Bienvenido a Colombia

Our first day in Bogotá, we wanted to hike up Monserrate, a steep mountain within short walking distance of our hostel. At the peak of the mountain is a church overlooking the city. We walked to the base of Monserrate where there was a line for tickets for the cable car and train that go up to the peak. When we asked a policeman nearby about walking up, he told us that the only day we can’t do that is on Tuesdays, so we would have to come back tomorrow. Fine. We’ll find something else to do today and come back tomorrow.
Notice the fire on the left side of Monserrate, and the church on top. It's not visible in the photo, but we could see the orange flames.

Notice the fire on the left side of Monserrate, and the church on top. It’s not visible in the photo, but we could see the orange flames.

Fast forward to the next day, when we leave our hostel to walk towards Monserrate, we notice smoke and fire on the mountainside. We arrived at the gate to find that the walking path is closed because of the fire, and there are 4 or 5 fire trucks waiting on the street across from the entrance. We stood for several minutes to decide what to do next, and eventually agreed that we should walk up Cerro de Guadelupe, the mountain next to Monserrate, instead. At the top of this mountain is a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it looks to be about the same elevation as Monserrate. We find  walking directions to the peak of Guadelupe on the map app that I downloaded to my phone, and we spend another minute or so trying to decide whether to walk it or take a bus or cab. It was just over 6 miles from our current location, but we decided to walk until it looked unsafe (like, if the sidewalk disappeared and there was no space for walking).

 Our map led us up this street, which we ended up turning back down because it just didn't feel safe.

Our map led us up this street, which we ended up turning back down because it just didn’t feel safe.

As we ascended the steep streets towards the mountain, the neighborhood became quieter. The view of the city was impressive, and we hadn’t even reached the start of the mountains yet. We turned back down one of the roads the map led us up because it just didn’t feel right, and we figured we could get to the main road a better way by staying on Calle 9 until the end, where there appeared to be a university.

We ended up on a very steep cobblestone road that was beginning to be overgrown by grass. As we got about halfway up the road, two men approached us from above. Their intentions weren’t immediately clear to us until they attacked, each man wielding a screwdriver as their weapon of choice. I never knew how frightening a situation like this could be until it happened to us. With adrenaline at full blast, it was hard to think about anything except to give these men what they wanted so they would leave us alone. Dallas, who was carrying our backpack, was more reluctant to hand everything over. Having read an article my dad sent me about couples who were killed trying to resist robberies, I was begging Dallas to just give it to them or else they would hurt him. He stalled for what seemed like forever, but eventually gave them the backpack and emptied his pockets for them. As they ran back from where they came up the hill, one of them threw Dallas’s wallet back to him. A moment later, after realizing his passport was in the bag, Dallas was chasing them up the hill, and I was following.

We paused for a moment before heading up the grassy cobblestones, where we would soon be mugged.

We paused for a moment before heading up the grassy cobblestones, where we would soon be mugged.

They were about to make their escape on a motorcycle when, fortuitously, a police vehicle came driving toward us down the hill. We waved them down, frantically pointing at the motorcycle, and the police cut them off. The man on the back of the motorcycle dropped our backpack and ran off to the left, disappearing into the neighborhood below, while the other man dropped to the ground and was apprehended by the police. One of the policemen chased the man who ran away, but to no avail. He still had my waist pouch with my phone in it and Dallas’s phone and cash.

We sat shaking in the grass for a while as more police officers arrived on the scene. Stray dogs came over with tails wagging and licked my hand, as filthy as they were, making me feel a little better. Traffic was starting to back up on the road, and people in nearby houses were gathering around to see what the commotion was. The cops moved the one robber from the first vehicle to a second patrol car that arrived, and then moved him again to a third car that came even later. At one point I counted 14 police officers standing around on the road, using their radios and cell phones. Communication was not easy, and most of it fell upon Dallas since he was far more proficient in Spanish. He did practically all of the explaining as different cops continued to question us throughout the day.

Dallas poses with the robber's getaway motorcycle, which was confiscated by the police.

Dallas poses with the robber’s getaway motorcycle, which was confiscated by the police.

This all began around 1:30pm, and by 2:30 we had been driven down the hill to a police station where we ended up sitting for a few hours while police tried to get us to positively identify the man who they thought got away. So many factors make it extremely difficult to identify anyone in a situation like this. First, everything happened so quickly and neither of us were studying faces to see what these guys looked like. Dallas said that they were wearing hoods to cover their faces, but I don’t even recall that. If I couldn’t even remember if they were wearing hoods, how could I be expected to remember what their faces looked like? Second, what are the details you are most likely to notice during such a quick and stressful interaction? Height, complexion, hair color, clothes… They were both about our height or shorter and had a darker complexion, which doesn’t exactly narrow down the field. The photos that the cops were showing us didn’t really help. Sure, it could have been him, but they could have shown us a photo of any Colombian man and we would have thought the same thing. We had no idea. Third, the language barrier made it so that even if we did have a good idea in our heads of what the man looked like, it was nearly impossible to communicate a detailed description.

I was recording our walk with Strava, so you can see where the thief took my phone and ran off road to the left (click on the photo to see the details).

I was recording our walk with Strava, so you can see where the thief took my phone and ran off road to the left (click on the photo to see the details).

