Posted: 04/02/2019 | April 2nd, 2019
Editor’s Note: I wavered on composing about this for a long time since I didn’t want to put people off on Colombia or perpetuate the myth that danger lurks around every corner. As you can tell from my posts here, here, here, and here, I truly like the country. I mean it’s awesome. (And there will be plenty more blog posts about how great it is.) but I blog about all my experiences – good or bad – and this story is a good lesson on travel safety, the importance of always following local advice, and what occurs when you stop doing so.
“Are you OK?”
“Here. have a seat.”
“Do you need some water?”
A growing crowd had gathered around me, all offering help in one form or another.
“No, no, no, I believe I’ll be OK,” I stated waving them off. “I’m just a bit stunned.”
My arm and back throbbed while I tried to regain my composure. “I’m going to be truly sore in the morning,” I thought.
“Come, come, come. We insist,” stated one girl. She led me back onto the walkway where a security guard provided me his chair. I sat down.
“What’s your name? Here’s some water. Is there anyone we can call?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine,” I kept replying.
My arm throbbed. “Getting punched sucks,” I stated to myself.
Regaining my composure, I slowly took off the jacket I was wearing. I was as well sore for any quick motions anyways. I needed to see how bad the bruises were.
As I did so, gasps arose from the crowd.
My left arm and shoulder were dripping with blood. My shirt was soaked through.
“Shit,” I stated as I realized what had happened. “I believe I just got stabbed.”
There’s a perception that Colombia is unsafe, that despite the heyday of the drug wars being over, danger lurks around most corners and you have to be truly careful here.
It’s not a completely unwarranted perception. Petty crime is extremely common. The 52-year civil war killed 220,000 people — although thankfully this number has significantly dropped since the 2016 peace agreement.
While you are unlikely to be blown up, randomly shot, kidnapped, or ransomed by guerrillas, you are extremely likely to get pickpocketed or mugged. There were over 200,000 armed robberies in Colombia last year. While fierce crimes have been on the decline, petty crime and robbery has been on the upswing.
Before I went to Colombia, I’d heard countless stories of petty theft. While there, I heard even more. A friend of mine had been robbed three times, the last time at gunpoint while on his method to meet me for dinner. Locals and expats alike told me the exact same thing: the rumors of petty theft are true, but if you keep your wits about you, follow the rules, and don’t flash your valuables, you’ll be OK.
There’s even a local expression about it: “No dar papaya” (Don’t give papaya). Essentially, it means that you shouldn’t have something “sweet” out in the open (a phone, computer, watch, etc.) that would make you a target. keep your valuables hidden, don’t roam around locations you shouldn’t at night, don’t flash money around, avoid coming out of nightlife areas alone at night, etc. just put: Don’t put yourself in a position where people can take advantage of you.
I heeded such advice. I didn’t wear headphones in public. I didn’t take my phone out unless I was in a group or a restaurant, or completely sure nobody else was around. I took just enough money for the day with me when I left my hostel. I warned buddies about using fancy fashion jewelry or watches when they visited.
But, the longer you are somewhere, the more you get complacent.
When you see locals on their phones in congested areas, tourists toting thousand-dollar cameras, and youngsters using Airpods and Apple Watches, you begin to think, “OK, during the day, it’s not so bad.”
The more nothing occurs to you, the more indifferent you get.
Suddenly, you step out of a cafe with your phone out without even believing about it.
In your hands is papaya.
And somebody wishes to take it.
It was near sunset. I was on a busy street in La Candelaria, the main tourist area of Bogotá. The cafe I had been at was closing, so it was time to find somewhere new. I decided to head to a hostel to finish some work and take advantage of happy hour.
I’d been in Bogotá for a few days now, enjoying a city most people compose off. There was a appeal to it. even in the tourist hotspot of La Candelaria, it didn’t feel as gringofied as Medellín. It felt the most authentic of all the big Colombian cities I had visited. I was loving it.
I exited the cafe with my phone out, completing a text message. It had slipped my mind to put it away. It was still light outside, there were crowds around, and lots of security. After nearly six weeks in Colombia, I had grown contented in circumstances like this.
“What’s truly going to happen? I’ll be fine.”
Three steps out of the door, I felt somebody clean up against me. At first, I believed it wassomebody running past me up until I quickly realized that a guy was trying to take my phone out of my hand.
Fight or flight set in — and I fought.
“Get the fuck off me!” I yelled as I wrestled with him, keeping an iron grip on my phone. I tried pushing him away.
“Help, help, help!” I shouted into the air.
I keep in mind distinctly the confused look on his deal with as if he had expected an easy mark. That the phone would slip out of my hand and he’d be gone before anyone could catch him.
Without a word, he started punching my left arm, and I continued to resist.
“Get off me! Help, help!”
We tussled in the street.
I kicked, I screamed, I blocked his punches.
The commotion triggered people to run toward us.
Unable to dislodge the phone from my hand, the mugger turned and ran.
After people assisted me sit down and the adrenaline used off, I got lightheaded. My ears rang. I had difficulty focusing for a few moments.
Blood was dripping with my soaked shirt.
“Fuck,” I stated looking at my arm and shoulder.
I tried to compose myself.
Having grown up surrounded by physicians and nurses, I ran with a quick “how bad is this” checklist in my mind.
I made a fist. I could feel my fingers. I could move my arm. “OK, I most likely don’t have nerve or muscle damage.”
I could breathe and was not coughing up blood. “Ok, I most likely don’t have a punctured lung.”
I could still walk and feel my toes.
My light-headedness dissipated.
“OK, there’s most likely not as well much major damage,” I thought.
Words I didn’t comprehend were spoken in Spanish. A doctor shown up and assisted clean and put pressure on my wounds. A young lady in the crowd who spoke English took my phone and voice-texted my only friend in Bogotá to let her know the situation.
