I Saw the Signs

… and promptly ignored them, resulting in what initially seemed to be a spiralling personal catastrophe but turned out pretty okay in the end.*

When I woke up the Friday morning that I was supposed to go to Pamplona, my throat felt like it did when I had constant strep as a child.  My head was pounding, and my eyelids didn’t want to open.  It’s fine, I thought.  I’ll just sleep for a few more hours and I’ll feel better.  My shared ride wasn’t supposed to leave until 2:00 pm, so I had time.  I glanced at my phone to check the time and found a message from BlaBla Car: Trip cancelled.  The driver had to change his route.  Joder, I thought.  Still – there would be other cars.  Maybe this is some force telling me I shouldn’t go to Pamplona, I thought for a brief second; then, nah. Poppycock.  I was an hour away from Pamplona during the opening weekend of the Running of the Bulls; how could I not go?

Everything started out so well…

I slept more, woke up feeling better, got a new car, and was on my way by 5:00 pm.  The evening went by in a delightful blur of white and red, brass marching bands parading through the streets, delicious empanadas and sangria, children squealing and running away from fake bulls being charged directly at them, fireworks, and chats with friendly strangers. I laid my head down on an inflatable pillow on a patch of grass under a fort – close enough to the fiesta to be in plain sight all night, far enough from the wall to not be sleeping in pee – around midnight and covered myself with a sarong to get some shuteye.  Although a few people did try to wake me up in the middle of the night by yelling, “Hey, girl!  Girl!  Are you sleeping?” they left me alone when I didn’t respond.  It started raining around 2:00 am, but it was a soft rain; I covered my head and torso with an open umbrella and continued to rest.


I woke up at 6:00, excited to see the running; I was sure that since it was so early, I could easily get a seat along the route atop a fence somewhere.  Wrong!  By the time I got to the route, the back fences were already covered with people!  I sat on the bottom rail of a wooden fence for two hours, chatting with people and generally enjoying the festival atmosphere.  I took tons of shots of the crowd as I had the night before; I may not have been running, but I had good photos.  The police cleared off the fence closest to the runners; even when all of those spectators came back to squeeze in, the mood was amiable.  Even when someone put his vomit-flecked shoes next to where I was sitting in an attempt to climb up, and in doing so put his crotch right in my face (seriously, dude?), I was still in a festive mood!  The runners and bulls came by at lightning speed as I tried to capture the action on my phone through two fences and the bodies of white-clothed young men who never bothered running from the bulls at all (this is a surprisingly common thing); what we’d waited for hours to see was over in a few seconds.

Walking down the corridor after the bulls had gone, I smiled to see everyone pile into bars at 8:30 am and order their first beers of the day while watching the day’s gorings on huge flat screen televisions.  I grabbed my big pack from left luggage and made my way to the Plaza de Castillo to have a coffee and prepare for my bus ride to Madrid.  Sitting in the café, I re-organized my bags so that all my valuables were in my daypack – I was about to get on a bus and I wanted them with me.  Now, I’ve travelled for a long time, and I’ve been to a lot of places people don’t consider “safe”.  I never leave a bag just sitting there without something – my arm, a leg, a chair leg, something – through it.  Maybe it was that I was so relaxed or that I hadn’t slept much – or that I’d slept outside with my bag all night and nothing had happened.  In any case, I took my hand off my daypack for a second to respond to a phone message… and when I looked back, it was gone.  I scanned the area and didn’t see anyone running with it or carrying it; they’d already disappeared into the thickening crowd.  Fuck.

I may have freaked out a little bit at this point.  I left my big pack with the servers and ran to the police station across the plaza, thinking stupidly that maybe I could make a police report and still make my bus to Madrid in the hour and forty-five minutes I had before it left… wishful thinking.

