It’s November now, which in Cartagena means a month of festivos (holidays) to celebrate Cartagena’s fight for and declaration of independence from Spain. This year, Cartagena’s parties are even bigger because they’re celebrating 200 years of independence, all happening on the easy-to-remember date of 11/11/11. Though I would love to see the parties, and the Cartageneros dancing, singing and happily filling the streets with music, by not being there, I am also missing out on the fights, violence and the robberies that notoriously plague the streets during these celebrations.
Back in March, I went to Carnaval in Barranquilla, which considering how packed and crazy the city became, was apparently quite similar to the November celebrations in Cartagena. After drinking and dancing all night to music blasting from sound systems set up in the street, I was lucky enough to get back home with all of my belongings. Another teacher at the university where I taught in Cartagena was not so lucky. While she was dancing and watching the parades of costumed revelers, a group of guys surrounded her, sprayed her face with espuma (spray foam used as a gag during celebrations) and then snatched her wallet out of her purse while she wiped her eyes. Probably the only reason I avoided such a fate was that I was with a group of locals and therefore not as easy a target.
Although Cartageneros are very proud people boasting about their food, music, beaches and beautiful women, they are also quite honest and aware of the dangerous underbelly lurking in the most popular tourist destination in Colombia. Whenever I went to the mall or centro (downtown), my host grandfather would warn to watch my bags, not wear anything too nice, and keep an eye out for danger (ojo!). I thought that maybe he was just being overprotective and paranoid, but when one of our neighbors came back from the mall without her purse, I realized the very real threat of crime is all around me – on the streets and even in my host family home.
It’s easy to become comfortable and careless in a familiar place. I lived in Brooklyn, New York for eight years without incident and in spite of street smarts, I’d still sometimes forget how dangerous a place it can be when walking home alone at 3am. In Cartagena, seeing the same people on my walk to the bus every morning instilled a sense of security, which ended up being a false one. To them, I was the gringa English teacher and I assumed they would protect me if the wrong person approached. Still, I knew to always take precautions. I never left the house with more than 100 mil pesos (about $50.00), and usually only carried around 30 mil or less, just as much as I knew I had to spend that day. I purchased a bottom-of-the-line cell phone because I was told that it would likely get stolen at some point. Most surprising was that the people I trusted the most might have been the ones who burgled me.
In order to avoid exorbitant ATM withdrawal fees for foreign accounts, I took out pretty good chunks of cash each time I went to the ATM and would hide it in a wallet I kept deep down in a bag at the bottom of my closet. The day before a flight to North Carolina in May, I discovered over $100 was missing from that travel wallet. I suspected that Glennis, the woman who cleaned and cooked in my home stay, took the money because she’d asked to borrow some a few days earlier and I said I couldn’t lend it to her (it was against my program’s policy). I spoke to my host family about the missing money and they told me that I should hide it better and that they’d give me a lock for the closet. They explained that though they trusted Glennis in their home, they would never keep money around.
When I returned to Cartagena, things were never the same between us. We used to joke around together and I tried to be as helpful as possible to make her job easier, but after the money went missing, we barely spoke to each other and she avoided making eye contact with me. I can’t imagine that it was just my imagination or one-sided, but perhaps the way she treated me was not only self-motivated but based on my behavior towards her (I saw that more clearly after reading The Help).
There were improvements in our relationship after that incident, but again, right before leaving Colombia for good a few months later, money disappeared from my stash (which I’d changed the location of) when I left to quickly run an errand. This time, with my Spanish much improved, I approached Glennis and without direct accusation, explained that before I left the house, I had a certain amount and upon returning, that amount had markedly decreased. Her eyes narrowed and lowered, and yet with indignation in her voice, she offered to give me 50 mil from her wallet, which, if I’d had any proof of her larceny I would have accepted. Instead I told her, “I don’t want to take your money.” She repeated the phrase back to me and that was that.
