March 26, 2006
This was the day I dreaded, the one I hoped would never happen. But it did.
Before today, things were going really well. I made a lot of new friends, and we had a great time together. I also met up with some old friends, and they were generous enough to offer me a place to stay. I had gone to barbecues and parties, seen waterfalls and ruins. It all seemed perfect until today.
This morning, Kristian, Wendy, Ines, and I dropped by the hostel where Sam and Kim, the couple I spent Christmas with back in Puerto Varas, Chile, were staying. We invited them to go hiking with us on a trail to some hills outside of town. They couldn't come with us, so we got directions from some people working at the hostel and took off.
The four of us got on a bus that went out of the city and up a hill. On the way up the hill, we went through a rich area with lots of mansions and a few gated communities. At the start of the trail, we passed a few houses and chatted a bit with the people sitting outside. We also said hello to an Argentine couple who had hiked partway up the trail and started a barbecue. It was a hot and sunny day. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
After about thirty minutes of walking uphill in the hot sun, Ines started to feel dehydrated. She didn't seem to be affected too badly, but she didn't want to continue walking. We made sure she drank plenty of watter and let her relax in the shade. She started writing in her journal, and Kristian, Wendy, and I continued up the hill.
After another thirty minutes or so, we reached the top of one of the hills near Cerro Arco, our final destination. We stopped to take in the scenery and saw someone coming toward us from the opposite direction. When I saw the t-shirt over his face, I figured he had taken it off because he was hot. It was strange, though, because he was still wearing another t-shirt. Then I saw the gun in his right hand. We were about to get robbed.
My first instinct was to run, but Kristian and Wendy quickly let me know that it was too late. The robber and his accomplice, also armed and masked were on us almost instantly. They told us to get on the ground and started looking for things to take. One of them grabbed my backpack and wallet, and the other one took Kristian's backpack and camera bag and Wendy's watch. When they felt that they had everything, they took off running down the hill.
When we got over the initial shock of being robbed at gunpoint, we assessed what had been taken. My wallet was gone, but luckily I wasn't carrying any credit cards or my passport. I didn't have much cash in it, either. However, they also got my backpack, which contained all of my camera equipment and my waterproof jacket. They even stole my Brewer's hat! Besides the cheap watch, Kristian and Wendy also lost a fleece jacket and a really nice digital camera. In a moment's time, it was all gone.
Quickly, we became worried about Ines. She was sitting all alone against some rocks near the trail. Would the bandits get to her? If so, what would they do to her? We waited a few minutes for the robbers to get down the hill before looking for her. We walked down the hill and eventually found Ines. Luckily, the bandits didn't see her. We were quite relieved to see that she was OK.
After walking a little further, the local couple that was cooking a barbecue ran up to us. They had been robbed too. Luckily for them, they didn't have a camera with them, and they only lost some money. We all gave each other a hug and walked together toward the nearest telephone. On the way, we passed the same houses we had passed on the way in, but nobody there had seen the robbers. There were several paths, so they must have taken a different route back to the city.
When we got to the phone, Wendy called the family that hosted her during her first month here, and they called the police. I was impressed when the police showed up within five minutes. We were lucky to have the local couple with us because they gave a good description to the police of where they were and what happened. If it had been just us Americans, we would have had a hard time with the language barrier and the fact that we didn't know the area too well. However, since the locals only lost a small amount of cash, they didn't feel like going through the hassle of filling out a full police report.
The police drove us to the nearest station where we each had to give a separate account of what happened. Kristian and Wendy went first while Ines and I waited patiently outside the police department. It took forever for them to finish. Eventually, Wendy's host family showed up. They didn't know where we were, so they had to go to three other police departments before finding us.
