What struck me the most about my first robbery was its normality. It occurred on a sunny afternoon, in a botanical garden through which citizens passed regularly. One of the thieves carried a wooden log, the other a knife. They were silent. They didn’t harm us. They took our things and left.
It was the second day of our trip from Mérida, in Venezuela’s western mountains, to Angel Falls, in its eastern jungle, and we had arrived in Ciudad Bolívar with some extra time before our plane departed for a national park. After it happened, all three of us sat stunned for a while near the coconut trees and counted our losses: two cameras, our phones, our money. Then my friend Kelsey,gasped—inside her backpack, which they had taken, had been her passport.
We considered going to the police station later that day, but our tour guide discouraged us: It would soon close and would provide little help. Our best option would be to continue with the trip to Angel Falls, which we had already paid for, and then head to the US Embassy in Caracas.
There was no internet reception at Angel Falls: I returned to Ciudad Bolívar to several frantic emails from my parents. “We keep calling your phone and some strange Venezuelan answers! What’s going on?” As I explained my situation to them, I got an idea. If this robber would answer the phone when my parents called, might he return the passport?
I borrowed my friend Will’s phone and sent a text message: “Hello. You robbed me on Saturday. I haven’t told anyone, and don’t plan to. But there’s one passport you have that you don’t need; if you can just drop it off somewhere, wherever you want, I would be very grateful.” I added, “May God bless you.”
Five hours later, as we sat on our bus, I received a response. “Look,” he said. “I’m going to give you the passport. Don’t worry. It’s late, and I need to take care of my sick daughter, but I’m going to call you at 10 a.m. tomorrow and we’ll figure this out. I’m in Caracas.”
It was my third time in the country’s capital, and the election campaign to replace late president Hugo Chávez had switched into full gear. Graffiti along street walls depicted the late president with his selected heir, Nicolás Maduro. In the streets of the more secure, wealthier neighborhoods where we stayed, graffiti celebrated the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who had lost to Chávez in elections held last October.
We went directly to an institute run by an acquaintance of mine and learned that the Embassy would be closed for the remainder of the week due to Easter. We counted our money: a total of 500 bolívares—about $85 at the official exchange rate—and $40 American dollars, which could be exchanged for about 880 bolívares on the black market. Caracas has one of the world’s highest costs of living; we figured we could make it through one, maybe two days. Then my acquaintance offered us a deal: With a delegation arriving next weekend for the presidential elections, there was a good deal of housework to complete. If we spent our days helping, we could stay for free with room and board.
As we got to work painting, around 11 a.m., our robber sent a text message. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m too busy to call. My daughter is very sick, and I can’t think about anything else. I’ll get you the passport tomorrow.” A few hours later, he did call: “You’re the ones from the botanical garden, right?” Though he had gone from Caracas to be with his daughter, he told us, he had left the passport with his sister. He hung up, and sent a text message with her phone number. When I called, a stern woman asked for half an hour to check for the passport. We never heard from her again.
The Embassy approved Kelsey’s emergency passport request, but they refused to accept payment via credit card. We paid in cash: 875 bolívares in processing fees; 100 for shipping. With the 25 bolívares left over, we returned in public transportation to the institute, where we had left another 300.
It was less than half the necessary money to buy standard tickets back to Mérida, and now our only option would be on a bus run by SITSSA, a transportation company created by the Chávez government. It was affordable, its fares much lower than those of private companies, but not necessarily reliable: Only one bus to Mérida left per day, and without enough passengers, it simply wouldn’t run.
When we arrived at the bus terminal, the ticket vendor told me that workers at the information desk might be able to help. Indeed, they reacted with great sympathy. Those robbers, they assured us, did not reflect the generosity of the citizens of Venezuela; they themselves would do all they could to help. One woman told me that the private bus companies offered special tickets to those with government benefits, which one of her friends had. “Wait for my friend to come,” she told me, “and we’ll get the tickets.”
As the afternoon wore on, and the woman disappeared, I realized that I’d better return to the institute. I left the terminal, thinking again of the robbery and how fortunate it was that I had packed a wallet back in January to use in the event that I was robbed, including a college ID, old gift cards, and some Venezuelan and American money to make it look real. And then I stopped: There was money in that wallet! If it contained at least 400 bolívares, we would have enough to travel without help. I called Kelsey back at the institute, and directed her to the backpack in my room. In the wallet, she counted 400 bolívares.
I raced back to the ticket vendors to tell them to hold three tickets, but they informed me that I had to pay directly. Ticket sales ended in two hours, at 5 p.m. The institute was an hour away, which made it tight, but we successfully sprinted back to the bus terminal, money and luggage in hand, by 4:45 p.m.
As we sat in the waiting area to board our bus, leaving at 5:30 p.m., we congratulated ourselves at having made it through the ordeal after all. With a sense of relief, we noticed members of the National Guard loading their bags onto our bus. “Now we’re safe,” Kelsey whispered.
A National Guardsman checked our tickets and passports. When it came to Kelsey, we explained that her passport had been stolen. We showed our papers from the Embassy, and he shook his head: “Where’s the police report? If you don’t have the police report, you can’t travel.” The bus employee standing next to him nodded. Our situation seemed desperate. I wasn’t even sure if we had enough money to get back to the institute.
After the last passenger boarded, the officer pulled me aside. “Let’s talk,” he said. I explained that we had been told by our Venezuelan tour guide to simply go to the Embassy without a police report. He gave me a blank stare. I remembered the American dollars in my wallet.
“What if we pay a fine?” I asked. He nodded. I grabbed every bill I had and placed them on the ground in front of the National Guardsman. He counted. “You can pass,” he finally said with a faint smile.
The bus employee was directing passengers to their seats when we got on, and as I passed her she turned toward me. “Why in the world did you do that?” she said. “You really didn’t need to bribe him with that much money.”
I sensed that she expected to placate me, a foreigner robbed by a member of the National Guard, but we were our way home at last and all I could do was laugh.