Though I´ve previously stated that I would be taking a break from posting, and wait until procuring a new laptop in the U.S. to continue, I´ve realized that being able to share this journey of mine is just as important to me as the traveling itself, even if there are some negative experiences to report. However, instead of stressing out about continuity and retracing my steps from a couple of weeks back, I decided to skip ahead to present day and start writing again from this moment.
And in this moment, my normal travel routine has been replaced with one centered around coping with my feelings after being robbed in Valparaiso. It wasn´t until today that I realized that I actually have to add a ¨clarifying detail¨ regarding the incident itself, in order for my feelings to be legitimate or socially acceptable and not characterized as overdramatic. The detail is that this wasn´t a simple and quick purse snatching in a café or a crowded street, but rather a physical attack by three teenage boys who knocked me down, held me down and manically pulled at my arms and hands as they tried to free my backpack and camera from my now recoiled and terse body. During this entire time, the length of which I actually have no concept, the most terrifying part was that they didn´t utter a single word to me to reveal what their true intentions were. After they left and I realized that they only wanted my material possessions, it is from here that I found myself beginning the path of processing all that just happened and trying to determine what it meant for me in the bigger picture so that I could continue living the life I love so much.
The Initial Shock
After the three teenagers were satisfied that they retrieved everything of value from me, they calmly and slowly walked off, no doubt like kids at Christmas eager to see what new spoils awaited them in the mystery package previously known as my daypack. I imagine they expected to find cool electronics and a wallet full of cash. I´m sure the laptop earned a few high-fives, the journal was probably tossed aside after a brief inspection, perhaps my red scarf was saved as a gift for one of their girlfriends or mothers, and they were a bit bewildered by the calculator-looking device that is used to access my Dutch bank account online. The one thing I was certain of though was that my iPhone and my wallet were both still in my jacket pockets and I quickly picked myself up off the ground and ran back to safety, a mere block away, before they noticed a disappointing absence of cash and a communication device common to most travelers.
Naturally, I attracted some stares from indifferent strangers passing by on the street as I haphazardly moved forward, still nervously twitching and bawling my eyes out. I saw a bar and immediately, instinctively entered to have a beer and gather myself. After stumbling through what felt like a neverending interrogation about all that happened with a bartender who could plainly see my distraught state of mind, I sat down with my beer and pulled out my iPhone to begin the long process of rebuilding my confidence, my trust in people and my motivation to continue traveling.
For this purpose I chose to lean on a ¨friendly¨, someone who I knew to be both care about me and who wouldn´t judge me harshly. This was D (I´m too tired and fussed to make up fake names at the moment), my Mongol Rally teammate who has become something more than a friend over the last few weeks (another personal story which I´m too tired to explain so please go with it). We talked at great length about the incident and it helped immensely to shield my helpless state of mind from thoughts of self-blame and doubt as his two main points were that it wasn´t my fault and this won´t stop me from doing what I loved. I also leaned on one of my college friends and fellow avid traveler for the non-judgmental female perspective. Together these two initial human connections with the familiar made a world of difference to me. I can never thank the both of them enough for helping me keep it together. Thought even as I regained the nerve to venture outside the protective shield afforded me by the bar, I quickly learned from my first shudder and recoil at the sight of a young man, that I still had a long way to go before feeling right again.
The Concept of ¨Material Things¨
As I slowly and cautiously made my way back to my couchsurfing host´s house, I began thinking about all that was lost in my backpack – the camera, the laptop and my journal, all of the main storage devices of all of my memories and work over the last seven months.
Even though I´m well aware that there are those who view my blog as insignificant and a frivolous pursuit, it still brings me great joy to share my traveling experiences with those who are interested, to interact with others who share the same passion to travel and even to hear stories from those who are inspired by what I´m doing. Thus, losing the main tools to do that which I do meant so much more than losing a few replaceable ¨material things¨ as a few were quick to mention. It was my livelihood and my motivation. In my journal, I had kept all of the notes and ideas I had for achieving my ultimate dream of writing a book, something which many people didn´t understand was irreplaceable. I also didn´t take kindly to the obvious question of ¨why didn´t you back everything up?¨ I was well aware of the idiocy of not doing that, but I couldn´t see any point of bringing up the topic other than to shame me. For the moment I did the only thing I could think of and bought a new notebook and pen to start rebuilding my body of work.