I spent four hours at the police station, giving my full statement in Spanish because there was only one officer there who spoke English and he was fully occupied.  I had no passport, no credit cards, no ID, and very little cash; it was Saturday, so the banks were closed, and there were no foreign exchange bureaus (WHY there were no forex bureaus at a festival as popular as San Fermin is way beyond me!) in the city – at least as far as the police knew.  I’m quite indebted to a couple of officers, actually – seeing my predicament (traveling alone, no source of getting cash), two of them took me to a private office and tried to get a hold of the US embassy for me; one of them gave me some euros so I could get lunch – at this point, I hadn’t eaten anything all day.  I went to a Western Union hoping they could exchange money, only to find out they don’t do that. I finally had to go to a hotel and change just enough money at a crap exchange rate to get a new bus ticket to Madrid after reporting my lost items to the lost item office on the other side of town.

Walking back to the bus station totally dejected, I berated myself over and over for allowing my bag to be nicked with everything in it.  I know better.  Never put all your important things in one place.  Never. ALWAYS keep a hand on your bag.  These are rules I know and follow, and yet.  I felt embarrassed and so angry at myself.  I couldn’t sleep that night because I couldn’t stop going over and over again in my head about the things I’d done wrong. Very luckily, I was staying with a friend in Madrid who picked me up from the bus station and ended up being a total godsend who helped me out of a few pinches in the next few days.

The next day, after cancelling all of my cards and my plane to London (this was Sunday, and I was supposed to fly out Monday morning) and starting to email friends to re-arrange plans in the UK, I got a message from an AirBnB host – someone had found my bag with her number in it in Pamplona and turned it in; my passport was there.  My friend bought me a bus ticket back to Pamplona the next day and I finally relaxed a bit.  We even made it to a spectacularly old sherry bar, and I got to have fun.

This place is FABULOUS.

I left the house at 7:00 am and took the five and a half hour bus to Pamplona, intending to go to a bank to change money as soon as I got in, as the banks opened after I left Madrid and close at 2:00 pm.  However, when I arrived in Pamplona, I found all the banks closed at noon because of San Fermin.  I walked to the left luggage facility to retrieve my bag; I was delighted overall to have it back, but confused as to some of the things missing.  The thief:

  • Left my passport, but took a packet of passport-sized photos;
  • Left my credit cards AND a wallet with 15 euro in it, but took my other cash – including a bunch of notes that are worth less than a dollar each from various African countries;
  • Took a long-sleeved shirt, but left my vaccination cards and IDs;
  • Took my sunglasses, but left my sunscreen;
  • Took my copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…?

I got back an SD card with all my sub-Saharan Africa photos on it, but lost my camera with my Morocco and Spain photos – including all the pictures I’d taken of the festival.

Grateful to have my passport and some cash back, I went back to the bus station to find out that all the buses back to Madrid that day were fully booked – except a night bus that would arrive at 3:00 am and cost more money than I had on me.  I called the friend I was staying with and asked him to book a ride share for me (this guy seriously helped me out SO many times – thank you a million times over, Miguel), and a few hours later I was in a VW van (called a California van in Spain, apparently!) with a jovial crew on our way back to Madrid.

You’d think the story would end there, but no – the next morning, I walked across the street to a bank to finally change money.  I waited while all the people who came in after me were called ahead of me because they were customers of the bank; finally, I was called up only to be told that in Spain, the banks don’t change money for people who aren’t their customers.

Lesson of all this: Fuck. Spanish. Banks.

I burst into tears and took the subway, not having showered or had any coffee or food, half an hour into the city to a forex… to find out that not only did they have ridiculous exchange rates, but they also charge twenty euros to change money.  I changed enough to pay my friend back for the bus and car and go out to eat and went back to the house to shower.

I spent the day re-organizing plans, transportation, hostels; I spent an hour on the phone with my bank and organized emergency cash to be picked up at a Western Union. I felt grateful for my friends in the UK who were flexible and happy I had one valid credit card number left with which I could buy a plane ticket.  All in all – a gut-wrenching experience, but one which turned out much better than it could have.

TL;DR: We all fuck up sometimes. Never have all your credit cards in one bag. And NEVER change money in Spain!


*The long-form title of Ace of Base’s famous song.







  1. Oh my god! What a horrible experience. Don’t kick yourself too much- it really does happen to the best of us! In any case, I’m so glad you got your passport back in the end!


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