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The Day I Was Robbed In Barcelona: Thank Goodness Spain Is More Than Barcelona

The Day I Was Robbed In Barcelona:
Thank Goodness Spain Is More than Barcelona

by Lu Sobredo

BARCELONA, a dichotomy of scenic beauty and pickpocket infestation. These pickpockets have a blatant disregard for the suffering they cause. What drives a group of human beings to this point of social pathology is beyond me. And yet I say, don’t abandon your plans to visit Spain. Spain is more than Barcelona.

A Pleasant Start to Our Day 
It was Saturday, June 30, 2018,  and almost a full day in Barcelona without incident. And so I thought. My day started with an early breakfast at a Cafe near our hotel not far from the famed Sagrada Familia Cathedral. The iconic Cathedral designed by the late Antoni Gaudi towers over the city. The architectural wonder appears to be nearing completion decades after the artist’s death. This day while out and about, my darling husband James and I diligently reminded each other to stay alert: put away our wallets, cell phones & other valuables; and secure our backpacks. This mantra was most important when wading through Metro stations, inside trains and walking the neighborhoods of Barcelona. 

The Glory That is Gaudi. ©James Sobredo

We were especially excited on this day to have spent a couple of hours in the neighborhood where Filipino immigrants congregate, live and work. We had lively and heartwarming conversations with Filipino women at a  Filipino family run restaurant at the Raval District. Not at first. But a few words in Tagalog and Ilonggo from hubby and me finally convinced them that we were indeed Filipinos, even though from California. They eagerly took turns making recommendation on what we should order from the menu.  We lunched on chicken adobo and adobo pusit (calamari). Adobo cooking is when meat, seafood or vegetable is infused in vinegar, garlic and soy sauce.  We also ordered a vegetable  dish they called chopsuey, undeniably a Chinese influence to Filipino cooking. Although, I understand that chopsuey might be an adaptation of a similar dish in Guangdong Province brought over to the United States by overseas Chinese laborers. Perhaps, the Chinese traders brought the dish to the Philippines hundreds of years before the Spanish. My historian husband Dr. James Sobredo reminded me as well that the Chinese fled to the Philippines for economic survivability after the Opium War and subsequent wars. The resulting collapse of the economy and government disarray led to mass migration of Chinese to many parts of Asia, including the Philippines. That's all the historical background you're getting from me. Thanks to my husband, the university professor who specializes in Asian global migration. 

We capped off the meal experience with halo-halo (distinctly Filipino concocted dessert of shaved ice combined with an interesting selection of sweet beans and gel-like ingredients). Doused with sweet milk and topped off with mango ice cream and purple yam pudding, the mixture soothed my sweet tooth. 

Halo-Halo (Mix-Mix) Dessert. ©James Sobredo

James also made sure we stopped at Arnold and Nemia’s concept store called Narra located on the same street. Philippine made products lined the walls and walkways of the store. Meeting their eldest daughter Annie, a second generation Filipino in Spain was fascinating. Annie is unmistakably Spanish in her identity. She understands the Filipino language—Tagalog, but cannot speak it. All were friendly and welcoming. The parents were proud and eager to share their immigrant story. It was a significant moment for my husband, the professor whose current research centers on Filipino global migration, more specifically on Filipinos in Barcelona and Madrid.

Raval District, Barcelona. ©James Sobredo.

An Afternoon With Gaudi's Artistic Legacy
The afternoon reached a high note for me when I walked into the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, a planned visit; my third time thus far in this lifetime. The architectural wonder stirs the imagination. At its exterior were two construction cranes instead of three or four hovering over the structure. A good sign that many more parts of the building were completed since our last visit. Another surprise during this visit was getting in for free. A small consolation for being disabled. Entry fees are normally €15 euros; a guided tour for €40 euros.

Ceiling: An Inspired Feature of the Cathedral. ©James Sobredo

Almost everyone outside and inside gazing at the Cathedral appeared to be in a trance. Once inside, it’s not uncommon to be drawn to the ceiling at where art pieces are seemingly suspended in the air. The afternoon sun gently pierces the stained glass windows and visitors were treated to a light show. Our necks stretched to the max as if raising our praises to the heavens in wonderment and thanksgiving for such a gift; the gift of genius by the long-gone architect whose legacy lives. The name Antoni Gaudi is synonymous to Barcelona. If only that could be true of Barcelona, where the mention of the city’s name solely evoked the beauty that is Gaudi. But not so.

Inside the Cathedral With I-Phone in Hand. ©James Sobredo

After the Cathedral visit, happily we returned to the hotel with an armful of sandwiches and treats in case we might be so tired to even think of going out again for dinner.