As much as my trust was broken, my experience of petty theft does not compare to another friend who had money stolen from him in Cartagena. On the night of his birthday, he was stopped by the police and when he couldn’t present his foreigner cedula (Colombian form of ID) because he was waiting for a new one to arrive, or a copy of his passport he’d forgotten at home, he was strip searched, handcuffed and only released when the police rifled through his wallet and stole 220 mil pesos (about $100). He was justifiably shaken and incredibly angered by the experience, which I could understand from having money stolen by someone who’s supposed to be a caretaker. It’s a deeply disturbing violation of trust. Our Colombian friends assured us that he wasn’t necessarily experiencing anything unusual because he’s a gringo; police in Colombia routinely accept bribes and will let someone go if they get enough money out of them.
As a result of that incident, I wondered if the police were involved in a bus robbery that I witnessed, since they were miraculously present right after it happened.
About two weeks before my final night in Cartagena, I was going to a friend’s farewell party and to tell my crew that I’d be prematurely saying goodbye as well. Though a routine activity, I could never predict the bus ride downtown since, depending on traffic, it could be anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour. A collectivo (collective taxi) would have been preferable, as my Colombian friends recommended when going out at night, but I didn’t see any. Besides, I’d been in Cartagena for almost seven months and hadn’t had any problems outside of my home, so I boarded a bus decked out with decorations, flashing, colorful lights, and reggaeton music played at top volume.
As usual, I tried to blend in as much as possible, which was a bit of a challenge given my lighter skin tone and dress from H&M. We stopped for what I thought would be a routine bus switch, which happens when the driver decides it’s not worth his time to go all the way downtown and turns his charges over to another bus driver. The woman sitting next to me gently placed her hand on my leg and said something that I couldn’t understand, but I assumed it to be, “Just wait here until we need to get off the bus.” I looked into her face and saw both kindness and a hint of terror, and when I looked around at the other passengers, I saw their panicked expressions.
I didn’t know what was going on. Suddenly, passengers were rushing to the back of the bus and my herd instincts told me to go with them. I followed their collective gaze and saw in the front of the bus a young man threateningly lurching over the driver. At the back of the bus, people were banging on the door in hopes that the driver would open it and let us out, but he was too busy giving the man a day’s worth of fares to worry about us. We were all trapped and I could only do what the woman instructed – wait. Under the last row of seats, I hid my camera, hoping that if the robber came through the bus to mug us all that at least that would be spared. Though no one else around me was doing so, I was starting to put my money and cedula into my bra when suddenly the bus doors opened and the robber fled, leaving behind our collective terror.
Once again, I lucked out and was not harmed or mugged. I collected the camera and promptly moved past police as they boarded the bus, which I was so relieved to be leaving. However, it was curious that the police were so quickly at the site of the crime. I had seen enough by that time to have an equal mistrust of both the law breakers and law enforcers.
With the sea of other passengers, I got onto a neighboring, much quieter bus and continued the journey downtown. I was shaken, but felt calmer after exchanging reassuring looks and smiles with the woman who had been seated next to me. Though I felt safe again, I had just learned that Cartagena’s underbelly could rise at any time.
Later that night, when I told my best friend, a Cartagena native, about what happened, he informed me that a tactic amongst petty thieves in Cartagena is to board a bus in their “bad neighborhood” and ride it until they reach their desired destination. They then rob the bus so they’ll have money to spend on the nightlife. The buses that travel through those “bad neighborhoods” can be avoided.
Despite these incidents, it’s possible to travel to Colombia without becoming a victim of crime or violence. I traveled to numerous cities and what I’ve recounted are only my personal accounts of crime-like activity. In contrast to its infamous reputation, Colombia should not be avoided but rather explored for its beauty, diversity, and the warmth and kindness of the majority of its people. That’s one of the reasons I chose it as a teaching abroad experience and my expectations were exceeded in this regard.
Sometimes no matter how cautious you think you are, it’s a matter of luck avoiding crime when traveling abroad. And sometimes you just have to follow the rhythms and movements of the pulsing city, and trust your instincts. That’s all you have until trial and error shows who else can be trusted.