so slightly—to the concept of the kindness of strangers.
But as I was soon to find out, the kindness of strangers was what helped us pass through the experience, and ultimately kept us on the road.