BANG. I woke to the familiar sound of fireworks. When I first arrived in Xela, I would jump every time they went off, mulitple times a day. Now, however, I am a seasoned Guatemalan traveler. Nothing phases me.
As my mind cleared I realized something was off. I was on a bus. There are no fireworks on buses. And the man with the ski mask who was yelling in Spanish sure wasn´t holding a party popper. Unless they make party poppers in the shape of hand guns in Guatemala.
Finally I was able to take stock of what was happening. I was sitting in the middle of an honest to god, third world country bus robbery.
My first instinct was to reach for the bag containing my money. As the only tourist on the bus, I knew that they knew I was a goldmine. I grabbed my passport and slid it in the crack next to the seat and just hoped they wouldn´t look too hard.
The three men began to systematically go through each passenger, emptying wallets and pockets, taking cell phones and cash. I looked around at my companions. Through the dark I felt two things--a tense fear and a calm resignation. Such a situation is not only not unheard of in this country, its relatively common.
For my part, I was certainly nervous. The only real guns I´d ever seen were on the hips of friendly cops, and I´d certainly never seen a gun shot off before. I thought about what I knew of such situations and all that came to mind was Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in Speed. Somehow I didn´t think Keanu´s bad acting would help me much in this situation.
However, I wasn´t as scared as I thought I´d be. I wasn´t crying, wetting my pants, begging for mercy, or watching my life flash before my eyes. I took my cues from my fellow passengers and just kind of let it happen. What else could we do? They had guns, we didn´t.
When the first guy got to me, I showed him my cheap Guatemalan cell phone and the Q50 (quetzales--about $7) I had put in my pocket when I hid my passport, hoping he would think that´s all I had. But he wasn´t fooled--these guys were pros. He quickly found my wallet, emptied it, and took my nice American cell phone. Strangely he left both my credit card and Q20. A ladron (robber) with a heart? He patted me down and moved on. Relatively relieved, I thought I was off the hook. I didn´t know what else to do, so I just sat quietly and watched the men do their work.
Suddenly a different guy sat down next to me to see what he could find. This guy was much rougher than the first and was able to find the last Q20, and took that, too. I tried to tell him his friend had already checked me, but he wouldn´t have it. Then he reached for the buttons on my pants. I immediately jumped into action. I started getting aggressive and pushed him away. ¨¡No me toca!¨ Suddenly my Spanish was very good. He kept trying to feel me up and I kept getting angrier and angrier. Finally he gave up--which makes me think he was just looking for a money belt. Still, I´m proud I held my own--I wasn´t about to take that shit.
Then the guy moved to the seat in front of me and very roughly pushed an old woman out of the way. I had her sit with me and she held my hand. I´m not sure if she was seeking or giving comfort, but she seemed glad to be sitting with me. Her name was Selena.
As I watched the three guys tear apart belongings, I made up crazy plots in my head. What if we all rushed them at once? What if I pushed the guy out the door? At one point, one guy leaned over me to stick his head out the window, looking for cops, I assume. (Though why, I don´t know, as they are all useless and corrupt anyway.) What if I closed the window on his head and was able to push him out? But I jus sat there, the image of those gus firmly imprinted in my mind.
For a third time, one of the guys came to sit next to me, this time to go through my backpack. Ah, my beautiful camera and seven weeks of the most gorgeous amazing pictures. Of everything, this is what hurts the most. All those memories--the pictures aren´t even worthy anything to anyone but me. That´ll teach me to depend on photographs for sentiment. But the trip is still in my head--that´s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
As I looked at my assailant, I realized how young he was. Probably my age. Through my anger, I tried talking to him. I don´t know what I was trying to accomplish, but I couldn´t just sit there. ¨Do you do this often? What´s your name? Where do you sell this stuff?¨ He just ignored me, and walked away with my $600 dSLR and 500 pictures of ruins, waterfalls, and experiences I can never repeat.
As shocking as it was to see guns flashed my way, I was never really afraid for my life. Except at one point, when they had us close the curtains. My mind started working over time. ¨Oh shit, they are going to shoot us. We are all going to die. They can´t do that. Why would they do that? There aren´t enough bullets. What would be the point? They would have done it already.¨ That kind of thing. But they just carried on, and I continued making up ridiculous plots to get everyone their stuff back.
As they started yelling to each other to finish up, I seriously considered asking one of the guys if I could just have my memory chip from my camera back. I couldn´t help but think of all those pictures. It just registered that my ipod cord was hanging out of one guy´s bag when the bus slowed and they were gone.
