Monday, March 6, 2006
I really wanted to send out an email to everyone describing how Colombia’s reputation was largely undeserved, and how nice the people are, and how beautiful it is.
Well, a whole lot of people have been really exceptionally good to me. And it is beautiful, and I still maintain that it is no more dangerous than any other poverty-stricken war-torn tourist destination like Guatemala or even parts of Argentina or Europe. But unfortunately my story today is not about the nice people or beautiful beaches. The day before yesterday I was assaulted by two men with knives. It was the second time I’ve been robbed in my week here.
The first was a simple pickpocketing, extremely skillfully done. My bag was in front of me and my friend by my side, but nobody saw a thing. We were in the crowd in front of the concert stadium during Carnaval in Barranquilla, asking people how to buy tickets amidst the chaos. They got my $16 and, lacking funds to get in, we listened to the concert from the street outside, along with all the other folks who couldn’t afford the official Carnaval events.
Barranquilla is the site of the biggest Carnaval celebration in Colombia, and people travel from all over to see the parades, costumes, and music, or to get drunk in the street, or to try to make a few dollars. If you ever get a chance to go, I recommend giving it a miss. It was a textbook example of the excesses of capitalism overshadowing and, in my opinion, destroying what might have been an altogether fabulous street party.
Every bit of sidewalk to watch the parade from was bought by somebody, so you couldn’t really even see the parade without paying for it. Those with more funds to invest got shaded bleachers, those with less got plastic chairs with a mediocre view, those with none stood behind it all, getting drunk or joining the hoards who aggressively bombarded vacationers with whatever goods they had to sell.
Kids ran around with water or a soapy foam spray and enjoyed their one chance in the year to freely cover anyone and everyone with them, which was amusing for about the first hour. Being a gringa, I was especially a target, and it didn’t take long for the game to get old. Afterwards at my hotel (the price of which was tripled for the occasion), I listened to stories of all the pickpockets that happened while tourists wiped foam out of their eyes.
So imagine how happy I was after three days of that to arrive in the quiet fishing village of Taganga. A place where everyone seems to have a smile on their faces, travelers from all over the world gather together in the evenings in the outdoor beachfront restaurants for fresh fish or a cerveza, women sell fresh smoothies made with strange and delicious fruits I’d never even heard of, and the ocean is as calm as a lake and so clear you can stand chin-deep and see the grains of sand between your toes. It wasn’t long before the memories of Barranquilla faded and I was feeling very, very happy.
I always inquire about safety in new places, and I didn’t make an exception of Taganga. But everyone had the same answer.
"No, nothing ever happens here. Yes, it’s safe. Sure, you can walk alone."
Nobody had any doubts. So I went ahead and strolled the beautiful paths connecting the picturesque little beaches without hesitation. The locals usually know what’s up.
Sunset is an especially beautiful time in Taganga, and the best place to watch it is the cliffs between the main beach and the next one over, Playa Grande. I quickly made a habit of it, and two days ago my new friend Adrienne joined me (Kim and I ended up traveling different directions, by the way). It was perhaps the most spectacular sunset yet, and afterwards we couldn’t resist strolling down to Playa Grande for a swim while the sky turned bright orange. It was a perfect swim to top off a perfect sunset. With the light fading I decided not to take the time to dry off, but rather slipped on my sandals and headed back in my bikini while we could still see the trail.
We were chatting away when the two guys jumped down onto the trail. One jumped on Adrienne first. It took a moment for the reality of the situation to sink in. No, they couldn’t really be attacking us, could they? Yes, they are. This is for real. This is it. This is the moment you always knew might happen. These people are intending to hurt us. I need to fight.
A split second later the other was charging at me like a bull, apparently trying to throw me to the ground. He got a bit of a surprise when I didn’t go down, and instead started throwing punches at the only part of him I could reach, his back (a completely ineffectual place to throw a punch, of course. Where did my martial arts training go?).
That was when I had a strange and unexpected realization.
But my realization should be preceeded with a bit of background. This wasn’t the first time I’d been attacked. Fueled by hearing so many travelers’ mugging stories, as well as a couple years of Tang Su Do and Aikido training, I had been through this scenario a thousand times before in my head. In my imagination, I always fought without holding back, and in the end I always pinned my attacker and then talked to him, making sure he would never again want to try to attack anyone.
So the surprising realization was that I didn’t want to hurt this person. At all. Regardless that he was trying to mug me. I didn’t want to throw any punches. It left me at a loss for what to do, because I obviously didn’t want to let him hurt me, either.
