We went to a rooftop bar with a stunning view of the Acropolis on our last night in Athens and had a Prosecco toast, not only to a lovely time in Greece, but to the halfway point in our travels and our last night in Europe. The next day we were flying to China for a sixteen-day tour, followed by other adventures. That was the plan, anyway.
The next morning we were off, taking the train near our rental apartment to the airport when it happened. That thing that every traveler dreads: my passport was stolen by a pickpocket on the train. We were aware that pickpocketing is an issue in Athens, but I thought I was prepared. My passport was in a zipped pouch around my waist, under my clothes and I was wearing a shirt that came down about 10 inches below my waist. My mistake was not tucking it fully into my pants. The pouch contained my passport, one credit card, my phone, and a little cash – the only item taken from it was the passport. We knew that we could get the passport replaced easily, the visa to China was another matter altogether.
Since it was Saturday, we would have to wait until Monday to go to the American Embassy to apply for a new, temporary passport, so the rest of the day was a jumble of cancelling our flight, which had been purchased on miles and hoping that the miles would be refunded (they were), notifying the tour company of what happened and hoping would not have to cancel (we did), obtaining a police report, and looking for a new place to stay.
Finding a new place to stay was not easy, as Athens was almost fully booked that weekend. We finally secured and were let into an Airbnb place at around 7:30 p.m. It had been a long day, but we needed to get passport photos taken. We knew that lots of things in Greece close on Sunday and we needed to be ready with documents and other materials we needed for a Monday morning trip to the American Embassy. So, despite being exhausted, we headed out on Saturday evening to a nearby photo shop for the photos. It turned out that the shop was closed and would not reopen until Monday at 10:00 – by then we would need to be at the Embassy. We stopped in a wine shop next door to the photo shop to buy a bottle of wine and I asked the shopkeeper whether she knew of a place to get a passport photo taken on Sunday. She waved in the direction of the photo shop and suggested that we go next door. After I explained to her that the sign indicated that the shop wouldn’t be open until Monday, she picked up the phone and made a call. After she hung up, she turned to us and said: “He (the owner of the photo shop) will meet you at 11:00 tomorrow morning.” She had called the owner of the shop on Saturday night and asked him to open his shop for complete strangers on Sunday morning and he had agreed to it! I could not believe the kindness of these Athenians. The photo shop owner not only took the passport photos, but also made photocopies of all of other items we needed, both to apply for a passport and also to try to get the visa for China replaced.
Getting the new passport
We showed up at the American Embassy bright and early on Monday morning and were the first in line for a temporary passport. We had brought with us all of the things we needed, which are: passport photo(s), State Department forms DS-64 (for a lost or stolen passport) and DS-11 (for a new or temporary passport), a police report for the stolen passport, a form of ID (driver’s license), and proof of citizenship (photocopy of the picture page of my stolen passport). As the line at the Embassy began to form, we swapped stories of how each of us had come to be in this predicament. All but one of us had their passport stolen, not lost, and there were three of us whose passport was stolen on the train on the way to the airport in the same little stretch. In addition to this, everyone except me had way more than their passport stolen – most lost credit cards, cash, phones, and other valuables. One man who was travelling alone had lost everything and had to contact a friend back in the U.S. who was kind enough to send him money to get home. Things could have been worse.
The process of getting the new passport was remarkably quick and easy. In just under 90 minutes, I had a new, temporary passport good for one year. Getting a passport that is valid for a year was a welcome surprise, as we had read that the typical duration of the temporary passport is six months and most countries do not admit people with less than six months on their passport – if we had received such a passport, we would have had stay in Athens long enough to get a new, ten year passport, or go back to the United States.
Pickpockets in Athens – and other places
We had heard that pickpockets are a problem in Athens, but it was only after our incident that we began to realize how rampant this is. There are around 50 people arrested each day for pickpocketing and theft in Athens and one-quarter of all tourists to Athens are the victims of pickpockets. The metro system – especially the trains to the airport – are one of the highest crime areas for this, and yet, there are no police on the platforms or the metro cars! We read about a man, a seasoned traveler for many years, who took his family to Athens and was robbed twice on the same trip, both times on the metro! The second time he was victimized, the perps knocked down his 75-year-old mother-in-law and, when he went to help her up, they stole his wallet! Like all professional pickpockets, these folks tend to work in groups and have seemingly unlimited ruses and ways of working, almost all of which involve a distraction. In my case there was a woman whose job it was to distract me while her male colleagues did the deed. I found her picture on the internet, below, as part of a story from July 2018 about arrests of members of a criminal ring, and yet, she is still on the streets. These people are professionals. As someone quoted in a news story about the problem stated: “They (the pickpockets) are better at stealing your things than you are at protecting them.”
