Pickpocket Incident in Skopje, Macedonia
Among the many joys of frequent travel is the ease one develops in packing quickly, hopping on a plane and heading off to a fascinating destination. The ease one develops can also be a drawback. I found that out on a recent trip to Macedonia – a delightful place I have been to many times. The following tale could have happened in Los Angeles, Seattle or New York – also places familiar to me. The place is not important – the lessons learned are.
My recent trip was three-legged and consequently tiring. I began at my home airport in Seattle and had stops in Toronto and Vienna before I arrived in Skopje, Macedonia. The time difference between departure point and destination was nine-hours and the jet-lag was mind-numbing.
I was restless and almost sleepless my first night at the hotel in Skopje. I had an all-day meeting the next day and awoke early. After breakfast I grabbed my shoulder backpack put my money in it for safekeeping, went downstairs and boarded the bus to the meeting place.
The morning briefing went well. The presentations were concise and professional and, most importantly, useful. The time flew by and the lunch break came quickly. I decided to leave my shoulder bag at the table where I was sitting while I was away. The thought then occurred to me that the shoulder bag could be stolen I decided to take my money out of the bag and put it in my pocket. When I returned the shoulder bag was still there and the meeting resumed quickly. The afternoon was as fleeting as the morning session. I was soon on the bus returning to my lodging.
Back at the hotel I sat down to my computer to catch-up on some work for my websites. In the midst of my typing I received a text message from an old friend. She asked if I would like to meet her for dinner in 15 minutes at a restaurant near Alexander Square – a popular place for both locals and tourists to stroll and enjoy the surroundings. We had not seen each otherin almost two years, I quickly sent an affirmative message back and looked forward to the evening. I closed my computer and left the hotel.
The ten-minute walk to the square was pleasant and led me by colorful outdoor restaurants along the Vardar River. I found my friend. We had a congenial meal together and enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives. Dinner over we paid the check and decided to take a short walk around the square.
A light was rain falling that evening and the square was unusually quiet. I noticed an interesting and frankly, somewhat ostentatious, new government building across the river and decided to take a photo of it. As I was aiming my camera I was suddenly surrounded by three individuals, two young boys and a woman. The boys aggressively pushed and touched me and the woman begged for money. I responded angrily to the group and asked them to leave. After a minute or so they did. I then turned and started walking back to the hotel. Suddenly I remembered that I had put the money in my pocket for “safekeeping” at the lunch break that day. I had forgotten about it. I checked. It was no longer in my pocket. Quickly turning around I saw the culprits standing together counting their booty! I approached them and furiously asked them to return the money. They suddenly split and went off in different directions. I could have grabbed one of them but had second thoughts as I was in a foreign country and unfamiliar with the local laws. After a while a fellow, apparently a watchman at the square, came up and said I should report the incident to the police. I agreed. He called them and after a long wait a policeman arrived and escorted me to the station to file a report. To the credit of the Skopje police the suspects were apprehended – but the money wasn’t.
I learned a costly but important lesson from this incident. Skopje is a place I have been to many times since my first trip there in 2000. I had never had a problem. On the night of the incident, whether because of jet-lag, sleeplessness or a foggy mind, I was careless. Also, because of my familiarity with the surroundings, I did not think to safeguard my money. I usually carry my money in a pouch that fits inside my clothing. Ironically, I bought the pouch five or six years ago in Skopje. On this evening the pouch was in my shoulder bag and the money in my pocket!
As I walked back to my hotel room from the police station my thoughts went back conversations I had with a Romanian colleague when we worked together in nearby Pristina, Kosovo. He said to always watch your money no matter where you were. He even talked me into buying my first security pouch. How prescient his advice!
I hope the lessons learned from my experience will be useful to you . In my many years of international travel I have twice been the victim of a crime. Both incidents involved pickpockets and both happened after I had traveled for many hours through multiple time zones.
1. Be particularly careful when extremely tired and/or suffering from jet-lag.
2. Think ahead and plan how you will safeguard your money and valuables prior to your travels.
3. Don’t vary from your plan- no matter where you go!