The first incident (Part 1) involved my colleague and her unfortunate time with the Belizean police. The second incident involves my own interactions with the locals, namely, my first Belizean mugging.
I should point out that this was actually my first mugging ever – despite having travelled around many poor countries of the world I’ve never been mugged before, in fact I’ve had no major problems with the local delinquents. In fact, the only time I’ve ever had any crime committed directly against me was in Australia, when another tourist in the dorm I was staying in stole my personal CD player in the night. Hardly the most heinous offense, although it does say something about Western ‘civilisation’ in that, after spending months in places like India literally stepping over destitute wretches in the street and experiencing no personal security issues, the person that finally steals from me is a rich tourist in a first-world country.
That’s not to say I’ve had no problems abroad – I was shot at whilst travelling on a boat in Cambodia, but the rifle-toting farmer on the river bank wasn’t really aiming at anyone in particular, he was firing into the air above our heads, and he was mainly angry at the captain for driving too fast and the boat company for running the craft in the first place (the quantity and speed of the tour boats wash away the farmers’ riverside crops, and being Cambodia, government corruption and inaction means that the rich boat operators do what they want while the poor farmers don’t get a say. So the farmers end up expressing their displeasure in less legal but more direct ways!). So I didn’t take it personally (and fortunately, unlike many of the other tourists, I wasn’t sunbathing on the roof!). And in Indonesia, I once had an old man in a village pull a knife on me, but he was so inebriated that the incident was more comical than frightening – after drunkenly demanding my watch (it took me several minutes to understand him and at one point he had to lean on me for support!), he then fumbled in his filthy jacket for several more minutes, before slowly removing what looked like a dirty potato peeler, waving it in my general direction, swearing, belching, and then sitting down. His friends (who were only slightly less drunk than he was) collapsed in paroxysms of laughter around the shop, and I bought my bottle of water and went back to the hotel. So I’ve not had any dangerous moments, moments where I’ve had my heart racing, my blood pumping and my hands sweating. Until now that is.
The Tavern is a American-style bar and restaurant in the northside of town – it’s in a fairly nice area, its customer are tourists, expats and middle-upper class locals, it serves fancy foreign food (no rice and beans here, but burgers, pasta and even steak and lobster) and it has parking AND security AND air-con. And it’s less than a five minute walk from where I used to live at the Leiva’s. As a result, I’ve been there many many times – it was my local for several months after all. And even though I now live three miles away, I’m still there at least a few times a month, mainly at happy hour. So it was that I came out of there at around 7:30 one evening last month after having a few cold beers (and their beers are deliciously glacial) with my friend (and ex-housemate at the Leiva’s) Mark.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t who ‘they’ are but they’re right – at the very least, familiarity breeds indifference. Despite hearing all the warnings from locals and colleagues, despite listening to all the stories on the news, and despite reading all the reports in the papers, after spending this long in the city and having had no problems, I’d almost forgotten that it does have a dangerous side.
As we rounded the corner and walked up the road to the side street where the Leiva house is, I didn’t notice the three guys following us (I didn’t notice much of anything to be honest – several pints of half-price beer had dulled my senses somewhat). And I was too busy concentrating on walking, listening to Mark and trying not to think about how much I needed to pee. And after all, I’ve been down this street at all hours of the day and night for the last nine months, what’s going to happen at 7:30 in the evening? So the first thought I had when we were jumped on from behind was that it was someone Mark knew and who was messing around.
It took a good ten seconds to realise that that wasn’t the case (I did say I’d been drinking). And by then, Mark was struggling on the ground with two of them, and I was engaged in a tug-of-war over my bag with the other. This went on for what seemed like an eternity (but in reality was about one minute – see the above comment about drinking), by which time Mark was still on the ground and still struggling, but only with one assailant, who was standing over him trying to wrestle his bag away (I was too preoccupied to notice when and where the other one went), and I had won my own tug-of-war over my bag and was now facing off against the remaining miscreant.
