Monday, September 15, 2008

A Life Of Crime Part I.....Panamanian Bus

Most of the local buses in Latin America are retired school buses from the US. Because American children between the ages of 5 and 18 don’t tend to carry large suitcases or enormous sacks of rice, grains, or beans to school, the buses are not designed to accommodate such loads. For this reason, when these buses are used here in this part of the world, anything larger than a Sponge Bob lunch bag gets stored in the BACK of the bus, or the space located between the emergency exit door (utilized of course as a primary entry/exit) and the last row of seats (those coveted so highly by the elementary/middle school ruffians).

Generally there is no problem with the above system, and the respective valuables of the passengers are left in peace. A few months ago however, as I found myself slowly waking up from a short siesta while on just such a bus in Panama, I realized that something could be amiss. You see, like everyone else commuting between Boquete and David that day, I too had stored my backpack in the area to the back of the old yellow school bus from Anywhere, U.S.A. And as the bus made one of its regular stops by the side of the road, I looked up in my foggy state to witness several passengers making their way off the bus.

“hmmmm…..that guy has a Dana Design backpack just like mine.”

“How nice.”

“Wait a minute……That’s MY Dana Design backpack……And it seems to be hitching a ride with that Panamanian!!!!!!!”

Fortunately, this final thought was enough to jar me from what remained of my slumber. I woke up, told my traveling companions that I’d be back shortly, and quickly made my way to the front of the bus to retrieve my belongings. Fortunately, I caught up to the pack just as it was making its way down the stairs of the bus. I grabbed the pack, the would-be-thief continued down the stairs, and as the bus lurched forward in a continuation of its journey toward David, I found myself standing in the front of the bus, holding what consisted of most of my Latin American possessions.

“Close call”, I thought. “I suppose I better hold on to this for the rest of the trip”.

I discovered later that the guy HAD taken a few things out of the top pocket of the backpack before attempting to de-bus. But the headlamp was on its last leg anyway, and I was actually more than happy to get rid of the bag ridiculously large coins from Costa Rica (my least favorite form of money in the region……who designed that stuff?????). All was well that ended well, and the rest of the year has gone pretty well for me in respect to preservation of personal property.

Unlike Panama, which despite the aforementioned exception to the rule seems to be a relatively safe nation, life down here in Nicaragua is a different story. Rather than being the exception, crime is often accepted as the norm, simply a part of life in the second poorest nation in the region (second only to Haiti). So, if you put a $2 light bulb in the porch light receptacle to have better lighting for a post-death wake, it will be stolen in the night. If you park your vehicle without someone watching it at all times, things like exterior bulbs, windshield wipers, antennas, and lens covers will mysteriously disappear almost immediately. Forget to install the obligatory “decorations” (i.e. jagged glass in cement) around the upper portion of your wall, someone will most likely climb the wall and steal brooms and mops from your patio…….all true stories from recent days in the neighborhood.

For the most part though it’s just petty theft, something common to many countries in the world. And although I’ve known 4-5 people personally who have been robbed at knife or gunpoint in the last several months, I’ve never had much of a problem in my home city. I take the usual precautions, try to stay alert, keep the laptop insured and regularly backed up on a second hard drive, don’t carry a credit card or large amounts of cash, “generally” heed the warnings of the locals, and follow the “never stop at red lights after dark” rule when riding the motorcycle. Of course my favorite strategy, one that has already saved the laptop on at least one occasion (but that’s another story for another day) is the MAKE AS MANY FRIENDS AS POSSIBLE in the neighborhood rule. After all, in my book, more friends equals a more secure living environment.

It’s not a PERFECT system. I mean NO system is really a perfect system. Regardless of its sophistication (or lack thereof in my case), all such systems are, by definition, mere deterrents. But without trying to sound arrogant, I have to say that my short list of simple strategies has served me relatively well over the last 6 months of living in Managua. It has served me relatively well that is, until last night.

…….to be continued.

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