It took Panama City 67 minutes to rob me.
I know, I know.
It’s kind of sucky being known as ‘The girl who got robbed’ in hostels. I’m getting good at being mugged, though. Not a tear was shed and I could even crack bad jokes to fellow travellers later that evening.
What I didn’t know when I arrived in Panama City was that I had booked a hostel in the ghetto. Unintentionally. I’d travelled there to catch a boat to Colombia through the San Blas Islands, and had simply booked the place that offered such a trip. After the robbery I would begin to notice how poor the area was. The razor wire that stretched endlessly over the fences of every house. The barred windows. The belligerent drunks. The cops that shook money from locals in front of you. The nighttime symphony of car alarms and gun shots.
Yes. Gun shots.
It’s 5pm. My plane skidded down the Panama City runway an hour ago and I have spent the last 30 minutes exploring the local area. It’s close to twilight, so I decide to head back to the hostel. I inevitably get lost and try the GPS on my phone. The GPS isn’t working. The phone goes in my pocket and I turn down a street that should be the one my hostel is on.
The police would later tell me that I have just walked into one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a place that even locals avoid. Simply being there carried the same level of danger that rolling through the favellas in Brazil in a diamond encrusted wheelchair whilst smugly fanning oneself with hundred dollar bills would. It doesn’t look malevolent, though. It looks like an ordinary residential neighbourhood in Central America. It reminds me, ironically, of Havana. Kids are skipping rope, ladies are parked on wooden crates outside their flats, and old men are lazily smoking on balconies, surveying the street before them.
It’s light out and the street is crammed with people, but as I walk my spider sense begins to tingle. Something feels dangerous. Wrong. Something in my gut says that I need to turn the fuck around. Immediately.
Of course, I ignored my intuition. Stop being a pussy, CC, I thought. It’s just because it looks like Cuba. You’re overreacting.
I pass a cross street. A guy follows me. I turn around, he grabs me, pins me to the bonnet of a car and, for the second time in as many months, I find myself grappling with a large Afro-Caribbean local. When you’re catnip for thieves, one robbery is much like the next and can be described in a bored, concise manner: We struggle, I gouge at his eyes- yes, I really did that- he pulls his head back, undoes the clasp on my bag- impressive considering it was an anti-thief backpack that usually took me ten minutes to undo- and snatches it from me. I manage to keep hold of one strap and pull back, he takes a swing at me, I duck-
-kick at him, miss, lose my grip, and watch him sprint away. I hesitate, give chase, turn a corner and deduce that he has disappeared through a doorway that appears to lead to a residential courtyard. There is a lady standing at the door. She is staring at me. I don’t follow him. I hang my head and return to the street like a defeated
pussy…cat chicken. Just like Cuba, my headscarf and sunglasses have flown off my head in the attack. In Cuba, they were delivered to me as the neighbourhood children crowded around to help. In Panama, my counterfeit Raybans are gone, and my headscarf lays forlornly on the ground. I pick it up and note that the locals are still resolutely refusing to catch my eye.
Yes, my attack had witnesses. At least eight. Did they do anything? No. One woman was sitting three feet away with her two sons. That hurt more than the robbery, actually. The fact that a mother would sit and watch a woman get attacked by a large man and not even squeak. But, I would quickly learn that they fucking hate tourists in Panama. Hate them. If anyone has had a different experience I’d be glad to hear it, but my time there was marked by abject hostility from nearly every local. Shop assistants would roll their eyes when I asked them to repeat rapid Spanish. Dutch backpackers told me stories of locals spitting at their feet and calling them a Gringo. The vibe of Panama City is, ‘you have and I don’t, so fuck you’.
Now, admittedly, there is a juxtaposition between locals and tourists. 3km away from the slums is a mall filled with Hermes, Cartier and Chanel. It even has a horse riding shop stuffed with leather saddles and jodphurs, and I haven’t seen too many fucking ponies in Panama City. So, in a way, I can understand their disdain for us, but in another I say, ‘No, fuck that, and fuck you, Panama.’ Every major city in the world has a schism between the rich and poor. Walk the Champs-Elysées and you will see rich tourists strolling past homeless beggars clutching cups of coins. It’s the same in Sydney, in New York, everywhere. It’s life.
Which brings me to my next point. Or rant. No, let’s say ‘point’. Rant sounds angry. The belief that people steal in Central America just because they’re desperate.