The lights went on and there was a collective sigh of relief. As always after a collective fear (think a small earthquake or blackout), people had to come together and talk it over, swap stories, compare notes. Women were crying, men shaking their heads and examening the bullet hole in the bus ceiling. I reached under the seat and let out a breath when my fingers closed on my passport. At least there was that. Then I went to the back of the bus to retrieve what was left of my backpack, and found a woman shaking and crying alone. They had left few quetzales change in my bag, so I gave it to her, knowing it was small comfort in the face of what she had lost. I kind of laughed to myself when I saw my camera charger on the ground. That camera wouldn´t last long without it, and those things don´t come cheap. Ah well, they´ll probably sell the thing for parts anyway.
When I came back to my seat, the girl behind me hung up her phone.
¨How come they didn´t get it?¨I asked.
Wiping her tears, she said, ¨I hid it in my shoe. Did they get all of your money?¨
¨Yeah,¨ I said. ¨But I still have my passport.¨
¨Why don´t you stay with me tonight, and you can continue on to the capital tomorrow?¨
This is the kind of absolutely incredible kindness I´ve found here in Guatemala. I hadn´t said one word to this girl before, and she offered to take care of me. I´m just some foreigner in trouble, and she didn´t think twice. I´m still in awe at the fantastic people I´ve met here.
Soon, the ¨bus lord¨ (that´s what I call the guy who leans out the door trying to collect passengers, and trudges through the overcrowded bus collecting fares) came to ask me if I was alright--we had been chatting earlier. He had lived in Los Angeles and knew English, and earlier had kept telling me how much he liked American girls and how pretty I was, but I had shaken him off pretty easily. Now, he told me he had been hit with the gun and said he wanted to cry. The guy was very kind and offered to lend me money for a hotel and taxi in Guatemala City. However, as I already had an offer from the other girl, and he continued to tell me, ¨I know you like me. Can I have your number?¨ I opted out. I couldn´t believe he was still hitting on me after he had just been robbed at gunpoint. Besides, I was certainly not the only person on the bus who needed money.
After about 20 minutes, I got off the bus with my new friend, saying goodbye to a bus-full of peope I felt quite bonded to. I met her aunt and uncle, and they helped me carry my bags to a taxi. They gave me dinner, a nice bed, and breakfast the next day. In the morning, I rode the bus into the city with the girl, a 20 year old university student as well. She told me about her secret boyfriend of three years and helped me find a bank. She didn´t expect anything from me--not money, information, repayment, nothing.
I can´t help it--I keep running that hour on the bus over and over in my head. What if I had stayed the night in Xela, where I had taken the bus from? What if I had thought to stick my money in my shoe? What if I had taken my card out of my camera? But then I start thinking along different lines. What if they had taken my passport? What if that girl hadn´t offered me her house? What if that guy really was looking for a little action? What if I had been shot? This story could have gone a million different ways, but there´s no changing anything now.
Truthfully, I can´t even bring myself to be mad at the robbers. They are in a horrible situation, in a country without jobs, social services, or any kind of support. They are a product of poverty. They have few options, and when the police are corrupt and busgoers are such easy targets, its only natural. I don´t condone, but I don´t blame them, either.
Sometimes when I´d walk home alone at night in Berkeley, I´d imagine getting a gun put to my head by some poor kind from Oakland. I´d imagine talking him or her down, getting him or her to come home with me so we could talk about options, convincing the kid that this was not the life he wanted. I´d save my stuff and he or she would head down a different path. Of course, this is the stuff of movies where inner city kids are saved by benevalent young teachers, or Whoopi Goldberg and singing competitions. When it comes down to it, I know nothing about their lives, their options, their motives. Life´s tough in Guatemala and in Oakland, and I know nothing of it, living in my privileged bubble. Robbers with guns are par for the course, and I can´t pretend to understand what that kind of desperation feels like.
In the end, though, I had it better than most of the folks on the bus. This is public transportation--these people aren´t rich. While I can call mommy and daddy to send me cash from their deep American accounts, who knows what kind of security my traveling companions have? One man lost Q14,000; I´m sure that hit him hard. I chose to spend my last full day in Guatemala hiding out in my hotel--more tired than scared, I didn´t want to deal with trying to entertain myself in the big city. Nevertheless, I´m glad to be getting a bit of a break from this country. For everyone else on that bus, there is no such choice...they have lives and work and can´t just take a day off. Some of the folks I talked to had been robbed four or five times. My bus lord friend, who had been nonchanantly chatting about his time in the US earlier, got angry when we were talking later. ¨Man, this is why I left. This is why I want to be in the US.¨ I´ve spent more time on this trip lamenting the woes of my country, complaining about its policies and injustices. But what was I supposed to say? There´s power and privilege in that passport, and I´m lucky to have the choice to go home.
All in all, however, this has been more of a lesson than anything. It hasn´t tarnished my feelings about my seven beautiful weeks or soured my opinion of the country. You assume certain risks when you travel, and it was good for me to be knocked out of fantasyland. I just hope my friends will share their pictures.