“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln
Most every traveler has a story from their early days of traveling (maybe the first trip), that they are ashamed of. It was either something you did, or a certain way that you acted, that showed everyone how immature and clueless about the world and respecting other cultures you were. The ironic part is that when I started to travel, that was the last thing that I wanted to do.
I’ve always been a respectful, open-minded & hungry-to-learn person, but looking back, I was extremely naive. How naive? Let’s just say my pre-Eurotrip train of thought went something along the lines of: “Sweet! Everyone will be interested in talking to me because I’m American. People are interested in America, because like, we’re the best, ya know? I’ll have instant friends everywhere I go, because we saved the world in World War 2, and we give clean water to Africa!”
I had grown my hair out long & blonde, & made sure to pack my Sublime shirt & sick American lingo. I remember on my Couchsurfing profile under the “What I Can Share” section, I listed something like “I can help people understand the concept of Californication & how it’s changing the world.” HAHAHA – What a joke, right? First off, like, what does that even mean? Secondly, I’m not even from California… I was in for a rude awakening, and like many other gringos before me, I had to learn the hard way.
Bros in Barcelona
Come back with me to Barcelona, Spain, summer of 2008. I was a knuckle-headed, long-haired, 21-year old jackass, with Marco & Brent, 2 of my best college friends (BROOOSSS!!!). We had spent the past 3 weeks in Madrid staying with Marco’s family, going out, staying up to the sunrise, playing soccer, sightseeing around the Spanish capital, having Spanish barbecues, botellón, and doing what 21 year old dudes do. But we had come to Barcelona, the infamous Mediterranean mecca of Catalonian chaos, and were ready to experience the nightlife to the fullest.
After a day of running around the city, we showered and dappered up, put our best club shirts on, and hit the streets for the night. We quickly found ourselves in La Rambla. Now if you’ve ever been to Barcelona, you know La Rambla. It’s the busiest street in the city, but not from the traffic, but from the seemingly hundreds of street acts & thousands of people clogging the sidewalk in the middle of the road.
You can see almost anything on La Rambla, from mimes, to soccer ball jugglers, to Edward Scissors hands. Not to mention you can buy any type of food, and perhaps most importantly (at the time) $1 Euro, ice-cold beers in the street. We were 21 & just barely used to being able to drink legally (thanks US laws), so being able to slurp down beers in an exciting & public place was definitely something that we took advantage of. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many street acts in my life, including New York, Bangkok, & Venice Beach, and combining the endless entertainment with the endless street beers is a simple recipe for lots of fun.
It was somewhere between the gang of drag queens and the woman dressed as a giant, budding flower that we apparently arrived at the corner where our destination bar was. My buddies Marco & Brent had finished their latest round of cold cerveza, and were ready to go in and start chopping it up, but I still had a solid half-can left. There was no rush for me, and I saw some sort of street game being played a few meters down the sidewalk, so I told my buddies that I would find them inside after a checking out the game & finishing my beer.
Turns out it was the universal ball with 3 shells game (called Thimblerig) that they play in major cities around the world– a sure scam. Just as I was losing interest and ready to walk away, I saw an Asian fellow put down 50 Euros, win, and then 100 Euros, and lose. Immediately he pulled another 100 euro bill out of his wallet, wagered, and won. As the guy running the game was handing the Asian guy 100 euros as his prize, I saw the look on his face and knew what was coming next.
Now, anyone who might be unfamiliar with this game, I’ll sum it up for you – you always lose. Depending on how much money you’re betting or how money hungry you are, the scam artists running this game may let you win some money. They do this so you’ll cough up more money & increase the stakes in pig-headed confidence. Also, there are other people in the crowd that appear as curious bystanders who want to bet and play. These are the guys who “win,” and give real, innocent bystanders the impression that they can win too, but actually they are just working with the people running the whole scam.
So what do you think the Asian guy did next? That’s right – he put down 200 euros.
Now if you’re a backpacker like me, 200 Euros is a lot of money. 200 euros is a plane ticket from Bangkok to Bali – round trip. 200 euros is a solid 2-week shoestring travel budget in South America, or an Open Water scuba dive certification in Honduras. 200 euros is too much to be betting on a scam. So me, being the good Samaritan/poor backpacker (read: Typical, loud-mouthed gringo) that I was, decided that I was going to say something.
“What are you doing dude?”
“What are you doing dude? it’s a scam. You’re going to lose,” I said, with authority, as if I was bestowing my knowledge upon the crowd.
At that point the guy running the show put his finger to his mouth and told me to “Shhhh.”
Here’s where I really put my foot in my mouth….or at least wish I did literally to avoid saying, “What? It is a scam!”