Defending the Right to Feel
One of the things that shocked me the most about this whole ¨character building¨ experience was the reaction of others. Some came through unexpectedly and expectedly, but others did not. Some people also left me feeling worse either through indifference or misguided sentiments. Indifference, I can understand. Up until now, I dealt with my emotions regarding the situation in a very light-hearted manner. It was the misguided, though well-intentioned sentiments that I really struggled with to understand and accept.
The first sentiment of concern was what I characterize as ¨selfish curiosity¨. Being a victim of violence is no doubt traumatic for the person who experienced it, but it does also have various affects on those even slightly acquainted with the victim because I think it´s safe to say that all criminal acts with a human element scare all of us unbelievably. I´ve also come to believe that the defense mechanism we as humans use to counter these fears is not actually avoiding risky situations, but rather by building up a mental case for why such an incident will never happen to us. Here enters the ¨selfish curiosity¨ interrogations from those who mean well and may or may not be genuinely concerned. As my friend Stefan from Puno once pointed out, ¨We need to feel like there was some identifiable reason for why a certain person was a victim.¨ Armed with such information, we can then reason that because we´re not like that person or we would not do certain things, such an incident will never happen to us. However, upon answering endless questions probing every detail of the crime, the victim is no doubt bound to come to the conclusion that in some way it was her fault. I automatically fell into a bit of self-doubt because I´m a foolish woman who couldn´t just live a normal life, settling down and getting married. I just had to go traveling to South America by myself, so it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
In parallel with this self-doubt, I also became concerned about letting down the ¨cause¨ – how would other travelers react to me perpetuating the troubled image of how dangerous it is to travel alone or travel in South America by doing something stupid like getting robbed. Then I imagined my credibility would be shot and people would begin dissecting my character to determine why it was certain that someone like me would be robbed. For the most part though, I´ve been able to keep these specific feelings at bay due in no small part to D´s support and encouragement.
The second sentiment of concern and probably the one with which I struggle the most, is the ¨At least you´re okay¨ statement or some other gentle reminder that material things can be replaced. While I fully recognize that there´s something to be said about being alive and physically intact, and I know in my heart of hearts that the intention is good, all that my fragile psyche hears when someone says this is simply that I have no right to feel as upset as I am and I should get over it already. I then start to wonder why I´m acting like an ungrateful brat all of a sudden and then feel as though I have to reveal some more juicy details so that people will give me a break. This leads me to wonder why, we as a society, feel the need to rank each other´s emotional pain and passive-aggressively put forth an unspoken subjective standard for behavior based on how that emotional pain ranks in the spectrum. Why is compassion in such a short supply that we feel the need to make people qualify their demand for it? I´m sure that in the past I´ve been guilty of similar ridicule, but my experience now has made me realize that we as a society accomplish nothing by forcing another human being experiencing a raw emotion to qualify it. Pain is pain and no one should have to fight to convince herself that it either doesn´t exist or is not valid in order to appease others.
There´s certainly something to be said about the therapeutic effects of unleashing one´s emotions. Writing this post, even if it is about a negative experience, has helped me sort out why I´m angry and disappointed, and has given me back what was lost in my backpack, the ability to share my travel experiences again. I´m still quite shaken up about traveling alone and still spending most of my days indoors glued to my iPhone, my last connection with a familiar world of trustworthy faces, but I expect this to be a feeling that needs time to work its way through my system. I actually decided to cut out a few stops in my last few weeks of traveling through South America because I think the less hectic travel schedule will be conducive towards gaining back my nerve to explore. For now, the strategy is simply to make strides each day and continue the journey of learning about the world.