For the Iberian Peninsula, our story will start at the end of the journey rather than the beginning. Neda and I were sitting at a café in Barcelona at the end of a long travel leg that had taken us through Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Portugal and Spain over two months. The hotel refused to offer the luggage service they claim on their website, so we took our bags to the Barcelona History Museum where we saw the underground ruins of the 2,000 year old town of Barcino before settling into a café near Las Ramblas to have a bite to eat before taking the train to the airport.
The scene of the crimes 10 years ago
I was wary of being near Las Ramblas with our packs as this was the scene of the most traumatic travel experiences during my last trip through Europe ten years ago. At that time, I had my wallet stolen on the subway while my traveling companion had his camera stolen in a nearby hostel (pictured to the left) and I think another friend had theirs stolen on Las Ramblas. But we tucked our two backpacks close to our seats on the side away from the street and settled into some gazpacho and a ham and cheese baguette. At one point, the owner of the restaurant came by and said something to us in Spanish, pointing to our packs and then his eyes – reiterating the point of watching our packs. Why we didn’t secure the straps of our bags under the table, I don’t know, but we would soon pay the price.
One of the roaming hoods we had seen around the restaurant, wearing a bright pink and blue collared shirt with red splotches all over his face, tapped me on the back and asked me some incomprehensible question in Spanish. I answered that I didn’t understand and then turned to Neda and asked if she had understood. She said no, and we continued eating while I patted my wallet and passport as my wariness increased. Then, one of the Englishmen sitting at the table piped up, “Hey there, I saw a hand near your rucksack there…”.
My eyes flashed over to our packs and sure enough, my black pack, with all of our electronics inside, was gone. I only had time for one “Jesus babe!”, before trouncing out of my seat and down the street. I didn’t know who had taken our packs, but it was clear that the guy in the neon pink and blue shirt was the “distraction man”. The pack was already out of sight, but I caught sight of the distraction man about 150 meters down the street, walking briskly away from us to avert suspicion. He was the last link to the bag that I had. If he got away, it was over. He was too far away to call for help – no one would understand what I was saying from that far and he could easily get away if he turned quickly and lost me.
At this point, he had the advantage of distance and knowledge of the city. But I had several advantages of my own. Firstly, we had bargained for a later checkout that morning and taken the time to do yoga for the first time in weeks – leaving me warmed up, stretched out, and primed for running. Secondly, I was wearing my trusty Clark walking shoes and not my loose fitting sandals that were ill suited for running. Thirdly, I was mad as hell.
I took off in a dead sprint, my knees pumping high in the air, people whizzing past me in a blur. Neda started running as well, but she hadn't had her sandals on at the time it happened and with her smaller barefoot strides she was quickly left behind. I saw the distance between us shortening to maybe 75 meters before the thief turned around and saw this Jew out of hell barreling towards him. He broke into a run and quickly cut to the right, out of my sight. But I was close enough to see where he had turned and banked after him. I found myself crossing a rounded stone arch through an empty courtyard with the thief just exiting at the other side. I was in time to see him bank left as I dashed through the courtyard, while my brain started to fully comprehend what was at stake. That bag was worth thousands of dollars to us, far more than the purely raw materials it contained. I ran faster.
Once through the opposite gate I turned and was faced with two directions – straight ahead to the west or a turn right to the north. The thief wasn't in sight. Luckily, some old ladies walking down the street probably guessed what was happening and pointed me north, allowing me to lose little time in my pursuit. I sprinted up the alley to which they had pointed and came out to an isolated three way piazza with no sign of the distraction man. My heart was pumping and my legs were burning from the lactic acid that the sprint had produced. Each street of the intersection continued along for at least 50 meters without any turns – where could he have gone? How good of shape was the thief in? I had seen him slowing even through the courtyard and was sure I could catch up – unless he had some unseen doorway in which he could disappear?
The piazza was part of the old city of Barcelona with two and three story stone apartments silently observing my desperation. My eyes caught site of a dumpster in the northern corner and I ran over to inspect. Sure enough, the thief was huddled behind the dumpster trying desperately not to slow his panting. Too late. I grabbed him and raised my fist, but he slipped out of my one handed grasp and ran down the street. But it was over for him. Now I knew he had no weapon and I easily followed his tired gait, intending a football tackle to pin him down and find out the whereabouts of my bag.