The next thing I knew, we were both on the ground. The first thing I always did in my rehearsals was to call on Spirit to be with me, and feel that invincible strength within me. This I didn’t forget now that the reality was upon me. And so I shouted out to the sky, "Spirit be with me!" and tried to feel that strength as I turned my attention to the fight.
He quickly scrambled on top of me, and I reached for his wrists to push him off. It was then that I first saw the knife. It was in his right hand, and both his wrists were firmly in my grip. He tried to push my arms to the ground, but even with gravity to help him, he wasn’t able to push my arms down as he was expecting to. We struggled back and forth, and although I wasn’t able to push him off me completely, I always felt that I had the exact amount of strength necessary to match his efforts. When he managed to get a hand near my throat, a surge of strength from within me quickly pushed it back off. I had a strange sensation that I wasn’t using my full strength, although at the same time I didn’t seem to be able to access more strength than I was using. It was just a feeling; I won’t try to make sense of it.
From the beginning of the struggle on the ground, I kept saying to him in a calm voice, "Amigo, no necesitamos luchar. Puedes tener el dinero. Amigo, no necesitamos luchar." My friend, we don’t need to struggle. You can have the money. Friend, we don’t need to fight. I looked into his face, but I realized later that I wasn’t really looking into his eyes. I had mixed feelings afterwards about whether I wished I had.
He made no indication of hearing me, and kept fighting to pin me down. It sounded like the other guy had dragged Adrienne up the hill off the trail, because she was no longer close by. At one point I became aware that I was wearing almost nothing, and that he hadn’t ever actually said that what he wanted was my bag. But I gave the fleeting thought no energy and my attention stayed focused on holding him off me.
Another strange thing about the whole thing was that I felt no fear. Maybe there just wasn’t time for it. At no point did I give any consideration to a possibility that he would overpower me. I am long in the practice of choosing my reality, and my reality was that Spirit was with me, I was strong, and he would do me no harm. I never let a doubt into my mind.
The struggle wore on, my strength unwaning, and I suppose he realized that this wasn’t going to go as he planned. Maybe he became afraid, or maybe he realized that I had been offering him what he was looking for all along. He didn’t have too many choices. He decided to trust my word. He got off of me so that I could give him the money.
It was a moment of mutual trust; him trusting that I would keep my word, me trusting that he wouldn’t stab me while I went into my backpack. As I got up, I repeated again that he was going to have all the money, but although I still wasn’t feeling fear, I heard the adrenaline make my voice waver. He interpreted it as fear it seemed to refuel his aggression; he immediately demanded my bag. My voice returned to normal and I told him, firmly, no. He could have the money, that was what he was after. I needed my papers and bag.
"Pasaporte," he demanded.
"No, I need my passport," I told him. "You can have all of the money." I moved quickly to find my purse in my backpack, knowing that he was nervous and not wanting him to have time to entertain the thought that I might not keep my word. He didn’t have too many choices at that point. He didn’t want to fight any more than I did, and certainly not for a bunch of papers and women’s clothing.
Of course, the purse was nowhere in sight, and so I pulled my clothes out and tossed them on the ground to uncover it. I found it at the bottom, opened the money section, removed the business cards with phone numbers, showed him that I was only removing tarjetas, and handed him the cash.
It was then that my attention returned to Adrienne as she screamed from somewhere behind me. Shit, I thought. I need to help her. In an awful moment I realized that my choices were to turn around and fight them both or run for help. Without thought, I instinctively knew that my best option was to run for help, but the idea of leaving her there with them was horrendous. My feet didn’t wait for my mind to figure it out, and I ran toward town.
To my immense relief, I heard her footsteps immediately behind me. Soon I heard her voice as well, telling me to run faster. Thank Goddess. I wondered if they were chasing us.
The trail was dark now and my mind flashed back to the only other time I was fleeing an attacker, in the Netherlands many years ago. That time I ran straight into a waist-high barbed wire fence I hadn’t seen and landed flat on my face, chipping a tooth, making a bloody mess of myself, and allowing the attacker to catch me. I really wanted to run faster, but I was painfully aware of the jagged rocks on the trail and cliff below me. I kept running but felt like I was crawling. A man appeared on the path ahead of us.
"Ayudanos!" I shouted at him. Help us. "Ladrones!" Robbers. "Alla!" There, behind us. I kept running.
"I don’t have anything," Adrienne shouted at him as she ran past, seeing him as another potential robber.
After about a hundred years, we reached the bottom of the trail. I shouted in Spanish at almost everyone we met.
