Bogotá: Are all animals equal?

I believe in the power of animal instinct. Sometimes I do things, or I don’t do them, because they feel good or they feel bad and, honestly, I think if we just listened to our bodies a bit more, we would eat the food that is good for us, date the people who are good for us and, best of all, avoid the dangers that years of evolution have taught us to predict.

Last night a man walked past me on the pavement, at a reasonably busy time, in a reasonably busy place and for some reason I gave him a wide berth and watched as he passed. The reaction was so natural, I ignored it completely and, rather than cross the street, I forgot about him. I forgot about him, that is, until a few minutes later when he ran at me with a large knife.

My first reaction was to clutch my bag but the second, thank God, was to let it go and he took it and disappeared, lithe and nimble, into the twilight. Rather than shout “Hey!” or “Thief!” or something vaguely sensible I yelled, in Spanish: “You’ve got my USB!” Yep. Forget the phone, the house keys, the cash, the cards, the camera, the Colombian ID, the iPod, even Clinique’s finest lipstick. Apparently all I care about are 16 very old, very unfinished and very abandoned entries for Banana Skin Flip Flops and a very much backed-up copy of my book.

(It has not escaped my notice, though, that the poor sod must have thought he had done so well, only to find he had stolen the bag of a “hippie gomela” who, for all her love of fine wine, expensive cocktails and high-heeled shoes, had the same old, exhausted iPod she brought from England, a cheap, plastic phone and, er, 6,000 pesos in cash. That’s about $3 or £1.90)

I was left on the street with nothing, so I went to my friend’s house and he gave me a hug, made me a tea, helped me cancel my bank cards and called the locksmith who arrived on a motorbike and put as much energy into flirting with me as he did into changing the locks (I may have given him some of my cheer-up chocolate but still, five new keys is over-kill for anyone)

“You’re all cheery and relaxed,” my friend observed. “But the second you get into bed and there is no adrenaline left, you are probably going to cry,” which is pretty much what happened to him when he was robbed. Of course, being Colombian, that has only ever happened in Europe.

“Well, I know this is really unfeminist, but these are the only times I do feel a tiny bit vulnerable being single,” I admitted. “I mean, it’s not like I have a husband to help me sort this stuff out.” My unflinchingly loyal and deeply-feminist friend then gave me his death stare, followed by a short speech that ended with: “Marica, we love each other, we support each other, we don’t have sex with each other. That’s basically a marriage,” which gave me a fit of giggles and, honestly, almost made the robbery worthwhile.

(Oh and, by the way, yes, I live in a scruffy neighbourhood. And when I told another very good friend of mine where I was robbed – i.e not in my scruffy neighbourhood – he said: “Jesus! You were in decent country!” which just goes to show, nowhere is sacrosanct)

So last night I resolved two things. One, under no circumstance was I going to cry when I got into bed and two, under no circumstance was I going to write about what had happened.

I fell asleep almost immediately and then I woke up at 3am and, before I knew it, the episode was forming itself into ready-made prose in my head, which at least proves that Woody Allen was both arrogant and accurate when he said: “What people who don’t write, don’t understand is that they think you make up the lines consciously but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges, as it is to the audience.”

Eventually I got up and I did what all sensible people do when they can’t sleep. I made myself the sweetest, creamiest hot chocolate I could. I sat on my sofa which faces east, overlooking the mountain and I waited for the sun to rise. I thought about lots of things, like my decision to live in Bogotá and what that meant, my parents’ decision to live where they live and what that had meant for me – a childhood of climbing trees and playing in woods and owning dogs, proper dogs and how I could identify every species of British butterfly and tell the difference between stoats and weasels and how I had bird boxes and wormeries and caught stuff in ponds and under flagstones, and I built forts and I played football with the boys and, I am convinced, for some years I thought I actually was a boy, what with my refusal to wear dresses and my fierce but ineffectual way of fighting.

Now, on my good days at least, I am sort of elegant and not far from graceful and my closest friends are girls and gay men and I wear dresses and I never fight and I love cities. The countryside makes me feel a bit claustrophobic and I have forgotten the difference between stoats and weasels and Commas and Painted Ladies. I haven’t climbed a tree in years and I probably wouldn’t now. I am much more likely to spend an afternoon in a Bogotá art gallery or antiques shop, with red wine and chocolate cake, than in a soggy British wood, catching the leaves and wondering where the old fox makes his den before going home to look up the fungi in an old and very faded book.

The decisions we make affect us, don’t they? We win and we lose but everything always affects something else. I think cities are exciting and creative and brilliant and there is a reason why the philosophers went to Athens and why the Industrial Revolution happened in cities and why the artists flocked to Florence and the nerds go to Silicon Valley. But maybe one day I won’t be the only one affected by my choices and then will I have to think about the pay off?

The sun came up and it was beautiful this morning. It was one of those dawns where it doesn’t matter if it is going to be grey or blue, when the clouds hang low over the mountain and the streets are fresh, but they’re still misty and the sun is just a blur, a little hint of light that nudges at the corners of the clouds and makes you think, okay, so today is going to happen.

