Travel: UK

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The Independent Culture
WITH HINDSIGHT, the scam is screamingly obvious. You are waiting at a foreign bus station. The vehicle pulls in and the queue moves forward. Your turn to board comes, and a couple of young men push past you and get on. They stand next to the driver, having an altercation and blocking further progress.

A third man, who is in the queue behind you and whom you assume to be just another passenger, impatiently urges you to board. Initially you decline because of the obstruction. But he gets agitated, so you get on and try to make your way through the scrum.

Immediately, he climbs on behind you and squeezes you against the other pair. Then all three set to work, giving your person and pockets a comprehensive going over. Only now do you realise what is happening, and feel trapped and scared. You try to brush them away, but you have only a pair of hands while they have a total of six.

After no more than a couple of seconds, they scramble off the bus and melt away, leaving you to check your possessions and to ask the driver (in a language he doesn't understand) what on earth that was all about. Neither he, nor the passengers, shows any reaction - presumably because the incident appeared merely strange, not suspicious.

Well that's how the week started for me, at Krakow bus station on Monday morning. The gang must have clocked me as I bought my ticket from the former Polish capital to the Czech border. When paying for it, I had handily revealed to them where my cash was stashed. As luck would have it, the money was in a buttoned-up back pocket, which they failed to open. Evidently they also decided that my watch wasn't worth nicking; thank goodness for Timex.

Then I realised that the bag containing my passport, camera, lap-top computer and other traveller's trifles was in the luggage compartment in the lower part of the bus, which was unlocked. Oops.

For some reason the villains had not bothered to grab it - either because they felt that to do so would be to draw attention to themselves, or because they could not believe that anyone could be so naive and trusting as to consign all their valuables to somewhere so accessible to the big bad world. I carried the bag on to the bus, and for the three-hour ride to the Czech border I sat clutching it, feeling insecure and a very long way from home.

The tourist - especially a confused-looking British one - is the softest of targets for villains across the world, particularly at transport terminals. They prey upon the fact that you are tired, uncertain about where to wait for your bus or train, and wondering whether you remembered your toothbrush when you packed that morning.

I fear the three men will have targeted the next muddled foreigner who strayed into Krakow bus station that day, and that their mode of operation is repeated across the world.

I was very lucky; no violence was used, and the gang earned nothing for their trouble. It is miserable to lose possessions, whether they are of practical or personal importance. I temporarily lost something, though: trust in the people with whom I was travelling.

Was an accomplice still on the bus, I worried; was the bus driver in on the scam? The joy of travelling evaporated, creating a mist of paranoia that stayed with me across the frontier.

That my mood was not altogether normal became apparent at the railway station, when I heard myself asking for a first-class ticket. The people you meet in second class are much more interesting, but for once I did not want to meet them. (And besides, a first-class ticket for the 400- mile length of the Czech Republic costs just pounds 9.)

I shall try to avoid similar traps in future, and I hope that you may be more alert to the dangers. But what other perils await the unwary stranger in a strange land? Reveal a scam and help reduce the risks for fellow travellers.