Friday, January 8, 2010

A life lived in fear is a life half lived

I have really debated writing this post, because I don´t want anyone to freak out. But I think it´s important to be honest about my travels, and the realities therein.

Today I was sort of attacked and robbed. I am totally ok! I was really lucky, these guys apparently were not willing to hurt anyone.

Here´s the story. I met this lovely girl at the hostel, Marianne. This morning we went by the bus terminal to buy some tickets to our respective next destinations. We went to Museo de Arte Moderno, which was the most disappointing museum I´ve ever been to. We wandered around for a bit looking for a good place for lunch, which we found. A really delightful pizza place called MonaPizza, in a lovely neighborhood. I had jugo de Mora which was, as always, delicious. Next on our itinerary was Monserrate, a church on the top of a mountain which is supposed to give you a great view of Bogota. Well, the cable cars at the foot of the mountain don´t look far on the map, so we figure we´ll just walk there rather than pay a taxi. We were walking through a neighborhood which I honestly did not feel the least sketchy about. There were kids playing in the street, a family washing their car. There were people around, you know? I hear footsteps running up behind me and still, I think nothing of it. My hackles are not raised. But suddenly there´s 3 guys, maybe 19 or 20 years old, yanking off our backpacks. Marianne did the smart and correct thing, and just gave them her backpack. Well, my backpack has one of those buckles that you buckle across your chest. I always assumed they were to help relieve the strain from your shoulders, but it turns out they´re pretty good anti-theft devices as well.

I was completely stupid. Even though there was that buckle thing going on, I was completely stubborn and could feel myself refusing to give in to this situation. I mean, incidents like this happen quickly. There isn´t so much a thought process happening as a series of instincts firing. Retrospectively, I can identify that my instincts didn´t see these guys waving weapons, so if they weren´t even using them to scare me into giving in I didn´t think they would use them on me. Also, there were so many people around, surely if I start screaming someone will come to my rescue. So I screamed and screamed and screamed. I let this guy yank me off balance so I was on the ground, dead weight being the most difficult to move. It was also a passive way to fight back, as obviously aggressively fighting back is the absolute stupidest thing I could do. My buckle finally broke. I kept screaming and screaming. It felt like a long time to struggle. Nobody came to my rescue. But he did finally give up and run off.

I am relieved I still have my camera, my glasses and contacts, and my iPhone. I am concerned I behaved so stupidly and didn´t just give the guy my bag. I may not be so lucky next time, you know?

I am more hurt by the fact that everyone on the street just watched that robbery happen, and didn´t even approach us afterward to see if we were ok, than by these guys actually robbing us. Colombianos are the nicest collective group of people I´ve ever met. Their reputation preceded them, and I´ve traveled through a bunch of countries now which also had wonderfully nice people, but the Colombianos exceeded expectation. They not only give you a direction, they ask about where you are going, why you are going, what you should do when you get there. When they see you struggling with the language they step right up and translate for you. If they´ve just met you, they hug and kiss you when you leave like you´ve been friends for three years. When they greet you in a cafe, they really seem to mean it. The warmth radiates from their eyes and smiles. They are SO HAPPY to have tourists coming through the country. I don´t know how or why this society has evolved such a lovely people, but the rest of the world could learn from them. They go above and beyond regularly, and with apparent pleasure. My instincts had a lot of faith in those Colombianos on that street.

I guess the idea is to just give in. I don´t know. I guess they had their reasons.

I flagged down the next taxi that passed and got the hell out of there. I`ll be taking more taxis from now on, I guess. And leaving my camera in a locker at my hostel. So long resolution to take more pictures.

Whatever prayers you all are saying for me are working, I guess. I am none the worse for wear. Just shaken up.

Monserrate was a little overshadowed by the experience.