And then I stood up and I took a shower, because it was a new day and that is what we do.

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

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33 Comments

  1. Miriam Wells

    Oh no so sorry Vicki! I got robbed at knifepoint too in Bogota, and also shouted ineffectually after the mugger (a young woman, whose boyfriend had walked off just before she did it!) “but the phone is a gonorrhoea, please can I at least have that back….?” (non-speakers of Colombia Spanish will wonder what the hell I was on about….) I tried phoning them up to negotiate the return of my goods at a begrudging price but I didn’t offer enough, she had the cheek to say to ME “No joda mujer”….! Oh yeah, cos I’M the one jodiendo here lady!
    I hope you are ok and I hope this story has cheered you up a little!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hahaha, yes, it is outrageous. I have heard this thing about them waiting sometimes for people to re-connect their phones and then calling quite reasonably and offering the return of goods for a certain rate but a) why do they get to win twice, surely once is enough and b) I lost nothing that was actually worth anything (my iPod belonged in a museum) so if I do get one of those calls I shall just play dumb. Still, I doubt he will call, he must look at his haul and think, what is that lady doing carting around all this junk?!

  2. Cartagena Gringa

    Sorry to hear that this happened, I’m glad you didn’t get hurt! This post really hit home for me, especially the bit about the crying after the adrenaline disappears. I got robbed in a colectivo in Cartagena, and I was amazed at myself for being able to hold in my tears until I got to the house. (I cry really easily). But the second I arrived and saw my boyfriend’s family sitting outside I burst into tears, but the reaction they had, showing me love and trying to make me feel better actually almost made it worth it! haha.

  3. Juan

    I totally grok what you are saying about the body and instinct, but I think if we actually let the instincts to the forefront, we would act like skittish squirrels all the time.

  4. colombiadiaries

    So sorry to hear about your horrible experience. Glad you are OK. As you say, adrenaline is a funny thing – I saw 3 guys robing someone at knife-point in Bogotá once and my instinct drove me to wade in and help the victim! Good job someone with more sense grabbed me and stopped me. Small consolation I know, but your experience has led to a beautiful piece of writing.

  5. Juan

    Having a good relationship with the ñeros near your home is as important as being on good terms with the coffee lady and the doorman. Sucks when you’re not in your home turf and you get robbed.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Yeah, exactly, I have been trying not to walk anywhere since, just until I feel completely normal again, I but had to walk a street near my home last night and one of the homeless men said “Good night,” and smiled at me (one of the younger ones) and I thought, breathe Vicki, breathe, it is going to be fine!

  6. Cassie

    Oh, you poor thing! I got mugged by a guy on a bike (he punched me in the face and stole my phone) on my first day of work in Bogota. Like you, it happened in a very nice, and very residential, part of town. However, I cried like a baby when I got home. Glad you’re ok, it really can happen anywhere, and it hasn’t dimmed my love for the city and its people.

  7. Miguel

    It is inspiring to see how the reflections stemming from this nasty incident take you to a very philosophical place of wondering about actions and reactions. What I am missing from your thinking is more elaboration on what you intimate may be your relationship with the countryside, and in a way with England, once/if your life changes by switching from single life to parenthood. Sounds as if, deep down, you would look at seeking refuge in the countryside to bring up your children if/when they come. Interesting how we tend to repeat whatever environment we grew up in. Anyway, love your posts and thoughts.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Thank you Miguel and you are so right, we all think we have turned out okay (I will never forget interviewing an awful woman once who told me: “I told [my kid] not to bother with school, I mean, I never went and I am alright,” and I thought, yep, delusion is how the mind protects us) so it is easy to think we should repeat our childhoods but, I don’t know… cities are my choice and I accept their faults, because I love what they achieve, but would I inflict their faults on someone who was not necessarily old enough to partake of their benefits? I hasten to add that this is not something I would need to consider for some time, mind you, if ever!

  8. cafealeman3690

    Me too. Glad you are OK. Ive walked down Caracas past some real characters more then a few times while in Bogota and so far so good. My friends always warn me though not to take chances, but I’m always thinking that’s what happens to the other guy never to me because it cant happen to me lol. Thanks for the wake up call and I am sincerely glad you are safe and sound.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Doll, go to Caracas in a tatty jacket cos no-one expects a rich guy to walk down Caracas. I was in a rich bit, with a nice coat at 6pm (when rich people go home from their office jobs) That is way more dangerous. I know I have said it many times but it is better to be where the thieves commute from to go to work, rather than where they go to. However, what I have realised is that we all, good citizens of Bogotá, have to take responsibility for this. We have to hold our police more accountable, we have to insist that they are better trained, that they at least try to solve petty crime and give us some faith in them (I love how I call this “petty crime”, in England armed robbery carries a maximum life sentence) None of us trust the police, we think they are pointless. But unless we all do something about that, this stuff is just going to carry on. Yes, it can happen anywhere but the problem is not the crime, it is the impunity and we have to take responsibility.

