23 March 2006

The Hustle

I may have talked about how big and impressive Lima is, but I hadn't been to La Paz yet. I don't know how many people live here or the elevation, or really much about it at all. You'll have to excuse my lack of knowledge. And I'll try to forgive myself, because it's already gotten us into trouble.

When we arrived in the city yesterday afternoon, the conductor stopped us before we got off to give us a stern warning. "Don't trust anyone," he said. "Don't take any taxi that only says 'taxi,' don't follow strangers, take much caution," and again, "don't trust anyone, it's a very dangerous city."

We caught a very legitimate taxi, and took it to the center of the city, which is I guess where tourists usually go. We had a few ideas of hostals that we'd like to look at from the guide book, and we'd met a couple fellow travellers on the bus. One was a fellow from Juneau named Matt, and the other was a British woman named Karen. It wasn't far from the bus station, but it was a long time before we got to where we were going.

People seem to like walking in the streets here. Busy streets, full of busses and taxis and cars and motorcycles. They walk right out in front of cars. I thought this was something that I was used to in Peru, but it's a billion times worse here. Our bus alone came within inches of running over an old lady, a couple dogs, a middle aged man, and who knows how many more that I didn't see. It was stop and go all the way here.

The Hostal that we wanted to look at first was one called Hostal Lobos. But the driver didn't take us there exactly. He took us to a restaurant called El Lobos. We knew from the book that the hostal should be somewhere very close. There seemed to be a lot of places to stay on this street, and we were sort of standing around, dumbstruck, looking at the signs, slowly thinking about our choices. In retrospect we must have looked like the epitomy of stupid gringos. All of the places that we could see seemed to be closed, completely shuttered in the peculiar Latin American way, with shut doors and metal garage door pulled down.

It didn't take long for a man to approach us and ask what we were looking for. He was an older guy with spectacles, a little pudgy and seemed to know exactly where we were going. He quickly led us down the street a little way, and then took a left down a smaller street to a hostal that was not the one we were looking for. This whole time he was talking to Matt. I don't know exactly what he was saying. Matt said he'd take a quick look and see if it was a good hostal. For some reason I decided to follow him in, maybe because the old guy was ushering me in, I don't know. So it was a train, and we all followed right into the lobby and sat down trustingly.

You're probably thinking to yourself, "No! Don't do it Drew, the conductor told you not to follow strangers. (And so did your mom when you were in kindergarten.)" But he seemed so nice, and we'd taken the very helpful suggestions and guidance of strangers in other places. It didn't seem so odd.

The prices weren't bad, and the lady at the counter was very friendly, dressed in traditional Andean garb, with a baby wrapped in bright woven fabric slung across her chest. We decided that Cassandra, Matt, and Karen would go look at the rooms. I'd stay in the lobby to watch our luggage. So the three went upstairs with the man that worked there and I stayed.

C had left her two small travel bags on the table, one stuffed into the other, and I thought it might be better to have all of things consolidated, you know, for security. So I took her little bags and stuffed them in between the two big packs on the couch, then sat basically on top of them. I was wearing my pack, so it was on top of C's little bags.

What happened next is a little confusing, and what I'm about to write is more of a reconstruction than anything. At the time I didn't realize anything was happening.

As the others were heading upstairs and I was sitting down, another guy walked in wearing a black leather jacket and went to the counter apparently trying to get help. The lady at the counter was already occupied with the man who'd brought us here, so black jacket came and sat down next to me. He picked up the little sheet of paper that told the prices for the hostal and started asking something in very fast Spanish that I couldn't understand. I was listening very closely, trying to be polite as he jabbed at the paper and repeated the same thing over and over again. He had my attention completely, and the lady at the counter was still talking to the old guy.

What I didn't see was the guy sneaking in the door, reaching behind me and grabbing Cassandra's little bags. It seemed a little strange that the guys I was paying attention to took off at the same time rather abruptly, but I was overwhelmed already. As they left, I saw the third guy slinking out the door and turning the corner. I think that he might have been shooting for Matt's bag which was sitting on the floor, but I just happened to turn my head, which scared him out.

When the others came back down, C asked for her bag and I stood up to get it for her, but it was gone. I instantly realized that I'd been hustled. What a horrible feeling. I had no idea it was happening. I am a stupid gringo. I learned something though. Look for the third man, right? Position yourself so you can see what you're gaurding, and the door, ok? Damn. She lost her journal, and calendar/address book, some clothing, and a knife that she got from her parents. Thankfully her glasses, passport and money were all with her.

It was a rather horrible experience. C was very, very upset. We ended up staying in the hostal that the crooks had taken us to. The hostaliers were obviously involved only as unwitting pawns in the criminal scheme, used perfectly. We checked in and then the four of us walked around a bit, looking for the things that the theives must have discarded because they were of no value, but found nothing.

It was getting dark so C and I walked back to the hostal, and Matt and Karen went to get some dinner. They most graciously offered to bring some back for us. We are most indebted to their kindness. They were helpful and understanding at every juncture, doing their most to support and console. I hope that someday I have the opportunity to return the favor.

Now we're getting ready to leave. Heading back to Peru. We've decided that it's not our time to explore Bolivia. I think I'll come back on another trip and be more prepared.

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