Thursday, November 8, 2007


Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from Chile, and won't be able to share any more of my own pictures, since I lost my camera when I was robbed at gunpoint in Valparaíso, Chile. I've always sort of wondered how I would react in such a situation. Of course, I hoped I wouldn't get robbed, much less at gunpoint, but I knew it wasn't impossible. Even before traveling in South America, just living in San Francisco, or visiting other cities, I'd thought about what I'd do. I'd always imagined I'd be cooperative and concilliatory, anything not to get shot, but thinking about such hypothetical situations, which are about gut reaction, not logic, doesn't necessarily tell you much about what you'll really do. Now I know what I really do when I have a gun pointed at me.

(Photo by Alejandra Liode Luces)
The coastal city of Valparaíso is known for the counter-balanced cable cars, or ascensors, that have carried people up and down its steep hills for over 100 years. I went to find the Ascensor Polanco, recommended by my guide book, but it was closed.

(Photo by Francisco Martins)
So I decided to just walk up to the top, see the view, and from there to descend down a different nearby street. There weren't many people around, and I stopped to take a picture of a house with a girl sitting in front of it. Two guys a ways up the hill must have seen me, but I didn't really pay attention to them, I was more concerned with the girl not noticing me. I put my camera back in my backpack and continued down the steps. The two guys must have moved quickly, because I didn't realize they were right behind me. Suddenly, there was something poking me lightly in the side, and my backpack was yanked and literally ripped off my back. I knew without thinking what was happening, spun around, and grabbed my bag. The guy who had my bag in his left hand, pointed a very small hand gun at me with his right. I paused; maybe I loosened my grip. I kind of felt like the gun wasn't real, or that they weren't likely to use it. He'd barely touched my back with it initially, had relied on snatching my bag, not scaring me into giving it up. But I still froze, and having a better grip, he yanked it away from me, and started running up the steps with his accomplice. I realized it wasn't just my backpack, but my camera, and I started running after them, which is when I must have stomped on my heel.

I'd imagined getting robbed in a busy public place. Other travelers have described how one person distracted them in a crowd, and a second person grabbed their stuff. I'd scripted this part, and chased them around a corner screaming, "¡Socorro! ¡Me robó! ¡Ayudame!" They turned around, and pointed the gun at me again, which made me stall, but as soon as they started running again, I ran up the steps behind them. By the time I got to the next corner, though, my foot injury was slowing me down. They were nearly a block ahead of me, about to round the next corner. There was nobody ahead to hear me and stop them and I realized they'd have disappeared by the time I ran another block.

I'm surprised by the way I reacted. I was determined not to give up my bag without a fight. It's not that the gun didn't scare me. I was momentarily paralyzed when it was pointed right at me, and that was decisive. If they hadn't had a gun, they would have had to start beating me to make me give up the bag. With it, even if my foot hadn't been injured, it would have taken a good bit of luck and some other people reacting very quickly and fearlessly for them not to have gotten away. But when the gun wasn't directly threatening me, I wasn't inclined to give up. I've never thought of myself as a fighter, but I can be pretty determined, and I guess those two characteristics aren't so far apart. Still, I'd prefer not to find out how I react when fists start flying.

Once they were gone, I turned around and walked back and told the girl I'd been robbed. She'd certainly seen and heard it. She was locked out of her house and told me it was a dangerous neighborhood to be walking around in alone. Good to know. She gave me her name and the street name, but had no idea who the thieves were or where the police station was, so I started limping down the hill, not realizing how hurt I was. I made it to where there were people, and immediately a woman asked what was wrong. She later said I flinched when she tried to get me to lean on her. She helped me find a pay phone, called the police for me, and waited half an hour for them to arrive.

By that point I couldn't put any weight on my foot and they took me to the hospital, which was a dismal place. Since I was brought by the police, I managed to skip the waiting room and paper work, but it still took several hours to get an x-ray. My foot wasn't swollen--it wasn't a sprain, but the bottom of my heel hurt terribly. I was remembering my friend Diane, who broke her foot by stepping too hard on it and was laid up for months. I was pretty certain I'd be leaving Chile with a cast. When it was finally time for a doctor to look at the x-rays, they just wheeled me into the doorway of an eight-bed examining room. Standing 10 feet away, he held them up to the light, surrounded by other patients, and said there was no fracture, so I could go. No explanation of what the problem was, no pain killers, no crutches. With dozens of other people trying to get help--one guy with blood soaked pants dripping onto the floor and no one acting like his problem was urgent, others in handcuffs--I couldn't really demand more time, especially in Spanish. They gave me my x-ray and wheeled me to the police desk to make a statement.

Eventually I was taken to a police station, waited a while, and was given a slip that I was supposed to take to another office, who knows where, the next day, to pick up the official report. Knowing I had to get back to Santiago and be on a plane in less than 36 hours, I pushed and got someone to type it all up that night. Then I was on my own to get back to my hotel on the other side of town. I had to hobble a few blocks down to deserted main road, which seemed far sketchier than where I'd been robbed. I flagged down a taxi, but it was a 'colectivo,' a car that has a fixed route. Fortunately, the guy was willing to illegally put down his route sign and take me to my hostal, where I stayed up talking with some other travelers, finishing the bottle of Chilean wine I'd started the night before and drinking a couple more beers to ease the stress and pain.

The next day I had to get back to Santiago. I took a taxi to the bus terminal, but then had to limp through that station and the one in Santiago, as well as the Metro, with my big backpack. I quickly threw out my back, which was already out of whack from the previous day, and at one point had to lie down on the subway platform because my muscles were spasming. But on my own, I had no other choice really. I made it to the hostal, downed a bunch of ibuprofen, and drank another bottle of wine, which helped. The next morning, I hobbled through the Santiago, Lima, and Quito airports, where my friend Rebecca was nice enough to meet me. By the time I made it to my apartment, I'd pulled a muscle in my leg, and the problems had cascaded all the way up from the bottom of my foot to a nasty kink in my neck. But I'm home, and I have enough food around to stay put for a couple of days. Already my foot is feeling noticeably better. Hopefully by tomorrow, I'll be able to walk enough to go out and get some bread and eggs for breakfast. And while I'm resting, there are more tales to write about.


rachel said...

Wow Craig! What a drag! What an ORDEAL! I'm glad you were able to see something positive in it--that you are tenacious in the face of attack. I'm so sorry you lost your camera--that's a big one.

I just watched another exasperating documentary on Iraq (well-done, I was exasperated by the story) and I was wondering if the war comes up much in your travels. I was recently in Malta and got a bit of attitude a few times, sort of like, "hmm you're American huh, are you a bad guy?"

Anyway, we miss you here. Life with baby is grand and busy, in fact, gotta run!

best, Rachel

Amanda said...

So I guess this means you didn't get to go gambling at villa del mar.