When we got back to the hostel, I headed down the street to that cafe I enjoyed so much yesterday. Cafes are some of my favorite places in the world. They have a very soothing, comforting, calming effect on me, so I sat down with some hot chocolate and a book. 20 minutes in, I felt a warm hand on my arm. The woman who had just sat down next to me wanted to know if she should order downstairs, at the counter, or upstairs where we were. When she realizes I don´t speak much Spanish she seems delighted to talk in English. She seems delighted to be talking with me period. I give her what information I know, and then her companion goes down to order. She is astonished that I am traveling alone, and continues to ask about my travels, where I´ve been, what I think of Bogota, what had I expected of it and how did it live up to those expectations? Her companion presently returns with the bad news that this cafe does not, in fact, serve coffee. Well, clearly she must go elsewhere because coffee is the only thing to have, but she immediately turns to me while opening up her purse, exclaiming that I must have her phone number so I can call her if I need anything. I had been speaking with this woman for only a few minutes, and here she is offering herself and anything she can do for me. And it is overwhelming how genuine the offer is. Her warmth and kindness almost brought me to tears.

That robbery was obviously a very frightening, unpleasant experience for me. But it´s important not to judge an entire country, an entire society, on the actions of the minority. The reality has certainly set in at this point the risk I take as I travel, if I hadn´t quite realized it before. But it´s also plain to me how much this traveling has to offer as well. When do the cons outweigh the pros? When does the risk become too great? The fact is, yes, something worse could have happened today. Something worse could have happened a month ago. It could happen a month from now. But I don´t know. Nobody knows. All I can do is learn from my experience, and be ever yet more wary.

I am sorry, I know it must be worse to be reading this from afar, imagining awful things lurking around every corner from me. All I can say is I am vigilant. I am careful. I am confident that even if I am robbed of every possession, I will be safe. I would not be here if I weren´t confident in that. I´m not that stupid.


Marie said...

Wow,this is insane! So much bad luck! But still...from my point of view, you still have experienced (and will continue to) so much more good things,that it's totally worth it. I am so sad to end my journey in less than a week. I would love to join you in Colombia, or the inca trail...sigh..if only I had the time and the money :( So, i hope you are able to continue travelling, without being to worried :)

Anonymous said...

Does it not strike you as...well, striking that the rest of the world thinks of Columbia as dangerous and unsafe while you (and perhaps other backpackers) think of it as "lovely" and, well, you have in fact had two violent encounters in as many days there.

All of that information gathering strangers do that you think of as "warm" and "genuine" might(!) actually be people trying to find out where you are going to be so that they can come and catch you and your camera unawares. I realize that is very cynical, but just don't share information too freely.

Also, frankly, strangers inviting you to stay at their houses is a great way to kidnap you, an activity for which Columbia is actually quite notorious.

I just hope the personal interactions you have had in the past few months have made you reflect on your people-reading skills. Maybe you think that is a personal strength, that you can really get a good sense of people, yet I could name a number of people about whom you have been mistaken recently, not the least if whom is your traveling companion Sarah. Lots of people saw that coming, but you were not one of them.

Also, cross-cultural people reading is almost impossible. Body language is different from place to place. Cultural mores, too (like that hugging and kissing that you find so charming is about as perfunctory as a hand shake). And you are without the verbal queues which I am sure you are used to relying on.

The neighbors may not have reacted because they knew the guys and were, essentially, on their team. Or maybe they feared getting involved for fear that those guys would come back and target them, since they know where they live. Or some cultures just don't intervene. Frankly, if I lived in a country where it was common to drive an armored car, I am not sure I would intervene, either.

Be careful! I hope the mountains will be more peaceful.

And what happened to your friend whose pack was stolen????

A Jew and an Ex-Mo Go To South America said...

She thankfully did not have much in her pack, just $20 and a camera, who's pictures she had just backed up. It sucks that she lost her camera, but she handled it very gracefully-- she's had experience with being robbed back home in Amsterdam a couple times. She went to the police and filed a report, then called her insurance company. And will now stop carrying a bag with her when she goes out.

Good points with hypoheses on neighbors reactions. And yes, some peace is exactly what I'm hoping for in the mountains!

Rebecca said...

Maybe giving them your bag would have been the smartest thing to do, maybe not. It's impossible to know, and your instincts seem as good as any; dead weight, screaming - good things to do when being attacked in public. It sounds like something right out of a self-defense class. I don't know that my instincts would have been so on-target. As long as the guys didn't have weapons, I don't see that you did anything wrong at all. Nice job!

