I was mugged.
I knew it would happen. For anyone who stays in Ecuador for an extended period of time, it is an inevitability. Yesterday, Lauren and I met a friendly American tourist who asked us if we had been mugged yet. Strangely enough, we were mugged three hours later.
I’ve had things stolen from me before. In Spain, it was my iPhone. In Mexico, my digital camera. I didn’t even realize when these things happened; I just woke up the next morning missing my belongings. But never have I had things stolen from me with a threat of violence. It was a Sunday afternoon at 5 pm. We were across the street from a Marriott, waiting for a woman to arrive who was going to show us an apartment. We had just sat down to wait for her arrival when three Ecuadorian men approached us. One shook Lauren’s hand, and then said “Un dolar?” We said no, and he said “No me entienden?” Lauren explained that we did indeed understand, but that we weren’t going to give him money. Then he told us,
Tengo un pistola. Dame tu dinero.
I have a gun. Give me your money. It was like slow motion. At that moment, we just opened our purses and complied. He didn’t show us a gun, but you can never know if a person is bluffing. People here get killed for not surrendering their possessions during robberies, and no item is worth our lives. We knew we were getting mugged, and we were helpless to do anything about it. All I had was about $10 in coins, and one of the thieves started pawing through my purse. He demanded my cellphone, so I gave it up. He also took my iPod. I put my hands in the air in a gesture of surrender and offered to let them search my pockets. I think this is what inadvertently alerted people across the street to the fact that we were being robbed. A woman across the streeted shouted, Les están robando! and the men took off.
Within a span of maybe two minutes, they had approached us, demanded our valuables, and fled. My phone, iPod, and mine and Lauren’s money was gone. Tears started streaming down my cheeks. I grabbed Lauren’s hand and we started walking away in a random direction. Then, I realized we were still near the Marriott, and that it was probably the safest place we could be, so we walked over and told the concierge what had happened. We sat down, and the hotel staff called the police and brought us water bottles. I sat there in tears while Lauren made phone calls to our supervisor since my phone had been taken. The police arrived within a few minutes, and we explained what had happened. They took our information, and drove us around in the back of the car to see if we could spot the thieves, but they had long since melted away. The officers were kind enough to drop us off at our houses after fruitlessly searching for the men.
Just like that, it was all over. In reality, though, it isn’t over. It will never be over. This is the kind of experience that is burned into your brain forever. Because it isn’t the things they took from us. Indeed, it could have been much worse–I had my $200 RayBans and my digital camera, too. Lauren had her phone, her debit card, and her new iPod in her backpack. None of those things were taken. But they took from us something more important, something intangible: our sense of relative security and safety. We can never get that back.
Obviously, we have always been careful and concerned with our safety here in Quito. In orientation they scared us quite thoroughly with talk of crime rates in the city. With tales of theft, muggings, express kidnappings, and violence that foreigners have experienced here, I make sure to take many precautions. I haven’t become complacent since arriving here four months ago. I try to only carry valuables that I will need for a given outing. I don’t have my debit card in my purse unless I am going to withdraw money. I don’t have excess cash in my purse. I take taxis at night instead of buses to be safer. I don’t go to unpopulated areas when it’s dark. I scan my surroundings and if I feel unsafe I duck into a nearby store. But it doesn’t matter. You can do everything you can to protect yourself, and yet it still isn’t always enough. We were sitting at a big intersection during the day and we were mugged. That shouldn’t have happened. Shouldn’t we have been near a bar out late at night? Or walking around alone? Or withdrawing money from an ATM machine? Or on an empty bus? Or drunk on a Friday night? The problem is, muggings can happen anytime, anywhere, despite your best efforts to stay safe. And in places like Quito, it’s a lot more common than back in California.
I hate to worry my friends or family, and I hate proving them correct when they say that Ecuador is more dangerous than California. I love Latin America. There are so many incredible aspects of living in Ecuador–intense jungles, beaches that have warm water, great music for dancing, beautiful Spanish language everywhere, and fascinating histories. I wouldn’t want to be living anywhere else right now. But I’ve never felt 100% safe here, never felt as safe as I did in Berkeley. It isn’t just this most recent event that has me feeling frightened for my security. As a white female who obviously is not local, I am more likely to be targeted, in smaller ways and bigger ones. Taxis always try to charge me more, and most of the time refuse to use a taximetro. Even when we explain that we live in Quito and know the price, it doesn’t always work. A few nights ago, Lauren and I took a taxi home from work because the bus just wasn’t coming. When we stopped, the taximetro read $2.15. We got our money out, but the driver didn’t stop the taximetro, and told us “Falta!” when we gave him the $2.15. He insisted on taking more from us, the .10 that had accumulated while we got out our cash. Granted, .10 is not a lot of money, but this is something that constantly happens to us: taxi drivers insisting on more and more money than we agreed upon.When it happens regularly, it really grates on a person. I feel like I am constantly being taken advantage of because of the way I look. It doesn’t matter that I live here, that I speak Spanish, or that I am more or less a volunteer here. People see my physical appearance and assume I have lots of money.
Even just walking down the street, men catcall my friends and me on a far more intense scale than back home. Ojos claros, mi reina, hermosa, que bonita, and que rico ring out at us often. Men whistle at us and expect us to respond, as though we were dogs. And sometimes it’s not merely a phrase or a whistle. Sometimes they keep calling after us if we don’t respond. I’ve been physically grabbed by the arm before, too. A friend has had her butt grabbed at a bar. Last night even, in a taxi, the driver asked me if I had a boyfriend and told me to buy condoms after telling me how beautiful I was. While slightly amusing in retrospect, in the moment this is wildly inappropriate and not a funny situation. Especially when you are in a taxi by yourself with a male driver and it’s dark and your phone was stolen so you have no means of communicating that you need help if something were to happen. These kinds of interactions can cross the line from irritating to frightening. While we might laugh in the moment when someone says something like this, underlying the laughter is a real fear that this person might harm you if you react in a way displeasing to them. And there’s nothing we can do except do our best to protect ourselves by keeping a low profile and following safety precautions we have learned from others who live here.
I think that the heart of the matter is that what I often feel in Quito is a loss of power. A loss of control over my life. A loss of the independence that I felt I had in Berkeley. An inability to shield myself adequately from the danger that exists in Quito. One of our supervisors told us that she learned while living here that she had learn to accept that in certain situations, she had no control, and in others, she did. We all must learn to recognize the difference. To know when we can act to change something and when it is out of our hands. We must acknowledge that danger exists and will find us at some point, and be as best prepared as possible to respond in the moment. If we can do this, perhaps we might be able to find peace despite the fear.