Rob, Knife and Bite

©1996 James Q. Jacobs

With the return of consciousness a horrifying vision faced me. The silver knife flying rapidly back and forth and in and out of my arm was my immediate center of attention. The sharp point struck hard against bone near the elbow. Somehow I knew it wasn't the first time. The knife wielder held my left wrist. The other assailant jerked forcefully on my day pack. No way would I let go of camera, film, journals and valuables. As quickly as possible the shiny blade came flying at me again.

"ROBO," I screamed, awakening the neighborhood on this quiet carnival morning. With great persuasion the blade cut through forearm muscle to the bone. I stood stretched between two choices, lose my goods or lose my arm. It takes about a second per stab. "ROBOO," `robbery' again thundered down Avenida Central's urban corridor to no avail. Was it adrenaline that made it possible to stand placidly, almost politely, watching the onslaught? Perhaps shock. Suddenly, without thought or conscious intent, my eyes sighted the target and my leg snapped towards those tasteless polyester pants. That was the adrenaline.

Finding breakfast is easier in some neighborhoods than others. Colon, Panama, was dead quiet after the all night street dancing to calypso, raggae and salsa. The only other man on the street suddenly plunged his hands into my left front pocket. I firmly clasped one hand over his hands, pushed out my abdomen and bent forward. "Rob" tugged on my wallet as we stood face to face, eye to eye, inches apart. I'd never before hit anyone. In summary judgment I instantly sentenced trapped Rob with a full force blow to the stomach. He quickly retracted his hands and turned, leaning into a sprint. I caught my forward fall behind his knees. The ripe watermelon thump of his cranium on the sidewalk seemed cruel and unusual punishment enough so I let him go. Rob sprinted into the nearest alley.

Back on Avenida Central I took out my journal. In mid-paragraph two feet appeared too near to be friendly. I looked up. "Knife" held his blade to my face. "Con calma, con calma," he warned. His accomplice, with chin hooked firmly over my left shoulder, pushed me down, chest against legs. His hands quickly searched my empty back pockets. "Donde esta el dinero?" `Where is the money?' The dinero was in my money belt along with passport, traveler's checks, birth certificate, and credit card, too much to give up.

"En el hotel," I mustered.

"Donde esta el dinero?" Knife growled loudly. I whimpered the same response, feigning terror. I knew I was believed as "Bite" forcefully sunk his teeth into my upper arm. Then he grabbed my day pack and started to dash. I lunged and grabbed a strap. Then my memory lapsed. I assume Knife wasted no time in slashing me. Consciousness returned fifty feet away near an alley entrance.

Watching my kick was subjectively like a very, very slow motion movie. Compensating to counter Knife's reflex was easy. After traveling five weeks under a fifty pound pack, my well-conditioned leg nearly picked Knife off the pavement. His last stab struck bone above my knee. Knife's grip on my wrist withered. He ran for the alley. I turned to face Bite. He hesitated only an instant and easily passed crippled Knife. A policeman, with gun drawn, flashed past and chased them around a corner before firing two shots.

I tried to pick up scattered valuables. My fingers didn't work. Blood spilled from the slashed shirt sleeve unto my journal. A crowd surrounded me. A pool of blood grew on the sidewalk tiles. Two men quickly stripped my shirt to tie a tourniquet. Gaping two and three inch wounds shocked everyone. A woman yelled, "TAXI, TAXI." The cry was repeated up the street. The taxi door was open before I got to the curb. I apologized for the blood and soon had to ask the driver to slow down.

"Sixty over forty," nurse Sixta reported minutes later. Saline filtered into my vein as I barely maintained consciousness. Dr. Humberto spent two hours reconnecting finger muscles and stitching the wounds before Dr. Roberto spelled him. At 3:00 p.m. Nurse Sixta removed the intravenous and reported my blood count and recovery expectation as "positiva." The hospital refused to accept payment because I was stabbed in their country. The police provided a ride to the Hotel. The Hotel clerk also refused to take payment.

Rather than continue hitchhiking to Bolivia, I decided to fly back to the USA. The bus to Panama City crawled through many Carnival street parties. The driver refused payment because I was injured. A policeman helped me find a taxi. At the International Airport the bank had just closed. The teller noticed my condition and kindly reopened. At 9:20 p.m. I sat down to breakfast. Someone helped open the milk carton. It would be two weeks before I could move arm and fingers again. At the ticket counter I got to limp to the front of the line. Everywhere strangers helped carry my back pack. In flight Luis, the steward, poured free champagne and toasted my survival.

I sought out excitement and found it. I wanted to see the ghettos first hand and saw the cockroaches scurry about the hospital floor. I knew not what I would find. Excepting Rob, Knife and Bite, I found some of the kindest and most helpful people I've ever met. They saved my life. Getting stabbed in Panama wasn't an entirely bad experience. But if you visit the ghettos do take the hotel clerk's advice, "Carry your switch blade in your hand where everyone can see it and don't walk alone." If you visit Colon say hello to Nurse Sixta and everyone at Amador Guerrero Hospital for me. I guarantee you will meet wonderful people.

This episode is an excerpt from Finding America,
my journal of travel from Oregon to Panama and back.