"Where is the police station? We were robbed! Muggers, there on the path!" I wanted everyone to know, hoping they would catch them somehow.
"He cut off two of my fingers!" Adrienne gasped. For some reason I didn’t accept that as reality but changed our trajectory to the medico. She was covered with blood. At first I couldn’t even respond to her, I just kept us moving toward the police and medics. But after a few minutes I was able to turn my attention to helping her.
"No, you’re OK," I kept reminding her. "We’re safe. They’ll fix your hand. We just need to get to the medics. We’re OK." She had the presence I mind to elevate her hand, which I didn’t even think of. She was screaming that it hurt and I put my hand on her back and tried to send her a calming energy. The walk-run to the medics seemed almost as long as the run down the hill.
Adrienne had a deep cut in one finger, almost to the bone, from when her assailant first jumped on her. They put seven or eight stitches in it while I held her other hand and tried to divert her attention from the pain.
Her experience was quite a bit different than mine. She had immediately handed over her bag and didn’t try to fight. He proceeded to drag her up the hill off the path and held the knife to her throat as he looked for a money belt and her camera.
"The camera is in the bag," she had told him quietly. Then he put the knife to her back and ripped her hotel keys off from around her neck. With nothing left to steal, he held her from behind, knife to her back, and looked for his friend, who was battling with me. The two of them had watched with increasing anxiety as we fought.
The rest of the night was filled with activity. As soon as the medical situation was taken care of, we headed back to her hotel for money to pay the medics and clothes for me to borrow. I still had my tank top in my bag but had left my shorts and a few other things, including my hotel keys, which were in the pocket of the shorts, on the ground when Adrienne had screamed and we had started running.
We must have been quite a sight as we walked through town, her covered in blood stains and me half-naked (not at all a socially acceptable thing in Colombia). Adrienne insisted on stopping at a shop to beg the owner to front her a pack of cigarettes (which he did), and I stood behind her waiting. A man sitting nearby stared at my bare thighs.
"Yes, I know, I’m not wearing any pants," I stated the obvious sarcastically. He looked away.
At the hotel we gathered a group together. I wanted to go back up as soon as possible to see if my clothes and room key were still on the path where I had left them. A few other people wanted to go look for the guys, including someone who had seen two men he thought were our attackers. We also recruited a translator because for some reason my Spanish skills suddenly seemed to have diminished considerably and I was having trouble saying or understanding anything. We had about eight people together quickly and I led the way back up the hill. Adrienne, not at all interested in returning there at that moment, stayed behind to fill her prescriptions and pay back the shop owners and medics ($25. It would have been $40 but they gave her a discount).
It was strange to walk back to the sight where it had all happened. It was a happy moment when we arrived and I saw my pile of clothes, right where I had left them on the trail. I had lost nothing but the $6 I had given him. I could see the indentation in the grass where we had fought. We walked up the hill to the concrete shack filled with trash where Adrienne’s attacker had dragged her.
Someone handed me a black cap that he found next to the indentation in the grass. It was clean and obviously only just lost there. I had had plenty of time to look at my attacker’s face and hair, and had noticed that it was matted. Now I realized that it had been from wearing that hat. Without thinking, I shook it out, made sure it was clean, and, everything feeling very surreal, tried it on. It fit perfectly. Smiling wryly at the irony, someone commented that it looked good on me. I was sure it had cost more than $6. I kept it.
And so the night began to wind down. We went to the police, all four of them, and the chief listened to our story.
"It’s dangerous here," he said dispassionately. (He was the only one who seemed to feel that way). His first question was the same as most people’s. "What color was their skin?" Not, "what did they look like?", but "what color was their skin?" Apparently the shade of brown is the most distinguishing feature to a lot of people here.
He also complained that nobody ever told them anything, and if anything ever happened in town, they were usually the last to find out. I don’t think they went to look for the guys. They couldn’t even write a report. We’d have to go to Santa Marta the next day to do that. (It turned out that we had to go to three police stations in Santa Marta before we found someone who could take our report and give Adrienne a copy for her insurance company.)
I had expected that when it all was over, I’d have some sort of release of emotions. I had felt so calm through it all. After the pickpocketing earlier in the week, I had felt sad, violated, and depressed at the state of humanity. I had gotten teary-eyed and lost my interest in going into the concert. I didn’t feel any of those things now. I felt strong, centered, and fascinated by the whole event. The next day, I felt the same, and I still do. It just simply wasn’t traumatic for me. I would have thought it would have been, but it just wasn’t. I never felt afraid, I never doubted a positive outcome, I wasn’t hurt and I didn’t hurt anyone.
