Tales of danger

by Eric Ginsburg

Sometimes I catch myself — either in a low, conspiratorial tone or with an air of nonchalance — telling stories about my run-ins with danger. I prefer to clump the scariest, most intense ones together, which makes sense considering almost all my best tales took place during a semester in Central America.

As we passed into each country (Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua) our trip leaders did their best to instill a practical fear.

As soon as we arrived in Guatemala City at the onset of the trip, we were told that the capital was so dangerous that we could only travel in alert groups during the day and would remain indoors at night. We were bombarded with stories of armed groups on city buses and tourists targeted at pay phones. After a quick orientation, we hurried to safer quarters in the nation’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango.

Known as Xela (Shay-La) to most locals and all travelers who are even mildly with it, at first blush it seemed like a paradise for haphazard travelers and international students looking to party. Coffee shops, cheap bars and inviting dance clubs all abounded in Xela’s walkable core.

Of course our trip leaders — and before them, our parents — warned us that danger lurked around every corner and to be on our guard, but at night we always traveled together, mostly brushing off the overbearing concerns with the typical college-studentinvincibility-complex. We all had prepaid phones and clumped together, so how bad could it be?

The veneer of safety quickly deteriorated with the help of two incidents, though I can’t remember which happened first.

After walking the rest of our group home not long after midnight and dropping the last friend off at his home stay, I held my full metal water bottle in one hand (my makeshift self defense plan) and walked hurriedly up the hill towards the house I stayed in, visible a few blocks ahead. Before I made it halfway, a pickup truck with a bed full of heavily armed men pulled up, the men jumping out and yelling things at me in Spanish.

After a tense exchange with the men, who turned out to be police, they barked that it wasn’t safe for anyone to be out this late before jumping back in the truck to speed away.

That was nothing compared to when we found out that while we were gone for a weekend, the traveler staying a house down from me had been walking home with her friend, in front of my house, when a car of men pulled up, aiming a gun at the two women and yelling at them to get in. Panicking, one bolted while the other pretended to call the police, and the car screeched away.

The stories keep coming, though obviously I didn’t tell my parents (at the time, or maybe ever) for fear they’d fly in and personally escort me home.

Nicaragua brought its share of intense stories, too, including when my host brother was robbed at machete-point a few blocks from the house.

My first night with my host family in Managua, he took me to his friend’s birthday party. The party wasn’t the highlight of his birthday, though: An unlicensed cab driver had pulled to a side street and robbed him of his phone, wallet and shoes, he told us.

Suddenly my host mother showed up, reaming her son for bringing me to this side of the neighborhood. It turns out my three host brothers controlled their part of the community, a small-scale neighborhood gang, and we were in enemy turf.

I didn’t adjust to being back in the United States quickly. I walked with a purpose, always checking behind me, often rapping the carabiner holding my keys around my knuckles. Just in case. Nothing ever happened to me, other than the intimidating, brief encounter with police in Guatemala, but the encounters sunk in far more than our trip leaders’ cautionary words ever could.

The stories may make good conversation, but why do I really tell them? To sound tough? To legitimize myself to other privileged, white men who similarly live without fear and may be impressed? To appear badass?

When I stop and think about it, it’s pretty embarrassing. I went to other countries, appropriated stories of danger that weren’t even my own and returned to the safety of my regular life with little trophies. It’s not lost on me, when I’m really being honest with myself, that I’m exploiting the realities of other people’s lives — mostly people of color — to puff myself up.

It’s sad and disconcerting, but the worst part may be that everyone eats it up. !