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On the Variety of Muggings

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During my first week at law school, I heard the story about a classmate who'd been mugged. I always think of this anecdote as The Most Polite Mugging Ever. The story went that he'd been out late and was walking home while talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. Two guys came up to him and showed him a gun. He handed over his wallet, but asked if he could have the student ID back. The muggers did even better than that: they emptied the wallet of cash and gave it back to him.

I later related this tale to a conservative judge who was a lifelong New Yorker, and he was disgusted by my label for it. "That's not a real mugging. That's more like an involuntary transfer of property. Like a tax on living in New York."

For my own part, I lived for almost six years in Manhattan without encountering any crime at all. Eventually I even stopped wearing my handbag slung crosswise (strap on the right shoulder, going diagonally across my body with the bag itself on my left hip) because it made me look like a paranoid tourist.

I have become similarly more self-assured in traveling. Though we purchased money-belts at Wal-Mart before we left -- the kind you wear under the waistband of your pants -- and I used mine initially in Quito, the lack of threats offered to us made me feel this was unnecessary. The bag I was using on this trip was a dark red canvas sack on a nylon strap, borrowed from a male friend of K's who had picked it up in San Francisco's Chinatown, and it did not at all suggest that it held anything of value whatsoever.

Last week, on what was to have been our last night in Marrakesh, the bag was stolen in what I consider The Least Useful Mugging Ever.

This theft was decidedly not polite. Last Monday, Tony and I were walking from our apartment in the medina out to the train station, which is in the ville nouvelle, to buy tickets for the next day's train to Fes. We were crossing a road, with Tony a bit ahead of me, when a motorcycle drove past me on my left side. I hadn't noticed it coming up behind me, but I suddenly was getting knocked forward onto the pavement. At first I thought the motorcycle had just accidentally pushed me, but when it didn't stop after I screamed as I was falling down, I thought, "Well, they're real jerks." Then I realized I didn't have my purse; someone on the motorcycle had grabbed the bag as they came past me. The strap was on my left shoulder and under my arm, so their speed on the motorcycle had jerked me forward and caused me to fall down.

We were initially worried that I might have seriously hurt my left knee, which had borne the brunt of my tumble, but it was just bruised and skin-scraped, as were my left elbow and right palm. Almost a week later, these injuries are scabbed over and nearly healed, though my left leg still objects to being knelt upon.

Tony yelled for help and a small group of locals gathered around to offer advice. A police van went by and slowed down for a moment, but it was on its way elsewhere. One woman thought the police would come back and we should stay put; a man recommended that we go to the police station in the square, which was accustomed to dealing with tourist problems and would be more likely to have an English-speaker available. Eventually a taxi stopped to pick us up, even though it already had a passenger in the back seat; she kindly agreed to let us be dropped at the nearest police station first.

This was a station in the ville nouvelle, perhaps a mile from where we had been, but the police there were convinced that we ought to go to the station in the square. The taxi had thankfully come back after dropping its passenger, and took us to those police, who then insisted that the crime had been committed outside their jurisdiction and we needed to go to a third station, albeit one also within the medina. Since I was getting visibly more upset and frustrated by these delays, especially as I wanted to report the theft of my passport and credit cards as soon as possible to the relevant issuers, the policeman agreed to take us to the third station so that there wouldn't be any further confusion about where we should be.

The officer with whom we spoke at the third station was really quite kind and helpful, with more English than we had French, but he had to fill out the report by using a typewriter. He typed slowly and carefully, and we didn't get home until almost three hours after the incident occurred. There, I discovered some good news: I'd forgotten my wallet and mobile phone at home, so the only big loss was of my passport. I emailed a couple of friends who work for the State Department, and they said I should make an online appointment with the nearest consulate to come in and get an emergency passport that would suffice temporarily. A proper passport has to be created in the U.S. and would take about a week to be received in Morocco. I couldn't get an appointment at the Casablanca consulate (the embassy is in Rabat, which is further from Marrakesh) for the next day, so I made one for Wednesday.

Tuesday evening, Tony picked up a ticket for me on the 9 A.M. train to Casablanca, but just after he got back to the apartment, the police called and said they had recovered my passport. They wanted us to come back to that third police station in the medina Wednesday morning to pick it up. I was nervous about being in a foreign country without a passport, and not entirely certain that mine had been returned in a usable condition, so I decided we'd go to the station early in the morning to look at the passport, and if it didn't look all right I'd go ahead and keep my Casablanca appointment for a new one. The next morning, we waited at the police station until 8:30 A.M. without anyone's showing up to open the door. Tony rushed me into a taxi to the train station, where I loitered around as long as possible. As people began to board the train for Casablanca, Tony called and said he'd seen the passport and that it was fine, with no need for replacement, but I had to come pick it up myself because they wouldn't release it to him.

The first woman I'd seen working at a police station sorted through the paperwork and had me sign a document that stated I'd had my passport returned (at least, that's what she told me it said; as with all the other forms, it was in French and Arabic). Neither the bag nor anything else in it had been returned, but the losses were monetarily minor: a thin silver pendent with the Incan zodiac that Tony had bought me in Peru; a couple dollars' worth of small change in Asian and South American currencies; the other half of the pack of traveling cards Debb had made for me. Pens, kleenex, our South American Explorer membership cards, other detritus that accumulates in a bag over months of travel and can't be remembered when it's no longer present.

I call this a useless mugging because the thieves got almost nothing of value to them. The bag itself was inexpensive and worn; its contents included no cash in a locally-valid currency and, aside from the passport, were unlikely to be fenced for more than a few dirham. Fortunately, the muggers apparently were not sophisticated enough to sell a valid U.S. passport with a non-Western name and brown person's photo to the kind of criminals -- traffickers and terrorists -- who might find it useful. It's not quite a case of "all's well that ends well," as I've gone back to wearing a handbag crosswise, when I'm not leaving it at home entirely and wearing the moneybelt (which does not make for an elegant line of one's figure). Nonetheless, it could have been much worse and I'm thankful that it wasn't.

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2 Comments

I'm thankful it wasn't too, but still sorry to hear you got mugged - and injured in the process. :-(

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