Friday, March 22, 2013

First Time Getting Robbed in Costa Rica (Or Why I Don't Work At The Hostel)

(This is not a happy, whimsical Costa Rica "Pura Vida" story about feeding Capuchin monkeys on the sun-kissed beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park.  If you're not interested, stop reading now.)

Things were getting worse between the owner and I at Castle Tam Hostel.  All forms of joking, story-telling and pleasantries had ceased in the past few months.  Our conversations were reduced to strictly business and I felt an intense, growing tension that was sure to break soon.  I knew something would happen, but I did not expect it to happen in the form of our hostel's first weapon assault, which involved me.

I was looking for a way out of the hostel since I had returned from Europe.  I had found it in an interview with Berlitz Language School on the day before I was to return to the USA for a short Christmas holiday.  The interview went well, and I was asked to start training for a part-time teacher position in January when I returned to Costa Rica.  That evening I celebrated the job interview over dinner with a French friend of mine who had recently moved out of the hostel and into a house in the same neighborhood.

We dined on home-cooked food and shared a bottle of wine to toast the Christmas season.  Spirits were high and I felt elated that if things somehow didn't work out at the hostel, at least I had a Plan B.  It was almost 11 o'clock and I knew I had to return to be ready for my flight the next day.  Safety is always an issue in Costa Rica, and my friend asked if I would need a taxi to take me back.

I thought about it for awhile.

She said the few blocks up to the main road were quiet but there were security guards along the way.  I generally didn't worry about San Pedro at night.  The hostel owner and I felt secure that the San Pedro university neighborhood was safe compared to many other places in San Jose.  It was part of the reason he chose the place, and we told guests that it was safe to walk in the area.  I left my friend's house feeling apprehensive but made it to the main road in 5 minutes.  I passed the familiar 'Mas X Menos' supermarket, the BAC Bank and the still-pounding music from the university bars of 'Calle de La Amargura.'  In another 10 minutes I was turning of the main road onto the last 3 blocks to the hostel.  One left, one right, one more left and I was there.

It was just after 11 o'clock and I saw Castle Tam's big green and black sign at the end of the street.  I was home and felt safe.  I slowed my pace a little.

There was shouting behind me.  It took a second to realize they were shouting at me.  I turned and saw a small motorcycle with two men approaching me.  They had masks on. 

Years of living in St. Louis and Chicago, plus all the Latin America horror stories, told me what was happening.  I started running.  The hostel door was no more than 100 meters away.  I pulled my keys out while shouting "Help!" and "Socorro!" in the hopes that someone would hear me and open the gate.

The motorcycle outpaced me quickly.  Fortunately San Jose has extremely deep street gutters made for the massive deluges of the rainy season.  If not for that the motorcycle could have easily driven on the sidewalk in order to cut me off in front of the gate.  Instead it pulled up right beside me.  One of the men jumped off and pulled out a large knife.  He began yelling, "Hijo de puta! Damelabolsa, hijodeputa!" To my own surprise, I turned directly at him and started yelling in his face.

He looked surprised and stepped back a little.  I certainly had no intention of fighting him, but angry adrenaline took me and turning on him allowed me to keep him in my sight as I continued running -sideways- towards the hostel door.  Why was I acting this way?  Rather then feeling outright fear, I was enraged that the first time I should be robbed happened after a life of far more dangerously stupid situations and on the last night before returning to the warmth of my family for Christmas.  Without thinking, I heard myself shouting in Spanish at the guy, "No, no, no! Que queres conmigo?  No tengo nada!"  I also forget that at 6'1", my above-average American stature makes me tower over most average Latinos.  This thief only came up to my chest.  Perhaps it was the adrenaline rush, but now my would-be attacker appeared as scared as I was.  He stayed a few feet back from me and started running sideways too in a mirror image of my trajectory.  I kept an eye on his knife as we continued our ridiculous crab-walking dance for a few more meters toward the Castle Tam sign.

Meanwhile my brain was processing what he was yelling in Spanish.  I have a fairly good propensity for speaking Spanish, but my listening skills (as in English) are a little slower.  "Hijodeputa!" was of course "Sonafabitch," which any basic Spanish speaker knows.  In any foreign language we always desire to learn the dirty words first...motherfuckers.  "Damelabolsa!" eventually translated as, "Gimmethebag!"

I forget that I had a small backpack.  It was a silly thing; one of those little backpacks with strings for straps that barely carries more than 2 books.  It was a Captain Morgan promotional item I had acquired from Mr. Captain Morgan during a night out with hostel guests at a bar.  All it carried were my written notes from my Europe Trip and some books, but the robbers probably thought that I, being a stupid white gringo, was carrying a valuable laptop computer inside.

The hostel gate was very close.  Surely someone inside would hear me and come outside, thereby scaring off my attackers.  The guy with the knife was still at a safe distance yelling, "Damelabolsa!" But he was closing in, and I started feeling afraid.  Then I noticed the driver of the motorcycle reaching into his pocket.

It was something dull and gray that glinted a little.  My first thought was "GUN!"  Although I might have a chance against one small guy with a knife, taking a bullet at close range would mean certain death.

I threw my backpack directly at the knife-man's face.  He stumbled backwards into the motorcycle and I bolted the last few meters to the gate with my keys in hand.  I unlocked the gate quickly, slammed it behind me and briefly turned around to see my assailants.  They were emptying the backpack and shouting in frustrated disappointment that they had found no valuable laptop inside: "Hijo de puta! Hijodeputa, gringo!"  They accelerated the motorcycle in my direction, but I was already inside the interior hostel door.

I burst inside the hostel, screaming in anger and looking for blood.  My words streamed out in a mix of Spanish and English that sound like neither language, "Me robaron-they robbed me-hijodefuckin!" Milastnoche-this hadto-pasarme. Noquiero-estarinetsefuckingcountryCostaRica-jamasnomore."

Our Mexican employee was on the lobby sofa making moves on a cute Mexican guest.  He got up and tried to calm me down while the girl ran away from the raging gringo.  He told me sit down and my blood-lust anger quickly subsided into fear and despair.  My clenched fists relaxed and I finally noticed how much my hands were shaking.  In my blind rage, I had also unknowingly kicked the trashcan across the room.  I was still babbling in Spanglish when the owner came out of his room.

He looked at me in a daze.  He didn't say a single word.  He walked to the reception computer, checked his email and silently returned to his room.  Not. A. Single. Word.

I couldn't believe it.

My anger returned immediately and I was shouting in Spanglish, "See...this is why I can't work here...He doesn't even ask what happened, if things are OK or should I call the police...all he gives a fuckaboutismoney. We used to be cool...How the fuck can you work in hospitality he doesn't care about people....!?!?"

I trailed off... I needed to sleep and see if maybe things would be better in the morning.

They didn't improve.  What happened the next day ended my time at Castle Tam Hostel.


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