Upon the acceptance of my application to study abroad in England, the first purchase I was told to make was a money belt. Everyone I spoke to insisted it was an absolute necessity for international travel.
“If you don’t, someone will steal your passport and money immediately,” they said. “Then you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.”
I somewhat doubted that there was a group of football hooligans waiting at the arrivals gate of Heathrow Airport waiting to beat me up and take my money, but, to be fair, I’d never left the country before so what did I know? Plus, my family was currently riding at a high level of pickpocket paranoia. My aunt and uncle used to take an annual trip to Rome, and during their last visit, we’d received a harrowing email. Apparently, just after my aunt visited an ATM, she was swarmed with pickpockets. My aunt felt all their little hands in her pockets and she elbowed one of them in the chest. They scattered like cockroaches under a fluorescent kitchen light and my aunt was left with all of her money and a surge of adrenaline that proceeded to make her sick to her stomach for the next 24 hours.
I had never even seen a money belt before, so I was somewhat disappointed when my dad presented me with something that looked like a deflated, flesh-toned fanny pack.
“This is it?” I asked.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to keep your passport safe,” my dad said.
I took the money belt to my bedroom and read the instructions. According to them, the ideal placement was around my lower stomach, just below the top of my pants. I fastened the money belt around my waist and looked in the mirror before I pulled up my pants, admiring the way it looked like an unattractive and ineffective chastity belt. Then I pulled up my jeans, fastened them over the money belt, and looked back to the mirror. It looked fine, but it was empty. I grabbed my brand new passport off the dresser and put it in the biggest zippered pocket of the money belt. Sitting down became a little tricky, but not unmanageable. I added some cash and a handful of change and tried again. Still, not bad. It was harder to sit like a normal human being, but I figured I could just recline my seat on the airplane a little and I’d be fine. I was just about call the whole experience a success and take off the money belt, when I reached in to pull out my passport. In order to do so while wearing the money belt, I either had to unbutton my jeans or awkwardly shove my hand down the front of my pants. I realized that each time I needed to show my passport at the airport, it was going to look like I was pulling it in and out of my underwear. I’m sure airline employees have seen much worse, but as a prudish, 19-year-old virgin, I wasn’t wild about the idea of customs officials thinking I stored my passport in my vagina. Clearly, this money belt thing wasn’t going to work out like I’d hoped, and I resolved to only carry items in it that I wouldn’t need to access frequently.
In need of a way to carry my passport without offending my sense of modesty, I purchased another item from REI’s travel security collection. This one was a pouch intended to be worn around the neck and under one’s shirt, for all the security of a money belt without having to shove one’s hands down one’s pants. Granted, it was going to look like I was pulling my passport out of my bra, but this seemed like the lesser of two evils. On the day of my flight to London, I prepared my money belt and my security pouch and dressed in jeans and a baggy t-shirt under a sweatshirt. I examined myself in the mirror and felt confident that any potential pickpockets would be thwarted by my careful planning.
What I didn’t plan for, however, was contracting food poisoning on the 10 hour flight. While attempting to explain to the flight attendant that I needed an air sickness bag, I proceeded to throw up all over myself like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. After belatedly providing me with several spare air sickness bags, the flight attendant also gave me a plastic bag for my vomit clothes and a pair of pajamas generally reserved for first class passengers. I changed my pants and put my soiled jeans and sweatshirt into the plastic bag. My t-shirt was fine and, due to its bagginess, my security pouch remained mostly concealed. While on the freezing cold plane, I wore the pajama top as well, but I took it off as we landed. The year was 2007 and I’d been warned before leaving on my trip that with George W. Bush as president, everyone hated Americans (you know, back in the blissfully naive time when no one considered Trump wreaking global havoc could be a real possibility.). Arriving in pajamas, even first class passenger pajamas, didn’t seem like a good idea. Much better to be seen carrying a bag of clothes covered in vomit while I threw up in every garbage can in London. Being British, everyone was far too polite to comment on my appearance. Either that, or I simply looked how they expected Americans to be.
By the time I finally made it through customs, I was wearing my security pouch on the outside of my shirt. I had to buy several train tickets to make it to the university in Colchester and constantly reaching in and out of my shirt quickly became too much of a hassle. Frankly, at that point, I didn’t care if I was robbed or not. I probably would’ve just handed over my security pouch and my money belt to any thief that came along as long as they promised to kill me first and end my food-poisoned misery. Instead, the Brits kindly averted their eyes and made polite small talk with one another about the weather, which I began to suspect was code for “Did you see the American girl? Do they all smell like vomit, or is it just her?”
The British are very good at subtext.
I finally made it to the university and once inside my flat, I collapsed on the bare mattress in my airline pajama pants and t-shirt, not even bothering to take off my travel security precautions, and immediately curled into the fetal position to wait for death. Instead, I fell asleep. When I awoke the next morning, I felt much better as the food poisoning had released its hold on me. It was then that the thought occurred to me that things like money belts and security belts become far less effective when worn on the outside of one’s clothes. And yet, a pickpocket hadn’t taken advantage of me. They might have been repelled by my constant vomiting, much like a cuttlefish squirting ink to ward off predators. Or, shockingly, perhaps they were just like people in any other city. A certain level of anxiety and paranoia can be helpful, but too much can cause you to repeatedly shove your hands down your pants in public. Plus, it’s not like I was going anywhere more dangerous than the city I’d grown up in; frankly, I felt I was in more danger of getting a horrible fake tan than mugged while in Essex. But the fear of the unknown can cause you to act in ways you never expected, and sometimes that means you end up wearing airline pajamas while puking in the London Underground.
Mind the gap, indeed.