A Nightmare Come True

“This can’t be happening”, I thought. “It´s all gone”. My heart frantically throbbed in my chest, my breath was quickened and desperate, and a painful lump formed in my throat. “POR FAVOR!!” I screamed. “AYÚDENOS!” No one pursued the person who took our items. I didn’t even get a glance at who they were. That’s how quickly it happened. I remember it so vividly as the memory forces its way into my mind from time to time. Yet at the time time, it is all such a blur. It happened so swiftly. We were robbed blind.

 

As many of you may already know, a friend and I recently experienced a horrid occurrence in the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pickpockets are going to extreme measures to steal from unsuspecting people nowadays, and I can personally attest to that statement from experience.

 

I was originally going to publish a post I had written about the beautiful Sierras surrounding the city of Cordoba, but…that is going to have to wait. We have more pressing matters to discuss. I try to be a positive person, to see the light when everything appears obscured by darkness. Therefore, I am taking this horrific experience and turning it around for the good of those around me. Take this lesson to heart, everyone who plans on traveling. This could save you a lot of headache later on, headache that I intensely endured.

 

I´m going to break this post down for my readers out there. Here´s what we’re going to discuss today, in order:

 

  1. What Happened
  2. What I Learned
  3. Extreme Measures: New Stealing Tactics
  4. Prevention and Remediation

 

So, let´s get started, shall we?

 

WHAT HAPPENED

 

My friend and I were walking down the Avenida de Mayo, in broad daylight, approximately 5:30pm. We were almost to the corner of a main street, at the intersection of 9 de julio. We weren’t walking in the dark, nor on a “shady” street. And it still happened.

 

We felt something wet speckle our backs and suddenly a foul, pungent odor filled our lungs. We were covered with a putrid mixture of defecation. “Eww!!” we exclaimed. It was all over us! I initially thought it had come from the balconies above us, as sometimes people throw dirty water or disgusting matter down with no regard for pedestrians below.

 

Two women eagerly came to our aid. This was where the troubles began. They offered to help us clean up; they had hand sanitizer and bottles of water. I hardly noticed them taking off my camera and purse because I was so distracted by the awful smell and the fact that it was on my clothes and in my hair. I had a camisole on underneath my blouse so I took the blouse off of me. The women were pouring water over our heads and in our hair to clean us and kept turning our shoulders away from the sight of a person running away with our belongings.

 

I feel so stupid.

 

I should not have let them touch my purse.

But I did.

They took advantage of our vulnerability…of our trust during our time of need.

 

The next thing I know, a passerby yelled to us, “Tu bolso!”, meaning “Your purse!” I quickly turned around, and it was gone. I turned to the ladies to ask for help.

 

They were no where to be found…disappeared without a trace.

 

No…no, this couldn’t be happening to me. I screamed at the top of my lungs for help, for someone to chase after this person. I screamed the word please in Spanish as loud as I could.

 

My lungs and throat still ache from my desperate cries.

 

No one chased them. They just gawked at us crying in the street, feeling so utterly helpless,  caught in a lie and completely confounded. We collapsed to the ground. My friend was crying, “My passport! My passport!!” I couldn’t even imagine…

 

They had my purse. My credit card. My debit cards. My phone and camera with all of my pictures. My money. My license. My friend lost her purse containing her cards, a camera and most importantly–her passport.

 

It´s amazing how much of your identity and your life are confined to so few items.

 

I was most devastated about the pictures I had taken, which were irreplaceable. Photography is my creative outlet and without it, I feel so empty.

 

A million thoughts raced through my mind. I just wanted to start over. I wanted to relive the day and act differently. I wanted my belongings back in my hands. Was this really happening? Please tell me this is a dream. I felt so alone. People started coming out of their homes and shops to find out why two girls were wailing and sobbing in the street. Some merely stared befuddled, heads cocked to the side. Others came to our aid.

 

One man called the authorities and spoke to us, trying to calm us down. We collapsed by the wall of the nearest building, clutching whatever items we still had. I felt to victimized. So small. So weak and insignificant. I felt violated, and most of all, stupid.

 

It is a dirty, greedy and selfish world we live in today. Thieves resort to more and more drastic measures to plunder and pillage from their fellow man. Within just an hour of the incident, these criminals had withdrawn a combined total of $700 U.S. dollars from my bank account, further adding to my pre existing feelings of insecurity and mistrust.

 

Within a few minutes, the police arrived and we recounted the events to them between fits of hyperventilation and sounds of distress. The man who came over to help us also spoke English, so he helped us to convey some ideas that were difficult to express. I mostly was speaking in Spanish but for the ideas that remained unclear, he kindly assisted us. A British couple came over and found out what happened and reached into their wallets to give us some emergency cash. Had they not, we would have suffered a long, dark walk home later that evening.