As an ambulance would take as well long, the police, who numbered about a dozen by now, packed me onto the back of a truck and took me to a hospital, stopping web traffic on the method like I was an honored dignitary.
Using Google equate to communicate, the police inspected me in at the hospital. They took down as much information as they could, showed me a picture of the attacker (yes, that’s him!), and called my friend to update her about where I was.
As I waited to be seen by the doctors, the owner of my hostel showed up. After having taken my address, the cops had phoned up the hostel to let them know what occurred and she had rushed down.
The hospital personnel saw me quickly. (I suspect being a stabbed gringo got me quicker attention.)
We went into one of the examination rooms. My shirt came off, they cleaned my arm and back, and assessed the damage.
I had five wounds: two on my left arm, two on my shoulder, and one on my back, little cuts that broke the skin, with two appearing like they got into the muscle. If the knife had been longer, I would have been in serious trouble: one cut was right on my collar and another especially close to my spine.
When you believe of the term “stabbing,” you believe of a long blade, a single deep cut into the abdomen or back. You picture somebody with a extending knife being rolled into the hospital on a stretcher.
That was not the case for me. I had been, more colloquially correct, knifed.
But just knifed.
There was no blade extending from my gut or back. There would be no surgery. No deep lacerations.
The wounds wouldn’t need any more than antibiotics, stitches, and time to heal. A lot of time. (How much time? This occurred at the end of January and it took two months for the bruising to go down.)
I was stitched up, taken for an X-ray to make sure I didn’t have a punctured lung, and needed to sit around for another six hours as they did a follow-up. My friend and hostel owner stayed a bit.
During that time, I booked a flight home. While my wounds weren’t serious and I could have stayed in Bogotá, I didn’t want to danger it. The hospital refused to give me antibiotics and, being a bit suspicious of their stitching job, I wished to get checked out back home while everything was still fresh. When I was leaving the hospital, I even had to ask them to cover my wounds. They were going to leave them exposed.
It’s better to be risk-free than sorry.
Looking back, would I have done anything differently?
It’s easy to say, “Why didn’t you just give him your phone?”
But it’s not as if he led with a weapon. had he done so, I obviously would have surrendered the phone. This kid (and it turned out he was just a kid of about 17) just tried to grab it from my hand, and anyone’s natural instinct would be to pull back.
If somebody stole your purse, took your computer while you were utilizing it, or tried to grab your watch, your initial, primal reaction wouldn’t be, “Oh well!” It would be, “Hey, give me back my stuff!”
And if that stuff were still connected to your hand, you’d pull back, shout for help, and hope the mugger would go away. especially when it’s still daytime and there are crowds around. You can’t always assume a mugger has a weapon.
Based on the information I had at the time, I don’t believe I would have done anything differently. Nature just set in.
Things could have been a lot worse: The knife could have been longer. He could have had a gun. I could have turned the wrong way, and that little blade could have hit a major artery or my neck. The knife was so little that I didn’t even feel it during the attack. A longer blade might have triggered me to recoil more and drop my phone. I don’t know. If he had been a better mugger, he would have kept running forward and I wouldn’t have been able to catch up as the forward motion made the phone leave my hand.
The permutations are endless.
This was also just a matter of being unlucky. A wrong time and wrong place situation. This could have occurred to me anywhere. You can be in the wrong place and the wrong time in a million locations and in a million situations.
Life is risk. You’re not in manage of what occurs to you the second you walk out the door. You believe you are. You believe you have a handle on the circumstance — but then you walk out of a café and get knifed. You get in a car that accidents or a helicopter that goes down, eat food that hospitalizes you, or, despite your finest health efforts, drop dead from a heart attack.
Anything can happen to you at any time.
We make plans as if we are in control.
But we’re not in manage of anything.
All we can do is manage our reaction and responses.
I truly like Bogotá. I truly like Colombia. The food was tasty and the scenery breathtaking. Throughout my go to there, people were inquisitive, friendly, and happy.
And when this happened, I marveled at all the people who assisted me, who stayed with me up until the police came, the many police officers who assisted me in numerous ways, the physicians who went to to me, the hostel owner who ended up being my translator, and my friend who drove an hour to be with me.
Everyone apologized. everyone understood this was what Colombia is understood for. They wished to let me know this was not Colombia. I believe they felt worse about the attack than I did.
But this experience reminded me of why you can’t get complacent. I provided papaya. I shouldn’t have had my phone out. When I left the cafe, I should have put it away. It didn’t matter the time of day. That’s the rule in Colombia. keep your valuables hidden. especially in Bogota, which does have a higher rate of petty crime than elsewhere in the country. I didn’t follow the advice.
And I got unlucky because of it. I’d been having my phone out as well often and, with each non-incident, I grew more and more relaxed. I kept dropping my guard down more.
What occurred was unlucky but it didn’t need to happen if I had complied with the rules.
This is why people always warned me to be careful.
Because you never know. You’re fine up until you aren’t.
That said, you’re still unlikely to have a problem. All those incidences I talked about? All involved people breaking the ironclad “No Dar Papaya” rule and either having something valuable our or walking alone late at night in areas they shouldn’t have. Don’t break the rule! This could have occurred to me anywhere in the world where I didn’t follow the security rules you’re supposed to that help you minimize risk.
But, also know, if you do get into trouble, Colombians will help you out. From my hostel owner to the cops to the people who sat with me when it occurred to the random guy in the hospital who provided me chocolate, it turns out, you can always depend upon the generosity of strangers. They made a harrowing experience a lot easier to deal with.
I’m not going to let this freak incident change my view of such an fantastic country. I’d go back to Colombia the exact same method I’d get in a car after a car accident. In fact, I was terribly upset to leave. I was having an fantastic time