Was I bored or hungry? My night shift at the hostel seemed to be moving in slow motion that night. I stepped away for a couple of minutes to grab food from the staff refrigerator in the back yard. A coworker, Julie, watched the office for me.
I returned to an empty office and an open door. I went out to see why the door was open and found Julie talking to a man through the fence. The man was around 45 years old and needed a bed for the night for a friend. He didn’t have a reservation but claimed to know the owner, Jon. Jon would vouch for him. They were friends.
I talked with the man as my coworker went back inside to call Jon. The man asked again if he could have a room and then gave us 10,000 Chilean Pesos (15 dollars), said he didn’t need the change, and signaled to the car across the street.
When the man brought his friend out, I immediately saw why he had left her in the car during our initial conversation. She was roughly 45, distraught, and wearing a very short skirt & very high heels, one of which had a broken strap. A strong limp and eyes that told of recent drug use came into focus as she got closer. I stepped inside for a minute to brief my coworker. Neither of us knew what to do. Our daily workload focused mostly on arranging reservations and giving tours. I must have missed the training session on dealing with battered woman escorted by their abusers.
I stepped back outside, opened the gate, and let the woman in. The man tried to follow her in, putting his hand on my shoulder as he talked to me. I told him twice not to touch me, each request followed by him removing his hand for five seconds. The third time, I told him very colorfully to leave, pushed him out, and slammed the gate as he yelled at me.
The woman obviously needed help so I led her in and took her to the dining room. I then found Julie and told her “She’s pretty f***ed up, we should call an ambulance.” I then saw the two guests in the same room and regretted not pulling Julie to the side to say it. We went to a smaller room near the kitchen. The woman said that she was hungry so I brought her bread and butter as Julie began asking her what had happened. Julie was Latina, charismatic, and spoke Spanish as her first language. The woman warmed and opened up as she spoke with Julie.
I felt that they would be more comfortable in private so I left them and grabbed the phone in the office. No one picked up the emergency line for the hospital, so I gave up and called the police instead. They told me they would send a unit by soon.
I went to update Julie and hoped that things weren't how they looked. They were. In addition to the bad ankle, her speech was slurred and she had a long red mark on her face that she earlier tried to hide with her hair. She eventually opened up and said that the man had been beating her and she didn’t want to return.
What to do?
The easiest answers would be to send her away with the police or to give her a room. Those each came with complications. If she went with police, would she be arrested? She was clearly in a coercive relationship with the man and I would hate to see her locked up. If she stayed here, is, she comfortable staying in a dorm with five young backpackers? How will we handle it as she crashes into sobriety that night? There was no magic bullet, no solution that left everybody safe.
The police arrived after 30 minutes and talked briefly with the woman. They stepped aside to explain to us what was happening: she was a prostitute that they knew well and suspected may be part of a robbery scam (Hostels have dorm rooms, meaning that there were no individual locks and anyone with a gate key could rob everyone staying in the dorms. Every guest was given a gate key upon arrival.). There were two police officers: a serious man who spoke only Spanish, and a more sympathetic man who spoke to us in English. They became an angel and devil on my shoulders, though I wasn’t sure which was which.
The serious man told us that she should stay here. If she left, she would go back to the same man who beat her up.
The other told me not to let my sympathy get me scammed. She could choose to spend the night in jail and sober up in a safe place.
The previous toughest decision to make at the hostel was whether to reimburse a guest for a bottle of wine that our skateboarding dog broke when he left it in the back yard. I reimbursed him. And now this: let a prostitute stay in the dorm and potentially get robbed while surely scaring both the woman and all of the guests, or send the woman out with a night in jail as her safest option.
We sent her out.
I felt ashamed and told them that we don´t allow anyone over 30 in the hostel. It was the best lie I could come up with.
The decision still haunts me. I have no idea what happened to her. I tell myself that letting her stay would have had her back with the same man the next day anyways. I remind myself of our hostel being robbed twice in Brasil, of the owner’s (and officer's) stance that she would open the gate in the middle of the night and let robbers in. I remind myself that the police officer said that we did the right thing. That the owner was upset that we even let her in the gate. That it wouldn’t have been fair to the other 20 guests.
Honestly, I would likely do the same thing tomorrow.
And I still can’t shake the guilt.