For the first time in a while now, I might've gotten close to getting robbed.
In most of my years in Latin America, I've rarely had encounters like that but sometimes I do find myself in sketchy situations where the possibility is higher.
Some odd days ago, that was the case.
As some of you know, I live in a neighborhood of Mexico City known as Pedregal de Santo Domingo.
It's one of the poorer areas of the city and has a reputation for being dangerous.
Truth be told, I don't find it too dangerous on a day to day basis but it depends on what part of the neighborhood you live in.
Obviously, areas with little commercial activity tend to be more dangerous.
Walking alone at night at 2 AM to get some tacos can be a tiny bit dangerous also (I've tried it, came out unscathed but not recommended to most).
And, as I wrote here, I've been told that streets in more of the northern end of the city tend to be more dangerous than those in the south due to extra gang activity.
But that didn't scare me from going to the north of the neighborhood.
In fact, as I wrote here, I spent 8 hours walking around the entire neighborhood.
From north to south and west to east.
Covering as many corners as I could.
Taking photos of everything that looked interesting to me to document the area a little bit better before I leave to some other part of Mexico City.
In total, I took over 180 photos from the 8 hour walk.
Also got sun burnt.
During the whole time, almost nobody gave me shit for taking pictures.
There were maybe half a dozen people that did have a look on their face curious about "what am I taking pictures of?"
Which makes sense.
The area isn't touristy at all and a foreigner walking around taking pictures of a "barrio popular" with its unaesthetic look is unusual for the area.
Still, none of those folks ever said anything to me.
Closer to the end of my 8 hours, I finished taking a picture of some park that you can see here called Parque Ballantines.
It's one of the few parks in the neighborhood that you can see here.
Afterwards, I turned back south to Avenida Esquinapa.
At this point, I was wondering to myself "how should I return back to the south?"
And decided to take an odd path turning onto a different every so often just to have more streets to look at that I might've missed.
Right away though, I noticed a relatively sketchy looking street.
It looked a little bit sketchier than some of the other streets I had seen that day and caught my attention.
Obviously, if we are going to run through this neighborhood, we should cover the sketchy areas too.
Though I don't remember the street name it was, it had to be either Tepocatl or Totolin.
I think it was Tepocatl though. Here's a picture of it.
In photo, I guess it doesn't look as sketchy as it did when I first saw it in person. Especially that pink house. After all, could bad shit happen on a street with pink houses? Of course not!
And the street did look better as I walked further down it.
Here's some more pictures.
So as I keep walking and taking pictures, an old grandmother noticed me as she got out of her vehicle.
It was actually one of those old Volkswagen Beetles that you see all over this neighborhood as I wrote about here.
Being an obvious looking foreigner taking pictures of the streets, I must have caught her attention.
She began walking with me as she was headed to buy groceries.
We began making small talk.
It's one of those moments -- similar to what I wrote here -- where locals in areas that don't get any gringos tend to be MUCH more curious about you.
Usually in a friendly way!
They want to know your story more.
"Why are you here?"
"Where are you from?"
And often will sometimes go out of their way to help you out just to be nice.
In areas with a lot more gringos, you don't see that type of nice treatment as often among the locals unless they are trying to make money from you.
Here, they aren't trying to make money from you unless it's an obvious street hustler.
Otherwise, they are genuinely just trying to be helpful and are very nice.
Not jaded either yet with foreigners as they don't have too many.
And so we began making small talk.
She was giving me tips on what to see in the area. Where to find a few good murals she likes. About some park that UNAM students have access to near the south of the neighborhood. So on and so on.
Also telling me about her daughter living for 30 years in Los Angeles and who has children up there.
In between all of that, she also seemed very concerned for me because of how red my face was and telling me "you need to get a hat! You're so red!"
Which, to be fair, the sun burnt actually came from the day before where I was walking around UNAM campus for 7 hours and didn't think to bring sunscreen.
In all my 5 years in Mexico, this was the first time I ever got sun burnt.
Anyway, I did have some sunscreen for this day and showed her.
Above all, she was very nice.
And, as we got to some random street, we were about to part ways.
I forgot which street it was but I think it had to have been either Zolap or Aztahuacan based on Google Maps and what makes sense in hindsight.
I'm guessing Aztahuacan though.
As we got to that corner, I took my cheap 30 dollar phone out that I bought from a stolen market place that you can read here to take this picture here.
Notice how there are some dudes in the background staring at me like "why the fuck is he taking a picture?"
At any rate, I wanted to take the picture because it was another Volkswagen!
Like I said, this neighborhood has a HUGE abundance of random Volkswagens laying around.
Some of them are abandoned.
Others look nice and relatively not too old.
The one in the photo did look nice and caught my attention.
Unfortunately, the first photo I took was a bit blurry so I tried again.
As I'm going for a second photo, some random dude on a bicycle rides in front of us heading right and sees me with my phone out.
He immediately yells out "HE'S TAKING A PHOTO!!!"
And, here in Latin America, sometimes you don't know if the dude is just mentally slow and yelling random things or if it is an actual threat.
I've had no shortage of strangers yelling random things and nothing coming of it.
