Maybe I jinxed myself. On Wednesday, I had marveled at the fact that I had been traveling South America for nine months and nothing had been stolen. Sure, I’d had some close calls: someone tried to walk off the bus with my friend’s bag one day (Cory caught him red-handed), and there have been numerous times in which locals have warned me that someone had just attempted to rob me, but had been warded off by my habit of keeping my hand over the zippers of my purse.
I wanted to go back home with all my belongings intact, not so much because I valued my possessions, but simply because I wanted to prove to people that you can backpack South America alone and be just fine, as long as you’re careful and use some common sense.
“Don’t start preaching just yet about South America,” I told myself. “You still have one month left.”
The very next day, I got robbed.
So what happened?
On Thursday afternoon, I went to meet someone for lunch in Lima. I arrived “early” (by Peruvian standards), so I grabbed a seat at the only free table, right in the doorway. I sent a quick text saying that I had arrived, and placed my cellphone on the table to await the reply. Because I had my SLR camera and wallet in my bag, I kept everything else on my lap, but I took out my iPod to pass the time.
Just then, three boys (maybe 18-21?) entered the restaurant in hopes of selling some caramels for a few cents. This is a common occurrence in Peru, so I just ignored them. As they were leaving, one of them stopped at my table and started waving the bag of candy directly in my face, pleading with me to buy some. I thought he assumed that I had lots of change to spare since I was holding an iPod. The other two boys came up behind me and started waving their bags around as well, while I shooed them away.
Immediately, I had a bad feeling, and did a quick check of my bag to make sure I still had everything. But wait… I had left my phone on the table — where was it?!
I jumped up and looked outside, where the boys were walking calmly down the street.
“¡Me acaban de robar mi celular!” I exclaimed to the restaurant owner.
“No, lo tienes. Fíjate bien tus cosas.” — No, you have it. Take a good look through your stuff.
When I finally convinced the guy that I had indeed been robbed, he was utterly useless.
“Ya se fueron.” — They’re gone.
They weren’t gone. They were still less than 100 meters away. But the owner said there was nothing we could do; it would be dangerous to follow them. He was right about that. If I ran after them, they could take my camera or iPod, which were far more valuable than my $100 non-smartphone.
By this point, two female customers came to my aid. They borrowed a phone to call the police, and then tried calling my phone. Apparently, sometimes these thieves will pick up and ask for money in return for the phone. Sadly, no answer.
Five minutes later, a security patrol showed up, and I went riding around, searching for the boys. By this time, they were long gone, so I headed to the police station to file a report. Because I was leaving Peru the next morning, it seemed a bit silly, but I needed it to later make an insurance claim.
I guess my $719 worth of travel insurance is once again proving useful…
So, what can I take from this experience?
While the theft was quick and stealthy, there are still a few factors that led to me getting robbed.
1) Being in a familiar place: We all tend to let our guard down where we’re somewhere familiar. I had come to this same restaurant for lunch almost every day for a month. (Hey — they had a typical $2.30 USD menu with a different appetizer/entree each day — don’t blame me). Because of that, I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings, and had even gotten accustomed to leaving my phone out, something I almost never do.
2) Sitting near the exit: This is the first thing the female customers said to me after the incident. “Never, sit by the doorway in a Peruvian restaurant.” You become an easier target.
3) Letting myself get distracted: This is hard to control. Lauren and I had a similar “distraction” experience in Buenos Aires, in which someone squirted mustard all over us in the metro. (Because this is a common European gypsy trick, I assume it had bad intentions.) We checked our stuff before anyone could take anything. So, the important thing is to get in the habit of keeping a hand on your bag or wallet whenever a stranger approaches you. This way, if your mind is being distracted, at least you have a physical guard against robbery.
4) Not yelling for help: I noticed instantly that something had been stolen, and I probably could have stopped the boys by screaming for help. It was a busy street, with lots of shops and traffic, so there’s a good chance that someone would have intervened. (Or maybe not — Peruvians/Brazilians are quite cautious because of the risk of concealed weapons). So why didn’t I yell? The restaurant owner telling me that my phone was still somewhere in my bag threw me off, which delayed any chance of reaction.
In the end, I wouldn’t say that this incident was necessarily my fault. I’m always extremely cautious and walk with my hand over my bag. But, this was a case of me letting my guard down and not knowing how to react.
Does this mean that Peru is a dangerous place? Not exactly. While Peru has a high incidence rate of petty theft, I still believe that you’re almost as likely to get pick-pocketed or robbed in countries like Italy or Spain as you are in South America. Wherever you go, even if it’s just outside your front door, you need to be careful and be aware.