Early Evening Nightmare
Safely back at the hotel by early evening, my darling hubby settled in to finish university-related work. After all, this is first and foremost a work-travel for him. This was a holiday travel for me, so I luxuriated in a much needed healing shower. With an RA-ridden body, it’s not  surprising my right knee flared up after a day of galavanting. I gave my knee some loving massage and ice pack. Thereafter, I too, was ready to settle and do some writing for my travel & health Blog.

So, with my laptop in backpack and with cell phone in hand, I parked myself at a table in the hotel lobby far enough away from the entrance, but at earshot of the front desk. I had gotten somewhat acquainted with the hotel staff. We chatted when guests were not checking in nor needed their help.

The scene was heartwarming before the nightmare began and ended badly for me. I was perplexed when a derelict-looking man came in, babbling in a language none of us understood. I felt blood rush to my head signaling my body that all is not right with the world around me at that very moment My instinct was of course to grab my laptop and backpack. Before I knew it, the stranger hovered at my table. He innocently flopped a small map next to the laptop that I had  grasped with protective hands. I’ve heard too many times and written about the “grab-and-run” epidemic in Barcelona. When I saw him touch my backpack, I was able to protect that, too. In a state of shock at this scene, all I thought of: my passport and some RA medications were in my backpack. This happened in a matter of seconds as he continued to babble while pacing, flapping his arms up and down like a deranged maniac. He was ranting nonsensically pointing at the map he had placed on my table. I recognized the behavior was his way of creating a distraction. But I somehow did not know what else to do. All I knew was my heart was racing while I kept an eye on the intruder. But it wasn’t enough.

Victoria from the front desk came over to shew him out of the hotel. I did not realize until after he vacated the premises that my cell phone had disappeared from where I had placed it on the table next to the laptop. In the commotion I had honestly forgotten I even had a cell phone with me. The damn map was the decoy used to cover my unsuspecting cell phone. I was so intently focused on protecting my laptop that when the f-ing robber grabbed the map away as he continued his nonsensical babbling, little did I know that he had also grabbed the phone under it. It was a matter of seconds, like a bad scene in a horror movie that takes forever to fade out from my mind’s eye. Neither the two ladies at the front counter nor I noticed my cell phone missing until after the criminal-pretending-to-be-mentally-ill took off. Still ranting about nothing.

As soon as I realized what had transpired, that I was robbed in broad daylight of summer under my very nose, in the safety of the hotel where we stayed under the watchful eye of two staff, I was pissed. With heart racing and fighting the urge to totally freak out, I hastily headed to our hotel room where my husband would take steps to make sure none of my data on the phone is stolen; this after he comforted me. (Ironically, an earlier blog post outlined the steps in detail. Find it in: Watch Out for Pickpockets in Barcelona and Elsewhere).

Meanwhile, the other staff, Sandra, upon recognizing what took place ran out of the hotel onto the street to look for the guy in the direction she saw him. But no luck. The hotel women were lamenting that it also happened to them while in the Metro, their cell phone stolen by “ladrones” (Spanish word for thieves). So yes, although, I had taken all the precaution while out and about in Barcelona, it was definitely unexpected that I would be robbed of my cell phone in the privacy of my own small hotel lobby.

I felt numbed. The ladies felt helpless. I asked to call the police. They said the Police would not come if called since there was no injury or assault. The criminal pretended to be demented and somehow found a way to get inside the hotel even though you needed a guest key card to access the lobby. The front desk staff, Victoria noticed the perpetrator managed to follow a guest with a key card. But she couldn’t act fast enough to prevent the evil-doer from reaching my table. Where this happened? A hotel a couple of blocks from the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. I don’t blame the hotel. After speaking with more of their staff, the hotel has fallen prey to thieves in the past, thus the security measure of access cards.  Reportedly the city has blocked off the corner traffic to shield the hotel from crowds and to discourage the pickpockets. The bold, ugly, soulless ones could not be stopped.

Numbed was how I felt almost 48 hours after the dreadful incident. Thankfully, my security-conscientious husband has safely password-protected my phone with a complex 6-digit code. The criminals’ mode of operation, according to the hotel staff, is to turn off the phone right away to avoid being tracked. Yes, we had turned on the tracker feature while traveling. But if the criminals (you know it’s a group effort) decide to turn on the phone, the data would be automatically erased as James had already taken the steps to notify our cell phone provider to disable the number. I am disappointed beyond words that I had fallen victim, that this happened to our family again. The same had happened to James last summer while riding the Metro in Barcelona with professor friends. But that was outside the confines of a hotel. We were traumatized then, too.

