Friday, March 18, 2016

On Getting Conned. On Trust.

A month ago I was conned out of about $50 by a gypsy woman in Chillan, Chile. As a seasoned traveler this is not easy to admit because I am supposedly aware of all these potential scams. I'm careful of pickpockets when in public places, and normally always say "no" to anyone who approaches me asking for a handout. It's easier for me just to have strict rules like that.

The Story

The scenario started a couple hours earlier. I was sitting in the town's main central plaza and had a few hours to kill before taking a bus 5 hours north to Santiago. I sat on a park bench reading a book (on my kindle) when a gentleman sat down next to me and started asking me innocent questions: Where was I from? How did I like Chile? etc.

I was partially enjoying practicing my new Spanish language skills with him, so I tried to make simple conversation. After several minutes he started asking me for money. I refused and refused, but finally gave in and gave him some coins worth less than $1. After all, I'd been able to practice some Spanish so I feel like I got something from the exchange.

At that I picked up my backpack and left, going for a walk around town to kill some more time. Perhaps I could find a better place to read my book.

The Grift

A couple hours later I only had about 30 minutes until my bus and I was back at the same central plaza sitting on another park bench reading my book. This time I was approached by a gypsy woman who sat down next to me and wanted to read my palm. But she didn't just ask to read my palm. After a couple pleasantries to get my attention she took my hand and began reading my fortune. What is a gentleman to do? Should I physically pull my hand away from hers? Or should I humor her for a minute? I decided to humor her, partly because of that extra layer of male-female physical/psychological interaction where it is rude for a gentleman to express physical force with a woman. 

So she's reading my palm and asking me if I want to find love or money in life. I respond and she tells me some fortune that I can't even understand because my Spanish is not so good. Now she has me in a place where she has performed a favor for me. In psychology they call this the norm of reciprocity and it puts her at an advantage. It is a trick used by skilled salespeople for thousands of years -- give someone a free sample and they feel an obligation to at least buy a little something. It also acts in much greater levels of humanity, such as international relations. From the referenced wikipedia page:
An underlying norm of reciprocity is by itself a powerful engine for motivating, creating, sustaining, and regulating the cooperative behavior required for self-sustaining social organizations, as well as for controlling the damage done by the unscrupulous.
She asked for some money to be used as part of the palm reading. I wondered if she had observed me with the other gentlemen a couple hours prior, or if he had tipped her off that I was an easy mark. She wasn't directly asking that I give it to her, only that I produce a bill. At this point I think I was weakened by my minor generosity earlier in the day and my desire to end this interaction without making a scene.

So I reached into my money clip (bad move to show my hand) and gave her the smallest bill -- about $1.50. She folded it up in her hand while encanting some gypsy spell and used a slight-of-hand trick to disappear the bill and in it's place was a bunch of grey pulp mush, as if the paper bill had been ground down into pulp in her hand. She kept referencing her children and how they needed food and clothes.

What happened next I can't exactly remember. It happened fast and my defenses were up because I was protesting the loss of my money. I was concerned and angry and frustrated and felt like an idiot. But the part I do remember is that my money clip was out again and she simply grabbed all the remaining bills in there. It was at least $40. Might have been $75. I dunno. But again, I was attempting to protest in Spanish but lacked the words to say what I meant. For some reason I didn't want to make a scene, probably because I was so damn embarrassed that I just wanted to get out of there without losing my backpack and laptop and everything. As I protested, her 3 children came near as did another gypsy woman friend of hers. There were other people in the plaza, but I felt surrounded by women and children, against whom I couldn't physically take back my money.

I pulled out my phone and looked up the word "thief" in Spanish. Ladron. I called all of them thieves. Then I pointed at the children, one by one, looked into their eyes, and said "mal suerte" or "bad luck". I did that to each of the 5 of them as I grabbed my backpack and left for the bus station. I only had a few minutes until my bus and didn't want to waste time trying to find a policeman.

What Happened

As I immediately reflected back on the experience, I saw what she did to me. The gypsy woman used time-tested tricks to step-by-step her way to my money. They are the same tricks used by conmen and magicians for generations and they take advantage of how our brains work. See my earlier Bucket List post that references this topic and check out the episodes of "Brain Games" to understand more.

My Strategy of Trust Over Fear

The bright side of this is that this event really didn't bother me very much. And why should it? What good would it do me to dwell negatively on a past experience that has gone already?

Buddhist philosophy shares a story of being struck by two arrows. The first arrow hits us the minute we feel some pain -- maybe we accidentally cut our finger with a knife. Ouch! That's the first arrow. The first arrow is just the physical pain.

But the second arrow is far more damaging. The second arrow is the mental pain. It is the one where we beat ourselves up over how stupid we were for not being more careful with the knife. Dammit! Why the hell did I do that? I'm such an idiot! If I would have just been more careful I wouldn't have cut myself.

The point is that we cannot always control the first arrow. But we can control the second.


I am currently traveling the world and coming into contact daily with people from different cultures and ways of living. In previous travels to distant lands I was often fearful of strangers. Many times a local would see me walking by and offer me a drink from his bottle of local, homemade hooch.  Or a group would offer to have me sit in on their card game. I was skeptical, because where I come from strangers rarely offer to share like that. I have turned down opportunities in Indonesia and Eastern Europe to potentially spend some valuable time with a local, an opportunity to learn more about them and their culture. 

I decided that this time, when traveling the world, I wasn't going to be so fearful. Instead, I was going to trust people with the full understanding that some of them would take advantage of that trust. Four months in and so far only the gypsy woman has taken advantage of my trust. I'm happy with my new trust arrangement because I have a much more positive outlook on people and have had more positive interactions as a result.

I don't approve at all of her lifestyle, but she obviously needed the money more than me.

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