He must have smelled my novelty as I walked through Granada’s streets from the Central Park toward Calle Saint Lucia to view my apartment for the first time.
As I turned the key in the front gate to check out my new abode, a strange man appeared at my side. Then again, I had only been in the country for less than a day, so all Nicaraguan men—and women and children, for that matter—where strangers to me.
“Buenos dias. Me llamo Carlos,” and he said in Spanish, “I work for the company Esperanza and I am here to repair a leak.”
Confused, I stared at skeptically as I surveyed his seemingly legitimate white-collared Esperanza polo shirt.
“No thank you. I don’t know who you are and was told not to let anyone in,” I said, explaining that it was my first day in town and that the owner was back in the United States for the week.
I closed the heavy wooden door behind me and, reprieved from the presumptive repairman, explored my new apartment, walking through its spacious rooms enriched with extravagant wood detailing, tiled floors and exotic plants.
But as I was touring the house, I almost slipped on a stream of water trickling out from underneath the closed door of the laundry room. A leak! Maybe that guy really is here to fix a leak, I wondered.
The self-styled handyman was still outside the front gate, chatting with passersby on the street. I could hear him talking about the owner of the house, referring to her by name.
Maybe he is legitimate, I thought, as my guilt tugged at my gringo conscience for having closed the door on him.
I finally caved and opened the door. I have heard stories and words of caution about letting strangers into the house, but I didn’t want to be a jerk. Plus, he knew about the leak and the owner of the house—and I was the newbie.
I watched as “Carlos” made his way to the laundry room, lifted my roommate’s clothes out of the puddle on the floor and surveyed the scene.
“I need to buy a part to fix this,” he said, asking me for $10.
I told him I didn’t have any money on me, which was true. Plus, I didn’t have the right to authorize any repairs. So I watched as he fiddled idly with some parts in the laundry room.
Though on guard and wary of the stranger, I took a quick bathroom break. When I returned two minutes later, he was not where I left him in the laundry room. I quickly searched the house and found him in my roommate’s bedroom, loitering near her bags. He had forced entry by breaking the lock on her bedroom door–something I learned later.
“I am looking for a key to find a part that’s here,” he said, after I asked what he was doing.
His hand revealed a small white pipe and though I desperately wanted to believe him, my gut told me this had gotten too weird and it was time to ask him to leave. In the next moments I wrestled with my guilt, not wanting to treat him like a criminal. But this was not my apartment and so I decided to push aside any shame and asked him flat out: “Did you take anything?”
“No, no! Respeto,” he said, taken aback as he lifted up his shirt as proof.
I knew I was now treading on uncomfortable terrain, but I had to make sure. “I want to see your pockets,” I said. He blushed and told me he did not feel comfortable doing that but I persisted and patted them anyway. Feeling a few bumps, I put my hand in his pocket and he pulled away.
“I can take you to my company to show you. I am a supervisor,” he said as I locked up the house and agreed to follow him to his office, somewhere downtown. As I tried to follow him down the street, he sped away on his bicycle. I yelled for him to wait.
“I will show you my company, but I want to get a juice first,” he yelled behind him, as he pedaled away. Then, just as suddenly as Carlos had appeared at my door, he disappeared in Granada’s maze of hazy and colorfully punctuated streets.
After I contacted my roommate in the U.S. to tell her what happened, she contacted the repair company and was told that no one fitting Carlos’ description said he worked for, but they said there was no one fitting that description on their staff. So he was a thief.
Having worked in the largest slums of Kenya and reported in Cambodia for a year, I consider myself a rather seasoned traveler in developing countries. But my first experience in Nicaragua was something new for me; it crossed the line from the typical petty theft/ opportunistic street crime to something more insidious, guilt-oriented, personalized and manipulative. I’ve never experienced a scam like that before.
I had wanted to trust “Carlos” and tried not to fall into the role of suspicious foreigner who is mistrusting of the locals. But yesterday reminded me that it’s also a bad idea to idealize situations and be naïve.
Carlos preyed on me because he saw me as gullible gringa—someone who would feel guilty about suspicious prejudices.
I am not certain how often this type of thing occurs here, but I do know that I felt violated in an ignorant way and will keep my guard raised higher from now on. Though I am a friendly person who wants to meet new people and form trusting relationships with Nicaraguans and foreigners alike, it’s clear that “be careful” should not be taken lightly. And I thank Carlos for his intrusive reminder.
Claire Luke is a journalist interning with The Nicaragua Dispatch