Hello again - long time no blog! These last couple months have been crazy, and between work and finding a new apartment, and traveling last minute to Singapore to attend a funeral, I've been stretched thin. Last week, I took a trip to London for my company's internal tech summit, and then took a side trip this last weekend with my co-worker S to Lisbon.
While I'll write a bit about things like packing and products and other tips for this trip later, I wanted to take the time really quick to talk about every tourist's favorite topic when traveling in major European cities - pickpockets. Note that I too did my fair share of Googling and browsing through the TripAdvisor/Fodor's forums before traveling to Lisbon, but I must say, experiencing it myself for the first time was somewhat eye-opening.
Firstly though - overall, I really liked Lisbon. There were so many other moments that more than made up for the few negative experiences we had, like beautiful views, good hikes, excellent seafood, friendly dogs and their owners, and so on.
But back to the pickpockets. Everyone says stuff like "be careful on Tram 28" and they tell you to always watch your bags and be careful in case you get mugged at night. Or even to "blend in" and "look like a local". I can tell you that last bit doesn't work, because as two Asian-American females, it was already obvious that we didn't belong there. Most ethnic Asians in Lisbon are tourists.
Here's my ultimate takeaway from this trip: watch your back.
And not just your back. Watch your peripherals too. Actually, just always watch. We had three run-ins with shady people. For a full 4-day trip, this is actually not so bad. All three times, we were both carrying daypacks (in bright colors) that definitely screamed "tourist!". Mine was a drawstring REI Flash pack, and I actually didn't have any trouble. But S carried a Camelbak with a clearly marked zippered pocket at the top that was probably the equivalent of a bullseye for a pickpocket.
The first incident: this was actually just a couple of men lurking in a dark alley street that lies just outside the local grocery store we were shopping at. We'd taken this route a couple other times at night with no trouble, but this was Saturday night so there were a lot of tourists and locals out drinking in Bairro Alto, where we stayed in our Airbnb. They came out of nowhere and yelled to scare us. After they only half-succeeded in getting acknowledged, they kept following us. One of them kept propositioning us with sex and drugs and making disgusting noises, while the other followed quietly. We walked as fast as possible to a neighboring, noisier street and they left us alone. In this case, it was the right thing to do as these types of people peel away once you go somewhere more crowded.
Incident #2: Pickpockets! We were exploring the city all day on Sunday, carrying our daypacks and were incident-free until the afternoon when we came to a pathway that was blocked in by fencing due to construction. It basically created a bottleneck in traffic and as we came up on it, a man and woman walking opposite us suddenly turned a 180 and started following closely behind S. Right then, I knew what they were doing and within seconds, the man's hand had unzipped her bag. She felt it and whipped around to yell at him and grab whatever he'd taken back. We told them off and they went to stand in front of a window casually like they hadn't been around to steal, but as we left, they had turned around to tail another Caucasian couple. Luckily, S didn't have anything in that pocket except a charging cable and her sunglasses case.
Incident #3: More pickpockets! This time was on an emptier street, while we were walking a narrow sidewalk back to our neighborhood in broad daylight. I was in front, and S was behind. I happened to be telling her a story, which is how I noticed a woman in sunglasses and a hat walking way too closely behind S. This time, S didn't even feel the bag opening, but this woman was busy rifling through the pocket. I whipped around and stuck my hand in between S and the woman. The woman immediately grabbed my arm and said things like "Careful! It's okay! Are you okay?" I had slipped off the sidewalk, so I played along, but S noticed her bag was open and we started yelling at the woman, saying things like "CAN YOU NOT. DON'T TOUCH US." S yelled to warn at a man walking opposite us, but it actually turned out to be the woman's partner. He was carrying a backpack and wearing a panama hat, but when S tried to warn him, he sort of smirked and finally said "Oh, yes, yes, thank you" and avoided eye contact. Again, the woman didn't successfully take anything, but it was pretty unnerving at how quiet and fast she was at walking behind us and opening the bag. Almost an hour later, we actually saw the same man and woman walking out of a street that crosses in front of our Airbnb, no doubt preying on other tourists.
Other things of note:
- While walking through Alfama, we were followed a couple times, possibly by men also looking to score. But we walked fairly quickly and knew where to go, so they left off after a while.
- Be careful when using Google Maps to get to the castle, Castelo de S. Jorge . It takes you through probably the scariest set of alleys and stairways I've ever been through, and this is coming from someone who's lived in a pretty shady area on the Oakland/Emeryville border.
- Pickpockets run in pairs, usually a man and a woman.
- They always dress like tourists. They hold a map, wear a panama hat. There's almost always a large sling bag (fake Gucci, probably) and sunglasses. Or a backpack, as we saw the second time. They wear nice tourist clothes, like button shirts and chinos.
- I hate to say this on here this way, but both times for us, they were really tanned and darker-skinned people. Every time we were followed as well, was by a person who seemed to be of darker skin tone than other locals we interacted with. They're likely "gypsies" or Roma people, from what I've read.
- They walk really freaking close to you, or turn and follow you in the same direction. This is probably the creepiest aspect of it because I really have a thing about my personal space and I don't want to sound like I'm in a spy thriller, but check your six. Constantly. Or stop infrequently and suddenly if you're afraid to look behind you. It'll probably cause them to run into you.
- Crowded streets are actually your friend. Not crowded trains or trams, but streets, so long as you're constantly moving. Both times, we were the only two for at least 100-200m in either direction. There was no one to scream to for warning or help.
- They like narrow areas - think alleys, or construction-zoned pathways, or even the narrow sidewalks where only one person can pass at a time.
- Avoid carrying a bag. I think pockets are the way to go, really. If you don't need to carry a bag to dinner, then don't. Put your phone and your wallet in your pockets and hold them there as you walk. It was probably the safest I felt at any point during our trip, when I didn't have to worry about what I was carrying. If not, then avoid zippers that are obvious and scream "pull me!" to the world. My REI Flash pack was actually good in that the drawstring has to be opened a certain way and you can't get at it underneath my long hair.
- Carry as little cash as possible. I only ever had 50 euros and 1 credit card at any given time. My phone was definitely more valuable at any moment, since it was my link to everything else I own. I had a SIM card from Three that I picked up in the UK and it worked flawlessly in Lisbon.
- Lastly, don't let it get you down. Pickpockets suck, and muggings and other crime while traveling are even worse. But if you can get away with minimal damage or loss, I'd count that as a win. We were lucky we didn't have much of anything for them to steal, and that we caught them before they were successful, but even we felt somewhat shaken and violated after the fact. It can happen to anyone. So it's important to not let it ruin the rest of your trip and remember that there are so many other great locals to meet and things to see/do.