One of My Top Travel Anxieties Happened. I Got Mugged.
A mugger cut me off on a solitary street in Cali, Colombia. This is the story of how I got away and what I could have done differently.
The night before I was mugged, I had a dream.
In my dream, I was running laps on a track. The last time I regularly exerted myself in this fashion was in high school. But this was no garden variety forgot-my-locker-combo night terror.
I was forty years old in this dream. My track coach was yelling at me to slow down; I was too out of shape to be running like that. I was going to hurt myself.
Ignoring the coach’s advice, I glided around the curve. The track was just like high school except palm trees lined the edges and the air was muggy. I felt as fleet-footed as I did when I was eighteen.
I think I remember reading once in Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, that dreams shape the emotional texture of our experiences. I woke up feeling like a capable runner.
Low On Cash
The evening before I was mugged, I counted our Colombian pesos and realized we wouldn’t have enough for the taxi. We were supposed to arrive at the airport first thing in the morning.
After my family sat down at a seafood restaurant and put in an order for our final supper in Colombia, I left to take care of the cash problem. As a precaution, I handed my cellphone and wallet to Liuan. I only pocketed my debit card.
Though we were supposedly in the safest part of Cali, there were many indications that the locals, even in this area, felt unsafe. Most of the restaurants, though open for business, operated behind a locked iron prison door. Some establishments even had their own security guard. They stood outside brandishing a wooden stick. It was enough to make a visitor paranoid about what lurked in the streets.
The nearest ATM was on a crowded busy highway, several blocks east, that marked the outer edge of our “safe” neighborhood. I had used it before, but this time it was out of order.
The next closet ATM was four blocks farther east. It was in a less safe neighborhood. Best to wait until daylight to try that one, I decided.
The Morning We Left Colombia
The morning I got mugged was the morning we were leaving Colombia. It had been a beautiful, if wistful, 35-day adventure.
By 8 o’clock, we had eaten a quick breakfast and lined up our backpacks. In a half hour, we would take a taxi to the airport. I still needed to get cash to pay the taxi driver.
It was daylight, so I didn’t bother leaving my wallet and cellphone behind. I memorized the six block walk to the second nearest ATM so I could pay attention to my surroundings and not have my cellphone out as an easy target. Those are the typical precautions we take in larger cities.
I crossed the highway, leaving the touristy neighborhood of San Antonio. My stride was brisk and purposeful. Better to look confident, I thought.
The further I ventured from the highway, the more the decrepit residential streets felt eerie and deserted. I regarded the few pedestrians I passed with suspicion, even the middle-aged couple hugging goodbye outside their front door.
Two blocks in and I was walking alone.
A young man on a black moped puttered up the street and hovered beside me. Then he continued ahead, but seemed unsure of where he wanted to park. I thought he might be drunk. Whatever he was up to, I didn’t like it.
He finally settled on a place to dismount several paces in front of me. My instincts said get the hell away. I headed to the other side of the street, but he beelined toward me and cut me off.
I stood my ground, looked him in the eye, and attempted a friendly half-nod as he approached. He was almost my height, in his mid-twenties, gaunt (like the stray dogs surviving on scraps, I thought), but not bad looking.
Without hesitation, he closed the gap between us. He pinned my foot under his and thrust a hand into my front pocket—the one that held my wallet. Seemingly by magic, a six inch slash opened up in my pants along my hip.
“No corras… [don’t run],” he rasped as his fingers probed deeper into my pocket.
I fixated on the word “run.” I imagined myself shooting away down the street to safety. Then I reached the end of the block, veered sharp right, and stopped. I actually had run. It wasn’t just an act I accomplished in my imagination. I had bolted from my would-be robber in the other direction and escaped.
I listened for footsteps. Hearing none, I started walking so as not to draw unwanted attention.
I looked over my shoulder and saw motorcycles quickly closing in from behind. This was just normal traffic in Cali, but I wasn’t giving them the benefit of the doubt. I sprinted two more blocks.
When I got back to the busy highway I just wanted to blend in. Instead, I felt conspicuous with my pants slashed open exposing my bright blue boxer shorts.
Despite what just happened, I tried to continue my errand. I gave the defunct ATM from last night another try. It was still out of order.
I walked home still feeling calm, but bewildered.
Reconstructing the Moment
The incident felt like a dream.
After the fact, I spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct those critical few seconds—as one is compelled to do after being frontally attacked. But perception failed me. I had acted without conscious volition. Important details—like how my pants ripped open, or how I physically turned and ran—were jumbled or completely absent.
My assailant obviously had a knife, though I never saw it. There was no other way to explain the long slit along the side of my pocket. Not to mention that would be pretty bold to walk up to a grown man and insert a hand in his front pocket without a weapon in hand.
I had read accounts of muggings before I had left home. In one, a blogger retells his experience getting mugged in Bogotá. The mugger tried to steal his cellphone, he hung on tight, and the mugger stabbed him several times in the arm.
In another account, again in Bogotá, the victim didn’t resist. They took his wallet, wedding ring, and cellphone. It seemed that multiple people were in on the mugging and the writer (his wife) concluded that it was best that he hadn’t resisted.
The lesson was clear. I resolved that I wouldn’t resist or fight back if I ever got mugged. My life is more important than my wallet or cellphone.
And yet… I made a different calculation in the moment. If he had pulled a knife and demanded my cash, I would have handed it over. But losing my driver’s license and debit card were more problematic. Both would have been very difficult to replace, and even more difficult to live without.
Liuan had already lost our other debit card in Chile. Mine was the only one left. Losing access to cash in South America is like being broke, no matter how wealthy your banking app says you are. How would we even get to the airport in a half hour without cash?
