Let Me Explain
Last night, I was returning home from a wonderful night of social intrigue and gastro-intestinal charm. I had enjoyed the best salmon dinner of my life in a small sushi/seafood restaurant in Palermo Hollywood, just across the tracks from the relative safety and comfort of Recoleta (the district where I live).
Along with one of my English friends, I had gone to a party where the participants meet up at an “old persons’ bar,” play loud music, chat with each other and then proceed to a locked bar (one of the charms of Buenos Aires: these are invite-only bars that have no license and you can only find them if you know where to look) where cultural exchanges are necessary, not just possible, and everyone in attendance was good-looking (strange, but true…a requirement?).
In any case, after crossing the railroad tracks to walk my English friend home and walking alone through the Palermo district up to Ave Sante Fe (essentially through a criminal wasteland after dark to reach a tourist haven), I was shocked to encounter resistance so close to home.
Now consider this: since I’ve lived in Buenos Aires, when people find out I live in the Recoleta district, they assume that 1) I have a lot of money and 2) I live in an old person’s district where there is no crime and lots of laxatives. This is the impression I had of my home district, and I really wasn’t expecting any trouble once I made it to Sante Fe, my home free-zone. Easy breezy.
I assume wrong. Last night, as I was making my way onto the home stretch, the very last block to my apartment, I encountered a youth of massive proportions.
He has to be 6’10″, 280 pounds or more (though the locals wouldn’t know what I meant by that, being on the metric system and all). Let’s just say he was a big guy, and I could see him as I turned onto Ave Uriburu, ducking into the shadows of a closed newsstand with his shaved head and big black hoodie.
I thought to myself “Is this really how this will go down? Is this kid going to give me a hard time? I mean, I can SEE him right there, he’s not even really hiding. Surely if he were going to try to mug me he would be better at it than this.” I kept walking. Where else could I go?
As I walked by, he came at me with a challenge: “Necesito 2 pesos para mi familia y mi perro. ¿Puedo tener dos pesos?”
I whipped out my standard response, not knowing exactly what he was asking at that moment but pretty sure from the body language he was begging: “No hablo Espańol.”
He wasn’t satisfied. He followed me around the corner where another teenager, clearly working with him (though much skinnier and less massive) came at me from the front.
“Necesito 2 pesos para mi familia y mi perro. ¿Puedo tener dos pesos?”
I saw what was happening as it happened. I was thinking in the back of my mind “Oh, so THAT’S what this kind of swindle looks like in real life. I expected more drama.” The rotund fellow closed in behind me as I walked forward into the arms of the skinny guy, who gestured at me to give him pesos as he reached for my arms to push me against the wall.
Much faster than politeness would entail, the skinny guy closed on me. My hand inadvertently shot forward, hitting him in the face and pushing him back into the brick wall as I shouted in English, “Watch it!” I could hear the larger fellow rushing forward behind me.
The skinny guy, clearly shocked from the quick (and unskilled) knuckle-sandwich to the face, moved past me to the fat guy. I picked up my pace and continued to walk backward away from them, watching their feet for any intent to move in my direction and slowly edging toward my (locked and secure) apartment access door. When they showed no signs of following, only confusion, I pulled out my key, unlocked the door to the apartment lobby, and quickly latched the door, making my way past the mirrors and small coffee table to the elevators, hands shaking slightly from the adrenaline from the attack and mind racing to put my body at ease.
“I’m safe. I’m safe,” I told myself. “Man this is fucked up,” I also told myself.
Thinking back, I may not have had a whole lot to worry about, but I probably should have been more careful.
First of all, I was walking home, alone, at 5 in the morning. Though I shouldn’t have had anything to worry about on a big street like Ave Sante Fe, the path I took through Palermo is a different story, especially crossing the railroad tracks at night. Taxis are not expensive in Buenos Aires, and it would not have been any loss of valor to flag one down and hop a ride on the way. I took precautions: when I walk alone in a large city I tilt my elbows out and increase the intensity of my struck…confidence goes a long way in detracting criminals…but it was clearly not enough.
Second, it is second nature for some porteños to trick visitors for profit, so I should have been more cautious and had a better escape plan ready just in case. People get pick-pocketed all the time in BA, and muggings are next in line when it comes to common non-violent crime.
Third, I realized these were teenagers, big teenagers for sure, but they backed off as soon as I offered up resistance. Hitting one of them in the face and shoving him into a wall was clearly a surprise and they weren’t sure how to react. If one of them had been armed I likely wouldn’t have been so lucky, and surprising them could have been a terrible solution rather than the right one. In this case, though, it bought me the time I needed to get away.
I was handed a freebie this time, and I seriously doubt I’ll be given another one. I’ll definitely be taking more precautions while traveling from district to district alone and late at night for the rest of my stay in Buenos Aires.
Keep This in Mind
The lesson I’ve taken from this encounter (and now pass on to you) is that when in Buenos Aires, or any unfamiliar city, be sure to heed the cautionary tales of others and make use of taxis after dark. Otherwise, you too could be the victim of a violent crime, and it might not turn out quite so well.
Update: May 30, 2016
It’s still so weird to me that I’ve punched someone in the face. It was a really bad punch, but still. Not my thing.
I also still remember that whole moment in time — it couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds in total, including the walk to my apartment lobby — frame-by-frame, like watching a movie in slow-motion.
I’ve aspired not to put myself in that situation again, though I will admit I often take risks because it would be wildly inconvenient to do otherwise, or because I’m mostly certain that my concerns are unfounded or predicated on ignorance (what seems like an unsafe area to a visitor might just be a normal area that looks different/weird to their eyes). I do tend to always have an escape plan in the back of my mind, however, and often play out worst-case-scenarios beforehand (and I’ve thankfully never had to test the voracity of my imagination in this regard).