Travel isn’t always a cakewalk. When you move around a lot, when you hopscotch from one country to another and spend weeks or months at a time living in unfamiliar places, people start to offer you suggestions, warnings. They automatically assume that since you’re going to be existing in a strange place, that you’re going to need to be careful, that your unfamiliarity will somehow make you more vulnerable, or perhaps, a target. Travel is beautiful. It opens doors, it changes perspectives, it bridges the divides between cultures. I suppose that why it’s a little sad to admit that it isn’t always a giant ray of sunshine.
I lived in Guyana for 11 months between 2014 and 2015. I never experienced anything more than verbal harassment during that period of time in South America. This time, over the course of just 20 days in the country, I got mugged. Now, more than a month removed from the experience, it feels like an okay time to share this. Honestly, it’s a personal thing, being thrown into such an intense situation unexpectedly, but the fact of the matter is, it’s part of travel. It’s something to be aware of. It’s something to acknowledge.
Here’s the story:
My goal upon arriving in Guyana was to plant myself in the village of Plaisance, just down the street from the orphanage, and to spend as much time with the boys as possible without being warn down to pieces. A week before landing back in Guyana, I booked my ticket for a night flight, direct from JFK to Georgetown, Guyana. The moment the ticket was booked, a scared feeling washed over me. I mean scared in the childhood sense, almost separate from the parent feeling of fear. It took me a while to fall asleep as I realized what I had just done. I’d be going back to the “Land of Many Waters”, to the place where I had existed and struggled for a year, to a place that always felt a lifetime away, like I’d never be able to get back there. All of a sudden, in a matter of days, I’d be back.
The process of getting to JFK was a bit challenging in the sense of time. I took a train into the city and then caught a subway ride from Grand Central to the outskirts of Queens where I found my way onto the Airtrain–or whatever it’s called. By the time I was actually walking into the airport, I had already been traveling for a solid four hours. Then, I had to navigate the trickiness of international travel. Right away, reality set in for me as I found myself standing in an enormous line, waiting for an airline that I’d never heard of before, which felt just a little bit sketchy. I was the only white person in line, surrounded by families and couples with luggage galore, giant suitcases stacked on top of each other, and bulging boxes, stuffed full of items they wouldn’t be able to find, or maybe afford, at home. I looked out of place, but no one seemed to notice. And really, even though I was gently acknowledging my outward difference, I almost instantly fell back into the mindset I was in when I was in Guyana. It’s just the way things are.
When I finally had my ticket in my hand, I moved to the line to get me through security. It was here that I took note of the immensity of John F. Kennedy airport. I was filtered into one of a dozen lines, separated off from other customers by dividers. There were people packed in both in front of me and behind me. Being in the middle, there were stretches of people to the left and the right as well. I was a cow in a lineup without a means to escape. This is why it was completely overwhelming and, though I didn’t know it at the time, but the tone of my trip would begin, when the girl directly behind me in line had a complete and utter breakdown as she listened to a voicemail that had been left on her phone. This voicemail informed her that her father, who she was trying to go see, had died. This led to the wait in line feeling like even more of an eternity than it already was. I was already worked up about diving back into Guyana head first, but the sadness and utter dis-ease coming from behind me from the girl as she sobbed into her phone was distressing. Just when she would catch her breath, she’d burst into tears again. It was horrible to listen to, and there was nothing I could do for her. I didn’t even have a tissue to offer her. All I could do was face forward and pretend like I didn’t notice the dozens of people glancing over at her as she sobbed. This was the starting tone for my trip, these horrible gut wrenching sounds coming from the broken heart behind me.
The plane ride down from 2am to 7am was sleepless in tight quarters. Even before the person in front of me had reclined their chair, my knees were touching the seat in front of me. It was an affordable direct flight for a reason. Just like when I was in line to get my ticket, I was the only white person on the plane, and I instantly felt like I was back in Guyana, because I was in a plane that was filled entirely with people traveling home from visiting loved ones in the city. As the woman next to me spoke, my heart fluttered at the sound of her beautiful accent. As I passed by a man in the aisle, his slightly adjusted Guyanese wording, reminded me of some of the uniquely Guyanese phrases that I’d be hearing in a matter of hours once I was on the ground.
