Hi, I am Lilia a 23-year-old and currently living in Ohio, though I have lived a lot of places, including New York and Istanbul. I just graduated from college with a degree in Human Geography, and am currently on the hunt for the elusive ‘real job’. I love to travel the world, listen to podcasts, garden, and make clothes and books.
I was always a little over-confident, maybe cavalier about my safety. I wasn’t stupid, but it was easy to put danger our of my mind when nothing had ever happened to me, especially since being safe often means depending on others, and I liked being self-sufficient.
I was walking down a street in Antigua, Guatemala, by myself, in the middle of the day. It was not in the center or town, but there were people around. I felt safe. There was a group of guys walking ahead of me, but the gap expanded between us when I stopped to look at an engraving on a building.When they turned a corner ahead a motorcycle that had previously passed came back and drove up to me very fast (almost running into me). There was a driver and a second man, who jumped off the bike and held up a very large handgun (he didn’t directly point it at me).
He asked for my “mochila” (“backpack”), which I handed over, and then he felt my body and pockets. I said “No hay nada” (“there is nothing”), which was a little silly in retrospect; it was like I was trying to be helpful! He felt a paper bag I had in my hand, which was full of sweets I had bought at a bakery. I told him “son dulces” (“they are sweets”). He initially took them, but threw them at me as the motorcycle pulled away. Even in this insane moment I recognized that this was funny, in a macabre, ridiculous way.
It all only took a few seconds and was completely unexpected. Suddenly I was watching them drive away with my backpack, which contained my camera with ALL OF MY PICTURES FROM MY WHOLE TRIP!!!!, my journal, some cash and a few other of my most useful possessions.
I was not carrying my passport or credit cards, which was incredibly fortunate as I was flying home in just two days.
After the robbery, what did you do?
The robber told me not to run or scream, and I did stand there stunned for a minute. Then I ran up to the boys walking ahead of me, who were clearly also foreigners and told them I had just been robbed and asked them to walk with me to the police.
The boys, who were Americans studying Spanish, were initially considerate and helpful and walked with me to find the police, but one of the boys then tried to evangelize me! He asked me “if things had gone differently, and your brains were all over the walls right now where would you be right now?” and proceeded to tell me that I would be in hell if I didn’t cultivate a relationship with Jesus.
I am not a religious person, but I am not opposed to religion, I was just shocked that someone would take advantage of me in such a vulnerable time. This is when I began to become really upset, and the reality of the danger of the situation sunk in.
Was any legal or police action taken?
I made a report at the police station, complete with a description of the event and everything in the bag, down to color and brand name. I left my email with them, but never heard anything. They didn’t seem overly concerned or likely to make a big effort.
How did this affect you?
I definitely am more cautious and fearful, and especially aware of my vulnerability as a woman. When it first happened I holed up in my hostel for the majority of the two remaining days until my flight. I am still jumpy at the sight or sound of motorcycles, though that is better now. What scares me the most is when I can hear someone running up behind me. They are usually just joggers, but it always gets my heart rate up.
What do you think women (or anyone!) can do to stay safe when walking alone?
It is tough to say, as this experience made me realize how random violence can be. This experience happened in the middle of the day, and not in a stereotypically risky situation. In Guatemala, I met many people who were much less cautious while traveling who never experienced any violence.
Ultimately, all you can do is be prepared and aware: take a self-defense class, be aware of your surroundings, talk to travelers and locals about areas to avoid, and carry a very limited amount of valuables to minimize loss in the occurrence of a robbery. Keep your passport at the hostel, hidden or in a lock box, and keep your money or cards in different places (both on your body, in luggage or your hostel).
If you are walking alone and there are others around you, stay close behind them to deter people from attacking you, and to ensure that you have people within range if you need help.
I am the last person to warn people off traveling alone, because I think it is rewarding and totally worth it! I just think people should really understand what they are getting into. We have to trust many individuals every day with our safety but it only takes one dangerous or negligent person to violate that trust. Being by yourself is significantly more dangerous than being with others, at home or on the road.
Take the extra step to be safer, even if it is inconvenient, but don’t let your fear stop you from living.
Also, back up your pictures while traveling! Possessions are just material, but memories are irreplaceable, and photographs are a form of memories, or at least a memory aid. I mourn the loss of those pictures every day!
Thanks for sharing your story, Lilia. Have any of you ever been violently robbed? How do you stay safe?
P.S. Check out these other True Stories: I witnessed a shooting & My home burned down and I lost 90% of my belongings.