Friday, August 10, 2018

Life on the edge: getting out of a knifepoint mugging

So, yesterday I had a unique and terrifying experience. Someone tried to rob me at knifepoint in a suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica. I got away unharmed, and he didn’t take anything. (I wasn’t carrying much anyway. My ATM Card and driver’s license cause I had to go to the bank later, and the US equivalent of $15 in local currency. And also some fresh lychee fruit that took me forever to find.) 

Because of the craziness of this year I decided I wanted a little vacation and decompression time before starting the new semester. So, I cashed in some airline miles and decided to head to Costa Rica for a couple weeks of pacific coast scuba diving and Spanish lessons—two things on my bucket list. I’ve been to south/central America many times and love it there. Usually I travel with other people, but I couldn’t find anyone who could come during the time I had off, so I proceeded with the trip solo. Solo travel is actually pretty relaxing and enjoyable, and you meet plenty of people along the way. For much of this trip I’ve been with groups or new friends. 

Okay, now on to the knifepoint story. I’m decently travel-savvy and fairly street smart, so on the occasions where I walk alone I check my surroundings consistently and stay in crowded areas. While walking the .8 miles to my Spanish school this morning, I reached a point on the typically-crowded road where there was a lull in people and cars. An older-looking man crossed over to my side of the street. Rather than walk past me, he stepped right in front of me and started speaking quietly and intensely in Spanish. 

My spidey-senses immediately went off. Something was not right. And that’s when he pulled the knife from under his shirt. 

When someone wields a knife on you and you can’t understand what they’re saying, a few things run through your head rapid fire.

Why did this guy step in front of me? What is he saying? Are these Spanish lessons even working at all? What is he pointing to? Why is he pointing with a knife? A KNIFE?! Okay so this is not friendly chatter. Why is the knife so obnoxiously big? Is this his first day as a bad guy? Okay, so he either wants me to come with him to that empty field (no gracias) or give him my tiny bag (also no gracias—getting a stab wound stitched up would be less painful than filing paperwork with the DMV to replace a stolen driver’s license. Also it took me forever to find a market that had lychees and I was really looking forward to eating them for  my snack.) 

This man might’ve had a knife, but he grossly underestimated the number of Jason Bourne movies I’ve seen. So, I went into a mindset I didn’t know I possessed: action mode. 

I very quickly gauged the situation—and I mean, this thought process took place within milliseconds—this man was older (so probably not too fast or agile), had a knife the size of Texas (he was trying too hard to look intimidating so probably he’s in the Kindergarten Criminal program), he seemed a little nervous and didn’t want to attract attention (see previous comment), there’s a crowded intersection just around this corner so if I can get to there I’ll be okay.

Also, in that moment, I got incredibly angry. I just buried my brother. One of my dearest friends is dead. I was up all night because I’d had a bad batch of fried plantains. There was no way I was going to let this man take anything from me. I’m aware I look like a grown American Girl Doll and reek of tourist, but I have two things on my side: healthy lungs and long legs. So I used the element of surprise and, pardon my expression, I raised hell. 

I immediately dodged him and began running toward the bend in the road. He was just far enough away that I knew he’d have to try really hard to stab me or grab me, and I instinctively knew he didn’t possess that kind of reaction time. However, he started to run after me, so I began yelling at him so loudly and in English and what I could muster in Spanish. I think I said something along the lines of “GET AWAY! NO THEY WILL PLEASE NOT ROB ME TODAY!” (Nonsense, but it worked.) 

Just as I thought, around the corner were a lot of people. I ran to a group of men who were talking to each other and looked back to see my assailant turn around, put the knife away, and walk in the other direction. Fortunately one of the men in the group spoke some English. I told him what happened and he asked if I was carrying anything valuable, which also struck me as a suspicious question. Probably he was asking if they took anything valuable in his broken English, but I was on level 7,000 alert, so just in case they were working as a group with knife-man, I said no and kept walking, grabbed a cab, and went the remaining .3 miles to school that way.  

As the adrenaline rush wore off, the reality of what had happened, and what potentially could have happened hit me. I was incredibly proud of myself for how quickly I reacted. I also knew I’d be taking cabs and Ubers the rest of my time here. (Which, fortunately I leave Sunday. I’m definitely ready to go home.) 

Lastly, and I’ve debated whether to write anything about this at all, but after thinking about it, I think it may be helpful to address. As I’ve told people what happened, on more than one occasion the initial response has been, “well, you shouldn’t have been walking alone.” You might’ve even thought that as you read this blog. 

Here’s the thing: I walk in groups as much as possible. But, when you travel alone, it’s not always possible to be with someone. Even when you travel with people it’s not always possible to be with someone. Sometimes you have to get from point A to point B by yourself. I take cabs or Ubers if I’m not sure about an area. Should I have taken a bus or cab sooner? Maybe. I’d walked this same path several times with other people before walking it on my own. It was safe. I’d been told by several locals, including my Spanish teacher, that it was safe and good path for tourists, even when walking alone. The only difference between this and other times was I was coming to class late because I’d not been feeling well, so the typical morning bustle was less than usual. 

Still, this didn’t happen at 3am in some abandoned back alley. This happened in a busy, middle class neighborhood in broad daylight. It was close to schools, churches, and police stations. (In fact, this all happened about 50 meters from a police station.) Is traveling in a group ideal? Sure. Realistic? Not always. Also, unfortunately, I've heard stories of groups getting attacked. 

I used common sense. I knew my surroundings and I was even aware that there was a strange lacking of people on that part of path. I’ve walked plenty of sketchier places both in the United States and foreign countries alone and been fine. 

When something like this happens it’s natural to try and find what the victim did “wrong” so we can avoid that same situation. But here’s the unfortunate and harsh truth: these things happen anywhere: in North America, in Central America, in “safe” places, and even to people who are careful. We like to believe that we can completely prevent these things if we do all the right things. I fully believe you can take wise precautions to avoid them, but sometimes they happen anyway, and you need to be ready and vigilant. That’s the reality of the terrible, fallen world we live in.

So feel free to lecture me on walking alone, but do it in your head. 

Overall, it’s been a wonderful trip with wonderful diving, people, and experiences. This was a fluke thing that could’ve been way worse, but fortunately is now a crazy story I get to share at dinner parties and maybe even gives me enough street cred to become a rapper. All that said, I’m ready to come home and have Chipotle.