Less than an hour into landing in Athens, I was robbed off my passport and many hundred euros in broad daylight inside a crowded metro. I have been traveling alone for many years now. I have traveled close to 25 countries so far, and many of them on my own. I usually stay at hostels and fit in easily with an international crowd. I am not shy or awkward and stay extra alert while traveling. I can read maps and I can navigate my way around even in obscure little towns where I do not speak the local language. I usually show up at airports an hour extra ahead of time. I usually get two printouts of documents kept in separate places. I stick to the crowded parts of a city, do not venture out at night, and never go for a drink with people I have just met at hostels. In short, I do all that I can to stay safe and not get drugged or killed while traveling, and in general. Then how did this happen to me? It's a useful (and very expensive) experience to share.
After landing in Athens, I bought a € 10 one-way ticket from the airport to Omonia. This required me to take the blue line from the airport to Syntagma, and then change to the red line for two more stops to Omonia. I had a trolley suitcase on my left and a small handbag on my right. I got down at Syntagma to change to the red line. When the train came, a group of men and women got on the train from the same door as mine. They were a part of a big gang. But this, I realized later. The moment I got on the red line metro, these people kind of surrounded me and did not let me move.
"Omonia, how many stops? Next stop?" one of them asked me naively. They were all standing too close for comfort.
"Two" I said and tried to move away. The crowd would not let me. Have you ever played kabaddi? You will know what I mean. They closed in on me. A man on my left held my left hand rather amorously. I jerked away my hand. He looked at me and smiled, asking to hold my trolley suitcase which was in my left hand. I immediately knew that something bad is going to happen to me. Intuitively, yes. I turned to the man on the left to grab my suitcase. He just would not release my hand. He squeezed it just like a lover would do. That was when someone on the right took a bag that was inside another bigger bag and had my passport and all my money. All this happened in less than 60 seconds. They got off at Panepistimio, the station before Omonia, and walked out in a group. By then, I knew that I had lost something, and something big. I just did not know (yet) what it was.
When I got off at Omonia, I was relieved to see that my purse was with me. But the relief lasted for a second. Because my passport bag next to it was gone.
So here are a few things you need to know. This, I can tell from my experience and talking to the police as well as the embassy:
1. These guys operate in huge gangs, specifically inside the airport (yes!!) and in the metro stations. Women are also a part of these gangs. I was told they are refugees, but I do not know about that.
2. They pretend that they do not know each other, but they do. When they target someone, they just close in on them.
3. They use a distraction technique, holding your hand amorously or smiling flirtatiously, slightly pushing a heavier luggage from your hand. But remember, they have no intention to flirt or take your suitcase. This is meant to distract you in one direction while someone is working in the other direction. And they work really really fast, within a minute or so. They just get off at the next station and walk out.
4. Distribute your money. I was going to once I checked in to my hostel, but it was too late.
If you are a victim of a stolen passport, do the following:
1. Immediately go to the police station for tourists. I first went to the metro police, who asked me to go to another police station, and I had to go to three police stations until I found the right one.
2. Cabs in Athens are super cheap. If you still have some money, just take a cab.
3. The police does not care. They see cases like this everyday. I was told that sometimes they are involved too, but I do not know about that. However, you need to take the police report to the Indian embassy (or the embassy of your country) as soon as possible. That report was written entirely in Greek. At the embassy, someone will translate it and issue a "temporary passport" that will let you fly back to the country of your residence. It is a hand-written passport and mine was valid for one year. The police report is the first step. The embassy cannot do anything without that.
4. The Indian Embassy in Athens is super nice and helpful. When I explained what happened, they said they will try to get me a temporary passport within the next day. It's just like applying for a normal passport. The embassy charged me € 126 for a temporary passport, and issued it to me within two hours. They are super nice people.
5. Take your temporary passport and get back to your country of residence. From there, apply for a fresh passport.
6. ALWAYS travel with a photocopy of your passport and a few passport sized pictures. This, I did not do. The embassy needs to get all the information from your passport, which is why you need to carry photocopies.
7. Get in touch with the embassy of your country as soon as possible. They are the only ones who can and will help you.
8. No matter how much shock you are in, don't forget to eat and drink water. An empty stomach and dehydrated body will do strange things to your brain. You need to be alert and make judgments very quickly. I am pretty sure I hallucinated the entire night.
So how does it feel? To say that I am shaken and shattered would be an understatement. I was too afraid to go to an ATM and take out money at night, and had to wait till the next morning to find some of my confidence back. My legs had no strength to move. I have never felt more helpless in a foreign country where I knew no one and was not even carrying a cell phone. I would not wish this on anyone. But I am glad that I was physically not hurt (I was told that some of them carry razors and pocket knives too). The thing is, it's not that I suddenly realized that my stuff is gone. I knew all the time that something bad is happening to me. But they put you into a trance. They distract you. As a woman, I would watch out for someone who is holding my hand. At one point, I feared that I might be mauled or molested. But that is a distraction technique. All this will be over in less than a minute. And a woman traveling alone with luggage makes a great target.
I have many things to be sad about, but many things to be thankful about too.
My passport is gone, but is replaceable.
Thank God my US visa was not in this passport.
They stole all the cash, but my bank cards, and most importantly, my residence permit was in a different bag and were not stolen. Without my residence permit, I could not have reentered Germany. Although I was within the Schengen area, airlines and airports are super strict these days after the Paris/Brussels attacks. You need to carry your passport at all times.
I wish the money went to someone needy. It is a lot, but I will earn it back eventually. Passport, I will have a new one. But what I really lost that day was my self-confidence. I felt violated. I felt like someone had crushed my confidence and reduced me to nothing. I had no strength to walk on a street without cowering and feeling like I will be attacked again. It made me feel small. It made me blame myself for the hundreds of things I could have done differently. But as long as you are alive, everything is replaceable. I saw Athens after that, and traveled some more with my temporary passport. 6-7 men robbed me in broad daylight. But 60 people jumped in to help me. I am grateful to all of them. And a big thank you to the people of the Indian Embassy. You went out of your way to do much more than getting me a passport promptly. You made me feel safe and understood.
And lastly, a little bit of something that perked me up. Miss Universe 1994 Sushmita Sen had the same experience at the Athens airport in 2012. I am very sorry for your loss Sushmita, but this might be the closest I have come to saying "same pinch" to a Bollywood celebrity I like.