Travel Story


Mayhem on the Metro*

Madrid, Spain, 1995


Reprinted from‚ Travel Tales Monthly, Issue No.1, JUL 2014

Tourist 8 copy

Sketch by Ted Keller

“I was riding the Madrid metro, standing in the center part of the car. I was loaded down with an attache case, a backpack, rolled up posters I had stuff in my hands and in all my pockets. I was, shall we say, oblivious. In sum, I was a mess! an accident ready to happen a perfect victim in waiting!”

I was relatively unconscious . . . rather, shall we say, I was oblivious to all that was going on around me. That is, I was running on automatic I was typically simply unthinking about my environs and surroundings. This, I would say, is the typical sort of oblivious state that most people would be in while riding, say, the New York Subway after work, on the way back home. I was frozen in the present, in this endless moment of time. Nothing on my mind. Again, oblivious to everything going on and everyone around me.

Suddenly I noticed that my trousers had been scuffed apparently accidentally scuffed by a seated passenger’s shoe on my left. My gaze focused now on this person taking a hold of the scuffed portion of the pant leg of my jeans in one hand, and brushing away the scuff with the other all the while maintaining an apologetic demeanor as if to say, “I’m so sorry. Let me brush the scuff away.

My gaze naturally moved to the brushing motion of his second hand. Now, what was so interesting is the manner by which he was brushing away the scuff: It was rhythmic, repetitive, and hypnotic it captured and held my complete attention. I was totally focused on the motion of his hand.

Then, I sensed something. I thought it was very odd what was happening. How is it that my pants were scuffed by a seated passenger, anyway? How could that really be possible? Something was out of place. Now, all of this was happening at seemingly ‘lightning speed,’ albeit as if in slow motion. That is, it was all actually transpiring in an instant, yet the moment was almost frozen in place and time. I noticed that I was beginning to perceive that something was not quite right.

As a result I turned around and noticed two other guys standing directly behind me too close, actually for comfort. Oddly and interestingly, the three faces appeared to be very similar: The seated guy and the two guys behind me were somewhat swarthy-looking and relatively dark complected, more so than the other passengers.

I knew something was amiss but I was still not quite conscious of it something was happening to ME yet I didn’t exactly comprehend what it was. I actually looked each of the two guys behind me directly in the eyes, one after the other, as well as the guy seated, still, without yet fully comprehending what was happening to me or why I was even looking at them. It was not comprehension it was an inkling a small sparkle of awareness. It was clear, however, I was on to something. And hey knew that I knew or almost knew! And THAT was enough for them.

The Metro came to a stop. The door opened. The three guys apparently Spanish gypsies immediately flew out the door, running. I knew something had just transpired, but still I had not quite yet comprehended what or why. I was clearly dazed by it all.

Strangely, and almost instinctively, I began feeling my pockets one after another almost grasping them in panic. I had one of these safari jackets with many pockets 22, to be exact. I suddenly realized that I had been a pick-pocketing victim. Maybe I was pick-pocketed even! What was missing? What did they get from me? Suddenly everything fell into place and I fully comprehended the incident, absolutely and totally all in an instant an epiphany of sorts. I had been a victim!

There’s irony to all of this. The jacket saved me. Nothing was taken! Nothing was missing! All of these pockets presented themselves to the would-be thieves as sort of a ‘shell game.’ There surely were goodies to be had, but where were they? They got nothing absolutely nothing. Sure, there were items of value in one or more of these visible and invisible pockets. And, even though they got nothing, I was touching, feeling my pockets the whole day long just to reassure myself that nothing was missing. It’s not a pleasant feeling, being a victim being abused in such a way.

MichaelBreinColor copy 2Now, The Travel Psychologist’s take on this:

(let’s roll this back in slow motion):

The guy seated on the bench to my side in the metro car scuffed my trousers as a distraction. His systematic and rhythmic brushing of my pant leg was designed to distract and hold my attention. It was hypnotic. he had my full attention. The two cohorts in back of me had a free reign to get whatever they could get from any of my pockets. Fortunately they got NOTHING!

**Now, let me reveal a secret to you: The victim was ME! yours truly The Travel Psychologist, himself! Yes, I was the victim; and at the same time I was NOT the victim. I was lucky. This experience really and truly opened my eyes. Suddenly the 100 or so pick-pocketing accounts (most of which I gathered through interviews afterwards) made a whole lot of sense to me.

When you travel ‘running on automatic’ you often are oblivious to thieves working in tandem betwixt and between your moments of psychological wakefulness and psychological sleep. While you are operating in normal space-time and motion, the thieves are operating at a determined speed, faster than you can imagine. It all happens so very quickly, yet, in retrospect it can all be happening playing out in a sort of slow motion. As you look back and review what took place, you can see that it was a perfectly well-orchestrated effort to relieve you of your valuables.

