“Beware Pickpockets.” There are signs all over Ulan Bator. But, I’m a seasoned traveler, I have a system, I’m pretty OCD about how and where I keep my stuff, so I’m good, right? Nope! The other evening, I was walking along a busy street. I had just finished up dinner with friends and I was heading back to my hostel, keeping my naturally brisk pace. It was still plenty light out.
I have an over the shoulder bag, I keep my most important things in it- wallet, passport, phone, and iPad, so I always know where everything is and its with me. Not at the hostel where various people are in and out; I even keep it in my bed at night. I bought that bag way back in January, it fit my iPad perfectly and I knew I’d want something sturdy and over the shoulder. It has a few zip pockets and a place to keep all my little things.
There was a rhythm to my walk the other night. I let my bag shift to my back as its more comfortable and who knows, maybe I’m getting more comfortable… I mean, I’ve been here for almost 6 weeks, I feel like I know the city pretty well and how things operate. As I walked, my bag bounced, off my butt, with every step. Step, bounce, step bounce, you know, like how your ponytail has a certain movement when running on the treadmill, or doing any other type of physical activity! Something, however, felt a little off, my beloved bag and I fell out of sync. There were people buzzing by and I turned to my right. My wallet, which had been zipped inside of my bag, fell to the ground. I saw it but was confused from where, and more so, how! But without hesitation, I quickly squatted to the ground while glancing at the open pocket- two open pockets, in fact. When I stood up (I think it was like a matter of a few seconds for me to realize what was happening), there was a man right by my side. With my wallet in a tight grip, I looked him in the eyes and he dashed away, down into an underpass in fact. My heart was pounding, I was still looking at my wallet, and in my bag, at my phone, iPad… It was all there. I was shaken. I walked for a few minutes with a group of English speaking men and told them what happened. They said it happens all the time here. They stood around me while, once again, I examined all of my belongings, still in shock. I thanked them for their willingness to walk me back to my hostel and we parted ways.
I readjusted the strap of my bag so it would hang under my arm. I kept a tight grip on everything and decompressed at the hostel for the evening, replaying that scene over and over, all the while being grateful I actually had all of my stuff. “How the heck did that happen to me?” I asked myself over and over. But it did. I’m not invincible and I know that, but damn am I lucky! What a wake up call. You can’t be too careful. Now I’ve develop a new level of OCD. I reorganized my stuff, I have a new “system.” I’ve been using the little locker at the hostel and I keep the key with me at all times. If I’m not going to be using it, I leave my iPad, wallet, and passport in it. I keep a few Tugriks in a small pouch and I’ve been wearing my zip up Lululemon jacket. You know why I like that stuff? It has pockets everywhere. My phone and my change purse fits in each one, on the inside of my jacket. If anybody wants my stuff, they will have to slice me with a knife for it.
I tell myself often now if somebody messes with me or my stuff, to stand up for myself, make a scene if need be. But really, I tell myself not to hesitate to punch someone. As I was walking away the other day, a bit of anger came over me and I wanted to go back and find that guy and punch him in the face. Really, I felt that. I know petty crime is common the world over, and I’m lucky, but it would be such a huge inconvenience, hassle, and financial setback if anything got stolen. I will be more vigilant, but I swear, if the wrong person messes with me, I’m going to unleash. I felt it last night. I was walking along, minding my business, and a drunk guy tried to talk to me. “Hello, hello…!” But I don’t want to engage in conversation with a drunk man on the street and I picked up my pace. He turned to follow me. I held out my arm as if to shoo him away. Eventually he got it, but I was feeling defensive. Same thing earlier in the cafe… I sat close to the door, but a street kid walked in asking patrons for money. I can’t deal with those kids, I just want to feed them all, but I don’t trust them either. I picked up all my stuff and went to the back. Someone just told me a story of how a street kid stole someone’s phone off a table at a restaurant. I don’t want to put myself at risk. But I’m not all bad, despite that, I bought food for someone today. I saw a homeless man eating what looked like an old cucumber (or pickle?) out of the dumpster. I immediately went to the mini market and quickly grabbed an apple, a yogurt, and some beef jerky. All strategically selected… I paid and left. The man wasn’t to be found. Yes, I spent the equivalent of $1.50 on food I knew I’d like in case he was already gone.
So, moral of this long story? Watch yourself! And, if you mess with me, I may not hesitate to throw a punch. I want it to be second nature, seriously, instinctual. I’ll repeat my new mantra over and over: I will punch you!