xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' World Toddler: When You're Mugged on the Way to the Playground

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

When You're Mugged on the Way to the Playground

On our last full day in Buenos Aires, Sydney and I woke up, as usual, a little after seven.  Hoping to give Rachel and Nolan a few extra hours of shut-eye before being serenaded by The Hokey Pokey, I threw a sweater over Sydney’s PJs and put sandals on her feet.  I dropped my small leather purse--a recent birthday gift from my dad--across my chest.  At the door, ready to go, I stopped, reached into my bag, and peeled off half of the pesos still freshly wadded from the previous day’s ATM visit and left them on the counter.  I had no clue that this precautionary instinct would end up saving me a fair amount of money, making my morning just a little less awful than it would turn out to be.

Heading to a nearby playground, we passed a small group of 20-somethings smoking cigarettes in front of a shuttered kiosk, and some sanitation workers sweeping up garbage. Otherwise, although already past 8 a.m., this Buenos Aires neighborhood was still completely quiet.

After a few blocks, I pulled out my phone to review my Google map to make sure we were in fact headed towards the swings. As I slipped my phone back into my pocket and reached for Sydney’s hand, I noticed a man in a yellow reflector vest approaching us.  The vest was similar to, if not the actual, uniform of the Buenos Aires sanitation crew, members of whom I had exchanged pleasantries with only a few moments before.  I smiled and said “buen dia.”  He continued to advance towards us.

Now standing within one foot of me, the man picked up the corner of his shirt. Slipped into the top of his pants was a big black gun.  I looked up at the man, utterly confused.  In my mind, he was still just a friendly sanitation worker.  As the import of the man’s actions had not registered for me, probably for the first time in his criminal history, he had to flash his gun again. This time, he also ordered me to put my purse on the ground. Now I understood what was happening, but couldn’t believe it.    

A lifelong advocate for justice, as well as a firm believer that even criminals are good, I could not believe this man had the audacity to show me his gun and demand my purse in front of my child.  I was so astounded by this, in fact, that it did not even occur to me to do as he said.  Instead, I asked incredulously, “In front of my baby? You’re doing this in front of my baby?”  I’m not sure how many times I repeated this or how the man responded--to tell the truth, I can't even remember if he was speaking Spanish or English.  Telling me to calm down, calm down, calm down, the rogue sanitation worker gave up on his order that I put my purse on the ground, and instead demanded my cash.  

This seemed like a more reasonable demand, one that did not require me to crouch on the ground at eye level with Sydney, so I reached into my purse, and pulled out the remaining wad of fresh pesos.  As I handed over the bills, the man glimpsed my engagement ring and demanded that, too.  The first of two engagement rings Nolan bought me, it cost only $500, little for a wedding ring, but it was incredibly special and meaningful to me. I considered explaining to the man that, although irreplaceable to me, this garnet ring wouldn’t trade for much on the street.  And then I looked down at Sydney, and, for the first time, a horrific scene flashed through my mind, in which this awful person actually pulled out his gun and shot me. Nolan and Rachel wouldn’t even think to come look for us for another two hours, and would have no idea where to look, during which time Sydney would probably stand by me, screaming and bewildered. Worse than the visit to the emergency room and painful weeks of recovery I would have ahead of me, this jerk would have ruined my once-in-a-lifetime trip-around-the-world before it even got started.  With this ugly scene flashing through my head, I slid my ring off my finger, and handed it to the man.

While I was now ready for this exchange to end, the man thought otherwise, and now demanded my phone.  Feeling I had already handed over enough of my personal effects, I pleaded with the man: “Please don’t take my phone.  I need to call my husband.  I need to call my husband.  Please don’t take my phone.”  He stared at me silently, not insisting on the phone or making any movement toward me.  So, in a moment of uncharacteristic bravery, I picked Sydney up, turned, and walked quickly away.  

Around the corner, a young mother walked hand-in-hand with her toddler, while the father pushed an empty stroller.  I considered warning them what lay down the street.  But in my moment of anguish, and regrettable selfishness, I could think only of getting home.  I imagine my Spanish would have been pretty shoddy in that moment anyway; Spanish 101 never covered armed muggings.  So grasping Sydney tightly to me, I rushed passed the family, and towards home.  Tears started streaming as I turned the key in the apartment door.

As miserable as this past Saturday was, there must be something to take away from it, something to help our family be safer travelers in the future.  So what did I learn on day 6 of our 135 day adventure?  First, when you’re traveling with a baby, you can’t rely on your dark hair and olive skin to fit in and stay safe.  When I studied abroad in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I thought myself superior to my blond classmates, better at blending into the local culture, as almost all of them were mugged at some point during the semester while I never was. But on Saturday, I learned the scary lesson that, regardless of hair color, a young mother with a baby and an iphone is always vulnerable.

Second, Nolan should have listened to me and my aunt Sandy, and let me leave my jewelry at home.  He insisted I bring it since it was so meaningful to both of us and was not extremely valuable. Certainly the ring did not attract the thief, but its loss is still more upsetting to me than the loss of pesos.

Finally, nothing can prepare you for the sheer terror of being threatened in front of your child. This terrible sensation, more than fear of personal injury and much more than loss of any prized possession, is what I seem unable to shake.  Sydney had no clue what was happening before her, no idea where she was, no knowledge of the local language: what would she have done if I had been incapacitated?  Even now, four days later, my stomach turns at this unsolved riddle.  
While it is impossible to avoid all bad actors, we will certainly be taking additional safety precautions for the rest of our trip.  To begin, no more early morning walks alone with Sydney.  We stay home when the streets are quiet.  Thanks to the mugger, I have no more jewelry to wear or be robbed, and I will keep it that way.  We will be more aware of where we pull out our iPhones; I now leave mine at home whenever possible.  We have also started using the money belt that we brought with us but had never actually strapped on.  Finally, I imagine I will soon feel confident enough to take Sydney out by myself again.  When I do, I will tell Nolan exactly where I am going and for how long, ensuring Sydney will never be left alone should something happen to me.

The thief stole my beloved jewelry and $60, and scared me to death.  But at least I was able to take away some invaluable lessons about keeping my family safe on the road.

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