How to Deal With Getting Mugged in a Foreign or Not-So Foreign Country

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If you google how to avoid being mugged, you’ll come up with a bevy of answers:

Walk with purpose.

Stay in well lit areas.

Don’t go on the “wrong side of the tracks”.

Keep your money in a fanny pack (they’re not just stylish).

Mugging prevention might as well be titled common sense 101.  I don’t need someone to tell me not to walk through the most dangerous part of town in an expensive jacket at night.  The problem is, smart people doing the right things sometimes get mugged.  I was one of those people.

This summer, during my Ireland trip, I was mugged in Belfast. It occurred around 10:30 in the morning in broad daylight as I ran some errands in a pretty touristy part of town.  I had a gun jammed down my throat and was relieved of $500.00.  I was definitely left shaken, yet despite this egregious assault, I only have fond memories of Ireland.  I like to think I handled it about as capably as I could have (or at least much better than I would ever have guessed).  So instead of a mugging-prevention article, I give you: how to get mugged with class.  Before we get into how to get mugged properly, let me share my tale:

Note: All dialogue is accurate-ish.

“Have anything to say now? Open your feckin’ mouth.”  I tried to process what was being asked.  “I said, open your feckin’ mouth.”  I complied.  My mind went blank.  My life didn’t flash before my eyes.  The only thing I was conscious of was that I was how hard I was trembling, and that I needed to especially keep my facial muscles tight, with a gun in my mouth and all.    It tasted metallic, not unlike blood.    I was choking, but trying not to show it, and trying my damnedest to harness my weak gag reflex.  “What you say now?”

                It was my eleventh day in Ireland, and so far it’d been all vistas-no-picture-could-do-justice and Guinness fueled nights.  After a week and a half in the south, we’d moved on to Belfast.  It was decidedly less of a party atmosphere than the “republic”, but contrary to its violent history, I felt completely safe exploring the city, even alone. 

                Saturday had been the first leisurely morning of the trip.  I went on a three mile run to try and reverse the damage eleven days of Guinness, bar food, and Irish breakfasts had wrought and returned to shower and dress myself.  I had still had errands to run, but was due at a wedding that afternoon and figured I better get all dolled up first, in case the errands ran late. 

                Post offices get the best exchange rate in Northern Ireland. I entered the small office across the street from Queens University and sent 14 post cards I’ d been hoarding.   I gave the clerk $500.00 and got 311.00 back; the British exchange rate was wrecking havoc on my bank account.  I quickly stuffed it in my wallet so I wouldn’t have to dwell on how much money I was losing.  Much as I wanted to stay in Ireland, I reminded myself that in just three days $3.00 would be $3.00.

                I took a seat on the wall outside in order to stamp the postcards before dropping them in the red mailbox.  I caught my reflection in the mirror.  I looked good, classy in a Cape-Cod-formal sort of way, in my khakis and navy sport coat combo.  The only problem was my hair was starting to look a little too college.  I checked the time.  I had a half hour to kill.  I consulted Siri who informed me there was two barber shops within ten blocks.  I instructed her to send me to the closest.

                It was a sunny day, and our hotel was located just off Lisburn Road’s cluster of shops, restaurants, and pubs.  I stared down and followed the little blue dot representing me on my I-phone screen.  I was walking along, just minding my own business, following myself in blue dot form when I heard a yell.

                “Hey Yank.  Stop.”

                I turned around.  My first reaction was, “I can’t believe someone actually called me a Yank.”  I took it as a compliment.  Two guys, kids really, were about fifty feet behind me.  The taller one, who wasn’t as tall as me, nodded his head indicating it was he who’d spoken.  I honestly wasn’t sure where they were heading with their dialogue.

                “Going to meet your boyfriend in those fancy clothes?”

                I paused and turned around again.  Both guys were shorter than me.  I looked down again at my phone.  I had two blocks to go.  The only red flag, just playing ever so slightly in the back of my mind was that in my following of the blue dot, I was now in an alley.  It was narrow, with a brick wall with back doors on one side, and wooden fencing on the other.  I’d indulged in a pint or two with breakfast, it was a wedding after all.  Fueled by liquid courage, I gave them my most American of responses.

              I told him to F-off.

                Bad move.  Being polite probably would’ve still gotten my wallet stolen, but it might not have gotten me the goose egg on the side of my face and I probably wouldn’t have fellated a gun.

                I turned to walk away, twenty feet separating me from a main road, when I was felled by a swift kick to the genitals.   “You got some balls man, talking to us like that in my home.”  I looked up in time to see the smaller of the dudes, a malnourished looking fellow with a red sweatshirt pull back his leg.  He kicked me right in the sternum.  His friend was behind me as evident by the pounding my back was taking.  I can’t accurately assess how long this went on for, I’m sure not longer than 30 seconds.  They were nice enough to give me some time to regroup.  I managed to get up on my hands and knees when they pulled out the gun.

                I’d somehow managed, despite growing up in an area where hunting is the norm, to never see a real gun in person.  It pointed between my eyes.  I stared at it like an idiot.

                “Empty your trousers mate.”  Evidently I wasn’t moving fast enough.  “Listen when I feckin’ speak to you.”    The gun wasn’t dangling any more.  It was pressed up against my forehead.  Still on my hands and knees I slowly backed into the brick wall.  I got up on my haunches, still moving slowly backwards and crouched down into a sitting position.  The gun stayed trained on my forehead.  “Good lad, open your trouser pockets front and back.”  I pulled my side pockets inside out, letting their contents fall to the ground.  The little guy scampered in and started picking things out. “Back now.”  I reached around and threw my wallet down.  The little guy picked it up, opened it, and flipped through approvingly.

