I’ve always considered myself well-traveled. Not traipsing through the Amazon and hiking in the Himalayan well-traveled, but enough to comfortably walk the streets of London well-traveled. When I studied abroad in Paris during college, I prowled the smelly and convoluted undergrounds of Paris unscathed; my friend Kathryn and I trolley-ed our way through Milan, Lugano, Venice and Geneva with only a few near mishaps. I thought I was immune to petty street crimes and tourist traps.
I was in London, on one of my first business trips. The March weather was unseasonably beautiful; the sky was clear blue and the air was cool and crisp. Still freezing cold by Hong Kong standards, but we were well insulated; my boss in his smart dove grey cashmere coat, and me in my awkward beige puffer, which stops mid-thigh, not quite covering my dress underneath (cutting me in all the wrong places, but I was too cold to care). We had time in between meetings, and so my boss and I decided to walk from Piccadilly to our next meeting in Kensington. We thought it would be scenic to go along Hyde Park and through Knightsbridge, the crème de la crème of London, where Harrods is.
As we walked by Wellington Arch, which marks the beginning of Knightsbridge, a middle eastern man holding a map asked us for directions to the British Museum. Being the nice people that we were, we stopped and pointed it out to him on the map. Just as we were about to part ways, we were stopped by another man dressed in jeans (also middle eastern looking!), claiming to be an undercover cop.
“Are you exchanging money?” he asked.
We frantically shook our heads, no.
He then waved his his badge at us, and asked to see all our identifications and money. Being the good law abiding Chinese citizens that we were, one by one we dutifully handed over our passports and money to be inspected. We watched as he checked our passports, counted our cash and handed everything back to us. Once he had checked all three of us, he thanked us and told us to be careful next time.
We went on our way, feeling uneasy. What just happened? Were we being followed? We immediately quickened our pace and only stopped when we saw uniformed cops standing ahead of us, and rushed to recount our story. The uniformed cop did not look surprised, and asked us if we’d lost anything. We said no. So he just told us to be careful next time, and that he could not help us any further as he was on duty. It was only then that we noticed that we were standing right outside the Libyan embassy. Considering that Libya was in the midst of a civil war at that time, we took that as a bad omen and hopped onto the relative safety of a cab, unnerved.
It was only later that evening when my boss counted his money, that he realized that a few hundred euros were missing. Even though we were watching like a hawk, somehow the “cop” had managed to magically whisk away hundreds of euros without us knowing. It appeared that we were indeed robbed after all. Right in the backyard of Buckingham Palace, where London’s most expensive real estate is supposed to be.
As we processed this information, we tried to look on the bright side. Perhaps we did the right thing given the situation. Even if we had known it was a con from the start, it would have done us no good to put up a fight anyway. They could have held us at gun point! At least now, we were unharmed, if a little shaken. Actually a whole lot shaken. I shudder to imagine what could have happened, and swore never to stop for anyone ever again.