In a split-second impulse (I would hardly call it a decision), I bolted. The mugging stories, consciously or not, informed what I observed. There were no accomplices. My assailant was a lone opportunist. He had a knife, but probably not a gun. He seemed possibly drunk, so his reaction time might be slower giving me an advantage. Though I had always imagined that I would be paralyzed with fear in such a moment, I felt calm and in control. And then there was that dream. Instinct assured me I would escape unscathed if I moved quick enough.
The entire episode was over in a matter of seconds.
What Held Me In Place
I kept trying to second guess my actions. Why didn’t I run sooner? After all, weren’t my instincts screaming before he even got off his bike?
I quickly dismissed the idea that I could have fled earlier than I did. I had chosen, to the best of my judgment, the most opportune moment to run. (I’m fast, but I can’t outrun a motorcycle.)
More to the point, for better or for worse, I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. That may sound strange, but I’ll try to explain.
Keep in mind that Colombians have a tighter personal bubble than Americans. Moreover, having a Colombian cut you off and aggressively hawk their restaurant, trinkets, or service—or even just to give you some friendly advice—is a routine feature of walking any Colombian street. You get accustomed to assuming the person interrupting your stroll is friendly. Or at worst, annoying and over-zealous.
In fact, just the other week, a man with a wooden stick cut me off as my three little boys and I were taking a stroll. (That was before we deduced that the tough guys with sticks were actually the good guys guarding their businesses.) My instincts told me to flee, but the three boys trailing me complicated that option. As it turned out, he was just inviting us to a little theater across the street that was putting on a puppet show for kids. I marked the date of the show. It was fun and memorable.
In other words, this wouldn’t be the first time my sirens went off. It happened all the time. But every other threat, so far, had turned out to be innocent.
I also had the thought that I should have turned around and snapped a picture of the guy after I had gained some distance. Though I didn’t want to miss our flight in order to file a police report, at least I could have made the guy sweat.
While that was a fun scenario to imagine, it would have been a hazardous move. My single-minded focus on escape was probably for the best.
Inhabiting Different Worlds
On the way to the airport, we had the taxi driver stop (several times) so we could withdraw the $10 in cash to pay him. Liuan had originally suggested this. I didn’t want to inconvenience the driver, so I insisted on getting the money ahead of time. How differently things could have played out!
In contrast to the streets of Cali, the airport was clean, modern and safe. I considered the gulf that separated my life and the mugger’s. (I’ll call him Mauricio from here on out so I don’t have to keep calling him “the mugger”).
I acknowledged that I was jetting off to an exciting new destination just for fun while Mauricio was stuck in his neighborhood. I considered how easy it was for me to throw away my ruined pants because buying a new pair would be financially uncomplicated for me.
Mauricio had probably never traveled for leisure. He had probably never flown in an airplane. Had he even occupied such a clean, modern and safe space as this airport?
In Colombia, the average laborer barely makes enough to cover basic needs. They dream of a brighter future, just like everyone does, even if the next rung up is simply buying a refrigerator. Opportunity, for him, was sighting a hapless tourist carrying a meager amount of money and stealing it, at the risk of violence or jail.
Just blocks away from Mauricio, foreigners dined and partied in his city. He would never have the opportunity to enjoy his city’s finest delights the way these strangers did. I wondered if that enraged him.
I also wondered what it felt like to face someone and rob them. Was it nerve-racking? It would be for me. I get butterflies just asking a stranger for a favor.
Would I have been capable of empathy if Mauricio had successfully stolen my wallet?
During our layover in Bogota, Liuan got us into an airport lounge. I was now separated from Cali by a vast twelve hours of overland travel, even though it was only 4 hours since I was mugged on her streets.
I went out solo to get Liuan a salad and myself a hamburger. I stood there at the burger joint’s counter, lost in thought, waiting for my number to be called.
A stocky Colombian man in his fifties appeared in front of me. He asked if a nearby door was the bathroom. A high voltage blast of adrenaline shocked my body from head to toe when he approached. Outwardly, I kept calm.
We both saw at once it was the door to the kitchen when a server came out carrying a tray of food. Parece que no, I deadpanned. Si, claro, he laughed.
I silently prayed that my reflexive terror of strangers would wear off.
For the most part, I’m at peace with what happened. I won’t sugarcoat it, travel in South America comes with the risk of petty theft and armed robbery. I knew this day might come and I decided it was worth it to see this amazing continent. After what happened, I still haven’t changed my mind.
The risk of being the victim of a crime, in my experience, is the exception and not the rule. The dangers are concentrated in a few big cities and some very remote regions where tourists rarely go anyways. We spend most of our time outside of those big cities, because that’s what we prefer. And, just like back home, we rarely feel the need to be on guard.
But those big cities are unavoidable. They have the transportation hubs and are often the most famous destinations. And research as you may, if you travel as long as we have, you’ll eventually find yourself with a reason to traverse the sketchier parts. Most of the time it will be just fine.
It’s beyond me why Cali’s touristy San Antonio neighborhood doesn’t have more ATMs. If I had it to do over, I would have hiked north toward the fancy skyscrapers instead of east. It would have just meant walking farther. I also could have picked a route along the busier commercial streets. Again, that would have required more walking than the straight path GoogleMaps indicated.
In the future, I will pick my route more judiciously.
What I don’t want to do is become paranoid and untrusting. That might sound idealistic, but it’s also practical. Not least because locals that stick their nose in your business—striking up a friendly acquaintance in the process—are your best defense against vulnerability. As a foreigner, you need people that are motivated to look out for you.
Thinking beyond practicality, some of our richest travel experiences have come about by trusting strangers. After this experience, I will probably flinch slightly when someone walks up to me and bursts through my American-sized personal bubble. Nevertheless, I am determined to be trusting enough to stand still and assume the best.