                “What about in that fancy jacket?”  He hoisted me up by the lapels.  I heard a tear.  “Take it off.”  I took off my jacket and he snatched it, handing it to his cohort who started rifling.  “Anything smart to say now, yea?” he said, trailing the end of the gun around my face.  “Open your feckin’ mouth.”  He inserted his weapon.  “Respect, yea? In my feckin city.”  He sounded like a caricature, a doofy Irish stereotype, but I nodded weakly.  “Good.”  He removed the gun from my mouth, slowly, and struck me across the forehead with the butt. 

                “Face on the ground” he yelled.  I complied, kneeling  gingerly, as for some reason I was still concerned about staining my pants.  I felt a foot on my back.  “Count to 500 before you get up.”  One of them gave me a kick, light this time, in the ribs and I heard them run off.  I waited until I couldn’t hear their footsteps anymore before I picked my head up.  I was dizzy, felt like I was going to vomit, and shaking more than I cared to admit.  Change and ticket stubs were scattered around me.  I didn’t bother to pick any of them up.  I stood up and walked over to where they’d thrown my jacket and put it back on.  They’d ripped the buttons off.  I did a quick look around and saw one lying near a few 1 pound coins and reached down to pocket it.  Two feet away, sitting in a tuft of grass was my phone.  I must have dropped it when I first got hit.  Apparently neither myself nor my assailants had registered that.   The day was starting to look up.

                I got out of the alley and walked till I hit a park, a reasonably crowded park, before collapsing on a bench.  The whole thing didn’t seem real, but a quick pat of my back pocket assured me I was most definitely wallet-less.  I wasn’t near any reflective surfaces, which was good.  I’m sure I didn’t look great and touch was already telling me the side of my face was swollen pretty badly.  I tried not to think of the fact that I was down $500.00, my ID, and my passport.  It could be worse.  I would’ve been doubly upset had I been out a phone as well.

                I sat around a little in a daze.  The worst part wasn’t the lost possessions.   I’d saved a lot of money for the trip.  It’d hurt my wallet for sure, but it wasn’t going to ruin me.  I’d get in contact with the US embassy and fix the passport situation.  It wasn’t the swollen face either.  I’ve been punched before.  It was the loss of control, the complete and utter compliance I’d given them as soon as I’d seen the gun that bothered me.  I like to be in control, some might say I like to be in charge, some of my friends might even label me a control freak.  Taking that away, becoming that submissive is not something I’m used to or comfortable with, and the guy that got me, the taller one, relished that. 

                On the plus side, I have bragging rights as the only one of my friends whose ever been pistol whipped. That’s sort of badass. 

Being mugged wasn’t a pleasant experience, but in the grand scheme of things it didn’t define my trip.  Why?  Mainly because I didn’t let it.  While it’s not something I’ll fast forget, when I hear Ireland the first associations will be Galway’s insane nightlife, the sheer terror wrought by the Cliffs of Moher, and Dingle’s gorgeous beaches.

One thing I think any traveler has to take into consideration is not to let a crime define a location.  I was mugged in Belfast.  It was violent.  I had things stolen.  But, it could have happened in London.  It could have happened in Stockholm.  It could have happened in New York, or Philadelphia, or a block from my apartment in Lancaster.  Hell, when I was in school it wasn’t uncommon for people to get mugged in Scranton.  I think we have to get used to the fact that we don’t get mugged “in a foreign country” or “in the city” but that it could happen anywhere and furthermore, not let it taint a populace as well.  All societies have degenerates and drug addicts, which the majority of muggings are based on.

Here’s some more tips on what to do if you get mugged (if the avoiding dark, strange places and wearing your money in a fanny pack doesn’t work out).  These could work for a foreign country, or here in Yank-territory.

1)      Keep Copies of Your ID’s-

I literally never would have thought of this, but my friend Kelly, whom I was traveling with, had us photocopy our ID’s and Passports and keep them in our suitcases in case something happened. Luckily, my passport wasn’t actually stolen.  I was an idiot and had actually left it in my bag that morning (which was lucky, I carried it on me everywhere that trip).  However, having copies of these is a good idea for anyone who’s traveling outside the country or your home state (if you get mugged in your home state, just call the DMV!)

2)      If There’s a Gun Involved..Comply

I’m all for fighting back if you have pepper spray or something of the like on you or if you seriously feel your life is in danger.  However, if a gun is involved do as you’re asked.   There’s no need to play the hero and in almost all cases it’s used as intimidation.  Most muggers don’t want to use a gun, however don’t be the small statistic that provokes them.

3)      Call the police-

I initially didn’t want to contact the police.  I was embarrassed and I thought that it would be more of a hassle, however the front desk receptionist insisted.  I’m now a big fan of the Belfast PD.  Two officers came to the hotel to question me and take my information.  I showed them about where I’d been mugged and they took me to the police station for some questions.  The officers were really cool and not as judgmental as I’d anticipated (I figured I’d be just another dumb American).  One had just come back from Philly so we compared stories and visits and they also told me some interesting stories about the secretarian violence that still happens there.

Chilling in a Belfast police station interrogation room.
Chilling in a Belfast police station interrogation room.

4) Don’t let it ruin your trip-

This is key.  It sucks you got mugged, but you don’t want to let it ruin a trip you’ve probably spent hours planning and plenty of money to pay for.

Again, these are just my suggestions.  I’m no expert in this field and am simply basing this off my own personal opinions.  One thing I could tell you for certain: don’t tell a mugger to F-off.

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