It had to happen once, and in fairness to get to 26 with all the travelling i‘ve done, and the number of odd places i ‘ve been without any problem (if we ignore the two farcial Geneva incidents), s extremely lucky. T happens top everybody, and sodds law says that it should have already happened tome at least a couple of times. Yup, i was pickpocketed and had my wallet stolen. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.
With the sheer coincidence that happens so often when traveling, I ended up in my specific seat on the train sitting opposite an Aussie girl, Tam who ‘d met at the hostel and was also traveling to Brasov and planning to stay at the same hostel. At Brasov we cunningly waved away the hoardes of people trying to offer us accommodation until we realised that 2 of them were actually working for the hostel we were aiming for. Doh! The hostel – the Korean named (obviously) Khismet Dao - was one of the most friendly so far, and included free beer, internet, laundry and breakfast amongst other benefits.
Brasov is a lovely old city with the central and old parts squeezed into a small valley, so easy to defend and of a Hapsburg style architecture. Very popular with German, Austrian and Hungarian tourists, and the Swiss/Bavarian style chalets on the green rolling hills outside made the setting look not entirely un-alpine. Surprisingly for a relatively large cty barely 2hours from Bucharest, the centre had virtually avoided beng scared by the standard communist era experiments with concrete, leaving the city core virtually untouched. Even the churches had ‘only’ been shut down and left to fall apart during Nickys reign, but a combination of sureptitious repair and good construction meant that they hadn’t fallen into total disrepair, so were easily restored and reopened n the 90s.
Main square and back of Black Church
We took in some of the end of a 3 day folk festival in the man square, and went to meet Seb, a CSer i‘d met randomly n the CS chat room the day before when searching for some friendly Ukrainians for my upcoming arrival there. He had exams that week and wasn’t really able to host (his profile even says that in exams s the worst possible time and he gets very kranky, so figured i ‘d stay clear if at all possible - get blamed for enough without having people fail exams because of me) but was happy to meet up and play tour guide for a few hours, which was great. I‘d been my normal clever self and empted my pockets the previous day of all the random crap and forgot to take a note of his number at the same time, but at least one of us was being clever as he had mine and sent me an sms and arranged to meet in town.
So Tam and I spent a few hours being shown the sights of Brasov, up into a couple of the defence towers etc, and given some history etc to the city and area, before retiring to his favourite bar for a quick drink. Yet again, I was indebted to the amazing frendliness and knowledge of a local who has gone out of their way to show off their town to a stupid foreign tourist. The evening was manly notable for an American guy n the hostel who had more local wine than was good for him, as i passed him apparently trying to, urm, enjoy himself, with the star rail, and amongst other things who subsequently seems to have crawled back into the wrong bed…
Subtle sign on hostel door
The following day, I climbed the hill to the radio mast (great views) and then in the company of a couple of guys from Swindon, John and Farid, I took a trip out to see Bran, the castle which is the alleged Dracula castle (we’re now deep into Transylvania). The trip itself was almost the most interesting part, as we were out in the delights of Romanian roads, driving standards and knackered old dacia’s, which always adds an extra layer of excitement or three to any trip. Whist the castle was a lovely building, it was conspicuously un-dracula like, lacking anything even vaguely dark/spooky (it was all white washed etc, and probably would have made a wonderful hotel), and not even having a single coffin, although in some respects, it was impressive that they hadn’t pandered to the normal tourists preconceptions as would be so easy, and had left it as it was. It was also interestingly situated n the base of the valley instead of on the steep hills on ether side, suggesting it was more likely a staging post/toll house originally rather than designed as an impenitrible defensive location. For any budding entrepreneurs out there, f anybody gets themselves a coffin, black cape and set of fangs and sets up in the car park, charging tourists to have their photo taken n the coffin, they would make an absolute fortune. You read it here first.
Bran Castle, Outside and one view from the inside of the white towers
Admittedly the known links between the castle and Vlad himself are at best tenuous, as its believed he never lived there and his only link to it is that he tried to attack it once, but hey, who the heck am to get n the way of a good tourist trap? On the way back we stopped at a mountain fortress further down the valley – Cetalea Risnov – on the top of a big hill, with decent walls and over looking the valley with a great panoramic view. A proper defensive location. Oddly, the fort was half filled with lots of sled’s (a la Santa) for no apparent reason.
