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How Not to Mug a Gringo in Guatemala

Getting mugged when you have no money is just part of Murphy’s Law for Travelers.

It was really the Cuban’s fault that I ended up at La Recife in the first place. If he hadn’t come by, I would have walked quietly home and woken up Saturday morning in the intense dry-season sunlight with a mild hangover.

I’d left Riqui’s Bar around 12:00pm after a fairly anticlimactic Friday night in La Antigua, Guatemala. After a couple of months intoxicated by the combination of cheap cuba libres, friendly, beautiful girls, and ruined baroque churches smothered in bougainvillea, I was starting to worry. I had no return ticket, my few US dollars were gone, my credit card was maxed out, and I was surviving on local currency from jobs in a cafe and a language school.

I was on 1st Avenida, only a block away from home, when a pickup truck with a bunch of guys sitting in the back bounced around the corner. One of them was the Cuban; he recognised me, and jumped out of the truck, shouting:

“Vamos! We’re going to La Recife!”.

I’d met the Cuban at Riqui’s the previous week when he was pounding his way through litre bottles of beer, telling everyone who’d listen that he was making up for having been on antibiotics for two weeks. He’d been around La Antigua and Guatemala City for much of the last year, though apparently neither working nor studying. Even his real name was a mystery, but he was known to all simply as El Cubano.

After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to jump in the truck, figuring a couple more beers might take my mind off my problems.

We bounced along the cobblestone streets towards the edge of town, and pulled up outside a high stucco wall. Through a narrow doorway was La Recife – a low, dimly bit bar on the far side of a grassy Spanish-colonial courtyard in dark shadow. It was well known as Antigua’s ‘after hours’ bar; the only one to which the police turned a blind eye after the official closing time of 1:00 am.

As we were walking in, I noticed that familiar urgent pressing in the bladder that sometimes sneaks up on the beer drinker. I waved the other guys on and turned off to the right. The toilets were on the street side of the courtyard: two cubicles with three-quarter length wooden doors, at the top of some concrete steps.

I´d just zipped up and was turning to walk out when there was a thump against the door. The flimsy chain-latch bounced off its nail and into the cubicle burst two guys, stumbling and laughing as if they’d been racing each other. Even five minutes later I couldn’t really have described them, except that they were Guatemalan and maybe a little younger than me.

My first assumption was that they’d slipped off for a gay tryst. I was starting to joke that I’d leave them to it, when one of them slammed the door behind him, barked a phrase I didn’t catch, grabbed me around the throat and pushed me against the wall. He repeated the phrase, and I realised he had said, in garbled English, ‘give me your wallet’.

In the split second while I processed what was happening, I had time to ponder the irony that these muggers hadn’t picked on a very useful gringo. In my pockets I had 25 quetzales (good for maybe two bottles of beer at La Recife’s inflated prices), an ATM card for drawing on an empty check account, a nearly maxed-out Visa, and my battered New Zealand passport, with date stamps showing I had overstayed in both the US and Canada

But to me these few items were my links with the outside world.

How much time passed? Half a second? A quarter? My arms hung, ludicrously free, by my side.

I hadn’t hit anybody since schoolyard scuffles in fourth form. But at times like those, I guess some higher power must take over. I raised my fist, and – it seemed to me – moved in slow motion to tap my assailant gently on the left cheek. His mouth opened in surprise; he let go of my neck and slumped back against the basin.

As time slowed down, I’d been able to pick the spot, just below the cheekbone, with the absurdly charitable thought that I shouldn’t hit the guy in the mouth. I’d once smashed a couple of teeth myself, and had suffered through the restorative dental and orthodontic work. You wouldn’t really wish that even on someone who was trying to mug you.

The second guy hadn’t moved, and I was closer to the door than he was. As I reached for the handle, he tried to kick me in the groin, but I’d already turned, and the kick glanced off my thigh.

Now, I’m normally slow and torpid at the best of times. But in some sequence of improbable co-ordination I reached the doorhandle, pulled it open, piroutted through the entrance, and slammed the door back into the knees and face of the second mugger.

As I rushed down the steps into the courtyard, some part of my brain was already chuckling at the comic incompetence of my assailants, to have allowed a drunk, clumsy gringo to inflict some Jackie Chan routine on them. Then I was standing out in the middle of the grass courtyard, with adrenaline screaming into my skull.

One of the guys stumbled out of the cubicle; he danced from side to side in front of me with fists clenched and eyes wild, while from far away I heard myself swearing at him in idiomatic Guatemalan Spanish.

“You! You want to mug me? Mug me now, asshole!” Then the other guy also tripped down the steps, and they both turned and ran out the exit.

I was vaguely aware that a crowd of people had come out of the bar into the courtyard, attracted by the commotion; they were asking me what had happened, and I was jabbering away, explaining.

I heard a scattering of phrases: …how terrible…we don’t have that kind of person here…must have been vagrants from the city…

A blond woman with the angular features of a Spanish matriarch pushed her way to the front of the group; I guessed she was the propietor of the bar. “You should be careful on your way home”, she said.

“They could be waiting for you, to seek revenge.”

No, no, I tried to explain as the blood flowed back from my brain. It wasn’t a fight; just an opportunistic attempted mugging. She shrugged.

I noticed that the Cuban had joined the crowd, and was with other two acquaintances of mine, Hugo and Jose. They were listening to my explanations and shaking their heads sadly.

“Man, that’s bad”, said the Cuban. “Hey, you know what? I seem to have run out of money. Can you shout me a beer?”

Simon Bidwell