We eventually realized that obtaining a new visa for China was not going to be possible, so we cancelled our tour to China and, although we were past the date for any refund, the company we had booked, Travel China Guide, agreed to give us 50% of our money back. At this point, you might be wondering about travel insurance. We did purchase travel insurance, although not the type that most people buy which covers medical and a host of other reasons to cancel a trip. We didn’t need this level of insurance because our health insurance covers us worldwide for medical needs. We called the travel insurance company and they will provide some money for the additional days we had to stay in Greece, but they will not cover the cost of the tour we had to cancel.
So, what to do now, we wondered. Eventually we settled on a plan to fly to Bangkok for a week, then go down to Kuala Lumpur (which was not on our original itinerary), then fly to Hong Kong, at which point we plan to resume our original itinerary to go to Vietnam, Cambodia, back to Thailand, and Singapore, eventually reaching Australia and New Zealand. We purchased a ticket to fly to Bangkok and spent the better part of a day figuring out details of plans for Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
When will this stop?!
The morning of the day of our flight to Bangkok, as we prepared to go to the airport (in a taxi this time – one of our new tenets is NOT to take public transportation on travel days) we realized that we could have a problem getting needed visas and/or being admitted to some of the countries we planned to visit on a temporary passport. Worse yet, it is nearly impossible to get information on which countries will and won’t admit people with a temporary passport. We left for the Athens airport unsure as to whether we would be flying to Thailand that day or cancelling our flight and flying back to the United States to get a 10-year passport for me. Our first stop in the airport was the check-in desk for Etihad, the airline we were flying to Bangkok. To our delight, the agent who checked us in was able to give us the information we needed and it turns out that all of the places on our itinerary, except those requiring visas – and she didn’t have information on those – admit temporary passports. We were on our way!
Being the victim of a pickpocket is awful, but it was a reality check for us. We were much more diligent in our early days of travel but became more relaxed as our time on the road went on. Our travel protocols have now changed. Here are a few of our changes:
- No public transportation on travel days – the thieves know that you are carrying EVERYTHING with you and also know that you are managing luggage, etc., so you are already marked
- Use a moneybelt or something that goes inside pants, don’t just put your moneybelt under your shirt
- Be very careful about taking out the moneybelt in any public place. I had surreptitiously reached into my pouch for money to buy my train ticket and I suspect that the pickpocket or someone working with the pickpocket was watching me
- Keep valuables separated – I had cash, debit card, an additional credit card, and my driver’s license stuffed into my backpack
- Wear a crossbody bag and keep your hand on it when in high-tourist areas
These are just a few ideas – lots of sources have great ways to protect yourself and your things on your travels. Just remember that, of everything you have, your passport is the hardest to replace if stolen and has the most dire consequences for your onward travel.
We have spent the past week working through many, many what-ifs. I’ve felt embarrassed, I’ve cried, and we have both been deeply disappointed, angry, and frustrated. We’ve had endless discussions about plans forward and how to prevent this from happening again. But we’re ok. We know people in our lives back home who have real issues concerning their health. But we are still travelling and we are grateful for this.
We are now in Bangkok. We normally choose a small guest house or Airbnb accommodation when we travel, looking to be closer to the people and culture we are visiting. But in Bangkok, we chose a modern, high-rise Hilton. Neither of us has much experience in Asia, in fact, this is John’s first time here and I’ve only been a couple of times on business. It just feels more comfortable to be sleeping in a place that feels safe and familiar.
We are still not sure we can return to our original itinerary following our missed trip to China. I’ve applied for a new visa for Vietnam, but I haven’t heard yet whether it is granted. And we may cancel Hong Kong due to the recent protests.
Sometimes the adventure we get is not the adventure we planned on. But it’s still an adventure.