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Spanish Secrets: The Hand Is Quicker Than The Eye

The open market looked like an enormous Bedouin camp, a vast expanse of tethered white tarpaulins shimmering in the bright daylight… Craig Briggs and his wife Melanie go Christmas shopping in Valenca, a Portuguese fortress town.

Sending Christmas gifts from our home in Spain to family in England is not quite as straight forward as one might expect. The mechanics are simple enough. The Spanish post office (Correo) is reasonably efficient. Our biggest problem is the cost.

Inevitably it costs us more to despatch the gifts, than the cost of the gifts themselves. It therefore follows, that our highest priority when choosing presents is their weight. With this in mind we decided to complete our Christmas shopping in Portugal, international home of lightweight fabric manufacturing.

Wednesday is market day in the Portuguese border town of Valenca, about an hour’s drive away. Unbeknown to many, a trip to Portugal involves time-travel.

With a fair wind and a clear highway, it’s possible to arrive in Portugal at the same time as we’d left home. We achieve this feat, not by travelling in some science fiction style time-machine, but in our little Renault car. As you might have guessed, Portugal is one hour behind Spain.

Once across the border we left the main highway and headed towards the fortress town of Valenca. Rounding the brow of a hill, there it was, the open market. Looking like an enormous Bedouin camp, this vast expanse of tethered white tarpaulins shimmered in the bright daylight and gentle breeze. Hundreds of nomadic traders descend on this border town every Wednesday.

The market was much busier than we had ever seen it before. Surrounding streets were lined with cars parked nose-to-tail. Temporary car parks of muddy furrowed fields were full. Grass verges had been commandeered, pavements hijacked and even a roundabout had become a makeshift parking place.

Finding a space would be a matter of luck. We entered the largest of the muddy fields, slipping and sliding as the car struggled for traction. Our luck was in and we soon found a space.

Experience has taught us to be very protective of our wallets in this bustling milieu. Pickpockets thrive in this close and tactile environment. A situation I’d encountered firsthand on a visit to this same market during the summer.

Encountering a pickpocket is a very rare experience. One might encounter a street robber or a mugger, but not a pickpocket. Pickpockets use stealth, speed and organisation. The hand is quicker than the eye and, in my experience, quicker than the mind’s ability to translate tactile senses into comprehensive thoughts.

Before my mind had translated the sensation of having a hand in my trouser pocket, the hand was gone. Moving like a shadow through the dense crowds, my hooded assailant had walked several paces in front of me before my mind had caught up with his actions. The realization of events stopped me in my tracks. The dark spindly character turned. For the briefest moment our eyes met, before the shadowy figure disappeared into the crowd.

He’d left me as he’d found me. Penniless. The paper tissue I had in my pocket remained. As for the money, that was safe and sound in Melanie’s little handbag, tucked tightly under her arm. Unfortunately for him, this was not our first visit to the market.

No such encounter greeted us on this occasion. Laden with boxer shorts, handkerchiefs, tablecloths and sweatshirts we returned home - mission accomplished.

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Copyright © 2005 Craig Briggs

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