<TITLE>How I was robbed in Guatemala and the lessons I learned</TITLE>

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How I was robbed in Guatemala <BR> and <BR> The lessons I learned
By Bob Hansen

<I>In Antigua, Guatemala, on January 13th, 2001 ( my second day of a 17 day birding vacation to Guatemala 
and Belize), I was assaulted and robbed of my binoculars, digital camera, guidebooks, passport 
and money. Total value lost in about 40 seconds was $2,800. I was relatively lucky, as a British-
American birder near Tikal a week earlier tried to flee a robbery and was shot and paralyzed.
As a result of this event and other events like it that were related to me, I decided to convey 
my story to others, particularly those birders who are considering a birding trip such as I 
planned to Guatemala. I had heard that  going to the volcanos near Antigua, whether alone or in 
groups, was unsafe. I had not heard that birding in Antigua in daylight hours was unsafe. In 
talking to others since, I have heard mixed reports...some saying it is commonly known to be
unsafe in this particular park, others saying it is unusual for a male to be attacked in daylight
so close to residential area. As it turns out, it is recommended you arrange a police escort 
while birding the Candelaria Park on your way to the hill with the cross (Cerro de la Cruz).
It is <B>not</B> my intent to:
<LI> speak about the relative safety of other third world countries, except to say that I did not
experience nor hear about similar events in my four recent trips to Belize and Costa Rica in the
last 5 years.

<LI> create nor reinforce a stereotype about 3rd world countries, especially those in the western 
hemisphere. My sense is that more than 90% of the Guatemalans are warm, friendly, honest people 
who are or would be more enraged by the events that happened to me in their country than I was.

<LI> speak about guided or group tours. Although I understand that no one is completely safe from 
being shot at in a public bus or having their tour van stopped and being robbed, my comments are 
intended for individual birders birding near tourist locations (e.g., Tikal, Peton, Antigua, etc).
For those people who are considering birding Guatemala, I have been informed there is an option 
apart from not going, or taking the risk of birding on their own.  That option is to contect  
with the <A HREF="http://xelapages.com/gbrc">Guatemala Birding Resource Center</A>, the only 
in-country birding guide service for Guatemala.

<LI> scare individual birders from going to other third world countries. My assessment is that 
Guatemala has a higher risk of robbery and violence (bodily harm) than other countries.
I am interested in sharing information, but I am not interested in getting into a debate with 
those who once went to Antigua 20 years ago, and found it safe then, have not been back since, 
but are sure nothing has changed. People who live there will tell you differently. 
And finally, this was not my first trip to a foreign country. I was robbed in Costa Rica, at the 
Carara Reserve and I did not feel a need to alert others to the danger. I have spent more than 
two years travelling outside the United States,  alone, much of the time in 3rd world countries 
from Bali to Nepal and India. I am familiar with how to survive alone on the road on the cheap. 
This was by far the worst experience I have had.

With all this said, here is my account.</I>
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On January 12th, 2001, I arrived in Guatemala to start a two phase vacation. The first phase
included evaluating various Spanish immersion programs, particularly in  Antigua, Guatemala and
leaving open the option of evaluating other areas as well. This trip was intended to scout the
feasibility of taking a multi-week Spanish immersion program  for half a day and then bird (or
eco-tour) the rest of the day and on the weekends in the surrounding areas.   The second phase of
the trip included a return to Belize, specifically to experience the Coxcomb Basin Wildlife 
(Jaguar) Sanctuary, the coral reefs and wind surfing on the Caribbean (Caye Caulker and/or
Placencia), and the Pine Ridge area.
On the day following my arrival in Guatemala, Saturday, the 13th, I decided to go birding and
headed toward the northeast part of the Antigua where the map showed a river at the edge of
town. Arriving at the river, I discovered a dry, concrete-lined LA style canal.  Noticing a
forested area nearby, I headed toward it going through an exclusive residential neighborhood 
on the way (and seeing Townsends Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers, Baltimore Orioles,
Clay-colored Robins, Vaux Swift, and Black Vultures...all over high concrete walls protecting the
Arriving at the forest I found an entrance to a natural park, with pine trees on both sides of the
park entrance road. This is the type of birding experience I had planned to be a part of my
Spanish immersion program . The sign near the beginning of the road read the Spanish
equivalent of Candelaria Park, Welcome.  I began walking up this road when a boy (12-14
years old) asked me in English "What time is it?". I responded in Spanish, " 8:38" and we smiled
at each other. A  few minutes and about 300 feet later, after watching a Black Vulture through
my binoculars, I turned in the direction from which I had just come (which was down hill) and
here were two Hispanic men about two feet from me, walking toward me, and one saying
"dinero" (money), but not giving me a chance to offer them anything. They lunged at me and
started attacking me and attempting to rip off my gear. I was wearing:

<UL TYPE=disc>
<LI> an old binocular case strapped across one shoulder that contained my bird guide, my travel
guide to Guatemala, and my field notes notebook;

<LI>a camera case with my new Sony digital camera;

