By Sarah Shaw
R.I.P. cute backpack from the street market in Taichung.
I was reading De Cómo las Muchachas García Perdieron el Accento and eating some almonds in the fluorescent-lit Éxito San Diego café around 7 pm, when I heard that a couple other volunteers were running late. It was Saturday evening, and a Fulbright friend, Cyntoya, had invited us to a small gathering at her apartment. She was living fifteen minutes walking distance from Cartagena’s Walled City, in Barrio Cabrero.
Since I knew exactly where she lived, and I was already planning to head over alone before the volunteers had called, I shoved my book in my backpack and set out on the uneven pavement.
From Éxito, I walked towards the sea and took a right before the stoplight. It was dark, but I felt comfortable. I’d been on this street before. Ten minutes later, I turned onto a short side street next to Cyntoya’s building, and immediately noticed that all pedestrians had vanished. Before I could turn back, a moto stopped a few feet in front of me. He was wearing a helmet and black clothing. I saw a glimmer of his small, paring knife, and thought, “Shit, he’s going to rob me.”
He walked towards me, holding his knife in front of him. Without being aggressive, he asked me for my bag. I tried to plead with my eyes, but he frantically repeated himself and gripped his knife a little harder. With an angry grunt I gave it to him. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me, but I didn’t want to take the risk.
I raced the last few feet to Cyntoya’s apartment, feeling more annoyed and angry than scared. My privacy had been violated, as well as my right to be a woman on the street at 7:30 pm. Luckily I had some cash and her apartment number written on a piece of paper in my pocket. When I called the Peace Corps duty line from another friends phone, Eder listened to my story and helped me cancel my debit card.
The next morning, my boyfriend called my phone, and a woman answered. He explained that I had been robbed the night before, and she immediately claimed that she had “found” my phone, debit card and Peace Corps ID on the street. My boyfriend asked if she could return those items, arguing, “It’s more difficult for a foreigner to replace those items.” She agreed, but then slipped in a request for a recompensa, claiming that her community really needed a new soccer ball.
“No, Señora,” he responded, “I don’t live in Cartagena, and when she arrives at Cai Crespo, she will not have anything to give you.”
When I told this story to the other girls in Cartagena, my favorite response was from Sarah Gengler: “Only in Colombia do thieves return stolen debit cards and phone chips and ask for soccer balls in return.”
The next couple days consisted of trips to various police stations throughout the city. Although several police officers were friendly, the process was very disorganized and archaic. In one office, I recalled the entire story to an officer who transcribed it on a typewriter, only to find that the document was titled, “Report of Missing Property,” with no mention that I was robbed at knifepoint.
In another office, the police officers explained that the city was on strike, so there was no way I could fill out a report. Once again, I felt defeated, angry and annoyed. “If I weren’t in the Peace Corps,” I told myself, “I wouldn’t even report this.” Sadly, that’s probably what happens with the majority of crime in the city.
Over the next couple weeks, I reflected a lot on my robbery. It wasn’t a unique situation; robberies are fairly common in the city of Cartagena, especially outside the tourist districts. But why does it continually happen?
Having worked in La Boquilla for a year, it’s simple to understand. Cartagena is a city comprised of extreme poverty and wealth, that’s so visual, one can see a neighborhood of dilapidated wooden houses with tin roofs, next to a row of luxury apartment buildings. Plus, as the most touristic city in Colombia, the city often cares for the well being of tourists more than its own citizens. Although I only caught a glimpse of the man who robbed me, he looked like he was in his early twenties, and stole simply because he could get away with it. There’s no excuse for someone to forcibly take someone else’s possessions, but if he had studied in a school like La Boquilla’s, it’s quite possible that he did not receive the education he deserved.
Every day I work in a school with oven-like temperatures, little to no resources, class sizes that are far too big, constant noise and interruptions, and many teachers who haven’t had proper training. As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re trying our best to bridge some of the gaps in our schools—help students gain confidence, reach beyond their limits, and promote gender equality and equal rights. Until the city treats its citizens equally, and racism, classism and sexism cease to be common themes, I’m afraid we need to keep mitigating on the street and use our privilege as volunteers to empower our students in class.
- Don’t walk alone at night. If you happen to be alone after dark in Cartagena, stick to the Centro. The Centro and Getsemaní are much safer at night than the others barrios. In these touristic zones, many more police officers are around. Otherwise…
- Just take the bus. (Or a taxi if it’s too late.) For me, it wasn’t about saving 1,700 pesos, but the fact that I felt comfortable walking. Unfortunately, we don’t have the freedom to walk around Colombian urban centers like we do in some other countries, especially as a woman.
- Listen to Colombians. If the people from your city or town don’t go to certain areas at night, neither should you. Always ask your host family or friends for advice.