Things Getting Interesting

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in the text are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Travel Trivia Question: What’s the best thing to do if someone is stranded in Belgrade, Serbia with no money and no credit/ATM cards?

I think you know where this is going – this was Monday for me but I honestly didn’t feel like reliving it till now.

 Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park

Having just finished my final paper, I ventured out of the hostel to see what Belgrade had to offer. The city center and Danube River surround the main attraction – the Belgrade Fortress. Just a park with a castle wall – no admission. Everyone there is Serbian, most of who are in their teens or 20s. Making out, smoking, drinking, etc. It overlooks the Great War Island preservation and the setting sun.

I walk around and take it all in. A few places I stand on the edge of the wall. I walk along the upper perimeter– sometimes on the ruins next to a huge drop. In three places I stop to have someone take a picture of me with my phone.

At 7:21p after the third picture, I notice my wallet is missing. I quickly pat around, can’t find it on my person, and can’t find it immediately below me or where I let down my sweater. It only takes about 5 seconds for me to know it’s game over. Too many people.

I spend the next 40 minutes retracing my steps, combing the grass, even approaching one of the three people who took a photo of me, who helped me out to try to find it. I definitely ran from place to place, but less out of panic and more since the sun had already set, and the glowing light meant I had only 20 minutes of time where I would realistically be able to see a black wallet on the ground.

Now, in that time, I’m not really that stressed or distressed at all. Basically, right away I was thinking, “Max, you’re an idiot [I did feel a little stupid]. But I’ve heard stories of this happening to so many other people and, in all situations, it turned out alright.” I had nothing to worry about, it’s not like the world was ending and I’d much rather lose my wallet vacationing in Serbia than at home or school. At the very most, I was a bit forlorn at the prospect of spending my evening talking with Fred or Sarah from Visa. And perhaps it would jeopardize part of my trip the following day.

Looking back, why might this have happened? Well, first, it was the second or third day all semester warm enough for me to wear shorts – which have much wider and airier pockets than my jeans which are un-pickpocketable. Second, you know how when you are walking out of your house/dorm and you can feel that something is missing from your pocket and you kind of feel off balance? So I had the hostel keys in my pocket, which aren’t normally there, so only without my wallet was I balanced. Also, since it’s uncomfortable to have a heavy wallet and phone in my pockets. I often [as many of you have seen] carry them in my hands with the phone within the wallet and did so at certain times here. I feel as though a Michael Vick ball security comparison would suffice here.

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And also, it’s not like I was distracted by anything…

2015-04-13 19.14.22 2015-04-13 19.20.09

What was in my wallet:

  • About $120 spread out over the Serbian dinar, Croatian kuna, and Euro – can’t make it easier for them
  • My yellow and red cards :(((((((
  • Drivers license and expired drivers license
  • My two Oyster cards
  • My NFL ID
  • Both my Princeton and Queen Mary ID
  • 5 (all) credit/atm cards
  • YMCA keychain card
  • Medical insurance card
  • Micro SD card adapter

Did I lose it or was it stolen? I can’t really be sure, but I find it unlikely that I could simply lose it and for $5000 worth of purchases (as I found out) to be made within the two hours before I could cancel them. I wouldn’t even know how to spend that much money in a dozen transactions in so little time.

I walk back rather dejectedly to the hostel (not stressed or worried though). I get back to the hostel and promptly blurt out to Tamara who works there at the desk. “So I got my wallet stolen. So I don’t have any money to pay for my night here. Is it ok if I stay here tonight until I can pay tomorrow?” She says of course which is cool or else I’d be sleeping in the car.

At this point, now I need to deal with stuff, which is frustrating. There goes my evening. In fact, since I have no money or cards, I can’t even eat dinner. Luckily, that morning I had sagely went shopping and bought 5 gallons of water bottles, a couple loaves of bread, and $10 worth of crackers so of course I ate and drank like a champ.

I call dad who helps me with the rest of the evening. While doing so, I’m watching my Skype credit dwindle as I no longer have a card to top it up. To save money I call my dad computer-to-computer and he acts as a conduit and puts all of the credit card people on the phone on his desk phone and puts them speaker-to-speaker.

I get everything cancelled and had to listen to the fraud prevention people ask me if I was the person who just made a $787 purchase from Fashion Depot.

Since my grandpa is visiting me on Thursday, we had them ship the replacement cards to him before he left. Not all of them arrived, most notably not the atm card, but at least I wont be cardless too much longer.

As for replacing everything else in the wallet, it’ll be a one by one type thing. Just lost a whole bunch of money and London Underground credit.

Except for the drivers license. I am in the middle of a roadtrip through the Balkans and now don’t have a drivers license. California doesn’t let anyone replace it – not even temporarily – without personally going to the DMV (that’s the DMV for ya). It’s only a 14 hour flight, not to mention I’d need to find a way to get a rental car from Belgrade to Zagreb without driving it. More on this later…

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As for the immediate need, I needed cash in order to eat. Tamara from the hostel was nice enough to lend me 1,000 dinar ($8-ish). The credit card company has an emergency cash advance service for situations like these. Dad also contacted a friend of a friend cubed who I met with the following day, and got treated to lunch who withdrew $550, which was to last me until Grandpa arrived. Now I have a big wad of cash in my pocket.

So basically, I lived…Have money and will have cards this week. Now I’m driving around Europe without a license – and there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone in Belgrade was super disappointed that this happened to me, since Serbia is not known specifically for stuff like this happening and until now, no one had known someone getting robbed in Belgrade. They were all upset that that my one memory of Belgrade would be this (and it probably will be).

