After a safe return from Haiti, universally advertised as too dangerous to visit, my opinion on danger was stronger than ever. Everyone blows danger way out of proportion, and if you walk around confidently without being flashy, no one is going to rob you.
Here in Santo Domingo I eat at the same restaurant, Ananda, every night. It’s an amazing vegetarian restaurant that bears a startling resemblance to my favorite restaurant in Austin, Texas (Casa de Luz). It’s an eleven minute walk away through the main roads, or a ten minute walk with a shortcut.
The shortcut goes through the scariest little alley I’ve ever seen. The buildings on it are crumbling, it’s covered with trash, there are no streetlights, and just to make it a little more spooky, one side of it borders an overcrowded cemetery. Worse, the alley is a series of three sharp angles that make it hidden from nearby streets.
I liked walking through the alley. It made me feel tough, and I was proud to not have the same irrational fears that everyone else seems to have.
As it turned out, those fears weren’t quite so irrational. After the eight hour bus ride from Haiti I was starving, so I started walking towards the restaurant. At this point I’d gone through the alley so much that I didn’t even think about it. Two twenty-something-year-olds were walking towards me. I moved a bit to the right to pass them, but one went to one side of me and the other went on the other side.”Hola,” I said cheerfully.
Just as it started to register in my brain that something might be fishy about them surrounding me, they were on me. Their hands grabbed my shirt, they pushed me back against a wall, and started pulling the rings off of my fingers.
My logical mind kicked in. If I just spoke to them in Spanish they’d see that I’m not a typical gringo tourist.
“Espera! Que paso?”
They couldn’t have cared less, of course. They kept tugging at my rings and sliding their hands into my pockets. I didn’t have my wallet on me, but I did have a wad of cash. They took my passport, both rings, and the keys to my hotel. I glanced down at my expensive GPS watch which one of them was trying to take off, and realized that the longer I stood there, the more stuff they were going to take.
Cash and watch still attached, I started to run away. I figured they’d chase me, but as I looked back I saw them running the other way.
I felt calm during the actual incident, but afterwards I was rattled. I walked around the block a couple times, trying to process what had just happened. I didn’t care so much about what had been taken, but my worldview had just been shattered. I was naively optimistic enough to think that no one would mess with me because I was a nice friendly person who cared about the cultures I was visiting. It hadn’t occurred to me that wannabe thugs with probable drug habits don’t really care about any of that.
When I got home I went on the internet, determined to learn how to fight. I would buy a knife every time I landed, and learn knife fighting. If someone tried to rob me again, they would get stabbed.
Luckily, my first search yielded this site, which describes exactly why my plan was a terrible idea that might end up with me getting killed. Every post on the site links to twenty others, which meant that the following couple hours of my life were dedicated to learning everything I could about personal defense.
Here are the important things I learned, with links to No Nonsense Self Defense, in terms of avoiding getting mugged while traveling:
- Low level criminals, like muggers, are not logical. Trying to use logic to dissuade them will never work.
- Criminals are professionally violent. Training to fight them without the same real world experience they have, will lead to you getting hurt.
- Mugging is a low level crime, which means that it is mostly perpetrated by younger people (18-25) with drug problems.
- Crimes happen in “fringe areas“, places between isolated areas and highly populated areas. Isolated areas don’t have enough victims, heavily populated areas have too many witnesses.
- To escape a bad situation, make sure you run towards a heavily populated area. Running “away” is likely to lead you into a less populated area.
- Criminals are selfish and are obsessed with their status. Challenging them (“You wouldn’t shoot me”), is a good way to make them violent.
What I realized, more than anything, was that I was asking for it. Sure, no one ever has the right to rob me, but I entered an area that I knew was dangerous, and I did it habitually. My original idea that the world is safer than people say is probably correct, as long as I do my part to avoid danger.