Don’t let strangers in your house

Simple but useful advice from a gringa who got burned

Opinion.

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

 

  • donna tabor

    During my first month as a Granada resident, a man came to my window to announce that he repaired fans, TVs. refrigerators, etc. So happened that i had a malfunctioning floor fan. I handed it to him through the window and thanked him for his offer. It has been 15 years since I saw my fan. I’m starting to think that the nice man may not be bringing it back.

    • Howard cox

      It”s nice to see you have maintained your sense of humor, Donna

  • Erik Nelson

    Well done, Claire. I would not have been as cautious, and would have been burned. I’ll keep this posting in mind.

  • R Higgins

    Thank you for posting this. One can get too complacent and experienced. This is a good reminder. My husband has a very low opinion of mankind but it has saved us from trouble several times. I tend to be too nice.

  • Martin Nelson

    As we were checking into a lovely three suite Granada hacienda opposite the convent, a nice looking, modestly dressed young woman slipped into our group (my Norwegian cousins and their friends and us). We had been told there would be a house keeper on site and I thought it was she. She wasn’t! She just slipped in and acted as though she belonged there. We were all toting in bags from our cars on the street and totally preoccupied. I finally confronted her and she excused herself and slipped away before entering one of the suites. She could have been innocent but I wonder how many times distracted guests mistake thieves as staff.

  • Mike

    It’s like a de Maupassant story. How could a guy decide to pose as a plumber just as there was an active leak indoors? The time-space continuum itself called into question. It’s an existential mystery in a few hundred words.

    • occasional visitor

      Nicaraguan houses always have a leak!!!

  • Bobby

    Nicaragua is known as having the most friendly people in Central America. This makes perfect sense. if one wants to get close to an unsuspecting foreigner so as to set him or her up to be robbed, it is much easier to get close by being friendly. I have lived in Nicaragua for many years,and whether you agree or disagree with the following statement, I and many others, have had experiences here which unfortunately prove the following statement to be true more oftne than not true:

    Roger Pinsent, the British ambassador to Nicaragua, just before he left the post [NIcaragua] in 1967:

    “There is, I fear, no question but that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable and alcoholic of the Latin Americans.”

    Of course, no country is perfect, and we can get into a debate about the above statement. There are many good people here.

    • Brazilian

      Well, Roger Pinsent has certainly never been to Brazil.

  • Dave C

    Let’s see here, you have a leak, he knows it, he knows the owner by name, he’s a plumber coming to fix the lead that even you don’t know exists. Even has a logo of company. UMM, he even hangs around talking to someone outside. Doesn’t sound like a normal thief.
    What he’s doing in the locked room is interesting.
    What part was he looking for, obviously you eventually got the leak fixed, who fixed it?
    Your first time EVER at the place, so he was waiting for someone that has never been there ever before?

  • Lawrence

    “I will show you my company, but I want to get a juice first” LMAO

    • ronnie

      Luke,
      Your story gives me shivers too, and I’m a guy. You and I met and talked just a couple days after your incident, but we talked about other incidents, other places, traveling, rip-offs, Cambodia, camel rides in Morocco, not sharing every scarry story with mom (until later) :-)
      I would really like to talk to you more, about Bogata, Granada, Hawaii, writing, editing, staying safe, life. Come around again with your lap-top, or Email me. rl

  • Chelsea

    … she put her hand in his POCKETS?

    that line just made me shiver.

    never in my two years here and never, ever in my life will i put my hands in a strange man’s pockets.