Anatomy of an Assault
Most of my blog posts are full of pretty pictures, and the next one after this will be too. But the subject of this one, the physical parts anyway, are gone, except for now-fading abrasions and on-going pain of bruised ribs. Here’s the anatomy of my assault…
On April 27, in San Sebastian Etla, a small village a short way outside of the city of Oaxaca in Mexico, I was assaulted in broad daylight, knocked down in the street, my purse ripped off of my arm. I was headed from my Airbnb on the 10 minute walk to the main road to catch a collectivo, a shared taxi, into the city to meet a new friend for dinner, when a man came up behind me, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Being new to the language, I smiled and said, “No hablo español,” I don’t speak Spanish. What followed still feels surreal, like a very bad dream.
His hand shot out and grabbed my purse, and I was so shocked, instinct had me press it tighter under my arm instead of letting go. One never knows what one will do in such a circumstance, and in hindsight, if I’d let go, I may not have been knocked to the ground. As it was, I went down hard, hitting the pavement full force, and felt the burn as he yanked my purse off my arm. I was dazed but still alert, and would have thought I’d run the other direction, away from my attacker, but found myself leaping up and running as fast as I could in pursuit of the mugger, screaming at the top of my lungs for help. He was obviously a professional – he hit me up on the half-block stretch right by the highway where he had an easy escape. People on the busy main road told me they saw him, that he’d leapt into a taxi and disappeared.
What followed was quite amazing. I was bleeding, sobbing, and semi-hysterical, mainly due to my loss, rather than my bodily injuries – my most valuable possession was gone, my iPhone with mega-memory due to my massive photo library. It was not only my camera (my only camera), but also my language translator, currency converter, communications vehicle, my maps, and my blogging apparatus – I used it for just about everything. (Yes, we are way too addicted to our phones, but that’s fodder for a different post). Also, my purse contained my credit card and a little too much cash as I’d planned to stock up at one of the big stores in the city, and my California drivers license, impossible to replace as I’m currently a nomad with no permanent US address. Not to mention my brand new umbrella, a few small lucky charms from my travels (obviously not so lucky!), prescription meds for my migraines, and other assorted personal effects – lipstick, comb, favorite shawl from Thailand, oh, and the keys to my Airbnb apartment, along with a map the landlord had drawn of exactly how to get there for me to show taxi drivers. But I digress…
The amazing part is that even though I only speak English, and 99% of the people on the busy street spoke only Spanish, I was immediately taken under the wing of some women who put their arms around me, tried to calm me down, found the one person who did speak English, and asked about what happened. Rubbing alcohol was flung from a plastic bottle onto my chest, it’s icy chill shocking me, and I tried to point out that my chest wasn’t hurt, it was the large bleeding abrasion on my back and smaller ones on my sandaled feet. (Later my landlord would explain that it is a custom here when someone is very upset, for another to take a swig of alcohol and spit it on the hysterical person’s chest to calm them down. “She must have been very polite to throw it on you instead of spitting, figuring if you didn’t know the custom, you may have seen it as an act of aggression.”)
A couple of men were running around, trying to find the thief, but gave up when they heard he’d already escaped in a taxi. The woman who spoke English told me she’d witnessed the whole thing from her kitchen window above the scene of the crime, and sent her husband, a big burly man, down to assist, but it was already too late. When I explained where I was staying, someone called her daughter to go knock on my landlord’s door and tell him what had happened. And the English-speaking woman led me up the hill where my landlord was already on his way down. It didn’t bring back my purse or my phone, but did help remind me that only a small fraction of people are bad.
That evening, my landlord took me to the small local police station to file a report. It was an interesting experience, not one I would have expected on my travels. In a small building next to the church, the policemen were in t-shirts and jeans in tiny cramped offices. We waited in line for a while on a bench, and my landlord pointed out the various officers: “That man is my cousin, the one over there, we went to elementary school together…” It’s a very small town. The police report is all in Spanish, but it looks official, with several stamps and signatures. Apparently it’s just a formality – they don’t really do anything with it.
I was told that this is an unusual occurrence in this village. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. I do know that I no longer felt safe there, and within a few days I had moved. I’d thought that staying in a small village in the countryside would be safer than living in the city, and also less expensive. But I didn’t realize that as the only gringo walking around, and a solo female at that, I would be seen as an easy target. There is a perception in Mexico that all gringos are rich. No one had warned me of potential problems here, and I’d just spent 6 months in La Manzanilla where I felt very safe. If I’d known, I would have done some things differently – not carried a purse, or one with nothing of value in it as a decoy, and just a small amount of cash in a pocket. I don’t usually carry my ID and credit card, but had them along due to my plans to visit the big store, and more cash in case they didn’t take plastic. After the assault, several people told me of similar attacks they had experienced in Oaxaca – purse and backpack snatchings, and one young woman grabbed by the necklace, but fortunately her attacker was scared off when she screamed. I’d only heard good things about Oaxaca before the assault. I get it that people want to focus on the positive, I’m the same way. However, I also think it’s important to be open about the darker side, as a heads-up to be careful. Not paranoid, but cautious, and aware of what specific crimes are common in any given area. Things can, and do, happen everywhere, while traveling as well as in your home town. You could say that I’ve been lucky to have traveled to 15 countries over the past 2 1/2 years and not experienced any real problems.
It’s still affecting me 3 weeks later – my sore ribs and fading wounds are a constant reminder, and I find myself hanging out in my room a lot more. When I do go out, I’m very careful about what I bring along and where I put it (women definitely need bigger and more pockets in our clothes!) People suggest safety measures, like a bra with hidden pockets, a little awkward at the check out counter in a store. I find that I’m jumpy, especially when I hear someone approaching me from behind on the sidewalk; I step aside to let them pass. Hopefully, the internal scars will heal and fade like the external ones. I’ve spent countless hours dealing with my bank regarding my credit card, insurance company to find out if I can get even a small fraction of the cost to replace my phone (a virtually hopeless task as they pro-rate it and keep asking for more and more paperwork, anything to get out of paying), and on and on. It would have been so much easier to just hand the mugger some money, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.
In the end, it could have been so much worse – I had no broken bones, and there was no knife or gun involved. And the best part of all was the incredible outpouring of love and support from friends, family and strangers around the world! Via Facebook and my blog, over 100 people sent messages, and I continue to get donations here on Paypal to help me eventually replace my phone. A friend even sent me his old one to get me by for now! It’s also allowed me to move to a safer area, which involves higher rent. My eternal gratitude goes out to each and every one of you for following my journey and your continued support. I won’t let this one incident keep me from exploring the world!