With over three months in order to compose my final blog, I still am unable to determine the best way to commence one of the most unforgettable moments of my trip. A moment that has up until this point, remained unshared with almost everyone I know. Unshared and undivulged, as it most likely would have caused unnecessary grief and anguish among those anxiously awaiting my return back home (Mom, GF, Mom). However, now that I am safely returned to the good ole US of A, I feel it is finally time to share “The Story of the Friendly Muggers.”
Prior to my departure for South America, I had already been more than well-informed of the potential dangers that awaited me. Drug-related kidnappings in Colombia, bus muggings in Peru, meal-stealing parasites in Bolivia. All of which I took with a mere grain of salt, because to be perfectly honest, after 3 trips to South Africa in the past 4 years, and not one negative incident during that time, I figured survival in one of the most notoriously-dangerous places in the world (undeservedly so I might add), meant survival anywhere else. Unfortunately, such a notion would soon meet its test, as my adventures arrived to the coast of Panama.
After a day settling into the island town of Bocas Del Toro, Laura and I decided to venture off on our first journey of the trip. Taking the advice of a friendly girl working at our hostel, we hopped on a short boat ride as to visit what was supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Panama: Red Frog Beach. Not only lacking anything even remotely resembling paradise (unless you consider dirty-white, trash-scattered beaches something to be sought after), Red Frog Beach also lacked any multi-colored amphibians after which it was named. Thus, after several hours attempting to find beauty in what basically resembled a strip of sand in Galveston, we decided to venture off to an aligning beach that promised, what we hoped, anything more: Wizard Beach.
With two routes which to take, we opted to hug the rocky coast instead of venturing inland through the forest. After half an hour of wading through water, clinging onto rock walls, and wondering if this “nearby” beach would ever appear, I heard a scream come from behind me. My immediate thought was that Laura had slipped, so I rushed back around the corner to make sure she was OK. She was not. Joining a wide-eyed Laura were now two local islanders, adorned in black ski masks, each holding onto a large rock in one hand, and a baseball bat-sized piece of wood in the other. My immediate thoughts were as follows:
(NOTE: EVERYTHING = Canon DSLR Camera, 2 lenses, iPod, 2 passports, wallet, a waterproof camera and of course my favorite multi-functional sarong Estimated Price Is Right Retail Value of $2,718).
With the two muggers focusing their attention on Laura, I instinctively attempted to hide my backpack behind a large boulder while their concentration was drawn away. Unfortunately, my quick toss lodged the backpack directly between the boulder and a wall, thus placing it in perfect sight of our two new “friends.” With literally all my possessions in clear view for the taking, I couldn’t help but sigh at the predicament in which we had found ourselves – only 3 days into the trip, and already to be relieved of everything of any value.
As one of the muggers finally approached me from around the corner, I couldn’t help but notice the cautiousness in his steps, as well as the fact that he seemed to be only 17-18 years of age. I have no idea why, but as he approached, I put my hand up, and told him to wait, as I went to grab my wallet from my backpack. He obliged accordingly, as I removed $30 from my wallet for him to see, handing it over carefully as he raised his rock high in the air in case any sudden movements were made. As he attempted to approach my bag, I found myself begging “no mas por favor, solo dinero” (no more please, only money). To my astonishment, he paused for thought, and then nodded, returning back to the other mugger. Within seconds, they were gone, leaving both Laura and I in a state of mild shock as to what had just happened. Only when Laura and I were back to safety 10 minutes later did I learn of the ridiculous events that transpired on her end:
Laura: “Oh no, please… oh please”
Laura: Hands over camera dejectedly, pausing for a moment, before asking the mugger “Could I please at least keep my memory card?”
Mugger: Nods head. Gives camera BACK to Laura so she can remove her memory card.
Laura: “Thank you!” Hurriedly removes memory card, then half-passes the camera back before pulling it back and asking “Oh please, can I actually just keep the camera. Pleeeeease?”
Mugger: Pauses for a moment, nods head. Looks back at Laura’s bag.
Laura: “Here, have my iPod, and $15, please that’s all I have”
Mugger: Takes iPod, looking at it with a sense of accomplishment, then back at Laura and myself, before departing with his other companion.
As we rushed onward along the coast in hopes of reaching the populated sands of Wizard Beach, I couldn’t believe the luck that had come our way. To escape that entire situation with only the loss of $45 and Laura’s iPod was miraculous. I wasn’t sure if it was empathy on the part of the mugger’s that allowed us to leave with all our possessions, or if they were quite possibly the worst criminals in the world. Either way, it seemed as if both parties were moreorless pleased with how the events transpired.
After jumping in the ocean, and letting the adrenaline wash away, we eventually came across a group of 5 other backpackers whom we convinced to walk back with us through the jungle as to return to “civilization.” With no money to afford a ferry ride back, it was even more amazing that our paths soon crossed that of Erik Stringwell and his wife Leah, enjoying a hike of their own during their honeymoon. After reliving our story (which promptly halted their plans to hike to the beach), they were more than kind enough to treat us to some “semi-celebratory” beers before paying our way back to the mainland. (Erik, I still owe you!)
After returning to our hostel in Bocas, we informed the staff (as well as the “horrible-advice-providing girl”) of what had occurred. While appearing quite shocked at the story of which we told, only then did they inform us that the path we took is “notorious” for muggings and should never have been wandered across in the first place (yes, thanks for telling us that NOW). Biting my tongue at the frustration I felt at our hostel’s inability to provide sound advice, we finalized the entire affair with a trip to the local police station. After stumbling my way through a broken Spanish version of the event, we came to the understanding that we were extremely lucky, and if the boys were caught, they would basically be beaten senseless and let on their way. Sounded about right to me.
Over the next 3 months, both Laura and I assumed that it was only a matter of time before a similar incident found its way into our lives. Limited amounts of cash were carried, important documents were spread across numerous bags, valuables were hidden within the depths of our over-packed bags. Listening to story after story of other’s being relieved of their possessions in a similar fashion, it seemed inevitable that the return home would be without the majority of valuables still in-hand. However, despite all our precautions, the remainder of the trip remained “mug-free,” leaving our experience in Panama the only “blemish” along what was an amazing experience. A “blemish” which I eventually convinced Laura to describe appropriately, as her description of “being attacked by two kids with bits of wood” didn’t paint the appropriate picture in the minds of others.
And thus, I leave you with that. With all my stories officially documented, I hope you have all enjoyed my adventures in South America as much as I did. While I look forward to future travels as well as future blogs, I believe my time spent bumming around the world for months on end might finally have come to a conclusion (this whole “life” thing has to start up one of these days). Nevertheless, I still have passport pages to fill, and about 5 weeks of vacation a year to enjoy. Thus, farewell for now and hasta la proxima vez!
Onto the pics: