“We have lots of robberies.” As I reported last week, that was the apocalyptic statement by the investigating officer to our recent plight in St. Petersburg. That statement, or something like it, is probably repeated hundreds of times around the world each day. Although I have traveled extensively over the last decades, I do not consider myself an expert on crime or security measures. But I am willing to share some of the things I think I learned from our experience in St. Petersburg three weeks ago. We did some things correctly, but we also had gotten a bit careless over time. I hope some of our experiences will help you be more mindful when you travel.
Fact: We were robbed at high noon on a bus on the main street of St Petersburg. We heard stories from our Russian friends of other daylight robberies of locals as well as tourists. Robberies can and do occur in almost any venue at any time.
Lesson: Work on your situational awareness. Whether you are in Seattle or Moscow, observe your surroundings and people in your area. Think of it as people watching. We missed the team of thieves moving in on us as we boarded the bus. In many places it is wiser to avoid walking, or taking public transportation and gypsy cabs. Our local Russian friends didn’t think twice about using local buses…in fact, most of them have no other way of getting around. As a consequence we felt more comfortable and relaxed when we should have been more alert.
Fact: We were carrying our passports with us and we lost one of them in the robbery. According to the U.S. embassy, “Russian police officers have the authority to stop people and request their identity and travel documents at any time and without cause. Due to the possibility of random document checks by police, you should carry your original passport, migration card and visa with you at all times.”
Lesson: We make it a practice to have copies of all our important documents kept in a “safer” place off our bodies. This saved us a lot of time and grief getting a replacement. When traveling overseas, check the recommendations of the U.S. State Department for the countries you are visiting. Some people we have talked with recommend carrying a copy of your passport and leaving the real one back at your hotel. I don’t know how the Russian police would react to that, so I kept mine on me. The problem we had was aggravated by not using a money belt or passport “purse” worn inside our clothing. So we made ourselves more vulnerable than we needed to be. In other kinds of robbery situations, you may lose your passport in any case, so have that copy stashed elsewhere.
Fact: We lost all of our credit cards and cash. We did immediately notify our bank and credit card companies which meant we had no immediate means of support as the accounts were then frozen. Other than physical injury, this can be your next worst nightmare. Losing identity papers and your financial means at the same time can make the situation very difficult. Also in our case, the Canadian Embassy said we had to return to Moscow, an expensive proposition. We were fortunate to have friends with us who became our bankers.
Lesson: In the future, I will keep a separate credit card in a hotel safe, or hidden in my luggage or other place separate from my person. Talk to your bank before you leave about how to arrange for funds to be wired to you from your savings or checking account in an emergency. I spent a lot of time and aggravation on the phone trying to set up those arrangements after the fact.
Fact: It took us two hours to find the police. The police are not very visible in St. Petersburg and their stations are scarce and, more often than not, located in obscure alleys. With help, we found them and got our report filed. In most places, you have to file a report with the police before anything else can occur. The quality of the experience with police varies from country to country.
Lesson: Do some research before you go on your trip. Find out how to locate the police before you need them and, if you can, what their reputation is.
One or two additional smarter steps on our part would have reduced the chances of our being robbed, but they wouldn’t have eliminated all the risks. I’m sure I’ll think of a few more things to do before my next trip…and perhaps others will throw in a few ideas from their own experiences.
As we look to the coming year, several U.S. trips, Australia and Italy are on the horizon for us…I expect we will be a lot more careful….bon voyage!