After one of my best days in Mexico exploring the Hierve el Agua and just about to press ‘post’ on an article about travel safety in Mexico, it happened. Of course, that’s probably just when it would happen. That’s the way it works, right? When you start to feel comfortable and let your guard down, even for a second, that’s when things like this are bound to occur. The universe sends you a little message, hey, don’t get so comfortable. And after years of travelling, and thankfully no serious issues thus far, I knew the day would eventually come.
The day had been amazing. I had gone on an Airbnb Experience and met a lovely girl who invited me to dinner with some new friends from the hostel. It was a great night with people from all over the world enjoying some good ol’ fashioned Oaxacan food and mezcal. Eventually there were three of us girls left. My bus to Puebla left at 6:30 the next morning and it was already quite late. I was three blocks from my hotel – I could see it — and when the other girls still wanted to stay in the city looking for an ATM, I decided to walk back. Even writing that sentence now I’m thinking… how dumb can you be? Why wouldn’t you just spend a few more hours with them? But at the time it genuinely felt like it would be fine. Oaxaca was supposedly safe, the hotel was right there, and I needed to pack and get to my bus.
As the girls went into a bank, I walked down the street. I had started talking to my friend on the phone about houses she had been inspecting. I had made it two out of the three blocks home. That’s when I noticed a man in my peripheries walking angled towards me and talking to himself. Well, I thought it was to himself. I registered that he was starting to walk a bit too close. But by then it was too late. Two hands ensnared my wrists, and a second man – who I hadn’t even noticed – grabbed my waist from behind. They ripped the phone out of one hand and my wallet from the other.
My first instinct was to hold on. Which is the opposite to what you think you would do. You need these things, was my instinctive reaction. I held tight to my wallet and phone, but they really started to grab me. I saw what looked like a gun in one of the men’s waistbands. And that’s when – finally – the higher executive function of my brain kicked in, and realised that it’s really, really not worth getting hurt over what was essentially a little metal and plastic box, some leather, and some paper notes. I let go. I yelled for help – screamed. And although I could see people, nobody came.
The men bolted away towards a white car, which had pulled in right at the last second and whisked them away. It was a professional job. They knew what they were doing and had a guy in a getaway car pull up at the exact right second. I didn’t stand a chance. And to be honest, with that kind of orchestration, I’m surprised the outcome wasn’t worse. But now, here I was, standing in a dark street in a foreign country with nothing. No phone, no money, no bank card, not even my hotel keys. And it didn’t look like anybody particularly cared.
What happened next…
I noticed a young woman in the window of a convenience store who had witnessed the whole thing. I asked her to help, I reiterated what had happened — crying. She told me she was shutting up the shop and had no phone credit so couldn’t do anything. Great, really helpful. It was so abrupt and cold. It made me wonder what it would take for me to not help another woman in a situation like this, I couldn’t imagine not wanting to do something.
Slowly a crowd of men gathered around the convenience store, mostly rough guys coming to buy beer. They were eyeing me up and saying things in Spanish, I’m not sure what, but it didn’t sound nice. One of them genuinely tried to help and offered to call the Police and my hotel, and scolded the girl in the store for not helping. Another tourist eventually rocked up to the convenience store, “are you okay?” she asked, I told her what happened, and all she said was “oh, that’s too bad, I just came here because I wanted a KitKat”. She handed over the money and the convenience store girl handed back a KitKat, and then she was off. Again, great, extremely helpful. Was really feeling the sisterhood here.
After enough lecturing from myself and the man, the girl in the convenience store tried to call my hotel and the cops. Neither answered. Fantastic. It was getting so frustrating that I walked the block down to the hotel and tried to get inside myself. I had played this scenario over in my head before arriving in Mexico, because so many people had warned me about it, and I always said… just go straight back to the hotel, call the bank, cancel your cards, and lock your phone using iCloud. Never in this scenario did I think the hotel would be completely inaccessible and uncontactable, that I would have my keys stolen too, and be totally alone.
I started to freak out. Now not only did I have nothing, but I had no safe place to go now. All that I could think of wasn’t the Police or getting my stuff back, but was to find somewhere for the night. The streets were dark and empty aside from some dodgy characters waltzing around. All the hotels in town were shut, doors closed. All I could remember from the walk home that was open was a café/bar with live music playing. That’s it, I would just have to go there and beg for help. I walked rapidly back into town, reiterating every combination of the F word possible, until I made it to the venue.
Luckily, in this place, there were absolute angels. There is no other word to describe them. The staff were more helpful than I could’ve imagined. The kindness was overwhelming, and still when I think about that night, this is the part that makes me cry. The waiters let me use their phones to call Australia — which was no doubt expensive — and one helped me to find a hotel for the night, walked me there safely, and negotiated a much reduced rate. I could never, ever thank them enough. If that café wasn’t open, I have no idea where I would’ve ended up. It is truly the mark of good people who will help you and trust you when you have absolutely nothing to give.
After a very sleepless night in the temporary hotel, I walked back to my original place to make sure everything was still there. My hotel keys which were stolen conveniently had a tag which said that reception was un-manned past 9pm and my room number, so I was paranoid the thieves would go there and take more things including my passport. The hotel was rather unhelpful, not offering any help but rather asking me to go to the ATM right then, withdraw $30 and pay for a replacement key. Muchas gracias. You can bet I was straight out of there and checked into somewhere new by noon. I had missed my bus by this stage and needed to spend another night in Oaxaca.
On my walk to my new accommodation I had to walk past where the robbery took place. I noticed a shop had security cameras so I stepped inside and asked if I could see them. The man – who was one of the most gentle people I have ever met – called his boss and we got access to the tapes. Some people think it was weird that I wanted to see them. But I just wanted to see for sure what had happened. It was such a blur. I wanted to know how many people there were, and that it was as orchestrated and fast as it had seemed. It is incredibly weird seeing yourself like that though, so vulnerable, but it did oddly give me peace of mind to know exactly what happened.
And in a strange turn of events, sitting there with the man from the shop and the security guard in charge of CCTV, sharing orange juice and coffee, and having deep discussions about life in Mexico and Australia over Google Translate, was one of the nicest moments of my time in Oaxaca. In spite of the circumstances, of course.
Well, in essence, everything is pretty much as it was. I’m safe. I’m okay. I’m not hurt. It could have been a lot worse. And I’m bloody thankful for the people that came and helped me when I had nothing to give them. I am down an iPhone which is unfortunately not covered by insurance, without some bank cards, and I feel a heck of a lot less secure than I did about solo travel in Mexico a week ago. But I’m sitting here writing this from my favourite café in my favourite suburb in Mexico City now, and I fully intend on spending this last 24 hours of this trip doing all the things I love in Mexico. I want my last memories of this spectacular country not to be Police stations, embassies and CCTV replays, but of great food, generous spirits, and enjoying the good times.