I don’t know what made them give up, whether it was a car coming down the road, or an approaching pedestrian, or maybe they were just surprised at our aggressive defence, but Mark’s would-be thief suddenly released his grip on Mark’s bag and ran off (albeit very slowly and casually – he seemed to be the ringleader and the most confident of the three), and mine followed suit. Mark got up and we half-walked, half-ran round the corner to the safety of the Leiva house (which was so close you could see it from where we were attacked).
After a few minutes of calming down and informing the assembling family of what had happened (nobody seemed particularly surprised, merely a little concern followed by casual acceptance) Mark and I, plus Mrs Leiva’s son and one of her lodgers, went back out and round the corner to the crime scene to look for Mark’s glasses, which he’d lost in the fracas (unfortunately, he never found them). But more fortunately, despite the attack, nothing was stolen and, apart from Mark’s lost glasses, some slightly damaged shirts and slightly ripped bags (all of which were fairly easy to repair or replace – I even managed to sew up my bag handle and replace a button on my shirt myself!), there was no permanent damage to either of us or our possessions (including our precious laptops). And considering how many people round the world are injured or killed in these kinds of attacks (or at the very least have their stuff stolen), we should be grateful that none of that happened to us.
Having said that, I’m still annoyed – but with myself. Despite the fact that I would happily pelt the three reprobates with rotten fruit if they were caught and thrown in the stocks, I could’ve (and should’ve) behaved differently, and maybe if I had, nothing would’ve occurred. I let my familiarity and personal history with the area cause me to drop my guard; I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings (due to the above reasons plus the alcohol I’d consumed); I was unprepared for anything (alcohol again!); and, unlike most times when I’m out at night, I was carrying luggage – a bulky bag that looked like it contained expensive goodies like a laptop (and it did!). The more I think about it, the more I feel I almost brought it on myself. Studies have shown that, when it comes to many crimes, attackers often base their final decision on whether or not to ‘have a go’ on the body language of their potential victim – in other words, if you look like an easy target you often become one, and if you look like you can handle yourself, the attackers often look elsewhere. Of course, the one thing I have going against me is my skin – I’m white, and not only do I physically stand out against the locals like a Rice Krispy in a bowlful of Coco Pops, being obviously foreign brings with it certain assumptions about you, ie, that you’re richer than everyone else. Now while that’s not entirely true (there are quite a few rich Belizeans), I’m certainly richer than your average local – I probably have more savings than them, I’m probably carrying around more money and more expensive stuff, and it’s insured. In fact, having a paying job and a house made of concrete makes me richer than some locals! Regardless of the validity of that assumption, it means that I’m always going to stand out in every country where I’m a foreigner (except the ones where everyone else is white too, of which there aren’t that many); and I’m always going to be looked on as richer than the locals (except in the countries where the locals are richer, of which there are even less). So I’m always going to be an obvious potential target, and I’ll just have to accept that and amend my behaviour accordingly.
The other thing I’m annoyed by is the fact that I am truly pathetic in a fight – admittedly, the alcohol dulled my senses and slowed my reactions but, when push came to shove, I was less Jackie Chan and more Charlie Chan. At least Mark ended up on the floor having a scrap, all I did was have a tug-of-war over my bag and do bit of pushing and shoving. Throw a punch? I can barely throw a party. The worst things the assailants got from me were harsh language and angry looks. Jason Statham I am not (I may have his thinning hair, permanent stubble and rugged good looks, but clearly not his martial arts ability).
So, from now on I’m being a little more careful – if I go anywhere after dark I’m taking taxis, rather than walking or getting the bus; I’m more aware of my surroundings, even during the day; I make sure I only carry enough money for where I’m going and what I’m doing (the only problem with this strategy is that if you spend all of it, and the rest of your money and your cards are safely locked away at home, you either have to go home or nicely ask your companions for a loan!); and I don’t lug around any expensive-looking possessions if I don’t have to. But I’m still going out, still getting the bus, still chatting to the locals, still eating out, still buying provisions from the store – because Belize (even Belize City) isn’t a war zone, because I‘m not going to be robbed by everyone just because I’m foreign, because it’s easy to let fear and paranoia keep you at home and stop you from going out and enjoying the country, and because the vast majority of locals are decent, friendly, honest people. And as for my white skin, well, there’s not much I can do about that except get back in the sun and keep tanning…