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On last week’s Bogotá Nights, we discussed insecurity in Colombia’s capital city and the country in general.
One regular viewer, an Englishman who has been based in this country for nine years, told us how he was the victim of only one crime-related episode during that time.
Considering Colombia has been my home for a similar period — it’ll be ten years this November — the Englishman’s revelation shocked me somewhat. I’ve averaged over one incident a year. So have I been lacking in street smarts or just been particularly unlucky? Or have I taken too many risks?
It’s really a mixture of all three, as my recounting here of some of these, to borrow from Lemony Snicket, ‘unfortunate events’ should demonstrate.
I’ll start with the rookie errors, where I was just too relaxed, where I let the guard down, as I put it years ago. Then I’ll detail the incidents that were more foolhardy in nature, buoyed up by Dutch courage at times — when one remembers that is.
Out of sight, out of mind
On those rare summer nights in Ireland when the temperature is in the comfortable zone, one faces that critical choice of whether or not to take a jacket when heading out. I recall a friend’s take on it: ‘Better looking at it than looking for it.’
That sound advice also applies to one’s personal belongings when in public spaces in Bogotá, with one important addition: Not only must one’s items be in sight but they must also be difficult to be got at by others.
In terms of monetary value, the theft of my Asus laptop in 2018 was the biggest hit I suffered on this front. I generally don’t like to go socialising when I have my laptop with me but passing by a friend’s place on my way home from a class, he suggested we go for a few drinks.
The smart move would have been to leave my bag with the laptop inside at his house. Wise after the event, hey? The fact we were in a middle-class part of the city meant I was, subconsciously perhaps, less concerned about something untoward happening.
‘Causing a bit of commotion, I grabbed the guy who I thought was the culprit and insisted he got off the bus with me. He did.’
Sat at a table, I had my bag under my chair. A drink or two in, a couple of people walked by us, one of them hitting my shoulder, prompting me to look in that direction. A few moments later I reached down to where my bag was. Gone in about six seconds. And so were the couple who took it. A hit-and-run attack of sorts.
A similar bag-grab incident happened a few years earlier whilst drinking coffee with a friend in a fancy Oma café in the city centre. On that occasion, fortunately, there was little of value in the bag.
Equally as frustrating as the above was having my Samsung smartphone swiped from my pocket on a packed city bus.
Again, I have to accept my own stupidity in the incident — ‘dando papaya’ as the Colombians say, ire-inducing for the victim to hear as it is.
Writing on my phone throughout the commute — trying to be constructive with my time — when it came to my stop, I put the phone in the chest pocket of the shirt I was wearing and reached for the bell. Returning my hand to the chest pocket, the phone was gone. That’s all it took, those few seconds.
Considering the closeness of people to me, I was convinced I knew the culprit. Causing a bit of commotion, I grabbed him and insisted he got off the bus with me. He did.
He pleaded with me saying it wasn’t him but I was having none of it. I was sure he had some part in it. We went to the nearest minutos street vendor — basically mobile phones for hire per minute — and called my number. A woman answered. I told her I just wanted my phone back, no more. We agreed on a meeting place. Not thinking straight, I let the guy I’d taken from the bus go and made my way to the rendezvous point.
Once there, I called my phone again. And again, the woman answered. She said she was on her way. I waited. Then after about ten minutes, I called once more. This time, it went straight to voicemail.
It was only then it dawned on me that the guy who I’d plucked from the bus had obviously caught up with his accomplice and told her that the ‘idiot gringo’ let him go. They were in the clear.
Whilst angry about losing the phone, I was just as furious about actually capturing one of the thieves and then letting him off the hook.
Out of sight, out of mind indeed. The lesson? On packed buses or Transmilenios — I also had a smartphone taken from my pocket when squeezing onto a Transmilenio — have your valuables well locked up, either in a bag that you have a tight grip on or tucked into your crotch area.
Sometimes showing no fear can work to one’s advantage. And consuming alcohol often imbues one with inflated confidence.
I’ve undertaken long walks home along dimly lit, eerie streets that in sobriety I’d most likely avoid. Remembering the exact details of these wild rovings is often a bonus. Nonetheless, most of the time, nothing happens. Most of the time, that is.
Two incidents, in particular, stand out owing to their that-could-have-been-much-worse nature.
‘The next thing I remember is waking up on a footpath miles south of where I lived with two guys emptying my pockets.’
In 2012, my first full year here, I had the pleasure of being wined and dined at a Christmas party for the English language institute for which I freelanced at the time. The do was in the greater Zona T area, a relatively fancy part of the city.
When home-time came, I opted to take a bus back to my residence in the centre rather than fork out for a taxi on my own — taxis have always been a last resort for me.
Rather tipsy, I was happy to find a vacant seat on the bus. The next thing I remember is waking up on a footpath miles south of where I lived with two guys emptying my pockets — I had something like 60,000 pesos in cash and a very basic phone, worth about 30,000 pesos. The assailants, rather kindly, did leave me with 500 pesos, about a third of the value of the standard bus fare back then.
Slowly gathering my bearings but not at all too sure as to where exactly I was, I had a bit of a wait for another bus to come by — it was the early hours of the morning after all. Eventually, one that passed through the centre came along. Thankfully the bus driver accepted my incomplete fare as I tried to explain in my quite poor Spanish what had happened.
Disorientated and drained, I took a seat and — wait for it — fell asleep again. I woke up to the bus driver telling me we’d reached the end of the route — at a small terminal in Fontibon to be precise, on the city’s western limits.
I told him that I needed to go to the centre. Although he initially seemed keen to get me off, in the end, he left me where I was while he went for something to eat. About 30 minutes later he came back and set off on the return journey. I didn’t miss my stop this time.
Six years later, in November 2018, I was socialising in my “beloved” La Perseverancia barrio. It was the birthday of one of my costeño (somebody originally from the coast, that is) acquaintances, so, as is the costeños wont, the beer and, more damagingly, whiskey were in full flow.
As I recall, we went on a bit of a tienda crawl. The whiskey soon began to take its toll. The next memory I have is of my coming round on a footpath, with a bloodied face and black eye and two police officers standing over me. I had nothing but the keys to my apartment on me.
Foolishly, I’d gone out that night with a wallet containing my Colombian bank card, my ID and my Irish driver’s license. I also had a bag with me. Everything was taken.
At least the police officers did drive me to my residence.
The next day I returned to La Perseverancia in a bid to get some idea as to what had transpired. I thought somebody might know something. Of those I trust the most there, they knew as much as me, i.e. next to nothing. What exactly happened that night remains — and no doubt will remain — a mystery.
There have been some other similar opaque occurrences but the above gives enough of an idea of the idiocy involved.
Ending on a more positive outlook, outside of the Cuban phone crisis that I wrote about at the beginning of this year and at the risk of jinxing myself, I’ve had nothing stolen since 2018.
I think I’ve had my fair share all the same.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.