And the following day, i was robbed. I have to really blame Camilla and Maaret, Danish and Finnish girl’s i‘d first met a couple of days previously. I was being utterly lazy and disorganized – big shock, huh? -, and quite happy just to sit outside in the sun, read and generally not do much for a good few hours, until they convinced me that i should move and sort out a train ticket, or at least see what was running during the strike. I eventually gave in, and the three of us, 2 Swedish girls and a Canadian guy just leaving got the #4 bus together to the station. Was standing in the middle against the side talking to the Canadian, and after a few stops the bus started filling up and suddenly became conscious that I needed to get my hand down from the railing i was holding on to, to my pocket, but due to the amount of people, this took a few seconds, and in that time, i felt a brush against my front right pocket.
It took a couple of seconds to register, but i knew there and then that my wallet had gone. It was only a small one, and incredibly, it was underneath the fake wallet that I carry for just such occasions, and which was ignored. As I hadn’t had my wallet out at all on the bus trip, and my bus ticket was in a different pocket, it was sheer opportunism, and the guy was good, i’ll give him that. As soon as i realised started making a fuss and noise, and the lst of suspects was just 2 long, and one of whom was a young kid who Camilla and Maaret had been sitting behind and sad hadn’t moved his hands from the rail, meaning my initial suspect was correct. Unfortunately however, n the few seconds it took to raise the alarm, the wallet had already been passed back (under an extremely suspicious and obvious scam empty carrier bag), and so the guy was only too happy to be helpful and be patted down. By then i knew it was too late, as it’s impossible to go and search a full bus load of people, especially when the bus s still continuing on its way with people getting on and off. 4 or 5 stops later, he got off, and as the bus moved away. I could see him hookup with 2 other people through the back window, open something, and look back at the now speeding away bus, and as soon as we had moved off an older local lady admitted that she had seem everything and our suspicions were correct, but she had been too scared to say anything in front of them. Bugger. But C’est La Vie.
We continued through the last few stops to the rail station where in an office (it then occurred to us that we could have taken his picture, but in retrospect that probably wouldn’t have helped) i pulled out my phone and copies of the card numbers and promptly cancelled all my English ones, and then with the help of one of the Swedish girls in getting a useful Sparbank phone number, my Swedish ones as well. So within 20mins, everything of relevance had been cancelled and life moved on. I had had some euros and Lei in the wallet, but not so much (maybe 30 euro’s worth) that I really cared – interestingly, all of the others had significantly i.e. 4 or 5+ times more money in their wallets purses than I had – plus irrelevant things like oyster, K’stad and Skane bus cards, my TK entrance card and some odd receipts etc. The only things i was more annoyed about was my driving licence (because it is the only photo id apart from my passport i had) and a few email addresses i had taken down, but not yet transferred anywhere else.
The most interesting thing of the whole episode was peoples reactions. Especially after we had got off the bus to regroup, i was having to calm the girls down rather than the other way around. I remember being very surprised at just how calm and shit happens way I felt about it – probably because I accepted that i had been amazingly lucky not to have been done already, and knew law of averages said I should have been several times, but also as i knew exactly what had happened, there was no doubt that i‘d lost it/left it etc – and possibly my lack of anger annoyed the others even more!
The bank (Natwest) really did start to annoy me though, although by that point I was kind of expecting bad news to keep coming so I found t funnier than angry, despite the situation. I had always been under the now misplaced belief that i was being quite clever, in that i kept my Visa and Mastercard in different places, so that if did happen to loose one, I would still have the other one to use. Wrong. For some anally retentive reason that makes absolutely no logical sense, because they are on the same account, they had to cancel both cards. Allegedly its to stop the other number being used, but as the other number isn’t on the other card and wasn’t written anywhere, that makes no sense whatsoever. It seems to mean that if a couple have a joint account and one loses their cards, both persons have to be cancelled, which is obviously amazingly helpful. As such, I had no choice but to cancel both (although not happy at having to cancel the one card i still had for no apparent reason except beaurocratic bullsh1t) which changed the situation a bit, although as i also always carry a stash of hard cash in different places, enough to last a good couple of weeks if needed, i wasn’t overly screwed like virtually every other traveler met would be.
