I donned my white formal dress, painted my lips red with my matte-look red lipstick, lined my eyes with Kajal Magique, brushed my hair and let them fall loose, strapped my G-Shock on my right wrist, checked my wallet for some Chilean pesos and put it in my bigger black leather purse, picked up my black Lenovo phone and earphones, launched Google maps, and walked out of the Airbnb to go for my interview at the English teaching center located in downtown Santiago. I had had to visit the center a few times to secure an interview with the English owner of the promising institute.
I took the lift to the ground floor of the building and having exchanged pleasantries with the joyful guard, walked out, and found myself face-to-face with the glowering January sun. I strode through the almost-empty roads towards the closest bus stand which was frequented by the bus that would have directly taken me to the cosmopolitan center of the town.
A car driven by an inquisitive driver, who bothered to gaze at me for as long as he or she desired, occasionally sped by. Few locals walked past by staring bluntly. A handful of basic utility shops were open here and there. Solo stout man or woman guarded each of these shops while distracting the self by watching the sunlit gravel road and it’s few travelers. A muscular mechanic was lying underneath a lucky car in a garage and hammered some part of the car. He ogled me as I walked past by him.
Though I was used to the staring by that time as I had spent six months in South America by then, the curious eyes still made me a little uncomfortable. I had assumed that the staring would be limited to the southern island of Chiloé, where I had been bestowed with rockstar-like attention, as I was the only (visible) Indian in the legendary island. Though Chileans and other Latin Americans never made my skin crawl, unlike some desperate Indian men for whom it’s a few seconds job.
The pounding hammer of the handsome, dismal barks of a few heat-struck dogs, and a couple of whooshing engines were all that buzzed the otherwise silent afternoon. I concluded my ten-minute walk to the bus stop and began my wait. After about ten minutes, the bus honked. I climbed up and flashed my blue Bip card at the electronic card-scanning machine. I scuttled to one of the blue-cushioned back seats of the zigzagging bus and plonked in. I plugged my earphones into my naked ears and tuned into the downloaded music.
The sun felt less scorching in the air-conditioned bus with Anoushka Shankar playing her sitar in my ears. The golden view of the road and of the Santiago city life through the shiny glass windows of the bus promised to entertain me through the one-hour ride.
My eyes ran along the graffitied walls and over the lustrous fur of the rotund dogs resting in some corners of the road and to the people brisk walking to reach somewhere or maybe just to avoid the sun. I watched the tattooed-teenagers pacing up the streets with their earphones plugged-in and explored the depth of the kisses of the flaunting young couples who were in embraces in the otherwise romanceless afternoon.
People waited restlessly at the colorless bus stops en-route. Whenever the bus braked, a crowd of people climbed down and a swarm of them huddled up. Everyone glanced at me so I avoided their eyes and decided not to satisfy my curiosity.
At one such stop, I saw a young boy walking towards me, who, in the blink of an eye, snatched my phone along with my earphones, jumped off the bus with a similar looking boy, and ran. I jumped down and started shouting ‘mi cellular’ incessantly.
I saw the boys crossing the road, and I crossed running behind them. I stumbled on my white earphones, which the boys had thrown on the road, and continued running without stopping to pick them up. They sprinted and I gasped for breath. I continued shouting that someone robbed my cell phone so that some other wanderer could help the foreigner with the red lips and fancy clothes. But no one buzzed.
I had dashed across almost two lanes when I realized that a tall, well-built man, whose bulky arms were fully-tattooed, was following me. He asked what was I robbed off. Panting, I replied, ‘mi celular’. He acknowledged. I turned around to continue running. Suddenly, the guy behind, who must have frisked his pockets, announced that his cell phone was also missing. He turned around to run back to where he had come from. I lost the boys in this mishap. I ran for a couple of minutes and then slowed down. I enquired a few locals and the men sweeping the road about the two young thieves who must have been seen running. No one knew.
The snatchers had disappeared into the vast residential area flanked by desolated roads. Beads of sweat glistened on my forehead. I knitted my brows, checked my G-Shock, and trotted back to the crime scene. I had to remember the way on my own now.
I reached the bus stop where my phone was snatched. A group of people and the carabineros aka Chilean police were examining the place. My eyes fell upon the spinach-green police van in whose back seats sat a few dusty boys, vaguely visible behind the steel mesh of the backdoor. The could-have-been bulky savior told me that one of the boys had returned to the spot while screaming that he did not do anything. The savior had then grabbed him and had called the carabineros and the neighbors. The police discovered two cellphones in the possession of the young boy. Mine was still missing.
One of the carabineros approached me, took me to the side of the road, and whispered some superfast, jumbled-up Spanish in my ear, while the spectators watched. I gazed at him with bewildered eyes and asked him to repeat. After a few times, he slowed down and told me to identify the boy.