While waiting for the cops to complete their paperwork, and using google translator to communicate back and forth, a boy came up to the station with my pouch. Inside were both of our phones. He told the police that he found it on the street, and then he left. I watched as he ran away down the street, and the cop changed what he was writing in the report to reflect what just happened. He confirmed with us everything using google translator. Meanwhile, the man that they did capture had been led from the police car to the station where we were waiting. This station is tiny. There’s a small room with a computer and a laptop and a few boxes of papers, and in the back is a room with some lockers and a small bathroom. The whole station is probably less than 150 square feet. The man in handcuffs is placed in the locker room, which doesn’t appear to have a door. We feel like he could run out at any moment, while the cops are casually walking in and out of the main room.

View from the back of the police car. We wanted to take a selfie with our robber, but we couldn't get our phone far enough away from our faces!

View from the back of the police car. We wanted to take a selfie with our robber, but we couldn’t get our phone far enough away from our faces!

Overall, we were really impressed with the thoroughness and seriousness that the police in Bogota take their jobs. We felt like they went to great lengths to make us safer and recover our belongings, and they made a commendable effort to communicate with us every step of the way. However, we had no idea when we would be able to leave, and we eventually were escorted to the back of the same cop car that our robber had been put in to go to the main office of criminal justice. We had to squeeze into the back of the car and sit next to the man in handcuffs for a ride of unknown length. Did I mention how small all the vehicles are in Colombia? With a hard slippery surface to sit on, no seat belts and just a bar to grab in front of us, I felt like we were on a roller coaster, speeding even further down steeply sloped hills. The smell of diesel fuel and heavy air pollution drifted into the caged windows, making the ride even more uncomfortable.

The investigation office.

When we finally arrived, we were all led up several flights of stairs, and Dallas and I waited in a separated room with chairs for almost 2 hours before we were led to the interrogation room so Dallas could try to tell our story again to different investigators. The man in handcuffs was sitting on the floor across from this room with glass walls. It was all very confusing to me. They had Dallas sit with a woman at a computer who transcribed his story into yet another report.

While he was doing this, one of the policemen brought me back out to the hallway where he had me sit next to another young woman. He wanted us to talk to one another, but I wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know what to say at first, and neither did I, but we managed to have some kind of conversation with her trying to speak English and me trying to speak Spanish. It was actually very helpful, and I learned that she was in school to be a flight attendant. She was 20 years old, visiting Bogota from Medellin, and wanted to learn English. I didn’t realize until another cop took her away to question her that she was in handcuffs. She came back and we talked some more before a different cop took me away and brought me back to the first room where Dallas and I had been waiting initially.

Before leaving the station we take a photo with Jose, one of the friendly police officers who helped us get through the long day.

Before leaving the station we take a photo with Jose, one of the friendly police officers who helped us get through the long day.

Eventually, I was brought back to the room where Dallas was still working out our story with the woman. When he finished up with her, we spoke with another investigator who gave us advice about walking around Bogota and told us stories about other cases that didn’t end so well. He also gave us some money for a cab ride back to our hostel.

By the time we arrived at our hostel it was 9pm, and aside from some cheese and candy that the police had shared with us, we hadn’t eaten anything in over 8 hours. We felt hungry, dirty, and exhausted.

All of the police and investigators were incredibly helpful and nice to us, and we are very grateful for everything they did. We feel very lucky to have encountered the police when we did, and we are especially lucky to have gotten away unscathed. While we can’t help but feel guilty and think about what we could have done to have prevented this from happening in the first place, we realize it could have been much worse.

Please try not to worry about us! We are taking this as a learning experience and will be extra cautious when walking around from now on.

It's important to understand the difference between a safe street and a not so safe street. One block can make a huge difference!

It’s important to understand the difference between a safe street and a not so safe street. One block can make a huge difference!

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Though we shouldn't have gone up this street, we did get an amazing view of Bogota.

Though we shouldn’t have gone up this street, we did get an amazing view of Bogota.

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About Sarah

Sarah grew up in Cranston - just south of Providence, Rhode Island - and developed a love for travel, music, and outdoor sports at an early age. She had started bicycling long distances at age 12, as a participant of the MS150 bike tours to raise money for the MS Society. She didn't use her bike regularly until she built her own while studying in Montreal and found it an excellent way to get around the city. After graduating from McGill and moving back to Providence, Sarah started working at Brown University's office of Environmental Health & Safety as the Biological Safety Specialist. She was living 4 miles away at the time, and for the first few weeks was driving to work. She made the switch from driving to bicycling when she realized that she could get to work faster, avoid parking tickets, and integrate a few miles of training into her day. Bicycling was better for the environment and better for her own health and mood. She found that she had more energy and felt much happier once she started biking to work. When her car broke down several months later, she never bothered replacing it. After 4 years of working in Biosafety (and on her master's in Environmental Studies), Sarah left her job to pursue her passion. She has been working various jobs in the bicycle industry since June of 2011, including pedicab driver, bicycle tour guide, bike mechanic and traveling bicycle advocate. In between seasonal jobs, she has done a few long-distance bike tours, which is the main reason for this blog. Her dream is to eventually ride around the world and sail across the oceans.

Posted on 17 December 2015, in Colombia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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