Robbed in Santiago Atitlan

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. The good news is I didn’t get hurt, and they didn’t get very much from me.

I went for a day trip to Santiago Atitlan yesterday. It is an easy trip; you just take the boat over and back. I was only planning on walking around town, seeing the market, having lunch, and coming home, so I didn’t take much with me, not even my backpack. Just my camera in one pocket, and my wallet in the other.

I had a nice time shopping before lunch. I found some soap that my grandmother asked for, and a cloth bag to carry the soap and other stuff in. I went to a nice place for lunch, and had virtually the same lunch I had several times in Senegal: roasted chicken with carmelized onion sauce. Chickens, charcoal, and onions seem to be some of those universal constants in the kitchen. The other is “a small white fish, fried whole and put on a plate”. I’ve had that served to me in two places in Senegal and about 5 places here. For the record, it never really gets easier to politely deal with all the bones. Not my favorite dish, due to the sheer inconvenience of it.

After lunch I decided to take the long way back to the boats to enjoy a little walk and see a bit more of the town. The course I charted for myself was about right… down through a neighborhood to the fields at the edge of the lake, then follow the lake around to the embarcadero. On my way through the neighborhood, a kid walking towards me tried to snatch my watch off my wrist. The kind of watch band I have (The Band, from Chisco) does not come off like that, so he didn’t get it. I turned around and just watched him walk off, thinking to myself, “What a complete asshole.” As I turned to keep walking, I made eye contact with a girl who saw it happen and she seemed unsurprised but maybe a bit cognizant of how behavior like this from her neighbors makes people feel about coming to buy things from her.

I continued my walk, which turned out to be a mistake. Clearly I was outside the allotted zone in Santiago Atitlan “Where We Don’t Rob Tourists”. Alas, on my way out of the fields, about 50 meters from town, I got stopped by two kids. The one in front had a machete, and it was him I concentrated on and dealt with. I suspect the other one was simply along for the ride. The kid in front grabbed my wrist first thing. He never really threatened my physically with the machete, but as he approached to grab my wrist, he showed it to me.

After a tiny struggle where we came to equilibrium, he understanding I wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t going to resist physically, and I certain I wasn’t in any physical danger from a knife. So I looked at him and stupidly and clumsily said, “What do you want?” As though I didn’t have a clue. I don’t know why, but my instinct was to take things slow, to be slow and stupid, and waste his time. It turned out to be a pretty good idea, because he knew he was exposed where we were, and needed to get this transaction over with rapido. He answered, “Dinero. Rapido, rapido.” Which was fine with me, because I had considered what I’d do if I got robbed before, and knew I’d happily give them all my money. As a result, I never carry much money. I had about 300 quetzales, or $40 dollars.

Then something mildly amusing happened. Or at least the only thing amusing I can take away from getting robbed. He was holding my right wrist, tight. As I went to put my right hand in my pocket to get the money it was clear to both of us this wasn’t going to work. He seemed unsure what to do about the problem, so I put my other wrist over by his hand for him to take so he could still hold me, but also get his money. As kc says, I need a bumpersticker that says “Sysadmins: we fix stuff.”

Clearly he hadn’t done this much before. Of course, he looked to be only 15 years old or so, so he hadn’t much time to practice.

So I get out my wallet and pull out all the money and give it to him. He wanted the wallet, but I told him, no, take the money (which was a pointless argument because there was nothing else in the wallet; my cards, passport, etc live other places). Somewhere along the line, he grabbed the gold chain I wear, which was a present from kc. That really pissed me off, but I was too busy dealing with the money and his other demands to do anything about it. I really regret now that I didn’t figure out a way to trade him the money for the chain… it was worth much more to me than to him, and I’m sure the time it would have taken to argue about this would have been all good for me and all bad for him.

Then he asked for my camera. It was put away in my pocket and I was certain he had not seen it yet. So I said that I didn’t have one. This was a bit more of a risk than I should have taken, because (1) it is insured, and (2) it’s unclear how things would have worked out if he’d found the camera afterall. Again though, I was helped by the fact we were in broad daylight on a trail with a lot of traffic, he was in a huge hurry, and I was under no real physical threat. So after asking a few more times, tugging fruitlessly at my watch and my new bag securely on my shoulder, they gave up and took off. I watched them head on down the trail to see if any witnesses would show up, but alas no one did.

I walked up the trail and asked the people sitting on a doorstep if they knew the two kids that walked by. Without a beat they said, “Did they rob you?” So clearly they either knew the kids or knew their reputation. I told them yes, and they asked how much I lost. I told them only 300 quetzales, and they said, “No we don’t know them. Nope.” Which I’m pretty sure was a lie. I think they were just calculating the various costs/benefits of turning them in. Probably they needed to know how much I lost to calculate the kickback they would be getting from the thiefs. But I was in a pretty dark mood then, and perhaps they were just telling the truth. But I doubt it.

So lessons… Don’t keep walking in a neighboorhood after the first robbery attempt, no matter how fleeting. Continue not carrying much cash. And, if time is on your side (it is daylight, you can expect other foot traffic), and you are not actively being threatened with harm, take your time and waste theirs. The sooner they give up and take off, the less you lose.

Oh, and I didn’t report it to the police. The travel insurance I have does not cover cash, only stuff. So it would have just been a waste of time, and contrary to one of the cardinal rules of travel in Guatemala: the less you have to do with the police the better. Yes, even walking into a police station to report a robbery is, alas, breaking that rule. It is not inconcieveable that you could walk in to the police and end up set up for some other crime! Oversight from the capital is apparently not a top priority for the police.

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