Anyway, I didn't think much of it for the next few seconds until we stepped onto the next street.
As we did, the old grandmother was heading left and I was heading right.
Right away, there was a group of about 5 dudes sitting on the sidewalk out some distance away from me but within eyesight.
From what I could tell, all of them seemed pretty short (looked shorter than me) but one of them was some 6 foot tall fella.
And one of them sitting down had a gun in their hand.
They were all looking at me.
Immediately, they all begin shouting at me the exact same thing at the same time repeatedly: "hey, HEY why you taking a photo, bro?! bro?!! Photo, bro?!! Why you taking a photo, bro?! Huh, bro?! Why the photo?! Bro, you taking photos?! Why you taking a photo bro?!"
Then one of the short dudes sitting down yells out asking "you a tourist?!"
And, in hindsight, maybe I should've said yes?
Would've seemed less threatening perhaps if I said I was and maybe they'd suspect me less of working for the police, another gang or whatever they thought I might've been taking photos.
But, in the moment, I just responded naturally and said "no!"
And I kept walking.
Once I said the gun and with the shouting, I thought "hmmm, maybe I better ditch."
Then one of them asked again "so why you taking a photo?!?"
The old grandmother had already stopped in front of them and was seemingly talking to them.
And I just shouted back "no entiendo!!!"
Meaning "I don't understand!"
Obviously, playing that "foreigner card" to pretend like I don't speak Spanish at all.
As I wrote before, sometimes it is better to pretend to be the foreigner with no Spanish.
For some reason, I figured that'd be the best thing to do here as I kept walking away.
And so I did.
Turned onto the next street and walked south for a few minutes until I arrived to a street called Canacuate.
Which felt relatively safer because there was a lot more commercial activity, a lot more people, some police (who could be corrupt as always to be fair) and in general wasn't some random abandoned looking street.
At any rate, I head one direction and turn south onto another street looking to get back to explore the south of the neighborhood.
But, for some reason, I figured to turn back because the street I turned onto didn't seem useful for getting to a certain part of the neighborhood that had a church I wanted to take a picture of.
So I turned back up north and found myself on Canacuate street.
Once I did, I saw the old grandmother again.
She immediately walked up to me and looked concerned.
In short, she was friendly about it but giving me a warning to be careful on certain streets in the neighborhood.
Explaining how there are a select few streets that she called "calles extrañas" repeatedly.
And was telling me how those dudes I saw were dangerous and part of some local gang.
That they -- as she whispered to me in the moment -- "sell drugs" like cocaine, marijuana, etc.
And that only a week ago they ended up robbing some random fruit vendor who was moving his stuff through that same street.
She told them -- without me knowing in the moment obviously -- that I am "safe" and that I am "a friend of her grandson" and that "I am not from Mexico."
In short, I'm guessing the "not from Mexico" and "a friend of the grandson" saved me from getting robbed.
Not some type working for the police looking to document who is in the area or whatever their concern was.
Which, to be fair, I'm just guessing as to why they were hostile to me taking a picture when everyone else in the neighborhood was cool with it.
Anyway, she told me that they were about to jump me and that I have to be careful on "calles extrañas" that aren't safe for taking pictures or walking down.
In the moment, though I wasn't laughing, I actually found it kinda funny that I came this close to being robbed and that she helped me out.
Granted, I didn't have much for them to rob anyhow.
Just a cheap 30 dollar burner phone and maybe like 5 bucks in my pockets.
I pulled out then a 20 peso note (a dollar) to offer her because of her help.
She immediately said "no, no, esta bien!"
Anyway, we ended up making more small talk. I took a picture of us to send to family back home because they would appreciate the story.
And we went our separate ways.
At this point, I was headed towards a street called "Canahutli" and would have to turn south from there to finally arrive to Acatempa street after many odd minutes.
Which it is around this part of Santo Domingo that I am more familiar with: anywhere from Acatempa and south of that.
As others have told me, it is apparently a relatively safer part of the neighborhood.
And, along the walk to Acatempa from Canacuate, I didn't let the near incident with gang members scare me from taking more pictures.
Though, once I turned onto Canahutli, I did look around for a second to make sure no random gang members sitting on the sidewalk were looking at me this time.
But this street also isn't very "extraño" compared to where the last ones were.
While taking pictures, actually the exact opposite of those gang members spotted me.
Some random couple noticed I was taking pictures of all of the murals on the street and were very helpful in telling me where some nicer ones were in the neighborhood.
All with smiles, a fist bump and -- similar to the grandmother -- small talk with genuine curiosity about "where are you from?" and wanting my life story.
They ended up helping me spot this nice mural here.
But that was that.
I ended up exploring more of the neighborhood with plenty of photos as you can see in this article I wrote here.
In hindsight, probably I should be more discrete about taking pictures in sketchy areas.
Obviously, not the smartest decision but I'm not going to let some gang members stop me.
I mean -- what are they going to do?
YEAH RIGHT. HA HA HA HA (Spanish laugh JA JA JA JA).
At any rate, if you got anything to add, drop a comment below.
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Thanks for reading.