The Misworn Money Belt: Or, What Not to Do on Your Summer Vacation

The author, left, shows how not to wear a money belt. He and friend Pete Kelley met Amy Mueller, left, and Sarah Mitchell of Toronto while backpacking in Europe.
The author, left, shows how not to wear a money belt. He and friend Pete Kelley met Amy Mueller, left, and Sarah Mitchell of Toronto while backpacking in Europe. (By Robert Broesler Jr.)
By Christopher Coffman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Life could not have been better that fateful morning in Madrid. I was riding the Metro with my buddy Pete, with whom I'd been backpacking around Europe for nearly six weeks. We'd just seen Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia museum. A recent college graduate, I was having the time of my life and would go home in five days as World Conqueror. Nothing could go wrong.

Then I stepped out of the subway car and into unmitigated disaster.

When I reached inside my money belt for my fare card, I realized that, in the short ride from the Reina Sofia to the Plaza de Toros, I had been robbed. While Pete and I had been engaged in an intense conversation about which European city's public water tasted best, a pickpocket somehow reached inside the narrow pouch of my money belt -- which I had carelessly left exposed under my shirt -- and lifted its contents as I held on to the car's overhead rail. My ill-advised tendency to use the money belt like a fanny pack (instead of like a locked safe) had caught up with me. I lost my European railway pass, my passport, my Air India ticket from London to New York, my positive mood and much of my perspective on the trip's direction.

In the previous weeks, I had hiked up a Bavarian mountain and played cards with Franciscan friars in Rome. I had picnicked under the Eiffel Tower, seen Coldplay live in Berlin and swum in a secluded Swiss Alpine lake. Now, a final unexpected, unwanted adventure was about to begin.

* * *

It was Sunday evening, and we were to fly two days later to London from Bilbao on Spain's northern coast. We raced to the train station to replace my railway pass with a ticket to Bilbao, but the station required that I show my passport. New plan: Get a new passport from Madrid's U.S. Embassy, which of course had closed for the day.

The next morning, we arrived at the embassy to find a long line filled with similarly aggrieved tourists. One woman we spoke with, a Seattle teacher, was the victim of a thief who'd sliced open the bottom of her purse and captured the contents in a sack. We admired the pickpocket's skill, if not the deed.

After an hour in line and two more waiting for my passport, I paid a $90 fee and got a motherly scolding from a Foreign Service worker. We then rushed back to the train station and nabbed the last seats on the night train to Bilbao.

Having decided we would work on replacing my airline ticket back to the States from London, where we were to arrive in a few hours, Pete and I enjoyed our morning in Bilbao. I'd had a Ryanair e-ticket to London, so I didn't need to replace it. (Another break: The pickpocket had not grabbed the wallet in my side pocket, where I kept my cash and credit cards.)

When it was time to head to "Bilbao-Santander Airport," as Ryanair's Web site had billed it, we asked our cabdriver to take us to Bilbao's airport. Upon arrival, we learned three things:

1. Santander is a city about 62 miles west of Bilbao.

2. Its airport is used by the low-fare carrier to fly Bilbao-bound travelers who opt for cheap tickets over convenience.

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