 

My friend and I tried our best to stay strong for each other, taking turns comforting the other during periodic fits of anguish and distress. The police took us to the station to fill out paperwork on the robbery.

Hey, at least I´ll be able to tell my future students that I was put in the back of a police car in Argentina, right? I’m trying to see the positive aspects, I guess.

 

At the station, the police routinely, emotionlessly and unconcernedly took down our information. This was an everyday occurrence for them. Another tourist with their things gone. More paperwork for them that they didn’t care about. None of them reached out to console us. None of them offered to let us clean up. It was a struggle to get them to spell our information correctly and let us contact loved ones. They were in no rush to take care of us.  I managed to get them to let me use their computer to get onto my Facebook to send a quick message to my sister, my mom and my friend Jess telling them that we were robbed but that we were physically okay and that I would talk to them back at the hostel.

 

And then it was over.

 

We weren’t even told that the paperwork was done. It was inferred. No farewells. No reassurance. No asking if were were okay.

 

Nothing.

 

We stepped out into the dark evening air in a haze of disbelief and confusion. How were we to get home? The police must have known all of our money was stolen. We didn’t even know which police station we were taken to. Still covered in the repulsive substance that was thrown on us, we figured out what we had to do. There was no way we were going to walk back to our hostel, which was an hour and a half away, walking. Thankfully, that extremely kind British couple I mentioned earlier gave us that emergency cash. God bless them, because that saved us a harrowing walk home.

 

At the hostel, I immediately logged on to their computer and searched my bank and credit card numbers to block each and every possible monetary source I possessed. I changed my passwords to important accounts to prevent any possible future fraud. I corresponded with my sister and mother back at home.

 

Within the time it took us to travel back to the hostel from the police station, my wonderful, thoughtful sister had already set up a fundraiser to get me back on my feet. I was touched. I clicked the link and what I saw next moved me to tears. Within only an hour, not only had she reached the goal, but surpassed it. I started to sob uncontrollably and even as I am writing these words, tears well up up my eyes. I was so deeply humbled and speechless at the amazing generosity of everyone back at home. Numerous people had shared the link, had contributed to the fund, had sent me consoling messages, stepped up to help me in my time of need.

 

I couldn’t believe my eyes. All my life, I have felt so insignificant in this big world, like nobody really cared about someone like me. I saw the sheer number of people who reached out to me with assuring words and monetary aid and nearly collapsed from disbelief and gratitude. I was so deeply moved, I had no words to express the feelings stirring up within.

 

WHAT I LEARNED

 

Although this wretched experience has shown me how corrupt and vile people can be, it has also provided me a more powerful and optimistic lesson. On the contrary, this event has shown me how wonderful, kind, and thoughtful people can be. It has taught me to rethink my priorities and to be grateful for what I do have and what didn’t happen to me.

 

I am grateful for the tremendous outreach on behalf of friends and family back at home who have assisted me amidst such a tragedy. Words can never fully express my overwhelming gratitude toward all of them.

 

After some pondering and reflection, I’ve come to some very important conclusions, and I have resolved that I will not allow this experience to take away my joy nor my love of culture or travel. In fact, I’m going to do the best revenge ever known: smile. Be happy. Allow this to shape me into a better person.

 

I have heard stories of women being kidnapped, raped, violated, harmed, sold into the sex trade.

That didn’t happen to me.

 

I have heard of people having guns or knives pulled on them in robberies.

That didn’t happen to me.

 

I have heard of people getting killed on the spot during muggings.

That didn’t happen to me.

 

For that, I thank God. I know it could have been worse. MUCH worse.

 

Additionally, I wasn’t left entirely alone. Those at home were exceedingly supportive and my Argentinian friends reached out to me and offered me emergency money, food and lodging. The day after, I went to my one good friend´s house and she made me dinner, gave me a cool, quiet, safe place to sleep and even prepared me a warm bubble bath. My other Argentinian friend lent me her camera until I was able to purchase another. Another woman at the hostel, one I had never met before this trip, gave me a phone to use so I wouldn’t feel so disconnected.

 

My faith in humanity was restored. In spite of the terrible greed and selfishness of people out there, there are so many other kind souls to make up for it.

This incident also caused me to reflect on my technology use. After losing my phone, I felt so lost, so empty, so useless. It is absolutely astonishing how much I (and I´m sure many others!) are dependent upon their phones and technology for every action they carry out in their lives. It is scary. There are apps for everything nowadays, but can they produce an authentic fulfilment within us? I’ve learned that the answer is no. But what can?

 

I believe it is the love of family and friends.

 

Yeah, my phone is gone. But you know what those thieves could never take away? The love of those around me, embracing me in safety and assurance despite outward circumstances.

