Thursday, February 01, 2007
The Great Mustard Ruse
After months of traveling without incidents of any kind, my luck was bound to run out. The way odds and percentages work, I figure the probability of something unpleasant happening was getting higher and higher each day, combated only by my slow but continuously growing knowledge of the streets. Early this morning, though, perhaps because I was still groggy from a less than sufficient amount of sleep, that knowledge did nothing to avail me. A block and a half from my hostal there is a small kiosk, and it was there that I stopped to purchase a needle and spool of thread on my return from an early, casual birdwatching walk along the river that runs through downtown Cuenca. As I began to walk away from the kiosk, a smartly-dressed businessman - jacket, tie, slacks, well-polished shoes, briefcase, clean-shaven face, neat haircut - tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to my pants with a look of concern and a string of Spanish words that I didn't understand at first. I glanced down and noticed that the backs of both my pant legs were covered with mustard from top to bottom. I had been walking all morning along a tree-lined river, and that fact alone should have first eliminated the possibility that I had sat on or leaned against a massive mustard mess, and then served as the first clue that I was being drawn into an elaborate con. I was so surprised however to see the morning sun reflecting off of such a large quantity of condiment smeared across my legs that I let the kind and helpful businessman lead me across the street to a cafe. The day still early, the cafe was empty, and the owner - a middle aged, slightly overweight, dark-skinned Ecuadorian woman - took us to the bathroom at one end of the single-room, small establishment. I left my bag, newly-purchased hat, and binoculars along the wall next to the bathroom, and the kind and helpful businessman, still in tow, made an effort to assist me in wiping off the pant legs. I thanked the kind and helpful businessman and told him that I could clean the rest myself, and as he left, I returned to the work at hand, noticing out of the corner of my eye two men - or only boys, perhaps - entering the cafe at the same time. I thought nothing of it but looking up a short time later noticed the pack was suddenly gone (though the hat and binoculars were untouched). The woman, still watching attentively over the empty seats and tables in her empty cafe, produced a look that my cynical mind pegged as contrived naivety and explained that the two men had claimed they were taking the bag to have it cleaned. Shrugging at my look of anger and incredulity, she went back to staring blankly at the empty cafe. I dashed into the street and made a circuit of several blocks around the cafe, but the 'bag-cleaners' were nowhere to be seen, having probably jumped on the nearest bus. I walked slowly back to the hostal and assessed my losses en route. I may be a gringo tonto, but I'm not as tonto as some. As has become my custom, I had left my wallet, passport, ATM card, and cash in the hotel room, carrying only a few dollars in my pockets. My little orange notebook - filled with email addresses, poems, phone numbers, people to visit and places to see, ideas, and bird lists, and more precious to me than anything I own - was securely in my pocket. My travel insurance should cover the pack and its contents - raincoat, water bottles, jackknife, small camera; perhaps this is why I wasn't as upset or animated when I arrived back at the hostal and explained to the desk attendant what had happened. She offered to call the police but we both knew they wouldn't be able to do anything, so I declined. More upsetting than losing the replaceable pack filled with replaceable stuff was having my sense of trust and faith in my fellow humans - a crucial and wonderful feeling I've developed, built up, and relied upon over the last eight months of solitary travel (partly out of necessity and partly because I've discovered that there really are a lot of good people in the world) – most upsetting was having this feeling infringed upon, damaged, and partially destroyed. The businessman, the cafe owner, the man at the kiosk all seemed kind and helpful, and I want so badly to believe they truly are good people, but on another level I know they were all part of the con, or at least don't care enough about one ´rich´ gringo who lost his pack. This is the feeling I hate most of all: that of being turned against my fellow human beings, potentially unjustly, by a small number of 'unofficial re-distributors of first-world wealth', by a pair of bad apples who I have come to feel are inactuality just a minority in the world. At least the thieves left me my new hat and binoculars, and at least they robbed me using mustard and a clever ruse, instead of knives and brute force. How many people that you know can actually say they've been held up in downtown Cuenca by a tube of bright-yellow, delicious-smelling mustard?