Despite finding no sleep for the night on the crowded plane, the sun eventually rose as we approached the equator and, the next thing I new, the vast greens of the South American jungle were pouring out from beneath the plane. I watched, awkwardly, in awe and terror simultaneously as the plane moved across the sky. Then the white dirt roads that sweep through the jungle started to appear slowly, twisting their was through the trees. This is when I knew we were close, as there was more for the eyes to explore, and as the plane began to descend.
Even at just 7:00 in the morning, the equatorial sun had already heated the runway, which we disembarked directly onto from the plane, to a considerable degree. I was one of the only people wearing shorts, the rest, likely, more used to the heat than I. Once we were all in the airport and standing in line, waiting to go through immigration, the power went out and we were all standing in the dark, the only real light pouring in from the open door behind us. This was the instant, perfect reminder that I needed to let me know that I was indeed back in Guyana. When the lights flickered back on a minute or two later, I simultaneously had the urge to giggle like a child, giddy at the chance to return to this place I lent so much of my heart to, and let out an endless, breathless scream of terror at the thought of having to step through the doors and into the wilds of Georgetown again. The experience was almost out of body, almost as if I could see myself screaming at the thought of having to enter into the country. But, I did it. I gripped my baggage, emotional and physical, and got my sixth Guyanese stamp in my passport.
And that was it, I stepped out into Guyana and was immediately thrust back into the world I called home and was a part of for almost a year.
I spent my three weeks living a few blocks over from the orphanage and visiting everyday as I had hoped and planned. The entire experience was emotional. Being thrust back into the trying environment that I had become so engrossed in for a year was no easy feat. Then, just as I felt like I was getting a few things sorted out, I got mugged.
It happened on a Friday evening. I had ventured over to the orphanage after dinner, when the sun was still up, and watched TV with the boys, as they are allowed to do on Fridays. They were all piled around the TV room, on the floor and on the couches. I jumped into the mix for an hour and a half, maybe, and then, around 9:00, when the boys were all off to bed, I left.
I typically always have my wits about me when I’m in Guyana. I’ve heard time and time again that it’s when foreigners finally let their guard down that they end up getting into trouble. This wasn’t exactly the case for me, since it was the middle of the night and I was alone, but even still, I was startled to run into trouble. I suppose everyone always thinks “it’ll never happen to me.”
So I rounded the corner away from the orphanage into the bumping section of town where the two main roads meet, where the Guinness bar blasts music and the crowds gather to celebrate the arrival of the weekend. Cars and buses seem to always be slipping by between the crowds, make-shift stands are set up for grilling chicken and fish and tossing out beers and sodas to passersby. The corner is well lit and well populated, which is jarring, but made me feel safe. But then, the further I ventured down the road away from the party, the darker and less populated it got. I thought nothing of it as I rounded the corner onto the street I was staying on, but the next thing I knew a motorbike buzzed over from the other side of the road and swiped right passed me. I kept walking, thinking only that the driver was being careless, but the next thing I knew, one of the two men on the bike was jumping off of it and shouting at me. I turned to him, thinking he was upset that I had been in his way as he was driving by, but then instantly recognized the situation for what it was.
The driver stayed on the bike, keeping the motor running, as the passenger hopped off and approached me. When it registered in my brain what was about to occur, two things happened. First, my vision changed. As if purposely defending myself from the potential trauma that could have occurred, my eyes only allowed to see what was happening directly in front of me, as the man moved toward me, I only saw his midsection, his face was gone, as were his hands, which the last I had seen were digging into his pockets to pull out a knife. Second, my brain basically hit the “record” button. I instantly knew to remember carefully every detail about what was happening to me. This is a mugging. You are being mugged. Remember this. This is going to be important. And so it was. And so I did.
The actual physical contact with my attacker–or whatever he was–reminded me of an airport pat down. I just sort of lifted my arms up and told him that I didn’t carry a phone with me. He patted around my pants for a while asking what I had on me. I told him the truth: nothing of value. As his hands were all over me, and I kept my arms clearly in view so he wouldn’t feel threatened, I reminded myself to feel my way through the moment. Maybe, I thought, the more I feel this now, the less I’ll have to feel it later. I was already out of my body at this point, however. I barely even felt his hands on me.