I did my best, with the help of my husband’s comforting words, not to let a low-life like these pickpockets ruin what otherwise was a wonderful day. This rampant pickpocketing trend in an enchanting city like Barcelona leaves a sour and bitter taste in my mouth. But I refuse to give a home to that bitterness, because my life is larger than a cell phone. There’s a special place these crooks will go, maybe not of this world, as their criminal-acts don’t get the attention and consequence from  law enforcement. When I told our young adult son what happened, his reassuring voice said to me, “don’t beat yourself up over this, Mom.” I knew then, I would be on the road to recovery from feeling like a victim.

It only took one day after the incident to encounter other travelers who were just pickpocketed at the exit of the Metro station near the Cathedral. One American businessman from Texas was furious for losing his cell phone and for being violated. He endorses the idea of cutting the robber’s hand off as punishment. A bit medieval, yet I understand the anger. And when you encounter more than three hotel staff this time in another hotel, one who experienced losing her cell phone once, and the other twice, I end up shaking my head in utter disbelief of this infestation.

Why Law Enforcement Hasn't Worked
So much has been written about the pickpocket infestation in Barcelona. The law and enforcement have not been effective. See article in The Guardian on Why Barcelona is a Street Hotspot and How to Beat the Thieves. Here's an excerpt:

"Much as Barcelona would love to shed its reputation as the bag-snatching capital of Europe, it is not in the gift of the city authorities to do much about it. Under Spanish law, if you steal something worth less than €400 (£357) it’s a falta (misdemeanour), not a delito (crime). If you are caught, you will be fined, probably around €50, but however many times you re-offend, it remains a misdemeanour and as an offence it is not cumulative.

As a result, the thieves, who mostly operate in groups, do so with a sense of impunity, seeing the fines as little more than a tax. Understandably, the police find it demoralising, knowing that when they arrest a culprit he/she will be back on the street within hours. 

There have been moves to change the law but the legal system is so bogged down with serious cases it has yet to proceed, and there is little appetite for further burdening the system by making bag-snatching and pickpocketing crimes. All the city authorities can do is warn people of the risks."

One hotel staff, Xavi in his 20s with a slender frame and slightly taller than I, was actually physically assaulted for his cell phone late at night at the park in front of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Xavi stated that this is a rare situation that robbers would commit assault as they know where to draw the line to avoid the police. Xavi shared that the robber tried to grab his throat while demanding for his cell phone; Xavi fought back. He was shaken but he did not not lose his phone. Three months after, he is still haunted by the incident and wakes up in a nightmarish sweat. When he reported the robbery and assault to the Police, he was told that if there was visible injury or if a medical note showed that the assault caused him harm, they could take action. Xavi said to me, he just wanted to ask the Police to “please patrol the area at night” as this was his walking path to his job at 10 p.m.

All these incidents--mine, Xavi's and others do not sit well with me and I am mad as hell about them all. I think I’ve had enough of Barcelona for now. My husband’s research for his book is almost reaching its end. So, I’ll forgo a next visit to Barcelona and just stay in other parts of Spain which do not have the reputation of being the pickpocket capital of the world. 

Spain Is More Than Barcelona
One of my favorite cities to visit, both in winter and summer is San Sebastian, the Basque Country in Spain. Not only is it safe, and the views breathtaking, the people are friendly. It also happens to be touted as the gastronomic pride of Spain. Depending on what month you visit, there's a jazz festival in July and in September it hosts the fourth most prestigious Film Festival in Europe.

A Graceful Bridge Over River Urumea By Our Hotel. ©James Sobredo

Twelve days after the sickening incident, I've had flashbacks. But the bitterness has mostly faded away. Hubby and I marched on to the next destination for our travel plans in Spain. I am taking my life back. For someone diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, taking back my life after a nightmarish news is not new. So please, by all means, be doubly vigilant while in Barcelona, but don’t let the criminals dampen your ability and pleasure to celebrate an amazing adventure called SPAIN! Spain is more than Barcelona!

Essay 2018 ©Lu Sobredo

I am grateful to my husband James Sobredo for being my best friend, life-partner, caregiver, protector, adventure-maker and personal travel  guide. And for those out there who are and have been caregivers to a loved-one with a chronic and debilitating illness, you are heroes. I know my hubby is!

About the Author 
Lu Sobredo is writer/publisher at Lu Travels Abroad, a blog dedicated to folks whose limitations do not hamper them from traveling. About a year into early retirement came the diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Her world collapsed from under her as the disability rendered her nearly-immobile and wheelchair-bound for almost three years. Her family's life changed. Her total life changed, but she did not let RA define her. With much will & love from family, friends and an awesome doctor, she regained some functionality--her new normal. She will have RA all her life. And she now writes about life and travel with RA.


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