Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Little Subtraction, Part 1: Robbery

I was robbed last Tuesday night and lost my camera and Bolivian cell phone. If I had been the victim of normal pickpocketing, I don’t think I would have felt quite so shaken, but the robber was pretty aggressive. Willa (one of my housemates) and I took a bus and planned to do a transfer on the edge of the market area (which is known for robberies). We've done this a lot and never have to wait for the next bus. Last Tuesday, however, was the Aymara New Year (aka the Winter Solstice or, in the States, the Summer Solstice), which President Evo Morales declared a public holiday sometime in the last few years. Therefore, public transportation wasn’t running normally and Willa and I ended up stranded where we had intended to transfer. A simple solution would have been to take a taxi, but there were no safe taxis around. (A “safe taxi” is a marked one, indicating that it is dispatched by a company. An “unsafe” taxi, at least at night, is one with a generic sticker that says “taxi” which people slap on their cars when they want to make money transporting people.)

This sign indicates the risk of wildfires in the national park near Cochabamba. 
It could also indicate the level of risk involved in being near the Cochabamba market
 at night, on a holiday, when not many taxis are around.

While waiting for a safe taxi, a man ran up and starting yanking at the camera bag I had around my neck. I thought it was inconspicuous/unattractive enough seeing as how it was small and I was holding it close to my body, but this man was not deterred. I tugged back and ended up on the ground, and then the guy ran away. Willa and I then looked more desperately for a marked taxi and, within a few minutes, the man reappeared and again pulled at my bag.

At that point I told Willa we just needed to leave, even if we had to do so on foot, and we began to walk in the direction of our home (which was a few miles away at that point). One of the men we passed exhorted us to escape because the thief was following. While I was grateful for the warning, that moment might actually have been the scariest part of the experience because I looked around and had no idea who was following us, where he might come, and when he might attack. There wasn’t much we could do, though, except continue walking.

Less than a block away, I asked Willa to lend me the sweater she had bought at the market earlier so that I might put it on and cover the camera bag but the thief appeared again, started yanking at my bag again, and would not let go. I ended up on the ground again (cussing a lot, I have to admit), and pulled back, in part to save my camera and in part to save my neck. The strap on my camera bag was thick, after all, and I did not relish the idea of being dragged, strangled, or cut.

On a certain level, I’m glad the plastic clasps on the bag broke and the thief got away. Ideally, the thief would have run away and not come back after the first robbery attempt but that didn’t happen. The man was aggressive, and he certainly didn’t care what happened to me.

In the end, Willa found us a safe taxi and we got back to our house. (I was so upset that I had stopped looking and was ready to walk all the way home.) I cried for a little while, called my travel insurance company to ask about making a claim, and then Willa and I went to visit the sisters next door for tea and, for lack of a better word, debriefing. The sisters told us stories about robberies/robbery attempts that they and their friends had experienced. These stories were strangely comforting, perhaps because they made me feel less stupid for having worn my camera bag on the outside of my clothes and more like I had joined the ranks of everybody else who lives in Cochabamba.

The rest of Tuesday night was pretty horrible in terms of sleep, but I’m better now. Still nervous at times, still a little spooked by quick movements in my direction, but better. I’ve lost a camera and a cell phone but I’m safe and--trying to look even more on the bright side—now that I’ve subtracted a camera from my possession, I can subtract a little weight from my bag in the face of increasingly strict weight restrictions on airlines. Yay. Just what I was looking for when Willa and I headed to the market Tuesday night.

We went up the mountain in the national park
(the most uninviting, unmarked national park I've ever seen)
and what do you think we saw?  A giant slide! 
A happy picture for a not so happy blog entry

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