We dodged a bullet….figuratively….of course…after all, we are not in Syria, Nairobi, or for that matter the U.S. We were reminded, however, of the importance of practicing the AAA’s for traveling self-insurance: Aware, Alert, & Action. First, always try to be aware of what’s going on around you. Second, be alert to odd behavior of others and heed your gut instinct when something doesn’t feel right. Finally, take action to prevent a bad situation. The other day while at a shopping mall in Tzaneen, our awareness was on break, and even though Mr. Alert was whispering in my ear, I didn’t listen. As far as taking action; well, at least Bobbi was toting her purse in a fairly secure manner.
Bobbi and I were in Tzaneen and we needed to do a little grocery shopping. We went to a store in the mall, but it was a Friday and payday, so the lines were long. We decided to cross the street and go to another grocery store. We were in the heart of the town and things were a bit older and grittier. The sidewalks were busy and as I stepped in front of a row of stores, there were outdoor venders were scattered about creating bottlenecks on the sidewalk. I looked over at Bobbi who had chosen to walk through the parking lot. She walked unimpeded. I approached a bottleneck and people jostled against me. I felt a man behind me invade my personal space so I bailed left between two parked cars, and I followed Bobbi who was about 30 feet in front of me.
In order to gain entrance to the grocery store, we had to ride down an escalator. Bobbi paused while I caught up to her. A mother with a little boy were in front of us as we were about to step onto the escalator. The boy was spooked by this moving contraption and had dug in his heels. This stopped the hustle and flow. A man, who was not aware of why people could not load the escalator, pushed through until he encountered the child. He quickly sized up the situation, bumped the boy along from behind while the mother held the boy’s hand, and voila- people were moving again. Just as Bobbi was about to step aboard, a man shoved by her and got in front of us. He should have waited, but such is the world with pushy people.
Once on the escalator, Bobbi and I had a little more breathing room. She was on my left, and the pushy man was directly in front of me. As we approached the bottom, I sensed movement behind me as people were anxious to step off. As soon as the pushy man stepped off the moving stairs of the escalator, but still between the handrails, he stopped and put his cell phone to his ear. Since I was still on the escalator, I was headed toward an imminent collision with him. When I stepped off he was stopped right in front of me blocking the exit to the escalator….geez, I thought…people on cell phones….like the whole world is supposed to stop for them. Well, people behind me were about to pile up, so I gave him a light shove and he stepped forward and off to the right. Then I felt a smaller fellow sort of try to squeeze through the space between Bobbi and me. No way, I thought. But, my attention was also on the pushy cell phone guy who, as soon as I stepped by him, turned and started walking beside me, still on the phone…..this was when Mr. Alert started whispering to me. The entrance to the grocery store was about 10 feet ahead on the left. Bobbi was slightly behind me on my left. Just as I angled toward the grocery store entrance, the pushy cell phone man cut in front of me, bent over and stopped like he was looking at something off to the side. I did a quick sidestep, but my knee still inadvertently caught him in his kidney. I never broke stride and walked into the store. Bobbi being a few steps back.
Phew…we made it. We were now in the store. As we started shopping, I reflected on the escalator ordeal thinking it rather peculiar: the pushing, the stopping, the cutting in front. It hadn’t felt right…something more than naturally occurring thoughtlessness. But, I chalked it up to one of those days when one is swimming against the flow instead of with it. Or, being a stranger in a strange land, maybe it was just a cultural thing. We continued shopping. We had noticed that we looked out of place in this grocery store. In fact, we stuck out; but, so what? It was then that a store employee approached us. She said to both of us as her head tilted towards the store entrance “Watch your money.” We looked at her rather blankly, but replied. “OK.” She then repeated herself: “Watch your money,” and cast a glance at the entrance. We nodded, said, “OK” and “Thank you for the warning.” I felt my wallet in my back pocket and moved it to my front pocket. It was then that I had the faintest sense of the root of my uneasiness. As for Bobbi, she was carrying a triangular, heavy canvas, zippered, carrying case with a wide strap that she had slung diagonally across her opposite shoulder and she was in the habit of holding it in front of her. It doubles as her purse. It makes a less attractive target.