<LI>my Swarovski 10x binoculars, and
<LI>my small back-pack which contained my passport, some food and water and most of my cash for
the trip.
 My first reaction was to breakaway by trying to run between the two of them. This
resulted in a wrestling match, first on the road, then in the ditch, then back on the road. I 
thought I had seen a knife in the left hand of the person on the left, and I kept waiting to feel
it enter my body, or hear a gun shot. It was really non-stop, topsy-turvy for about a minute as I
clung to my gear out of instinct, and they attacked me and wrestled my gear from me.  When
they had the gear listed, they ran  down the road about 20 feet, then over the bank and down the
hillside to a residential area below. A car showed up just as they were leaving and attempted to
help me locate the robbers, but to no avail. I was left to walk back to the police station at the
Central Plaza and report the incident. My face was bleeding from several superficial abrasions.
The robbers had their hands full with my property, so they really didn't have room (or time) for
my wallet, especially given the car that was approaching the scene. 
After reporting the incident to the police (who did not speak English, so we used the services of
the next door Office of Tourism to make sure the details were understood), I attempted without
luck to get a cash advance using my VISA card. The first bank I visited would not give me
money without a passport. 
Thinking that the dirt and blood on my face may cast some doubt on my use of a credit card
with out a passport ( after all, I may have just robbed someone else of the card), I thought I
might have better luck, cleaning up before going to another bank. As I looked into the mirror and
turned the water faucet on, the room started moving and I feared I was going into shock from the
incident. Then I realized there was an earthquake taking place, so without washing my face, I
exited the hotel to join others on the street. This was about 11 am, and the 7.6 earthquake was
centered off the coast of El Salvador, killing more that 400 people, 7 in Guatemala.
After cleaning up, I attempted to use either my debit card or VISA to withdraw money from an
ATM, but the PINs are exclusively in numbers, whereas for my PIN in the states, I use a word. I
did not know how to convert my alphabetic PIN to a numeric PIN. Calling VISA in the states did
not help, as all they could suggest was canceling my old PIN and creating a new one. Finally, I
found a bank that would give me a $100 VISA cash advance using my driver's license for photo
identification, and providing them with my passport number. The passport I no longer possessed.
I also called the US Embassy in Guatemala City, and received support and instructions on how
to proceed with getting my passport re-issued. The embassy staff was very helpful and
supportive, given it was Saturday morning, and they had other incidents they were also
Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, so I had to wait until Tuesday to get my passport
reissued. Wednesday I caught the daily United flight out of Guatemala and arrived in Los
Angeles and finally Portland, Oregon. I probably would have continued my journey to Belize,
however I was having a hard time finding binoculars ( I was willing to buy a good pair of used 
Swarovskis had I been able to find them).
Lessons learned:
<LI> I don't think it is safe  to bird alone in the tourist areas of Guatemala ( Antigua, Peten, 
etc). I have birded alone in Costa Rica, Belize, England, Southeast Arizona, Texas, Missouri as 
well as the Pacific Northwest and have never had problems. However, given the economic disparity,
the value of birding equipment, and the history of violence (atrocities of civil war, abundance 
of guns in Guatemala, etc.), I simply think the odds are against escaping without being robbed. 
The week before, near Tikal, a British-American birder who was being robbed attempted to run, was
shot and is now paralyzed.  

<LI> It is safer to bird in groups, but even groups are vulnerable. Buses going into Tikal have
been shot at and hit, and public buses in other areas of the country have been stopped, the riders
ordered off the bus and robbed. It is safer than birding alone, but still unsafe compared to other
areas in the world. 

<LI> If you are going to go to Guatemala, I recommend the following:
<UL TYPE=disc>

<LI>carry no more money than you need for the day. Leave your credit cards, most of your cash, and
passport in the hotel safe.

<LI>do not take expensive birding equipment, unless you can afford to replace the equipment. I
have always taken my second scope to foreign countries, because it is easier to travel with, but
now I will also take a less expensive pair of binoculars to 3rd world countries.

<LI>make a digital copy of your passport (scan it), and send it as an attachment to yourself before
you leave the States. That way, if you have your passport stolen, you can go into a US Embassy
open up your e-mail and the attachment (the scanned passport) on their internet access and print
it out for their use. 

<LI>check out your home owners insurance policy and determine if it covers stolen property and 
the deductable. Even though the loss of the robbery was about $2800, all but $750 of that loss
is covered by my insurance. Had I only had $200 of cash lost, my total loss would have been $250. 

<LI>Here are some additional, <A HREF="Emile'stips.htm">more comprehensive suggestions provided 
by Emile Combe </A>...who has 
traveled much more extensively and has proportionately more robbery experience and advice than I.  

<LI> It is true that one can be robbed anywhere in the world. The issue is one of probability. I had
most  the variables working against me. 
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<LI> I was alone.
<LI>  I was a tourist visibly carrying optical equipment and other items which could be assumed to
have significant value. I only reinforced that perception for the robbers and those with whom the
robbers talked after they tallied up their take for the day.
<LI>  I was in an area frequented by tourists ( in other words there is a steady "market" of folks,
from all over the world with assets worth taking, visiting certain areas in Guatemala)
<LI>  I was on foot. I also have heard at least one account of a driver ( someone living in
Guatemala) car being stopped,  removed from his car and executed, and the car then stripped
and set on fire. 
It is my sense that whether you analyze my experience mathematically, or philosophically, it was
either highly probable or destined.

<LI> Before going anyplace else in the world, particularly 3rd world countries, I will look at the
United States Department of State web site for country specific reports on travel conditions.
That web site is <A HREF="http://www.state.gov">http://www.state.gov</A>
Twenty years ago I traveled around the world alone for nearly two years, and had no problems.
In most areas in the world, I think that is still possible. However, in some areas, I think the 
rules (of engagement or travel) have changed, and one must be cognizant of those rules if one is
to continue the journey safely.
I hope this information has been useful to you. It would have been helpful to me.
Please let me know if you have additional questions or comments at 
<A HREF="mailto:bobhansen@gorge.net">bobhansen@gorge.net</A>.