The Canadian left for his bus, the Swedish girls to sort out train tickets, and Maaret was feeling like crap so got the bus back to the hostel. Camilla, however, had the clever idea of retracing our steps to where they got off and walking back from there to see if the wallet had been dumped. It would be needle in a haystack searching, but the idea was very sound – pickpockets often dump wallets/purses after taking the money to avoid carrying anything incriminating. It wasn’t successful (unless it has gone into a hedge or bin within 50metres, the permutations are endless and chances tiny), but we spent a good hour or so walking back and hunting through rubbish bins, hedges and looking into drains – and even found 2 other empty purses - but I can’t thank her enough for the effort, help and almost scary willingness she showed to go through rubbish bins…
As in all such situations, other travelers rallied around and back at the hostel i was furnished with food and drink, a phone card, some euro’s and some bits of Romanian Lei, which was amazingly kind and touching, but also kind of embarrassing for me as despite the loss, I wasn’t entirely up sh1t creek or penniless. Spent a good couple of hours on the phone (my mobile bill will be stupendous, and not helped by a sheer inability to manage to find a helpful international operator from a pay phone, or make a collect call to free phone numbers, as they refused to connect me as i knew the phone number…) trying to sort replacements and gong around in circles. Looked long into getting an emergency card from Mastercard which they can send anywhere, and for which different addresses even in the same town can vary by up to a week. Got them to run the hostel address, and then Seb’s home address which worked out better, but then on closer inspection was gong to take 4 days anyway, coming from the US, would only be valid 2 weeks (including the 4 days transit) had no pin code, so could only be used inside banks etc and I was gong to be charged an utterly extortionate 300gbp for the privilage, so dropped that plan quite quickly… Not surprisingly, replacement cards had to be sent to the registered addresses, which obviously adds a couple of extra days to the timeframe, ignoring the fact i actually need an address to get them sent on which will be near at the correct time, so after much umming and ahhing about timescales, plus a really grateful offer, settled on Warszawa.
In the afternoon, Seb dropped his revision and came into town to meet me and help on my search for a police station/translation to report the theft and get a police number. Suffice to say that lots of walking, and 3 police stations later, it wasn’t possible. The utterly corrupt police system says that because i couldn’t prove t was stolen (6 witnesses aren’t good enough – only a photograph of them actually n the act would be good enough, and in that case we were told that the camera would have been broken or stolen anyway), they wouldn’t even give me a report number. Apparently the #4 is known for problems because of the fact t links the station and hostel and gets very busy, and chances are that the police have an agreement to take their cut in order to look the other way. These things happen. I knew that there was no chance in hell of getting my stuff back, back I just just wanted something official looking which said I had reported it, in order to use, for example, when i try and get my driving licence replaced. And incredibly, i couldn’t even pay/bribe for it. i probably should have just sat there and refused to move until got something or was arrested, but by then i just couldn’t be bothered. As with so many others, Seb had been amazing with all his help (although he went REALLY weird afterwards, more on that later) and efforts and kindness. That evening, with Maaret, Camilla and the Swedish girls all left on night trains, two top guys from Fleetwood – is that a contradiction in terms? - from the night before, Paul and Ian (now a Melbourner) kept up the trend of looking after the ‘victim?’ and happily kept me in beer, and we talked assorted shit alongside the American guy of the stairs incident, plus a Californian girl, Adelaide and musical couple from Nashville amongst others, whilst we all conspired to come up with the most odd, bizarre and evil requests/questions for the girl working there on her first night.
Me, Maaret and Camilla, outside the hostel. Two great girls who helped lots after i had been pickpocketted, although Camilla seemed just a tad too eager to go routeing around in rubbish bins...
Morals of the story: Don’t carry all your cards in one place, have a stack of hard currency separate in case you need it, Mastercard and Natwest are polite if utterly unhelpful and try to rob you of lots more than you actually lost when you were robbed, expect no help from the police in places like Romania unless you are bribing them to look the other way and there are lots of amazingly helpful and generous people out there to help if things go wrong.