Immediately, someone in the crowd directly in front of me, turned around and started stepping on my shoe.
“Why are you stepping on my shoe? Dude, stop stepping on my shoe!”
As I was walking backwards and continuing to ask him what he was doing, he kept stepping on my shoe, and all of a sudden…
Someone punched me hard in the side of the face, and almost knocked me off my feet.
As I steadied myself with one hand on the sidewalk to keep from falling over, I dropped the crushed can out of my other hand and wiped the beer off my face that I had just sprayed all over myself. It was one of the times where I saw stars – but despite being semi-conscious, my mind was racing, thinking of what I would do next.
I opened my eyes to screams of, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? THIS IS BARCELONA, THIS ISN’T YOUR CITY. THIS IS BARCELONA! I’LL F–K YOU UP!”
I finally focused my eyes on the furious Romanian (I later found out Romanian immigrants run these games around La Rambla) who was screaming, and was accompanied by two other guys, who I also presumed to be Romanian.
“WHAT – YOU WANT SOME MORE?” The same guy screamed, and then put his hand in his mouth and let out a loud whistle. I followed his gaze and looked behind me right when about 6 other guys who were walking in the other direction turned around and started walking back up the street, looking at me like a pack of hungry wolves.
I knew it was time to get out of there. I needed to cross the street and run straight to the bar where my friends were.
As I ran to the curb, one of the guys pushed me out into the middle of traffic, and I just barely dodged a car barreling down the street. Luckily, I made it across the street in one piece, and escaped into the bar where the Romanians chose not to follow me.
“Woah man, what happened to you?” my buddy Brent asked me, when he saw me walk up to the bar with a rapidly swelling eye. “You alright dude?” said Marco in a concerned voice.
After getting a pack of ice for my eye & telling them what happened, Marco rolled his eyes, shook his head & said, “Dude, why did you say something to them? Those Romanians are crazy, you should have just let them make their money. You’re not in Georgia anymore, those guys will kill you man.”
I thought about answering him with a self-justifying explanation about innocent people losing money, but was too tired and overwhelmed. I had just narrowly escaped with my life intact. As I applied ice to my head, I made a mental note to defog my Gringo brain and remember who was the foreigner. We ended up having a fun, problem-free rest of the night.
Lessons learned from the situation
Now, thank God this incident ended with no real consequences other than a bag of ice on my eye, but what lessons did I take away from this? That Barcelona is a dangerous city? That Romanians are mean people? No, I learned the simple, but ever important lesson that sometimes I just need to keep my mouth shut, ESPECIALLY in unfamiliar surroundings.
I learned that if someone is doing something that I don’t agree with, I am not obligated to tell them how I feel. I realized that I was going to see & experience things that I didn’t understand. Just because I am from small town, USA where people don’t scam others out of money with street games, doesn’t mean that that’s how it should be everywhere, much less give me the right to tell people how it should be. Of course certain situations require the intervention of a capable bystander, like when someone is in danger. But a situation where a person is willingly betting their money in a game hardly qualifies.
Although I totally brought this on myself, and what I said was completely unnecessary, it served as a huge eyeopener for me as a young backpacker on my first backpacking trip. It was literally a slap in the face that showed me, “Hey – you’re not in your country anymore! You don’t know anything about where you are, you don’t know the language, the culture, the people, etc. You don’t know how police respond to public disputes. You don’t know what the jails are like in Spain. Heck, you don’t even know one Spanish phone number.
The more universal point is that when you go traveling, you’re going to see things that appear strange & foreign to you. Things that are unknown, inexplicable, & maybe even by your definition, wrong. The important thing is how your respond. Observe & learn. Ask the question, “Why is that the way that it is?” Educate yourself. Compare & contrast. And please, when you don’t know, don’t act like you know – be humble & cool enough to admit it.
Or you could take the approach that I did & see how that works out for you. At this point you’re probably thinking, “Come on don’t be extreme. Use common sense & don’t taunt hustlers on the street – duh.” Yes, I agree that was dumb, but those weren’t just ill-timed words. It was a direct result of who I was at the time – an immature, naive, first-time American traveler.
When I look back at this incident I laugh, but I also shake my head in disbelief because I’m a completely different person now. People grow up & mature a lot during their 20’s, and that process looks different for every person. But hopefully getting punched in the face by a Romanian scam artist isn’t part of yours.
So next time a situation arises, choose caution instead of confrontation, don’t necessarily view differences as wrong-doing, determine if it’s your problem to solve, and don’t be a typical gringo. And just in case you need any more inspiration to not be that guy…..I’ll give you one more lasting image….