Tuesday, December 15, 2015

‘I’m glad I was robbed at gunpoint in the Amazon’

THREE years ago I had been sitting in my university classroom, studying the great works of Plato.
As I read his words, detailing the teachings of Socrates, I could not help but laugh at the irony; Socrates would have been appalled at this environment in which I sat.

He was a man who believed in engaging with others — in going out and conversing, discussing, and meeting people with different views. He firmly believed that it was only in this way that one could learn. Yet here I was, bored in a classroom, trying to learn about the world without actually seeing any of it.
A snap decision — or so it appeared at the time — and I dropped out, turning my back on further education and my eyes to the horizon. The road was calling, and I felt I must answer; to travel is to learn, and to learn was my driving purpose.
Somehow, I was determined to make this next backpacking trip last forever.
I had hit the road with no cash in my pocket, and no plans in my head. I didn’t know how, but I knew what I wanted to do: I would somehow dedicate my life to the life of freedom that I was born for. A life of travel.
Now, years into the lifestyle I always craved, I still smile when I think about my most important travel experience so far; that fateful day in the Amazon jungle with a gang of masked bandits, a day which changed me forever ...
Hitchhiking her way around the world.
Hitchhiking her way around the world.
At the time, I was a 20-year-old on her first backpacking trip, and I was only beginning to find my balance. The trip was initially supposed to be an adventure with my first boyfriend, but we had broken up a mere week-and-a-half before the plane was scheduled for lift off.
In the tearful moment in which we decided to end our two-and-a-half year relationship, I said the most important words I’ve ever said: “I’m still going to South America”.
Truth be told, the moment I landed in Lima I wanted to run back home — to my friends, to my family, to my bed to cry my eyes out at the loss of my first love. What on Earth was I doing in this strange land? I didn’t even speak the language. How could I possibly do this alone? I’d never done anything of any magnitude on my own. How could I do this? How naive to think I could take on something this big, this new, this extreme, all by myself!
But a month-and-a-half into the trip, I was starting to get my footing. My confidence was growing. I was making friends, I was learning to mime my way through everyday life, partnered with the few words of Spanish I had picked up. Things were seeming less petrifying and more exciting as I began learning about the culture, gaining friends from around the world and tasting the delicious cuisine unlike anything that had ever graced my tastebuds before.
That fateful day I had boarded a bus, brushed some crumbs away from my seat, sat down next to my Peruvian friend, and proceeded to drift off while listening to music, despite the extreme discomfort of the bus.
By this time I was pretty accustomed to the cramped and sweaty Peruvian buses, the seats of which often failed to recline.
The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of the Amazon, the only foreigner on a Peruvian bus, with a man pointing the biggest gun I’d ever seen at us all.
It was an experience that makes her smile.
It was an experience that makes her smile.
He had appeared in the front of the bus like something out of a movie, brandishing an aggressively large black gun. His face was covered by a black mask, as he yelled violently in Spanish.
He shouted words I will never know, and the passengers’ arms went into the air. I followed suit. Moments later, many people stood up and proceeded to walk off the bus. As I stood up, my friend, in his broken English, looked at me worriedly and said: “No, only men”.
I sat back down in my seat, as I watched the men being marched off the bus one by one. I glanced out the window and saw them standing in a line at the side of the bus. Then came the moment. This was to be the most important 30 seconds of my entire life. The thought process that ensued changed my life forever.
With arms raised in the air, I began to think: “What are they about to do with the men?” My imagination roamed to deep, dark places, envisioning the men being shot, one by one, at the side of a dark road, in the middle of the night, in the Peruvian jungle.
My thoughts took a turn. “What are they about to with us women, still sitting on the bus, arms raised?” And then I glanced around, realising what hadn’t crossed my mind as I boarded the bus — it wasn’t of any consequence as we showed our tickets and found our seats. I was a young, red-headed, white girl on a bus in the middle of the Amazon. I was the only foreigner on the bus.
And while I was on an extreme budget, with my family back home being a far cry from rich, these men didn’t know that. Oftentimes, when travelling in impoverished countries, all white people are assumed to be filthy rich. How were they to know I was nowhere near this stereotype?
The men stormed the bus in the Amazon.
The men stormed the bus in the Amazon.Source:Supplied
“What are they about to do with me?” I wondered.
Before I’d left home, terrified family members along with the mainstream media had told me plenty of kidnap stories. Would they take me? Would I be tortured ... would I be killed?
And then came the ever so fleeting moment that transformed my life. “There is a pretty good chance I might be about to die. Am I okay with that?”
The answer came to my mind without a single hesitation: Yes. Don’t confuse this sentiment with my wishing to die. In that first month-and-a-half of travelling on my own, I had learned more than in my entire 20 years of life combined. I saw a completely different side of myself and of humanity.
I had become happier, more connected, confident, and adventurous than ever before. I had begun to find my place in the world, and started to see that my true passion lay in travelling.
If forced to choose between living a typical, long, easy, monotonous, life back home, or dying in the middle of the night in the Amazon, having found myself for the first time, I would choose death every time. So I was ready for my demise, should that be my fate.
She dreaded a boring life back home.
She dreaded a boring life back home.Source:Supplied
As I had been pondering all of this, feeling an eerie peace with my arms still raised in the air, a second masked man had boarded the bus, brandishing a small silver pistol. He reached me, pointing the pistol at my head. His finger hovered over the trigger, the power to change my life forever, or indeed to end it, merely one small movement away.
The man took my camera, filled with photos of Peru, and my beloved iPod that provided me with my musical escape. He then searched through my wallet. In Spanish, he asked me where my money was, not having seen the pitiful few bills lying within it.
But a peace had spread over me that overpowered my original terror, and I simply stated that I did not speak Spanish. He asked me for my money again. I repeated my answer. I will never be able to quite understand why I didn’t simply hand the man my money — it’s not like it was worth much, and it was perhaps idiotic not to give a man pointing a pistol at my head my measly bit of cash.
We locked eyes. And he continued on to the rest of the bus.
A peace came over her.
A peace came over her.Source:Supplied
During the robbery, we were in a time warp. Did the whole thing take 20 minutes, or was it an hour? None of us knew. Having cruelly robbed everything of value from this bus filled with people who were already among the poorest of the poor, the men were marched back onto the bus, and the bus carried on into the night as if nothing had happened.
I was later told by my Peruvian friend that there were six masked men in total, and they had robbed the men just as they had robbed us women. No one was physically harmed.
I finished my trip in Peru, feeling powerful and confident. But upon my return home an unrest consumed me. Nothing felt right; this wasn’t where I belonged, and it did not challenge me to learn and grow as travel had. It took me the longest two years of my life to finally save up some funds, put my backpack back on, and go on my second solo backpacking trip: back to my favourite country on Earth, Peru.
Travel is her life.
Travel is her life.Source:Supplied
All I knew was that following my true passion in life was worth every single risk out there — even the risk of losing my life.
Some days of my life are nothing short of paradise, as I lay in a hammock relaxing the days away. Other times I find myself with little more than $5 in my bank account, alone in a city with nothing but my backpack and my tent to figure something out. But my determination to live my life to the fullest until that fateful day comes always keeps me going.
And every single day, I am thankful for those masked men entering my life, and showing me what living truly means.
Where to next?
Where to next?Source:Supplied
Danielle is a nomad who blogs (where she delights in oversharing) at Like Riding a Bicycle, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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