'Does this train stop at Tribunales?' a young local asks me in Spanish as I mind my own business on the station platform. At first I don't understand what he has said through a combination of my mediocre spanish ability and my mind being elsewhere. I tell him yes, then we squeeze onto the commuter-full train while he runs through the usual script: where am I from, what am I doing here, how long am I staying. Two stops later I force my way through the crowded train to exit on the other side. The stop is Callao and I am here on a mission to find the magical Citibank cash machine my classmate has told me about that allows you to withdraw 2500 pesos a go, much more than the usual 1000 peso limit, thus saving on withdrawal fees. I need to pay my rent the following day and my school fees in a few days so the rumour is worth verifying.
Reach into my handbag for my purse to swipe the door with my bank card and am met with a gaping emptiness. Nothing. I suddenly notice how light my bag feels. Wallet is gone. Must. Think.
The subte was crowded. The guy asking me questions. Can it be a coincidence? But he seemed so nice. Seemed normal. Was there an accomplice reaching his dishonest hand into my bag as I read the gringo script to the guy.
Then a mixture of feelings: anger, shame (how could I be so naive, stupid, careless?). Then trying to think of the positives: at least it happened before I withdrew £500 worth of pesos. At least they did not take my camera, my phone which were nestled cosily next to my wallet. At least there was no violence or attack; a shamefully silent, unguessable moment.
'Rule one ..... dont panic. Rule two ..... have a drink'. The advice of a comiserating friend from home when I tell him the news. Well, if you say so... I take his good advice.
Two months later and with the help of kind friends here who help me out with money (you know who you are!) all is okay and all is (almost) forgotten. I am walking in San Telmo with my new, more vigilant, grasp of my handbag and in search of a cafe for my daily dose of caffeine (although I know that the coffee is generally appalling here I still enjoy the ritual of sipping from a cup of bitterness while people-watching or writing emails. As with so many things, the idea overshadows the reality but I still cling to the idea as if I am living life through a film).
Suddenly, white foam on my bag, on the back of my dress, and a tiny woman as if from nowhere brandishing a tissue, wiping the mess one minute, pointing into the sky the next attempting to communicate to me what has happened. 'Gracias, gracias' I say, a little dazed. Then another small woman appears, also waving a wad of tissues and pointing at my handbag, at my hair which I realise has also been hit by the foam. I feel like a giant amid these two petit women and their onslaught of espanol and tissues. Suddenly it dawns on me. This could be a premeditated plot. I've heard about these kinds of gringo attacks and it seems a little odd that these two midgets appeared at my side so promptly. I take a firmer hold of my handbag, shake off the two women with one last dismissive 'gracias' and walk off decisively without turning back.
Paranoia or carefulness? It's a fine line we gringos walk...