Manila, Philippines: Reducing Risk of Pickpocketing

The day before my scheduled flight back to Oslo, I intented to meet my friend since high school in Manila; given that we only managed to talk once in the past three years. The plan was made few weeks before so I was quite excited to share my thoughts and experiences again with my friend. Since there was a shopping center just across my hotel, I initially chosed to eat in a good restaurant so we could maximize my limited time over eating, my favorite past time.

However, as we roam around the shopping center, there were few options for us to choose from; either the ambiance was too crowded or the food did not suit the taste of both I and my friend. So, it was a natural choice to find another bigger place to dine. One of the largest mall in the world named SM Megamall was quite nearby, accessible through any public transportation. Thereafter, we headed out through exit and found a waiting area for buses and taxi; which was also located near the ATM machines. At that time, my concern was I do not have enough smaller bills to pay for transportation, so I decided to withdraw a little amount I need for that time. That was the start of this story.

We did not know there were people already observing us, while we were making the cash withdrawal. However, contrary to my initial plan to take a taxi, my friend opted for us to take the bus. There was nothing wrong with it, although I seldom use the bus in Manila. Surprisingly, just before we hopped into the bus, there were three men, who tried to sneak into the waiting line infront of us to go into the bus. I myself did not consider that unusual since it was common wherever in the Philippines. Little we know, those men were pressing against us to check where our wallets are found in our pants. They acted too fast and subtle that no one would ever notice them touching. Unfortunately for them, I was wearing custom-made pants with a tight opening of the front pockets where I placed my wallet and cellphone. To add, the pocket was deep enough to fit almost half of the forearm; making it extra difficult to get anything inside.

By coincidence, my friend decided to sit just at the back of the bus driver with the middle aisle leading to the front bus exit separating my friend and me. Both of us were sitting with another person, with the people coming into and from the bus moving between our seats. With a failed plan, the pickpocketers tried another attempt to get something from us. In the next bus stop, the three men wanted to go off the bus. They stood in front of the bus exit where I was closely seated. Since the bus has not come to a complete halt, they continued to stand literally around me, blocking the view of the driver and my friend. It was only the woman, who I seated with saw everything that followed.

Unexpectedly, the first man said his excuse while simultaneously getting my attention. He said his peso coin fell into my seat and he needs to get it badly. As a natural reaction, I stood up from my seat; making a good view for the pickpocketers to assess all my pockets. They learned that my cellphone and my wallet was on my left front pocket, which is accessible to the second and third man blocking the driver's and my friend's view. I became their target. The first man further insisted that the peso coin entered the sole of my shoe and he literally made his index finger felt around my soles that made me tickle. Feeling uncomfortable and worried about the man getting my shoe, I stamped my feet several times to feel whether a peso coin was indeed inside my shoe. I felt none and so I started to feel nervous.

Luckily, I remembered I have another peso coin in my pocket, after getting a change from a buy in the shopping center we came from. I was thinking of giving the first man my peso coin, rather him making me feel uncomfortable with his finger on my sole. So, I tried to put my hand inside my front pockets to see where my peso coin is. Unexpectedly, I felt some fingers around my left front pocket. My mind reacted slowly and interpreted it as nothing unusual, but as a reaction, I turned left in the direction of the two other men pressing me. There the two men learned that I knew that they were trying to get my wallet and cellphone. I kept my hand around my front pockets, making it impossible to make another attempt so the three men left the bus as if nothing happened. Then, the woman sitting beside me asked me if there was something they were able to take from me. That time, I got to realize that I almost became a victim of pickpocketing, a rampant petty crime in Metro Manila.

I was just fortunate enough to react instantaneously from the men's actions. Should I reacted differently, the outcome could be worse. The driver's assistant came and spoke to me. He confirmed I almost became a victim. Acknowledging the situation, I spoke less with anyone except my friend. I know those men are part of a syndicate so it is possible that there are still other pickpocketers within the bus. It would be unsafe to trust anyone at that time, and pickpocketers in Manila are ready to commit more violent crimes if the situation warrants it. Thereafter, we arrived in SM Megamall and took off the bus. I was numb, nervous and speechless. My friend simply gave me welcome greetings on the dark realities of Manila.

Yes, ofcourse as a Filipino, I learn to avoid risks in similar situations before. I was not wearing any watch or jewelry. Furthermore, I only brought with me my cellphone, which I did not use publicly. My greatest mistake was to have a cash withdrawal outside the shopping mall, making myself vulnerable for bad elements. I used the ATM before in public places, so I saw that as no extraordinary risk for me. In addition, I only took few hundred of peso from the ATM machine, which I regularly do that as a safety act, when doing cash withdrawals in crowded places. However more importantly, although the attempt was unsuccessful, it is essential for me to share some tips to reduce risk of becoming a victim of pickpocketers especially in Manila, the place with the most crimes occuring within the Philippines.

Here are my tips:

1. Wear simply outside. Make sure your clothes are comfortable enough that they do not create distraction in anyway in crowded places. Better do not bring sunglasses, as this could be an object of distraction when confronted with similar situation. If it is unnecessary, do not wear good-looking shoes. Rather, wear flip flops. Also if you are just going out, better wear t-shirts or anything that does not look expensive or is not identified to an well-known clothing brand.

2. Plan your trips in details. It is important you know how much money you need for the trip and where to get money safely. Filipinos use cash instead of card, so it is wise if you intend to buy something expensive, use cards in stores that accepts it. Although cards are unpopular, most shopping stores and dining areas accept it. In addition, when using cards, make sure you have another card to use when the first one is lost or stolen.

3. Trust yourself more than anyone else. The general rule is to trust yourself more than anyone, even security agents or policemen. I am not saying the latter is not trustworthy, but Filipinos feel the same way.

4. Never overreact getting you unnecessary attention or underreact making you less vigilant in situations. Interpret actions quickly and react to it naturally and wisely. It is not advisable to create a scene.

5. If possible use Filipino language, not English or any Philippine language when in Manila. People make close associations with it. People speaking English are regarded as highly-educated or tourists with high spending capacity. On the other hand, if you speak other language, you are perceived an easy target, considered to be gullible and naive to the crimes in Manila. If you are a tourist, it is better to be with someone, who knows Filipino language. Ofcourse, make sure you can trust that person.

6. Consider the least dangerous place in Manila is within your bedroom or your homeplace. When you are outside these premises, regardless of how near or far from your home place, consider all places in Manila to be similarly dangerous. ( It is also a misconception that all places in the Philippines are such. Davao City is also a metropolis which is considered safer compared to its counterparts.)

7. The possibility of crime is independent of time and place. It is not unusual to be a victim of pickpocketers in broad daylight or not in rush hour. Anytime, a crime can happen. Moreover, a place appearingly peaceful is not exempted of crime, even exclusive subdivisions and high-rise condominium units. It is also illogical to think that crimes do happen more often near slums. Sometimes, it is even better to be with the people living in slums than people who appear to be rich but thirsty of money.

8. Acknowledge that crimes are products of both poverty and unmet needs or wants. It is not only the poor who steals. Anyone with a immense need for money could do a crime. So, it is not wise to make a generalization that those who look poor will do crime. More often, it is the other way around.

Lastly, Manila is just like any other developing metropolis. Crimes do happen anytime, but this should not discourage anyone to come to the Philippines. It is still advisable and fun to be in the Philippines. However, being aware of eventualities is a must whenever or wherever ine steps in Manila. Keep safe everyone.

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