If I were to give advice to you, I would advise you not to lose your wallet.

Romanian Border Police

 So now that my license was gone, I printed out a color photocopy and cut it out and taped the front and back so now I have a paper copy of my license. Better than nothing I guess. I was hoping that if I ever got pulled over – which is very likely at some point since the cops do so for no reason or to collect bribes – this and speaking only English would be enough to get out of the situation.

When I drove in from Croatia to Serbia, they only asked for my passport.

But as I exited Serbia and entered Romania, they asked “Passport, vehicle registration, and license please.” [Gulp]. They spoke almost perfect English. At this point, I was distraught and perhaps the most nervous I have been in this trip. At least the border police didn’t have guns as an intimidation factor. I gave them my paper license in addition to the other stuff.

“What is this?”

“My license”

“Where is the original?”

“I keep it in a safe location in a safety deposit box so that it doesn’t get stolen or lost. This should work though.”

[Using big words and talking really fast didn’t faze him though. The main guy translates to all the others. No bribing when there’s more than one.]

“You need to carry your license”

“Oh”

[At this point, instead of gulping and showing discomfort, I continued to drink from my water bottle in the same way you do to delay answering an interview question]

“You need your original license”

“I don’t have it”

“Where are you going? Why are you in Romania?”

“I’m going to Vidin. Just driving straight through”

“This is a category 6 violation. It is a fine that corresponds to about 200 US Dollars.”

[I’m worried less about the money now and more about the fact that I have 15 more border crossings to go]

“Listen, I don’t have it”

“Could you please pull over the vehicle”

[Oh god]

[He calls in the supervising officer and they talk around me and I just sit in the car and drink my water]

[I have a similar but briefer conversation with the supervisor who doesn’t speak English as well]

“Sir can you please step out of the vehicle?…Now open the trunk”

[Not sure what they were expecting to find, but they see my suitcase, a winter coast, and a bag of dirty laundry]

“Are you traveling? A tourist?”

[I nod]

“Okay go. You must buy a vignette to drive on raods”

[I spend another 30 minutes there buying the road toll pass and exchanging out my Serbian currency but I made it out]

As I approached the Bulgarian border, I got a foreboding feeling that this would happen all over again but with a worse result, but they didn’t ask for my license and all was good.

Being detained is not fun and I would not recommend it.

——–

While I’m password protected, I can tell a few more stories that I left out earlier.

 Lisbon Commuter Rail

First, in Lisbon, Portugal, they have a standard commuter rail system and I wanted to get from central Lisbon to the nearby beach town of Cascais. I bought a ticket but halfway on the journey, I looked out the window and it looked interesting so I just got out and exited early.

Upon my return to the train station a few hours later, I wanted to finish the trip. But the train was already there in the station. Now, this was the commuter rail so it only shows up every 30 to 60 minutes and it was gonna get dark soon. Since this was just a little dinky (pun point) station on the side of the road, there was only one ticket kiosk and three of us (I met two people who were gonna join me). The train was already there and the ticket machine was in Portuguese (the only Portuguese word I ended up learning was “back” so that I could reverse any wrong button I pressed on the screen to return to the previous page) and I just panicked since there wouldn’t be time to buy tickets. I just boarded the train.

Every time a door would open, my head would slowly turn and I’d get nervous. But luckily, no one checked my lack of a ticket and we arrived. I was in the clear. Except I wasn’t. We had gotten on the train at a tiny station with no security but this was the main terminal at the final stop. You had to put your ticket in the machine to exit two huge doors that would slide open. There was no way out. I was doomed.

So I just find a person who is walking quickly and creepily walk beside-ish behind him. He puts his card in and exits and I follow as close as possible without touching him. The doors start closing and they slam shut – right in the middle of both shoulders and I get my bell wrung. I push hard and stumble out. Stand up straight. Brush off my shoulders. Glance both ways furtively. No one saw nothing.

 Driving in Liechtenstein

On the last day of the Switzerland trip, I decided I wanted to take the 90-minute drive to the Principality of Liechtenstein. Since there wasn’t really much to do in the entire country and since the entire country is built on the side of the mountain, I decided it would be fun to just drive up the mountain to reach the top of Liechtenstein. I had an offline map and just followed the path up the mountain.

It was 60+ degrees in Vaduz at the bottom, but as I ascended, it got colder. Very quickly the road got super narrow and became only one lane, though still two-way. At a certain point I started seeing patches of snow in the shade of the nearby sheds. Then there were patches of snow on the grass in the sun. Then the trees became snow capped. Then snow started to pile up on the side of the road. Then the snow actually covered the road in a thin sheet. At this point, I’m thinking “perhaps I should turn around” but there is nowhere to turn around (only one narrow lane) and maybe the snow will stop.

I keep going. Now the snow is probably 3 inches deep. I gulp. I’m in a compact rental car without snow tires in three inches of snow at the top of Liechtenstein without phone service nor internet with my wheels spinning on a one lane, two way mountain pass with a cliff (wall) on the left and a cliff (drop) on the right and no way to turn around. Um. So I turn my head and just start reversing down the narrow mountain pass in the snow, hoping and praying that no cars will come around the blind corners. I reverse for about half a mile until I can finally reach a driveway to three-point turn. I drive down and then find the main road and go up and actually reach the ski resort at the top in Malbun. Success but yeah not my best moment.

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