Don’t get me wrong, traveling abroad is great. I haven’t done it as much as I would like, but I’ve loved it every time. Too many people live their entire life in the same, small corner of the world. And given how big and beautiful a world it is, that’s really a shame.
The first time I traveled outside the US (other than a trip to Israel and Greece when I was two) I went to Colombia. Maybe you feel rest of the story kind of writes itself, but I will say up front that it was an absolute blast as we jumped from hostel to hostel as I made my way up north from Bogotá to Cartagena with my intrepid companions. (I would highly recommend a stop in Santa Marta by the way and check out The Lost City trail, it may not be Machu Picchu, but it’s absolutely incredible.)
I digress though. On my fourth or fifth day in Colombia, the friend I had come down with along with an Australian and Canadian guy we had just met decided to walk around the streets of Bogotá. Now, Bogotá has a large mountain by it named the Monserrate where a church with a shrine devoted to “El Señor Caído” is. Checking out this church seemed like as good a thing to do as any. Unfortunately, as we learned later, it wasn’t exactly safe to walk to other than on Sunday… especially for four pasty gringos.
As we started to walk toward the church the neighborhood turned on a dime. The block we were on was perfectly fine. The next block looked like a deserted wreck from a bombed out, third world country. That probably should have been the first sign we should try another route. But there was a guy at the beginning of the street with a jacket on reading “seguridad”, which must have meant he was some sort of security officer… right? Anyways, my friend, who is fluent in Spanish (yo hablo español muy mal) asked the guard the directions to the church. As if waking from a drunken stupor the “officer” pointed us to go ahead through the deserted wreck of a bombed out, third world street.
So we walked up the desolate street from straight out of some scene from a post-apocalyptic movie and all of a sudden I heard my new Australian friend yell. I turned around and saw him running down the street. At this point I was just sort of proverbially scratching my chin and asking “What the Hell?” Then I turn around and some guy is running at me with a knife in my face screaming “No te vayas!” Four or five men had sprung out of an alley to mug us.
You don’t really feel fear in these sorts of situations; it’s more like confusion. Indeed, the memory is mostly a blur that has been brought into focus by multiple retellings that probably turned this story into a Hollywoodesque reimagining that bears little resemblance to the actual events. Regardless, as best I can remember the guy reached for my shirt, but he must have missed getting a grip as I spun around and started running down the street. No fear had slipped into my thoughts yet. It was almost just like “hey, I guess I’m supposed to be running now, so I guess I’ll run.”
My friend had escaped with the aid of his incredibly stretchy shirt that, while gripped by his assailant, had stretched so far as he backed up as kept him at safe distance before he eventually broke free. He joined me and the Australian lad at the bottom of the street where an odd standoff ensued.
See, the Canadian was not among us. Had he been kidnapped? Did he escape up the street? We had no idea. So there the three of us were some 30 or 40 feet from the muggers who, as if blocked by some force field at the edge of that deserted wreck of a bombed out third world neighborhood, had simply stopped and were now starring at us. By the way, that officer de seguridad was nowhere to be seen.
At that time an older couple in a car came driving by and were insistent on helping us find our missing comrade. We somewhat reluctantly agreed to get in. They wanted to take us to the police station, but we asked to go back to our hostel first to see if he had escaped and gone there.
Luckily he had. He had gotten shoved up against a wall but managed to get in a respectable right hook and made a dash for it.
Four for four!
Anyways, I think the four of us spent the next three hours reciting the tale as if it might somehow change upon further retelling. I guess it makes sense. What else did we have to talk about other than that recent time when some guys pulled knives on us? Maybe the constant blabbering acts as some sort of catharsis.
But the lack of fear is a bit odd. Obviously, it happened so quickly that it was hard to even figure out what was going on let alone be afraid about it. But given all the trivial stuff we fear (like giving a speech or asking someone on a date), it at least makes me think that there’s something seriously wrong with our brains regarding how we process that emotion.
Or perhaps it just lingers as I certainly had sense of paranoia following me around for a week or so. And of course, we got the Hell out of Bogotá the next day.