I compared the two events. In the first, I was a passive victim. I never even got to see my violators. There was nothing I could do, my money was just gone. In the second, I was never passive, I never accepted the role of victim, and in the end it was I who got to set the terms of the treaty.
The other thing was that I think I knew that someday this would happen. Like I said before, I had been over it a thousand times in my mind. When I was planning my trip to Central America two years ago, it was my primary fear. Although I didn’t feel it as a fear this time I headed to South America, I still wondered if it would happen and what it would be like. Would I be hurt, would I be afraid? How would I respond? Now I felt similarly to how I did after a big test was over in school, and I had done well. Was that feeling of knowing that this would happen a premonition or did my thoughts and fears create the reality? I think both. But regardless, I feel like it’s over. I graduated. I don’t think this is going to happen to me again. Knock on wood.
In analyzing it afterwards, I was also was happily surprised by two things. One was that even when being attacked, I felt distinctly disinclined to cause any harm to my attacker. I am reminded of a conversation with my friend David last month, where he was arguing that the highest path in such a situation is not to harm your attacker (although he didn’t think that would be his response). At the time, I had disagreed. I had defended the use of aggression in response, because allowing someone to succeed in such an act is a greater harm.
In some of my fantasy rehearsals, I had refused to give anything to my attacker, fought him and won, hurting him and making sure he would never attack anyone else. But what would that be? That would be using aggression to assert dominance over another person, exactly what he was trying to do to me, something I have no interest in ever doing to any other being. There was another option available, aside from being a victim, and it came out in that moment of following instincts and letting Spirit guide me. I looked for a mutually beneficial outcome. Like in my Aikido classes, he became a partner and not an opponent, and so the energy was changed. I didn’t try to "win" and keep all my belongings. I immediately offered him what he was after, which was no great loss to me, and kept what I would have missed that was of no value to him, and so we both came out of the situation optimally. Besides, even if I had succeeded in asserting dominance physically, would that really have stopped him from attacking anyone else? Or would it have continued the cycle of violence, causing him to plan his next attack with more brutality, maybe just switch to more vulnerable victims? David, I think you were right.
Predictably, there were two really annoying responses that someone inevitably had to throw out there. The first was the guy who said, "Well, you know, you shouldn’t go walking around out there after dark." Duh. A real rocket scientist. I was thinking I’d go out and do the same thing again tomorrow.
The second and more common response was that I should have been a passive victim like my friend was. Here she was, bloody, stitched up and traumatized, and I’m standing beside her, unharmed, with all of my possessions, empowered and actually feeling good about my experience, and they’re telling me I should be like her. That I was lucky not to be killed. Are they blind?
But immediately they start in with the what-if’s. What if my throat had been slit in the struggle? What if there had been three guys? What if I had been walking alone?
Adrienne insisted that I would be dead if I had been attacked by her guy, who she said was stronger, more experienced, had a sharper knife, and who she was sure would have been willing to kill us. She also surmised that we might have been safer if I hadn’t fought, because her guy got really nervous when he saw that mine hadn’t subdued me. Of course she could have just as easily supposed that we were safer because I fought, because if we had both surrendered passively we might have been dragged up the hill and raped.
The problem with all of these arguments is that they assume that life happens by chance. That it’s all luck. I don’t believe that. It has been my experience that our realities are created through understandable energies, that there is a higher consciousness that we are all a part of, and that nothing is an accident. I’m not saying that we can control everything that happens to us (although maybe we can). All I’m saying is that I don’t think any of the what-if’s were any more likely than me getting hit by a charging bull on my way to that beach.
I won’t speak for anyone else’s reality, but I can see how and why I’ve created (not necessarily consciously chosen, but created) everything that’s happened to me in my life, including that night on the beach, and am slowly learning to do it more and more consciously. I don’t think it’s any accident that I faced this particular situation at this particular time. I won’t get into the how’s of creating reality, since that’s a long topic and this is already a long email, and there’s plenty already written on that subject by people more qualified than me. All I’ll say is that I’m grateful for this experience I’ve had, that I’ve learned some important things about myself, that I’m feeling really at peace and free right about now, and that I will be looking for a group of people to walk with next time I’m heading down a dark path after sunset. And that I think you should all come to Colombia, it’s beautiful here.
Love and life,
- Feb. 24, 2006: The Rest of the Story
- April 7, 2006: Bogotá, Elections, and the FARC