  9. Emma P

    The stoat can be easily told from the weasel
    by the simple fact that his tail is blacked
    and his figure is slightly the bigger.
    (Hope you’re OK now) xx

  10. Clare

    So sorry this has happened to you, I live in a nice part of the city and lately there’s been drive-by muggings in my very street (4 in the past 2 weeks) always 2 guys on a motorbike and 2 bikes stolen on top of those. Never seen anything like it in my 2 years here. Take care, if you replace your phone…I keep mine in my pocket or up my sleeve with my ancient Samsung in my bag…!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I am inclined to agree with you, there is something off this Christmas. Honestly, I think that guy was stalking the streets looking for people and probably did a long and fruitful shift. I am taking a lot of precautions. Roll on January!

  11. Courtenay Strickland

    I’m so sorry to hear you were robbed. I had a very similar experience. I was in a nice neighborhood, etc., etc. Really, I think the only difference was that the guy had a gun instead of a knife. I can so relate too to having grown up playing in the woods, and to loving cities and things elegant in spite of – or is it because of? – that. I think a lot about the implications of “place” – of the inevitable trade-offs that occur, and about what makes us consider our choice (if we are privileged enough to be able to choose where we live) worth it or not. Those things totally came up for me after my robbery, and I think like you, I still decided that yes, it is absolutely worth it. Thank you for sharing. Onward.

  12. GringoUno

    I enjoy your writing. I’ve been traveling on a frequent basis to Colombia for the past two decades, married to a Colombiana. To provide a little background, I’m a red head with blue eyes, thus not your tipical Bogotanno. The first time I was heading to Colombia, my wife, girlfriend at the time, said, “wear a hat and sunglasses and don’t say anything.” After a short pause, she said, “no forget it, you even sit like a Gringo.”

    Well many years later and frequent visits in all parts of the country, cities and rural areas, I’ve never been robbed, assaulted or even been mistreated. If you recall the 1990s was a difficult decade for Colombia. The diciest situation occurred on our first trip and involved visiting Monserrate on a weekday morning with few visitors. Now I’ve traveled a bit in my time and know a little bit about handling oneself and situational awareness and I agree with your first observation, trust your instincts. During this visit to Monserrate, this shady character proceeded to maneuver himself behind us as we were admiring the downtown vista and taking photos. I spotted the dude and immediately turned around like I owned the place and proceeded to photograph him as if he was a lion on my Safari. Without saying a word, I was telling him, I know who he is, I know what he wants to do but I’m not the prey. He got the message and took off down the mountain and we didn’t see him again. My comment is intended to convey two things: 1) Colombia is beautiful and has relatively safe areas, 2) even in safe areas, you need to be aware, be confident and trust your instincts.

    Keep up the writing.

  13. Crisspe

    I’m so sorry you had such horrible experience Victoria, I’m glad you’re OK. I’m a keen reader of your blog and I very much enjoy your spot-on observations of my country and my city of birth. I loved Bogotá with the same passion and intensity as you do, that is, until the moment I myself was a victim of “petty” crime (kidnapped in a taxi at knife point, beaten and robbed – the typical “paseo millonario”). After that horrid ordeal I was completely heartbroken and my feelings for the city were never the same. It was like finding out your darling had been cheating on you: nothing can be done to recover the once naive feeling.

    To be honest I think if I still lived there when it happened I would have made nothing of it; I would probably had shaken it off and forgotten about it, feeling lucky that nothing big really happened. But I have been living in the UK for 14 years so my appreciation of this type of events has changed dramatically, to the extent that I developed PTSD as a consequence of the robbery. As you say “the problem is not the crime, it is the impunity” and the sence of helplessness you get when things like this happen. In there the bad guy always wins.

    I always wondered how you would feel if something like that happened to you; that was one ugly flavour of the city you were yet to taste. Now I know. It is so unfortunate you got to taste it, but honestly I’m very surprised it took 3 years before it happened. Bogotá used to be such a joy and, yes, this things always have happened but not to the extent they do nowadays. One used to hear “such and such happens to a friend of a friend” but it never happen to oneself or one’s family, now it happens to everyone!

    Such a pity, really.

  14. Windsurf Colombia

    Man, I hate that this happened to you. I even hate it more because you are not originally from Colombia, and your blog rules. I hope you can continue your life in Bogota as normal as possible, and Petro or his replacement do something about it quickly. You know though, shit happens….. I got robbed in Santiago de Chile, probably the safest city in Latin America. As it was happening I had the chance to punch the guy or kick him in the balls. I decided against it (for good reason) as I knew that this guy would eventually get some bad karma. So don’t worry, your guy will also get some bad karma coming to him soon. I’m also sure, some good karma is coming your way soon too.

  15. Ceri

    Oh, god, Vick, that’s awful. 😦 It’s always a scary thing getting robbed – Whether we feel that fear at the time or later. Glad you’re actually okay though – No attack on YOU thankfully.

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