Bother boots and angry faces: Is it really possible to avoid street robbery?

You know those people who over-think everything, assessing and planning and sorting and worrying about problems that may never happen?

Yes, I’m guilty as charged. One dim and drizzly evening in Bogotá, as the darkness drifted towards 9pm, I was being typically indecisive. Should I spend a fortune on a taxi or jump on a bus that would leave me having to walk two minutes on a street that was a little too dark for my liking?

I opted for the bus (mostly on the basis that I was wearing chunky black boots, we’ll get to that later) but, of course, just as I started to stride home I noticed a dodgy looking man in the distance, fiddling with the waist band of his jeans in what was no doubt a desperate hunt for his foreign-girl-robbing weapon.

Bloody brilliant, I thought. I make one dicey decision and now I’m going to get mugged. Still, at least I had the time to mentally prepare. It was too late to avoid him but, equally, I decided that if I was going to be robbed it was going to be on my terms. There would be no panicking nor hiding in a doorway for me.

And so I strode purposefully at the man. I was so purposeful I was practically on top of him before I realised the poor sod was simply trying to take a piss against a tree. He was no doubt as horrified as I was to find a strange woman marching at him.

It should be funny and I guess it was, but it shows how jumpy and hyper-alert I am to city street crime, particularly here where I am a) foreign and b) reliant on public transport to move around.

I recently went to a ridiculously fancy coffee shop (think 15,000 pesos a cup) and, even though I greeted the security man and his dog on the way in, I couldn’t distangle myself from my bag. Eventually I forced myself to relax and put it on the chair next to me, but it still felt wrong and awkward. My bag and I are always attached.

When crime happens to you, it happens. I would never blame anyone, least of all myself. We live in an eight-million strong city in a country where 45% of people fall below the poverty line and where natural blonde, rich-looking tourists are about as scarce as a bar of Dairy Milk.

But I do have my own, possibly weird, defence mechanisms and I want to share them. I think when it comes to safety, we can all help one another. If we can’t beat the odds, we can minimise them.

(So go with your instincts and if you think I’m loca, please tell me. Similarly, I can’t take responsibility for anyone but myself (and I regularly mess that up) so if you adopt my street survival tactics and still get robbed well, I’m sorry and I do understand if you un-subscribe. If I get robbed, I promise to do the same.)

Here goes:

1) I like to look as scary as possible.

Life-changing decisions are made in a minute and I assume would-be robbers have a split second to pick out their victims. I walk purposefully, both faking and harnessing an ill-concealed fury and working every inch of my six-foot frame. I want them to think I am just too much hassle.

2) I often wear boots.

Boots are scary – that’s why policemen and soldiers wear them even though there is not so much as a drop of mud on the streets of Bogotá. When I am feeling a little vulnerable I stamp my feet as I walk. I know it’s weird. It must be something to do with the above.

3) I hide my face and hair.

On the rare occasions when I find myself alone on a bus at night, I put my hood up and don’t look out the window. I figure this is my best chance of a) looking like a slightly scary male Colombian or b) looking like a robber myself – which should cancel out any other ones about.

4) I have cash but nothing else.

I rarely carry a bank card, have minimum cash and always debate about my camera. One Sunday I walked to see a friend in brilliant sunshine. Before I left, I weighed up taking my little camera and decided to play it safe – chucking it on my bed as I walked out. Of course I walked past a beautiful pink church, gently warmed by the sun’s fading rays, with a rainbow framing the scene nicely in the background. You can’t win ’em all, people, you can’t win ’em all.

5) I don’t trust anyone.

Mothers with prams, comotose junkies, businessmen and street performers. I suspect everyone of potential pick-pocketry and leave nothing to chance, my bag is permanently attached to me and I have often crossed the street to avoid someone dodgy. It is probably rude to clutch your bag if a stranger approaches you in a smart cafe, but I can’t help it. I am the definition of paranoid.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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14 Comments

  1. Simon

    I’ve been a hyper-vigilante traveller since the time I was robbed in Spain – but that’s a long story. If I’m in a potentially dodgy area I like to walk as tall as I can, particularly at night, and hope that I don’t look like I’m worth the effort. There are some good ideas here.

  2. James Pengelley

    We used to work with a guy who had been mugged something like 9 times. So many times that when one group of guys mugged him for the second time, and tried to take his bag off him, he asked them nicely for his cedula. They fished out the folder it was in (that also had his money and bank card in) gave it back to him and fucked off with an empty backpack. Gold.

  3. Jorge

    You definitively need to be paranoid. I think being paranoid saved me many a muggings when I lived in Bogota. The one that came closest to become an actual mugging probably failed due to the inexperience of the would be mugger than anything else. I noticed I was being targeted by two sketchy-looking guys, changed side of the street but they also changed sides and approached me, one from behind and one from the front. I was already resigned to be mugged when the one in front asked me for the time and I answered that I had no watch. The guy was so stunned that it gave me time to flee before he changed his mind. However, no amount of paranoia helped me from being pickpocketed in Istanbul. I didn’t even noticed I had been robbed until I returned to my hotel. Or maybe my paranoia is not receiving proper training after living outside of Bogota for a decade.

  4. Lauren

    “Both faking and harnessing an ill-concealed fury.” YES. Nicely put. This is one of my signature moves, an I’m definitely going to start using the ‘look like a thief’ thing, too. Just started our travels in South America and although I’m trying not to be overly paranoid, I see everyone as a crook. Especially youths.

  5. Ceri

    I think those are good ways of defending yourself. I definitely do number 1 when I’m walking around D.F. It’s a combination of attempting to avoid street crime and stopping people from staring so much. I just look generally pissed off when I walk around alone, and I totally do the “make myself look tall” thing because, at 5’8″, I’m taller than everyone here.

    They always warn foreigners against taking public transport in this city because they say we’re easy targets but I don’t know how you could be. When you’re on the Metro or Metrobus, most eyes are on you, staring at the crazy white girl, so if someone wanted to rob you, they wouldn’t exactly be able to get away with it without being seen.

  6. Leslie

    I love your advice here. My husband is from Colombia and I am from the states. He is constantly telling me to stop smiling! He has a story getting mugged where, after the kids had taken his money, they gave him change for a bus fare!

  7. Mrs. Mom

    My son has been robbed in India, Spain,Thailand and 3 times in Calif. Once by gun point and kidnapped and that was in San Diego!

    When traveling alone, he does not go out at night.

    He always carries mugger $. Just enough to make sure they don’t hurt him, although once in Granada Spain, he was mugged and fought back, ending up with stitches for a head wound.

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