Seriously. Piss. Off. I’ve been thinking about this a lot today and I have managed to formulate an argument to make that statement shatter like windscreen glass. I’m in a quarrelsome mood, too. I’d be happy to engage anyone who disagrees with me in my crosshairs in a stirring, expletive filled debate.
The Gina Rinehart’s of the world aren’t being bag-snatched. Thieves target tourists- and locals- in their own areas, not the in rich, touristy ones. If it were solely about desperation, they would be going for the fattest targets.
We aren’t in Sherwood Forest, and tourist theft isn’t an action that bridges a socioeconomic gap. It’s opportunism. Nothing else. The truly desperate aren’t usually the thieves, anyway. They are the broken-down beggars you see clutching Styrofoam cups on the streets.
Plus, if it were sheer desperation, the street vendors would routinely have food stolen from their carts by starving Oliver Twist types. They don’t. So that argument is bullshit. The men who have robbed me in a mildly violent manner, and those who have robbed other travellers in a majorly violent manner aren’t simply acting out of need. That’s like saying rape happens because men get horny. Sure, ‘need’ is a factor, but there’s a whole lot more bubbling away in the cauldron. Disenfranchisement only leads to crime if it breeds contempt, and that’s an individual response to a situation. I’ve been in poor countries- Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico- that don’t have hostile locals. Anyone who is happy to fuck over another human being just so they can have a little more, whether it’s a poverty line bag-snatcher or a wall-street banker that embezzles billions of dollars- because rich people steal, too- is a dick. A pure dick. A limp, warty, flaky one. There is no justification on this planet that will make me believe that inflicting fear or violence on another human being is acceptable. I don’t give a fuck what your bank balance is.
Take my Cuban experience: Cubans aren’t starving. They get a food ration from the government. Sure it’s not a lot, and the wages- roughly US$30 a month- are extremely low, but you can buy a cup of coffee in Cuba for AUD 4c. Four cents. It’s all relative. And the literacy rates and healthcare in Cuba are among the best in the world. Many Cubans are healthier and better educated than Americans. The dude who robbed me there was not an emaciated, poverty stricken fellow. He was sinewy, he was dressed in clean clothes, and he had shoes on his feet. He didn’t rob me because he was desperate, he did it because I looked like a tourist and he figured he could get something from me. It was greed not need.
A few days later, I go to the tourist mall to get another backpack. I succeed.
Hooray for me. $30 lighter, I hail a cab on the street and ask to go Hostel Mamallena. The driver nods.
He holds up three fingers. “Three dollars.” His pinky nail is the length of your average cocaine aficionados bump digit. I want to ask him how he finds adequate amounts of keratin in the fried chicken and chips laden Panamanian diet. I don’t. I just nod and bundle into the cab. It pulls away from the kerb.
“It’s five,” he says, glancing back at me.
I lean forward. “So it was three dollars out there but once I’m in the cab it’s five?”
I had paid $3 to get from the hostel to the mall. It’s a scam, but it’s also just a dollar, I’ve also just been robbed, and the principle of the matter also just seems unimportant. I belligerently agree and sit back in the seat. As we drive, I notice that he is periodically turning around and staring at my legs. It’s fourty degrees outside, and I’m dressed in cut-off shorts and a singlet, my hair tucked into a hat. Uncomfortable at the attention, I pull my shopping bag over my lap. He continues to appraise me in the rearview mirror. Abruptly, he stops and picks up an old man.
What the fuck? This isn’t a fucking collectivo taxi.
They speak in Spanish and he drives the old man in the opposite direction, detouring, so I now have no idea where I am. Why did he pick up an old man when he already had a fare? That’s weird. I move my phone from my pocket to my underpants. I have nothing else of value on me, I tell myself. I have USD$9. That’s it. You’re fine, CC.
I don’t feel fine, though. My heart is hammering, adrenaline spiking. My gut instinct is saying- just as it did just before I was robbed- that something is wrong. He drops the old man off and continues to stare at me in the rearview mirror. I look out the window, trying to look completely blasé while engaging in frantic self-talk: I have nothing monetary on me, so robbery isn’t a threat, but what if that’s not what he’s after? I recall the way he was staring at my legs. I suddenly feel completely naked in my skimpy summer clothes. I tell myself that I’m being paranoid because of my experience thus far, but then I realise something: I might be. This could be completely innocent. I could just be a neurotic, narcissistic woman who believes that random men are desperate to rob and/ or rape her.
It might not be. My gut- usually accurate- could be right and I have two options: I can get out of the cab now, on a crowded street, and be a safe potential neuroitc, or I could stay, convince myself that I’m just being silly, and open myself up to the possibility of something horrific happening.
And, well…Fuck that.
The cab stops at traffic lights. I throw money at him and exit.
Trying to hail another cab is difficult. When drivers do stop, they completely refuse to take me. Eventually, one agrees. His son sits in the front seat. He drives the opposite way that the first cab was taking me. Two minutes later, I am at the hostel. I give him $5. He looks for change.
“Do you have a dollar?”
I take the coins out of my pocket. “No, sorry.”
He looks at my outstretched hand, takes two quarters, and gives me back my $5 note.
Which proves my point: a cab driver with a small child is arguably going to be more desperate than a twenty-something one- cocaine habit or not. The latter immediately scammed me, then drove in the opposite direction to where I was supposed to go, even when I gave him the exact address of the hostel. Thinking about that too much scares the shit out of me. The former took me straight to my destination and charged me the correct fare. There are cool people and fuckheads in this world, and the two exist beyond races, borders, and socioeconomic statuses.
It’s morning at the hostel. I am smoking and chatting to Illinios, a retiree, when a group of people storm through the gate. They clutch waterlogged backpacks, looking drained and fed up. I recognise one- the Canadian from my dorm that I had spoken to on the evening I was robbed. He was meant to be on a boat halfway to Colombia right now. I ask what happened.
The captain of the boat got pissed on rum, raised a sail in a direct wind, and capsized the boat.
Everyone went overboard.
All electronic devices and cameras suffered irreparable water damage.
If it was nighttime, people would have died.
If it had happened two miles later, people would have died.
Canada was pissed off, but philosophical, “We could be dead. Or injured. It sucks, but luckily we were near an island and my family and I are safe. It’s the fourth boat that has sank this week, you know.”
They don’t mention that on the website.
I told him that I had to cancel my boat trip for a flight to Colombia instead.
“You’re lucky. Don’t go on the boats, they suck and are dangerous.”
Canada’s dad walks out. He turns to me, “If you find my iPad, can you give it to the staff? I left it in our room accidentally before we left and it’s not there now.”
I take a drag of my cigarette. There’s an iPad that was placed on my backpack yesterday. It wasn’t mine, and I figured that a dorm mate was using my rucksack as a make shift table of sorts. “Is it in a black case?”
Daddy Canada looks hopeful. “Yes.”
His face lights up when I give it to him. He throws me into an over-enthusiastic hug, kissing me loudly on the top of the head. “Thank you! Thank you! I was so angry that I left it at the hostel, I thought I’d lost it. But lucky that I did because we now have a lifeline! Thank you! How much do I owe you?”
This surprised me. “Um, nothing.”
He throws me in a hug again.
I’m not adding that part to tie it into a
‘see, I was robbed and I’m still honest, aren’t I a good person’ moral because I honestly don’t think I’m any better than anyone else for giving him back his iPad. I did it because I’m a Nomadic Nimrod who frequently finds herself in the sort of crisis he was in, I know how welcome help- no matter how small- can be. I’m not a saint, I’m just paying things forward.
Canada said that I was lucky for cancelling the boat. I had to, when I was robbed, I lost the money for the trip, which had to be paid to the captain in cash on departure. Unable to justify the frankly exorbitant cost of the boat after the theft, I booked a flight instead. I didn’t like doing this at the time, mind you. The exact thought that went through my head was, I’m not even getting the fucking boat now. What a fucking waste of money. I’ve travelled briefly to fucking Panama to donate several hundred fucking dollars to local fucking scumbags before fucking off again.
Now? Well, I don’t want to degenerate into a pompous ‘everything happens for a reason’ lecture, but maybe I am kind of lucky.
Or, maybe I’m just justifying being robbed like a Roaming Feline Numskull again.
But maybe if I hadn’t been bag-snatched I’d have gotten the boat. Maybe it would have been lovely for a night. Maybe we’d have then crashed. Maybe I’d have lost my phone, laptop and camera. Maybe I’d be deposited like a wet sack of garbage in Panama again, with the knowledge that I now had to find a flight to Colombia, a bed for the evening, and an argument strong enough to beat the hostels ‘No Refunds on Boat Trips for any Reason’ policy.
Maybe, things aren’t so bad at all.