When I started travelling on my own when I was 21 years old and I’ll be the first to admit that I was a different person. I was timid if not shy, pulled-back if not scared, and naive if not just down right stupid. I grew up in a tiny town of about 7000 people in rural Canada, and although I had made many incursions out into the real wold, I was very raw to the reality of things. Wide-eyed, I flew down into San Jose, Costa Rica in January of 2005 with plans to visit as much of Central America as I could in the 4 months I had free. I, however, had no idea the type of safety measures I would have to take travelling these countries. I was used to living in my family house back home which rarely had a locked door. After travelling around for about 3 months I had been ripped off a couple of times, nothing serious 10 dollars here 20
there, but it definitely started to wear on me as well as on my world perspective that everyone is inherently good. But in Panama City, I decided that never again would I be taken for a fool. This is my story.
I remember the day clear as a bell. I had found out that there was a shopping mall near the Panama Canal and decided that it might be a nice change to go back to the western style world I used to be accustomed to. I went and ate Chinese fast food, then wandered to a subtitled movie (I can’t remember which one, only that it was really bad). I then meandered the shops looking at over-priced clothing. I stumbled into a cigar shop selling all the best cigars including my favourites “Romeo and Juliets.” As I asked the price of a box of 50 I realized that it was about 5 days worth of my budget and stepped out side to think about the
purchase. As I started blankly at my over-used visa card a man bumped up to me and asked me if I was looking for Cuban cigars. His English was near flawless, and mostly because of this ability to speak the language I trusted him. Mistake #1.
My new acquaintance told me that in the city’s China Town they sell the same boxes of cigars for 40-50$ because they’re taken (I think he meant stolen) right off of the boats in the port and sold there. To be fair, I had actually heard the same thing, but was always warned that this part of town was very dangerous and should be avoided. He told me that he would take me there to keep me safe and show me where I can buy them, in return I asked? “Hey, I’m just a helpful guy, and besides I live right near there so you’d be saving me on bus fair.” We jumped into a cab, that was way too conveniently placed and waiting for us, and whizzed away. Mistake #2.
My Spanish at this point in my life was still not very good, not nearly good enough to make out every single word that
was muttered between the two of them, my cab driver and my cigar guide, but I could tell by the way the driver looked at me that something was wrong. At a traffic light the driver said something that I did recognize “estupido gringo.” At this point my instincts were begging me to jump out of the car and make a bolt for it. But, my head kept telling me that I was over-reacting and that everything would be fine. Mistake #3.
As we pulled into China Town my guide muttered something quickly and under his breath to the driver. The driver returned something at normal voice, at which point my guide gave him the shush sign with his finger. The driver then said something else I understood. “Porque? Ese gringo estupido no habla espano! (Why? That stupid gringo doesn’t speak Spanish!)” It was at this point that I realized there was a rip off in place and that I had to do something to ease the loss that I was about to incur; running was not an option, I was in the middle of the most dangerous part of the city.
My guide told me that I should stay in the car for safety, and that I should give him 50$ for the cigars. I told him to find out the price and then come back, but he assured me that he’d bring me any change if there was any. I responded by telling him that I wasn’t going to buy any products without seeing them, and that he should bring them to me to see before I buy them. However, he quickly responded that the shop owners wouldn’t leave their shops with the goods. He responded by saying, “look, I have 20$ you give me 30$ and I’ll pay the extra 20 if I need to and you can pay me back when I come back with the goods, ok?” I decided that 30$ was probably worth the price to get out of such a bad situation. Solution #1.
As my guide left the card, I heard him say in crystal clear Spanish “espera 5 minutos y vete! (Wait five minutes then go),” and as he did so he slipped the driver 10$. I sat patiently in the car retracing my steps and thinking about all the mistakes I made to get to this point. The driver looked back at me and said, “I don’t think he’s coming back man, sorry.” But I asked him to wait another minute and that I’d add a dollar to his cab fare if he did. Another minute passed and still nothing. The driver told me to that we should go. I asked him what his hurry was? I then requested that he go out and look for the guy, and if he didn’t find him to come back in 1 minute, and for doing so I’d give him an extra 5 dollars. Upon hearing of the extra 5$ the driver jumped out of the still running car with a huge grin on his face. As he turned around the corner and out of sight I jumped up into the driver’s seat of his rusted out taxi. Solution #2.
As if escaping in a car chase I popped the clutch and raced down the street. In my rear view mirror I saw my cab driver racing after the car, without a hope in the world of catching it. I drove the car, which was nearly out of gas, and settled it down still running on the side of a busy road about a 10 minute walk from my hostel. Before I left, though, I realized that his wallet was in between the seats. I pulled out exactly 30$ from his wallet which had about 100$, and walked proudly back to my hostel. Solution #3.
In the end, I broke even, although things could have ended much worse. I only ended up getting one of the culprits, but if they were friends as I later came to realize they probably were, they both got their share of my retribution. From that day on, I have never been robbed, not even for 50cents.