While you are in a relatively unconscious psychological stupor relatively unaware of what is going on around you, this reveals more than you might imagine. While you are in a so-called psychological ‘waiting state,’ the perpetrators are moving at lightning speed, buoyed by their likely multiple prior successes in pulling off similar robberies. Although they failed in their attempt with me, this one particular time, know that they were neither dismayed nor discouraged. In fact, I saw them a day or two later, pulling off a similar scam on tourists on another Madrid Metro car. This time they dropped keys on the floor as their distraction of choice.

They can get nothing if you are prepared for that!

*With all due respect to the Madrid Metro authorities and the Madrid police, I believe that they have since made a concerted effort to keep the Metro more safe and secure and relatively free of thieves. For instance, I’ve observed police patrolling the Metro platforms with dogs. I maintain, however, in the current day and age, you should travel with valuables in a safe hidden place while on the subways of any large cities anywhere.

MichaelTouristSquareNow, The Travel Psychologists Further Take:

(Spring/Summer 2009)

“To be or not to be . . . pick-pocketed, that is!”

Imagine the scene. You are packed in a lecture hall. I am speaking on the psychology of travel. I come to the podium. I fumble around. Oops, a notebook and keys tumble to the floor. I feign embarrassment and look around at the audience. I slowly regain the items as well as my composure.

“Become more conscious and aware,” I begin. “Attempt to SCAN your surroundings. ALWAYS especially when traveling periodically look around you: to your right, your left, in front, behind at each one of the four quarterly hour time zones of the clock. Repeat this action over and over. Continually switch your gaze. Look at the people; see what they are doing. Look for well-lit places; avoid the dark alleys. Does everything appear to be as it should be? (Note: this is what you see the President’s Secret Service guys doing all the time, scanning.)”

“Do NOT allow yourself to be distracted,” I continue. “This is hard. This takes practice, but you can improve. Distraction is the major tool of pickpockets and thieves. NEVER allow yourself to be distracted even for an instant! More disappears in this simple, single ‘instant’ than you can ever imagine.”

I go on, “Realize that you carry your own cocoon, or envelope with you everywhere whatever you want to call it. You carry not only your physical baggage but your psychological baggage as well the sum total of your being that tends to make you less aware of your surroundings than you could be.”

I add, “When you are at home you tend to run on automatic in a relatively unthinking manner. You must begin to realize that although this works in your own surroundings at home, it is not always functional when traveling overseas, particularly in third world countries.”

I emphasize, “Dress accordingly. You’ve heard this again and again. But it’s true. A multi-pocketed safari jacket is the perfect thing. It’s what kept me from being relieved of my valuables. Wear NO jewelry! Wear no accoutrements that spell out $$$$!”

I continue, “You must not look rich or wealthy. True, by virtue of being from the west, you are relatively much better off than the people in many of the third world countries you travel in. But, still, you don’t need to flaunt it. You might as well look a bit dirty don’t worry you will likely sweat and become dirty. Accept it. Even embrace it. It is your camouflage!”

Finally, I conclude, “Hopefully, I have earned your attention and engaged your interest in matters of safety and security while traveling overseas. Now let me ask the hypothetical audience a question (please imagine that you are part of my audience). Here’s my question:”

“When I fumbled and dropped my book and keys on the floor at the start of this lecture, show with a raise of hands, how many of you looked to the book and keys I dropped on the floor? Be honest, now. Tell me the truth. How many of you looked to the book and keys on the floor?”

“Predictably, ALL of you raised your hands! Just as I expected. EVERYONE’S hands went up. After all, you are only human, huh?”

It never fails. In all of my talks on pick-pocketing and other miserable things that can befall you while traveling, I start out by dropping something on the floor . . . keys, a book, what have you. Yes, it never fails. All eyes in the audience travel to the objects that hit the floor. ALL eyes. it’s a great way to start out a lecture on this subject!

Dr Michael Brein–2009/05/08

I’m Dr Michael Brein, aka The Travel Psychologist.‚ This story appears in Issue No. 1 (JUL 2014) of my Travel Tales Monthly magazine series as well as in an eBook series on the psychology of travel as revealed through the best travel tales of more than 1,600 world travelers and adventurers whom I have interviewed over the last four decades during my travels around the world to more than 125 countries. You can visit my website at to see what the psychology of travel is all about and learn more about the forthcoming eBook series.

Michael Brein, Ph.D., aka The Travel Psychologist,‚ is an internationally known traveler, adventurer, author, lecturer, and travel storyteller and writes a monthly blog on the subject of the psychology of travel. Visit‚‚ to learn more.

He also publishes‚ a travel guide series, Michael Brein’s Travel Guides to Sightseeing by Public Transportation‚ that may be viewed at Michael Brein may be reached at or 206.618.7618.

“Thanks to Michael Brein . . . to be the pioneer of this field . . . “

Shawn K. 07.18.2013

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