Have you thought about maybe getting a cheap point-and-shoot and sending your nice camera home? I know you can take nicer pictures with yours, so maybe it's not worth it to you to buy something crappy.

I hope the mountains are good to you!

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear your friend is OK and that her loss was not too great.

Jason said...


The comments you left sound very ignorant to anyone who has visited Colombia. It's a completely different place than what its reputation would have you believe.

Colombia is a developing country no doubt and so like many developing countries its necessary to be aware of the people around you. But singling out Colombia as a country far more dangerous to the average traveler is a completely inaccurate assumption.

I can totally understand and agree with a lot of what she had written about Colombia.

baboonbeth said...

laura, i have a lot i could say, but basically this: I think you should not lose your trust in people's kindness, nor appreciation of their warmth, but should be wisely wary at the same time. from my experience, although it may be the norm in Latinoamerica, the warmth you talk of is more than perfunctory, as Emily asserts. yet, at the same time i agree that there are those who will use warmth to lure you and target you because they assume you have money as a gringa tourist. this type of thing can happen anywhere, but you cannot help standing out where you are, and you have to recognize the position of privilege you represent in being able to be a tourist at all. i too think it wise to not divulge too much information about yourself, especially since you are alone. also, i agree that it is totally possible that people don't intervene because they are afraid of being retaliated against, not necessarily because they are not kind. i know nothing about the particular location you are in and it's relative dangers, and i too think it problematic to characterize an entire country and its people as predatory or dangerous. i also have known many lovely, warm Colombianos who have invited me into their homes, fed me, AND told me scary stories about what they have gone through. basically, the place isn't either all lovely and rosy or dangerous and nefarious. like all places, it has its good points and its bad ones.

I say enjoy the beauty of culture and place AND "look wise" at the same time. sorry if this sounds lectury. keep safe, luv.

Nikki said...

I'm so glad you're alright and were able to make it through that ordeal without being hurt or having your things stolen. I have no experience traveling in that part of the world, but your friends here are all offering you really good advice.

I also agree with Rebecca - I think you'd be sad not to have any pictures, or only a few pictures, of this trip because you couldn't take your lovely camera everywhere. Even shots from a disposable camera would be better than nothing. Is it possible to lock up your nice camera when you're alone and wandering and take an inexpensive camera out and about - maybe save your nicer one for when you're traveling with a group or know you'll be in safe areas all day? Just a thought...

Be safe! You're still my hero for doing this all on your own! :)


Anonymous said...


I realize that my comment highlighted the extreme because I feel that Laura has heretofore been too focused on the other extreme of Columbia as a neglected paradise. Obviously, the reality is in between, as Beth mentioned.

Do I expect Laura to be that 1 in a million who disappears never to be heard from again? No, but someone is.

I am experienced in living in the third world and living places where I have been a racial minority and therefore stuck out much more than Laura does in South America. As BaboonBeth pointed out, while these places are not necessarily MORE violent, that makes you a much more likely target than if you were an HCN.

I also hope that you can appreciate that Laura, as a woman, faces a world of sexual harassment and assault you likely to not contend with. She has it tougher than you. Can bad things happen anywhere? Sure, they are just statistically more likely to happen in Columbia.

All we are all saying is: Laura be careful.

Anonymous said...

Your experience and words to explain it are very balanced, I enjoyed reading your blog and hope more people could view their travels in the way your eyes have come to see and live.

From a spiritual perspective these unfortunate encounters are amazing experiences. Lessons in ways to how attachment to materials can be, and how the growth comes from seeing how precious life is. In my travels through India while riding on a train I really felt like 3 guys were going to robb me. I prayed for them and that I would remain safe, nothing happened fortunately.

As I have been growing along this spiritual path I see and trust that if such an incidence were to occur it would be a divine encounter, as odd as that sounds. Speaking as an eternal opptumist it would be an awesome lesson (tough at times to practice) of letting go and at the ultimate (to get even more philosophical level) it is what we natually expereince at the time of death, coming to leave our possesions and even our bodies.

My prayers that your journey is continuously filled with peaceful loving light and guidance. Hope this finds you well...