I was asked to identify the boy, from a distance and without directly looking at him. While they take him out of the van and act as if they are adhering to a routine formality. The police wanted me to recognize someone whose face I had only seen for a few seconds and from not up-close and without a direct gaze. Genius.
Though it was just a few minutes ago that I had my phone snatched, possibly, by that boy, I did not remember his facial features or the color of his trousers or t-shirt. I told them I wasn’t sure. I and the savior then sat in the police vehicle and were driven to the closest police station. And then there I was for the next three hours, while the police created reports, asked questions, filled forms, and almost created an Egyptian pyramid with heaps of documents.
The thought of how I would manage without my phone lurked in the back of my mind. But the conscious mind wondered what my English friend, who had — well let us just say views about the Chilean documentation process, would have said about the paperwork. A quick laughter spurted out of me and I gulped it as fast as it had appeared.
When I asked the carabineros if they would be able to find my phone, they said that they jotted down the details to complete the formal documentation of the case. And they didn’t think that they would be able to find my phone. We were playing formality for the past three precious hours of my life which I was never going to get back. One of the carabineros told me that the process of filing the report is long, ridiculous, and useless.
The police suggested me to identify the boy even though I was not sure. They said that he was definitely involved in some delinquency. At least that was what I understood of the superfast Spanish that was bombarded at me. I identified the boy. I assured myself that otherwise he would have gone out on the road again to snatch someone else’s belongings. Then why not let the police handle him for a while.
I have been plonked into a chair all this time, while the carabineros and the occasional visitors of the station scanned me from top to my golden slippers. I absorbed their stares and the drama staging around me.
A mother was called as her son was caught for being involved in drugs, and the disheveled mother asked which drug it was. My mouth opened wide responding to the shock that reaction had put me through. Didn’t she want to know how he was or what was the process to get him out? Maybe, the family ran a cartel and she wanted to know if the boy was buying from outside. Some shouts about an emergency case and people running around buzzed the otherwise laid-back sultry police station. Locked up men shouted from behind the bars. I wondered if the lockups there were similar to the ones back home. Not that I knew about the lockups in India. I wondered about the people and the babies in casual clothes who walked in and out of one of the station rooms that appeared to be of some importance.
Having noted down all the futile details and, I assume, closing my case, the police confirmed that they would be useless. I did not spend any energy on acting surprised. I first showed my disappointment, not about the theft but about the documentation, and then asked them to drop me home.
A huge, fat, jolly guy walked to me and informed me that I was going with him and enquired about my address. I gave him my Airbnb address that I surprisingly remembered. He offered me a seat in the police van and told me that it would not be that comfortable for me. I swelled with pompous pride. I climbed up and sat in the back seat. They drove through the streets and looked for the address I had confirmed as mine. When they reached across my Airbnb, the jolly guy stopped the car, and his thinner partner got down from the van. He then opened the door for me and held out his hand, for me to hold it. But I had already started the process of dismounting myself.
I thanked them and crossed the street and entered the building. I took the lift and opened the door to the fifteenth-floor Airbnb.
Over the small Facebook chat window of my Mac, I told my friends about the incident and grumbled about how I had missed my interview. They asked me to be careful. I told them that I was okay while I wasn’t sure I was. I didn’t feel together or secure. Maybe, because something of mine had been snatched away from me. Not to forget that I had surprised myself with my Tarzan-like reflection as well.
It was too much for a day that was supposed to have resulted in a job offer rather than me becoming a victim of an audacious daylight robbery.
When the amicable Airbnb host and his wife returned in the evening, I narrated the event. I said that maybe I was robbed as I stood out because of my Indian features and complexion. I doubted if I should not have dressed well or should not have painted my lips red. I repented looking good. Maybe, I looked too foreign? But they told me that I was unlucky that day as phones got snatched rarely then. Thieves were more interested in robbing houses.
The wife told me that I am really beautiful, would always stand out, and that’s not bad. They assured me that I wasn’t robbed as I looked foreign as many foreigners lived in Santiago. It was just an unfortunate day. It was a coincidence of someone being a little careless and holding her phone in her lap and the boys looking for some easy money in the warm afternoon.
After having dined with them on bread, cheese, eggs, and juice, I retired to my room for the night. Two good friends comforted me over Facebook; one by telling how he wanted to hug me and the other by recharging my temporary phone that the host was generous enough to lend me.
I assured myself that no matter what happens, I would still have my friends ready to help me from around the world. And then within no time, I slipped under the silky white cotton sheets and drifted into dreams.
The next morning, as the golden sun shone through my window and its sunlight played with my disheveled hair, I woke up to a new day. Life moved on.
Now tell me your worst travel experience.