My interview was no shorter than Kristian and Wendy's. It was really frustrating because the detective who interviewed me was paying more attention to the soccer game on TV. "Do you know who that is? That's Maradona," he said at one point, as if I cared. Every time he asked me something, his focus shifted from me to the TV before I was finished answering, and then he'd have to ask again. (For the record, the game ended in a 1-1 tie and riots ensued over the excitement of it.) The worst part was that I kept trying to tell the guy the details of a tattoo one of the robbers had, and instead of writing it down, he kept saying "Later, later." Later never came and when he printed the report for me to review and sign, nothing was written about the description of the suspects. I refused to sign it until he got it right, which took at least five tries.
When I walked out of the police department after the report was finally completed, Wendy's whole host family was still there waiting for us. We were at the police station for a total of two and a half hours. I was told that was pretty short because we didn't have to wait for anyone else ahead of us. We probably would have been there all night if there had been more crime in town today. Finally, we got a ride home from Wendy's host mom.
After we got home, everyone took a long shower and we met Sam and Kim for dinner. We tried to put what happened past us, but it was tough. No matter how hard we tried to talk about other things, the conversation kept jumping back to the robbery.
I can't help replaying today's events over and over in my mind. What if I had done something differently? Did I get robbed because I did something stupid, or was it just bad luck? I think it was more bad luck than anything else. Here are some of the facts that I have surmised:
The bandits didn't follow us from a distance. If they had, they surely would have seen Ines because she was sitting right next to the trail. They must have taken a different route to intercept us, and they couldn't have been watching us for more than ten minutes or so.
We weren't targeted because we were tourists. The locals got robbed first, then the bandits searched for anyone else in the area. This, along with the fact that they couldn't have followed us from far away, tell me that the robbers were looking for anyone on the trail, and unfortunately, they found us.
We weren't robbed because we looked rich. I was wearing old, dirty, smelly clothes, and the only thing I was carrying was my backpack, which appeared almost worthless. The fact that my backpack had expensive camera equipment doesn't matter because the robbers never saw what was inside. In fact, they didn't even look in it when they robbed us. For all they knew, I could have just had my lunch and water inside. They just got lucky to hit some people with expensive equipment.
What could I have done to avoid the situation? I was warned when I got into town not to go into the big park alone, or into certain neighborhoods at all. However nobody ever warned me about going into the hills outside of town, and the fact that they were located near a neighborhood full of mansions didn't set off any alarm bells in my head. When I asked the police how common it was for people to get robbed there, they told me that robberies sometimes happen near the hills, but almost never happen toward the top where we were. Before we went on the hike, we asked several people, including the employees at a hostel, our bus driver, and random people on the street how to get to Cerro Arco. While they provided us with good directions, none of them gave us even the slightest warning about going there. We were walking during the middle of the day in a group of four in an area where other people were hiking as well, which in itself would have thwarted many robbery attempts, but the entire equation changes when guns are involved. It seems that the only way I could have avoided getting robbed would have been to stay home, but then what would be the point of traveling?
When we got robbed, could I have done anything differently? I couldn't have thrown my backpack in the bushes in hopes that the robbers wouldn't see it because they were already too close when we saw them. Running would have been stupid because they could have caught me, or worse yet, shot me in the back. Fighting them would have been the worst thing to do because at least one of the guns was definitely loaded. I think trying to convince them that my backpack had nothing of any value in it might have worked, but then what if they wanted to verify my claim?
Life Goes On
Even though I am now without a camera, I still have a lot. I'm alive, I still have my passport and bank cards, and I have enough money to keep traveling. My cameras were worth a lot, but they were insured, so I should get reimbursed.
I'm not going to let some punk kids with guns ruin my life. Argentina is a great place, and the vast majority of the people here have nothing but good intentions. Even Mendoza isn't a bad place. It's a tranquil city with lots of great parks, restaurants, and bars to go to. Poverty does exist here, but most of the city is middle class or higher. Hopefully I'll be able to get my life back in order soon and continue with my travels. I may no longer be able to take photos, but my ambition to see the world is still alive and well.