 

That, my friends, is so much more valuable than a couple applications or even photos.

 

EXTREME MEASURES: NEW STEALING TACTICS

 

Unfortunately, we are living in a world where people must take more and more drastic measures to violate the identity and property of others around them. The tactic used on us is new, and it caught us off guard because we were not expecting it.

 

Here are the underlying principles that pickpockets use to take advantage of tourists:

COMPASSION and DISTRACTION.

In our case, they used both. They distracted us with the nasty substance they sprayed on us. They used compassion to gain our trust and lower our guard. They skillfully employed both tactics to carry out the heist and lamentably, it worked.

 

You think it could never happen to you…until it does. So here is my advice:

 

If anyone offers you help if something “unexpected” happens (like someone spitting on you or throwing foreign matter on you), refuse their assistance and hold your items close. Find refuge in the nearest restaurant, store, cafe, whatever. Clean up and be on guard.

 

There are thieves who will even throw what appears to be a bundled up baby (really a doll) at a victim because they know they will try to catch it and save it. Or someone will be pretending to drown while on a beach. This catches the victim off guard and frees their hands for an easy steal. They will have someone yell, “my wallet was stolen!” in a crowded area because that causes everyone else to pat themselves down to make sure their items are still there. This allows thieves to know exactly where to look.

Thieves will cut straps, use begging children as a distraction, claim to have a flat tire to get help, you name it. (Many other methods here…I HIGHLY suggest you educate yourself! http://scams.wikispaces.com/Pickpockets)

 

Just when you think you are careful enough, it can happen. It is important to be educated on the newest schemes people are employing to steal from others. We always kept our stuff close to us. We had it in front of us, clutched to our sides. But we had no idea they would use such a tactic.

 

PREVENTION AND REMEDIATION:

 

  1. Routinely back-up important photos, videos, notes and documents into the Cloud (Apple), Dropbox (Android) or some other storage device.
  2. Carry important items separately on your person. A debit card here, a little cash there. Spread it out.
  3. Hold your items close to you, always in front.
  4. Have a copy of your passport at your hostel or hotel.
  5. Avoid carrying your passport with you.
  6. Refuse help from others, and although it´s painful to say this, take extreme caution when thinking about assisting those in distress. Who knows, it may be a ruse to distract you. It is horrible that we have to desensitize ourselves like that, but that is what thieves do nowadays. They use psychology and the instincts of human nature against us.
  7. Limit the amount of money you carry with you at one time.
  8. Always have spare cash at the hostel or hotel at which you are staying.

 

If you do find yourself at the hands of theft, take these steps:

  1. Call the police. Documentation is crucial to possible future fraud claims and bank claims. This is certified PROOF that it happened. NEVER forgo this step!!
  2. Take down names and contact information of witnesses.
  3. Change passwords if necessary. (I had to because they had my phone, which had my gmail account.)
  4. Cancel/block all bank and credit cards that were stolen. Check your balances and recent purchases to see if anything needs disputes. Time is of the essence so call as soon as possible.
  5. Inform loved ones what has happened.
  6. Seek counseling services if necessary.

 

In my case, I was VERY lucky to have purchased Skype minutes to anywhere in the U.S, landlines, cell, you name it. I paid for a year and all I had to do was connect to wifi and login to my Skype account. This was ESPECIALLY crucial abroad because it is nearly impossible to contact others internationally. If you are going abroad, I would very highly recommend looking into this, as it is very affordable and very worthwhile. (I can even just call back home to chat without every worrying about using up minutes!)

 

If you have any other recommendations for prevention or remediation, please feel free to leave a comment below!!!

Thank you all for reading and once again, thank you all for supporting me through thick and thin. It really means THE WORLD to me!!

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3 thoughts on “A Nightmare Come True

  1. Dear Erika,

    This is a moving tribute to your resilient, beautiful character! I cried while reading it, not only because you describe so vividly the emotions you experienced during and after the robbery, but also because you illustrate magnificently what Charles R. Swindoll states: “[L]ife is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”

    I will save this blog entry to share with future study abroad participants. It provides very helpful information about preventing nightmares like yours and Jordan’s (loved the “honest con man’s” guide!), but, more significantly, your attitude is a valuable lesson to all of us about humanity, maturity and the virtue of seeing the glass half-full!

    Be well, be healthy, be yourself–always!

    Un fuertísimo abrazo,

    Rose

  2. I’m so sorry this happened! 😦 But I’m glad you did everything you could in the aftermath to get back on your feet. Your positive spin is very inspiring. Take care!
    P.S. Totally agree with the copy of passport thing.. Lock it in the safe and bring the copy.

    1. Thank you Lydia for the feedback! I appreciate it!! And yes, I really hope I can turn this experience around to help others who could potentially be in my place!

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