A latenight stroll on the beach
A bit of luck prevented the need for any violence. As he ran away from me, he chose a street with 10 or 15 people walking in on our direction. I shouted for help telling everyone he had stolen my bag. A burly Australian (originally from El Salvador) was the first to answer my call, stepping in front of the greasy thief and prodding him backwards with his chest. Another man on a bicycle dismounted on the other side and we had him surrounded in a closing triangle. As I menacingly approached, demanding the bag, he fumbled for his pockets, pleading for a moment to call his fellow bandits. I asked the guys to call the police regardless, but while they had their phones out pretending to dial, to my dismay I later found out that neither of them had the number to call! The thief made his call and led us up a nearby street where one of his outfit was waiting, but without my bag. Then I turned around and there, walking up the street leisurely with a grey collared shirt, a man approached with my bag on his back. A surge of relief went through me as I ran over to the man and stripped the bag off of him.
With the bag in hand and police nowhere to be found, the thieves slipped away as I turned to thank those who had come to my aid. The Australian’s girlfriend had walked along with us at a distance as well and they walked with me as I tried to find my way back to Neda. I was worried that she had run off – leaving her bag unattended and open to a possible double theft. While we walked, I found out the couple’s name – Walter and Simona and was in for a quite a surprise when I found out that Simona was from Stara Zagora – the town where we live (and Neda is from) in Bulgaria! It felt great to see a Bulgarian in this town full of madness and they were kind enough to walk all the way back to the café with me, where we found Neda (with her shoes this time) heading up the street in search of us. Neda described her amazement when she saw me strolling back down the street with the black straps of my bag secured snugly around my shoulders. Against the odds – we had successfully run with the thieves in Barcelona!
I named the post after the famous “Running with the Bulls” in Pamplona Spain because it reminded me of a passage I had recently read in Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times” about the eight worldly dharmas – or pairs of opposites that hook us (like the horns of the bulls in Pamplona) into either pursuing them or trying to avoid them. These pairs are pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disgrace, and praise and blame. When we respond to them in our normal conditioned ways, we strengthen our false sense of self while creating distance from the world around us. Chödrön writes:
“We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings…A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they hook us, see how they color our perception of reality, see how they aren’t all that solid. Then the eight worldly dharmas become the means for growing wiser as well as kinder and more content…
When we become more insightful and compassionate about how we ourselves get hooked, we spontaneously feel more tenderness for the human race. Knowing our own confusion, we’re more willing and able to get our hands dirty and try to alleviate the confusion of others. If we don’t look into hope and fear, seeing a thought arise, see the chain reaction that follows – if we don’t train in sitting with that energy without getting snared by the drama, then we’re always going to be afraid. The world we live in, the people we meet, the animals emerging from doorways – everything will become increasingly threatening.”
Our encounter with the thieves in Barcelona could lead us two ways. If we get hooked by the horns of fear, loss, and blame then we begin to hate the thieves, hate the city that spawned them, and close ourselves off to a world that is full of injustice, greed, and the pain that fuels them. If we just sit as the bull charges, watching the horns with curiosity and openness – then before the horns find our flesh, a tenderness towards our assailants arises that deflects the blow. Of course the thoughts of anger will arise, but if we watch them instead of following them, those thoughts become our guides towards contentment rather than our tormentors of continually re-hashed negative stories.
I’ve spent 6 days total in Barcelona and have been robbed twice – the only two times in my life in fact. Despite the wonderful Gaudi architecture, charming old city, and lively people, Barcelona seems to always present challenges to the illusion of security and stability that I find myself walking around with most of the time in life. And for this gift, I bow graciously to the city – even if I won’t be returning anytime real soon :).
As I mentioned, this post is out of chronological order. We are in Bulgaria now and I will be posting the rest of Spain and Portugal in their proper order: Andalusia followed by Portugal, followed by Madrid and environs. Barcelona was our last stop, but this story was fresh and had to be told!
To see the pics of our time in Barcelona, click on this link: