“Estación Chacao” says the pre-recorded voice. The brakes screech to a halt, the doors sigh open, and I depart. Those former lovers with whom I had been lying in bed are again strangers. They will mug me in the street and they will help me when I ask for directions. They will give me the bird when I cut them off on the highway and I will do the same when they cut me off.
When HP and I had our last romantic, candle-lit dinner before I left San Diego he asked me:
“Damn dawg, you’re gonna take your laptop and camera and iPod down with you? Whatchu gonna do if some thugs jump you?”
I hadn’t really thought about it. By this point, I had sold off or given away just about all of my possessions. Everything I could now call my own – pictures, music, movies, writings – were all 1’s and 0’s and they were all in my laptop.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to fight,” I said.
“Crazy-ass-Oso, dawg,” HP responded with his signature smile and we started talking about something else.
Unlike in Peru five years ago, this time I knew immediately what was happening as soon as I felt the weight of his body on my back, his forearms crushing into my throat; I knew I was being mugged. The entire incident is a bit blurred in my memory – more like a slideshow out of order than a flowing movie.
I ended up on the ground. At least two people were kicking my stomach and back while I heard the voice of the guy with his arms around my neck yell, “suéltalo o te voy a matar.” I held onto my bag with dear life and tried to peel his arms away so I could breathe. Then I heard women’s voices and I realized that the two people kicking me were both women. One had stopped kicking me and took my wallet, then started pulling my pants down until my ass was showing.
I could feel blows to the back of my head with a hard fist. “En serio marico, te voy a matar,” was like a chant that echoed over and over. Somewhere in the subconscious of my brain, the calculus of self-preservation told me this was no longer worth it.
“Ok, ok, ok.” And I let go of my bag. The constriction loosened around my neck and the kicks to my stomach and back ceased. I pulled up my pants, stood up, and was amazed by what I saw. Just ten feet away was a group of 15 to 20 people staring at me blankly as if I were a daytime game show.
“¡Cómo que no me van a ayudar!” I pleaded, but no one moved. I saw the shadows of the three who had attacked me running up the alley. I started chasing after them and realized I was barefoot. One guy, two girls, street kids, all early 20’s.
For the first time, my brain started to work and I realized that if the kid had a gun or knife I would have felt it like I did in Peru. When he saw me chasing after him he put his hand in his pocket and made the shape of a gun. Again he said he would kill me and I hesitated. But then – in excitement and stupidity – he pulled his hand out with his index finger and thumb sticking out like a five-year-old boy playing cowboys and Indians.
I told him I’d give him my money if he gave me my bag. He said he’d kill me. Buying time I said, “at least give me my passport.” The girls pleaded with him, but the only thing he knew how to say was “te voy a matar, te voy a matar.” And it was obvious that he was as scared as I was.
Then we started to fight.
Real-life fights are nothing like the movies. They’re sloppy. The majority of punches thrown don’t find skin. And when they do, it’s a grazed cheek or shoulder. Real fights are much more homo-erotic than heroic.
A rock crashed into the wall where we were fighting and the kid started running away. And then a few seconds later a small stone tagged me in the thigh. And another. He was throwing them like baseballs and all I could do was retreat and dodge, trying not to let him out of my sight.
Let me stop here to say (as I later emphasized to the police sergeant) that by now the robbery had lasted more than five minutes. And, by now, there were more than 30 onlookers. But no one helped me out. Their inaction felt like a wave of hatred directed at me.
“No, no, aquí nadie se mete,” the sergeant would later respond, “here no one butts in.”
“But it was obvious that he wasn’t armed,” I stammered. “If just one other person would have helped me out, I’d still have my computer.”
Well, I shouldn’t say that nothing was done. The kid kept running up the alley, turning back occasionally to throw a rock at me. Finally, I saw a miracle. Ahead of the kid – at the far end of the alley was a patrol of four police officers with muscular arms and shoulders sticking out of their bulletproof vests. The kid didn’t even try to run. I shouted at the officers to stop him and, by the time I caught up, he was pinned against the brick wall with his hands behind his back. One of the two girls was there also with her head bowed down.
My bag was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t have cared less about the kid or the girl. They both looked homeless and dirty, their eyes vacant and mean. Even though I was bleeding through my shirt and my head was pounding, a streak of sympathy still flashed by when I saw how young and how old my attacker’s face looked. I just wanted my computer back.
They both told the officers that they had no idea who I was or what had happened while I ran around frantically and desperately asking every heartless onlooker where the third girl went but no one said anything. Somehow I felt more rage towards them than the kid who attacked me.
I gave up and went back to the police officers. They had let the girl go (“no tenia nada”), but were threatening the kid and smacking him hard with closed fists on the back of his head.
The next morning I was in the American embassy, accompanied by a Venezuelan security guard as I waited in the marble-floored lobby. The US embassy, high up in the luxurious neighborhood of Valle Arriba looks like it was built to withstand nuclear warfare, not to process visas and passports. I explained to the security guard what happened.
“Sí, agarraron el tipo, pero … Yeah, they got him, but they let the girl go. Then we tried to strike a deal. He left his cédula (national ID card) with us and said he’d get my laptop back to me if I gave him cash and my iPod. If not, he’d have an arrest warrant on his record for the rest of his life.”
It may sound strange to you that I was negotiating with the person who just mugged me in front of the police. But in Venezuela, it seemed normal. In fact, I trusted the police as little as I trusted the crook. I was furious that the officers let the girl go. If we had both of them, we could have kept one in custody while the other got my computer.
In the end, I was left with a national ID card and nothing else, not even enough money to take a taxi to the embassy. I waited with the police sergeant for two hours, first with optimism, then with resigned realism. Of course, the kid wouldn’t come back. How did he know the police wouldn’t arrest him after he handed over the laptop. How did I know that he didn’t strike a deal with the cops? I clenched my teeth in anger and defeat as the sergeant told me his favorite cops-and-robbers stories and assured me I was lucky that I didn’t get stabbed. He handed me a card with his number written on it. “When you come back to Venezuela, you call me up and I can be your personal bodyguard. It’s the only way for foreigners in this city.”
I have no idea how late I stayed up that night, staring at the ceiling while the techno of the clubs below reverberated through the walls. I had no way of telling the time. I had no one to talk to. Nothing to email with. No pictures to look at, movies to watch, or music to listen to. All I had was incessant bass rattling the window panes while I tried to take mental stock of what I lost.
It was an interesting exercise. How do we measure our losses? In money? In time? Frustration? Sentimental value? My laptop, old-school 30 GB iPod, my iPod shuffle, my electronic translator, and a few iPod accessories. Then there was my wallet, the $100 or so in cash, the credit cards I’d need to cancel and replace. The hours waiting in line at the DMV. But most frustrating was the data I lost. It had been two weeks since my last backup. Two weeks of working nearly eight hours a day. 80 hours of work at least. The email drafts were erased. The long essay I had been working on every day, was gone.
I rolled over, trying not to think about it and trying not to let my bloodied back stick to the sheets. Eventually, I woke, my room flooded with light, my bottom lip swollen, my head pounding, and my back and my stomach cramped and sore. I gathered a couple of dollars of change from around my room and started asking strangers how to get to the US embassy. At an airline office, some young guy about my age overheard me tell the clerk that I didn’t have enough money for a taxi and that I’d have to walk the 5+ miles. He chased after me in the street and handed me enough money for the taxi fare.
When I told my Chinese-Venezuelan taxi driver what had happened he waved off the money. “This is a dangerous city,” he told me, “but Venezuelans are good people.” At the embassy, they fed me, helped me get money wired, and called my banks to cancel my credit cards.
There is a scene in the highly-recommended movie Secuestro Express when the rich girl explains to one of her kidnappers that she has sympathy for the poor, that she’s a volunteer at a free medical clinic, and that she’s always done everything she can for the poor.
— Yeah, but you’re rich
— Is it a crime to be born rich?
— And rub it in everyone’s face? You live in a city knee-deep in shit and you drive around in daddy’s new Jeep and you wear this fucking dress? You know how many people you can feed with the price of this dress? You walk around this city rubbing your money in the faces of everyone and how the fuck do you expect that you’re not going to get kidnapped?
There’s no question that Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the western hemisphere. Crime, or “inseguridad,” has been the central issue throughout this fall’s ongoing campaigning. It’s the one issue Chavistas know they can’t deny. Crime has gone from bad to worse. Every day the newspapers have some opinion piece regretting the fact that no one walks at night anymore, that everyone wears a constant expression of fear.
The main opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, says he will crack down on crime and criminals. But already the police force has nearly doubled. Police are everywhere in Caracas. Helicopters have been purchased. And yet the murder rate keeps climbing and I’m sure that most robberies and kidnappings are never even reported.
On the taxi ride to the airport, we left the multinational-owned skyscrapers downtown and headed down the long grade to the airport. Crawling up the valley’s steep hillsides like a skin disease were impoverished spreads of brick and tin shacks. The same impoverished, hill-hugging shacks that spread throughout Latin America from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego. The cola, or line of traffic, to the airport was at a standstill from all the Cariqueños heading to the beach for the weekend. Walking up and down the smog-clogged corridors between the cars were teenagers, mothers, and dark young men selling soft drinks, pirated CDs, beach toys, and ice cream cones.
“How much do you think these guys make in a day?” I asked my taxi driver.
“They don’t do bad at all,” he said, “probably about 20,000 or 30,000 in a day.”
Ten to 15 dollars after standing out in the sun, breathing in the fumes of cars, and hawking goods all day long. Less money than most people reading this make in an hour. In front of the taxi was a brand new Range Rover. The windows were heavily tinted but I could make out the silhouettes of three kids jumping up and down and dancing excitedly in the back seat.
I can’t help but think of the scene in Secuestro Express. I can’t help but think that more equality is the only thing that will diminish Venezuela’s crime problem. And, of course, more opportunities. Whether you believe those opportunities should come in the form of government-run programs like Barrio Adentro or more minimum wage jobs at a new Wal-Mart probably depends on your politics and how you grew up. Personally, I’d like to see a lot more of both – more government programs to get kids off the street and into school and more jobs at Wal-Mart or anywhere else to give poor kids a wage other than what they’re able to rob and steal.
I have no idea what to expect from the future. Five years down the road is hard enough to imagine; 60 years, impossible. Maybe Southern California will be blown off the map by a North Korean nuclear missile. Maybe national governments will cease to exist and all we’ll have left is the UN and state governments. Maybe there will be more crime, maybe less.
60 years down the road I’ll be 86 and Hector Enrique Calderon Contreras will be 83. Who knows what the Internet will be like at that point. Who knows if this blog will still be online and if it is, who knows how significant or insignificant it will be in the sea of searchable information.
But maybe, just maybe, sometime in the next 60 years Hector Enrique Calderon Contreras will come across this post and he’ll remember the night he mugged a gringo tourist. Maybe that laptop he scored that night changed his life. Maybe he learned how to use a computer, was able to get a job, and found himself inside the global economy.
Or maybe he sold it for $500 and used the money to buy drugs. Maybe he kept stealing. Maybe he wound up in jail or dead.
I’ve written all this in my paper journal: a journal I hardly ever use because most of my entries were typed into my computer. The first page in here was written on my last day in San Diego. It’s full of happiness and optimism for the exploration and mystery that lay ahead. I can’t believe all that has happened in the two months since that entry. A friend of mine recently wrote me an email saying he missed this guy. I miss him too. I miss the guy playing drums on the steering wheel and singing out loud. I miss the guy doing the running man in a Hollywood club while wearing a dress. I have a feeling he’s just around the corner.