When he was finished frisking me, his friend on the bike, with the motor still running, called out to him. He responded, shoving his hands into both of my front pockets and taking everything I had on me. He then strolled back to the bike, hopped on the back, and sped away. As they went, as they reached the corner and sped on their merry way, I had two thoughts. First, I wondered if they were off to rob another person trying to make their way home in the dark, and second, surprisingly, I offered up a small prayer of peace for them, knowing that if circumstances were different, they wouldn’t have needed to rob me.
And so I continued walking home. There wasn’t much else I could do. It felt strange, honestly. I checked my pulse and was surprised that it was barely elevated. That being said, I still felt great relief once I was through the gate and able to disappear into the shadows the buildings were casting, hiding me from view of the road.
With the ordeal over, I had to go to the manager of the building I was staying at to let him know that my key had been stolen. When I finally tracked him down, the only words he had for me were blaming words. It was my fault that I got mugged. This, I recognized instantly as victim shaming. Yes, I should have been with a group, not out at night, and walking on a more public road, but people shouldn’t be driving around mugging other people. That’s the bottom line.
I had three days left in Guyana after this eventful evening. Just the right amount of time for me to not let my guard down again. As the days passed, and I was able to share what had happened to me with a variety of people, I was surprised by their responses to my story. Almost everyone I told had either been mugged themselves or was only separated by attacks by one degree. One woman told me that when she was mugged, she was shoved down to the ground and lost her purse. Another man told me that his brother had resisted his mugging and ended up having a knife plunged into his neck, killing him. I recognized how fortunate I was.
There was certainly a piece of myself that was disappointed at how passive I had been during the whole ordeal once it was actually over. I must have rerun the moment over in my head a hundred times, thinking over scenario after scenario about what I could have done to avoid the situation ending up the way that it had. I should have fought back. I should have run. I should have said something different. I should have walked home a different way. I should have stayed in for the night. I should have been wearing better shoes to move in. I shouldn’t have had ANY amount of money on me. And, despite having only the best intentions, I grew tired of hearing suggestions from everyone about how they would have handled the situation, too. The truth is, no one gets to make the call on how to handle an intense situation that literally comes out of the dark like that except for the person in the moment, going through it.
During my year long stint in Guyana, one of the boys from the orphanage was attacked on the street and ended up in the hospital as a result. It was Christmas Eve and he was walking home from a midnight church service when he was suddenly jumped by four men. They wanted his phone. He didn’t give it to them, so they beat him. This boy, who happened to be one of my favorite people, ended up developing some serious PTSD. When I told him about my attack, he instantly got defensive, totally upset with me for putting myself in harms way the way I had. I hadn’t thought much of it, but I had let him down by walking on my own that night. I should have learned from his story, from his battered body and face in the hospital back in 2014.
Two months out, I’m thankful for how I handled things. I’m glad a knife came nowhere near my body. I’m glad I was clearly not a threat. I’m glad I handed over my possessions without much of a second thought.
I don’t think I have any long term issues that I’m dealing with as a result of this whole ordeal. I definitely had my guard way up for my last three days in Guyana and was even a little paranoid, but the only difference in my life now than before is that I dream more vividly. Every night since, I tend to crash into sleep, and my dreams are all consistent and vivid, as if I’m living my life while I’m sleeping in the same way I do when I’m awake. It’s trippy.
Conclusion: There are so many reasons to travel. It’s the best way to learn about your world, other people, and yourself. My life has been enhanced infinitely more through travel than it ever was through a classroom. If they have the means, people need to be traveling more. Bottom line. Well traveled people seem to develop more compassion, which is key in this life.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. -Mark Twain
The drug trade between Suriname and Guyana has been more carefully policed in recent years, making it more difficult for individuals who typically make a living off of the drugs to continue surviving. Therefore, they need to find a different means of getting income. I forgive the men who mugged me for this reason. It must have been very trying, having to figure out where their next meal would be coming from.