After more than 20 years of international travel – most of the time by myself – I had to come back to California to get assaulted and robbed. Fortunately, they walked away with only $100 cash in my fake wallet, and I walked away with only a few cuts and bruises.
I’m still in shock, but looking back at that evening a few days ago, I realize I got lazy and let my guard down. I forgot that crime can happen to anyone, anywhere.
I have visited rich countries and poor countries. Within those countries, I have stayed in countless cities, towns, and villages: some friendly, some not; some developed, some not; some overflowing with tourists, some not.
Even if I could afford it, staying at fancy hotels in the “good areas” or hiring a driver to take me around in a town car just isn’t my preferred travel experience. I want to be amongst the locals.
As a result, during my travels I have certainly taken my share of chances with regard to safety.
I’ve explored cities known more for their trouble than for their tourist attractions. I’ve visited the dirtiest dive bars and the most crowded discos. I’ve walked home alone in the middle of the night. Yes, I’ve even carried my camera on my shoulder and my (fake) wallet in my back pocket.
In all of my adventures, I’ve only had trouble a few times: chased and cornered by thugs in Krakow, Poland; intimidated into handing over my ‘fake’ wallet in Buenos Aires, Argentina; tricked into over-paying a restaurant bill in Riga, Latvia (and again in Mexico City, Mexico).
Looking back at all the things that could have gone wrong, I guess I’ve been lucky…
…Until 10:30pm on Tuesday, December 20, 2016, in Eureka, California.
I was on a road trip from San Francisco to a few cities in Oregon to see family and friends for the holidays. Having driven for most of the day, I stopped in Eureka for the night.
I picked a hotel close to the freeway for convenience. I checked in, stored my bags in my room, and headed out to dinner on foot. After driving all day, the walk felt good.
I chose a local steakhouse and savored a huge meal: salad, rib-eye steak, fries, and onion rings. After dinner, I took a walk through the holiday-decorated Old Town and then began the walk back to my hotel on the outskirts of town.
The sky was clear, the air was cool and crisp, and the street was dark and deserted. I was actually kind of enjoying the quiet walk. Nearly back to the hotel, I noticed two men leaning up against the building on my right.
As I approached, one of them went to the curb and threw his cigarette butt into the street. This forced me to walk between them, unless I crossed the street before I reached them. But, being in California after traveling the world, I didn’t think much of the situation, and just proceeded down the sidewalk.
“Spare a dollar?” asked the guy on my right.
“No, dude.” And I kept walking.
The next sequence of events happened so fast, I find it difficult to recount. A fist came from the right and caught my upper lip, tearing it open. I stumbled into the guy on my left who smacked me again, and down I went. Stunned and shocked.
They took my wallet (full of crisp $20 bills from the ATM earlier that night) from my back pocket, and ran off. Little did they know that this was my "fake" wallet. My ID and credit cards were in a separate zippered pouch in my front pocket.
I sat there for a minute, still trying to process what just happened. I couldn’t believe it. I put my hand to my face, and felt the warm blood running down my lips and chin. I tasted it in my mouth.
I got up and headed to my hotel room, where I cleaned myself up and inspected my wounds. They didn’t look that bad: a cut above my upper lip and a raspberry on my left cheek. Both were bleeding, but after cleaning and applying some pressure, I stopped the bleeding.
At that point, I decided to just go to bed. I didn’t think I needed immediate medical attention. I could ask the hotel to call the cops but there was nothing they could really do now. I would report the crime in the morning.
The next morning at 7:30 am I woke up on a bloody pillow. I’d bled more overnight, apparently. My cheek and upper lip were pretty swollen, too. At this point, I decided to head to the Emergency Room to see a doctor. Maybe I needed stitches after all.
I packed my bags, checked out, and headed to the local hospital. The ER doctor examined me (including checking for a concussion) and said I didn’t need stitches. She gave me a tetanus shot, a penicillin boost, and a prescription for antibiotics. Neither she nor the nurse seemed surprised when I recounted last night’s events.
I headed next to the police station to file a police report. The officer did not look surprised at all. He said the town has seen an increase in transients, drug users, and crime over the last few years.
I’ve since done a little research on the town of Eureka, which seems to validate what the doctor and police office said. It’s not the safest of town. Crime is on the increase.
One of the sites I looked up is here:
This says that on a scale of 1 to 100 (100 being safest), Eureka is a 1. The rate of robbery is 2x that of the national average. The rate of assault is 25% higher than the national average.
Lucky to walk away from this experience, I have learned a few lessons that are good reminders to us all:
1) Do your research. Like visiting any new place, I should have done a bit of reading about Eureka before stopping there for the night. I still might have stayed there, but I would have at least been more aware of what to expect and therefore taken more precautions (e.g., Lessons 3 and 4).
2) Crime can happen anywhere to anyone. There is no such thing as “back home, safe in California” which was my mentality.
3) Avoid dark streets. I shouldn’t have walked home alone on that dark street. The street just two blocks over was a major thoroughfare and would have been more populated and better lit. A taxi would have been the safest option, probably. (However, there are some foreign cities where I would question the safety of the taxis at night!)
4) Assume the worst. When I saw the two guys loitering, I should have avoided them by crossing the street or turning around.
5) My fake wallet works. They got my cash, but not my credit cards or ID.
In the end, I know I was lucky. The incident could have been much worse. I’m not deterred from traveling. I’m not scared of the night. But, I certainly will put my guard back up and be more cautious when I’m traveling, and even when I'm staying local.
Be careful out there!