When we exited the store, we walked straight out and decided to walk around the building instead of taking the escalator again. If we were supposed to watch our money, we did not want to be in a crowded jostling environment, as such is the playground for pickpockets.
Once around the store, Bobbi stopped and bought some tomatoes from a street vender. We then crossed the street and were headed back to the mall where we had parked. After we crossed the street, we stopped at the corner and looked around for an acquaintance who we were going to give a ride back to Haenertsburg. I looked to my left and saw a kid who was wearing a purplish t-shirt and carrying a plastic shopping bag. He stopped and leaned against a decorative stone trash bin. I recognized the t-shirt from the escalator and I mentioned to Bobbi that it seemed this kid was trailing us.
We walked up the street about 30 yards looking for our acquaintance, and when we did not see her, we turned around and walked back to the corner and entered the mall. The kid was still leaning against the trash can. Bobbi was keeping her eye on the kid. When we entered the mall Bobbi looked back and said, “Our shadow is on the move.” The jig was up. We stepped off to the side in front of a store and waited. The kid saw us stop, and he paused and acted like he was stopping and talking to a friend. We continued to wait and stared at him. The kid couldn’t delay any longer so he walked by us. We fell in behind him. After about 30 feet, he put his cell phone to his ear acting like he was taking a call. He slowed down and stepped off to the left. I slowed and tried to step to the left, but he was a slippery fellow and he moved around some people. We walked past, but quickly stepped off to the right and stopped in front of another store. We kept our eye on him. He pretended not to see us and stepped back into the flow of mall pedestrians, but when he was ten feet past us he looked back to see what we were doing. That’s when I made sure to make eye contact with him….I gave him the stink-eye. He disappeared, and we resumed walking through the mall and out to our car.
We drove around the mall to the corner where we were to meet our acquaintance. We thought that she might be stuck in a line to pay her utilities, so we parked on the street and went back into the mall. When we arrived at the long line snaking out of a grocery store (people can buy utility credits at certain grocery stores) and were looking for our friend, the same kid slid by me on my left and pretended to go into the grocery store . He quickly wheeled around and slipped by with his head down never making eye contact. He was fluid and fast. That was the last we saw of the little weasel.
On the drive home, the pieces fell into place…..(1) We were easy targets; (2) The pushy man’s job was to get in front of us and then stop at the bottom of the escalator so that his accomplice (the purple shirt kid) could bump into me and pick my pocket; (3) When it didn’t work the first time, the pushy man cut in front of me and again stopped, hoping that I would have to stop so that his friend could accidently bump into me and slip my wallet out; (4) The store employee probably saw us and recognized the petty thieves, hence the warning (We are grateful for her for making us aware); (5) The escalator episode felt weird and unnatural because it was weird and unnatural. It was part of the plan…there was nothing cultural about it; and (6) Our shadow was not a good pickpocket, but we give him credit for his persistence.
This little episode reminded us of a story that we were told by the son of the couple for whom we pet sat in Hermanus. The son told us that he and his friends were in Cape Town on a Friday night. They were on a sidewalk headed to a club. Two Nigerian men fell in beside them. One fellow kept commenting to the son how much he liked his shoes, and asked where the son had bought them…etc…really chatting him up. Meanwhile, the other fellow picked the son’s pocket and got his cell phone. The son realized something wasn’t right and looked up to see his cell phone in this guy’s hand. At which point, the son quickly reached out and grabbed it back. This surprised the Nigerian, who simply smiled and he and his friend exited stage left.
So there you have it. Lesson learned. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Diversions catch us unaware, and it is difficult to recognize a diversion before it’s too late. Why didn’t I get my wallet stolen?…..who knows…maybe the accomplice couldn’t get into a good position with all the people on the escalator, maybe my body position and the fact that I never stopped my forward movement prevented him from bumping into me….one can only guess….Yes, I do feel lucky.