The deepness, the thickness of his voice reverberates in my memory. His eyes, forever imprinted to the sides of my mind. The way he twisted his mouth when laughing at the terrified looks that distorted the faces of those around us. The rope that dangled in the hands of the boy sitting behind me. These sights, the feelings that emerge when reflecting on that afternoon — they flicker through my mind in snapshots, in 2-second intervals, so fast they take my breath away and leave my stomach hallowed, empty, wishing to be filled with breath or belief that it’s over, it has passed. Three months later and I know now that it’s time. It’s time to banish them. To never allow the fear to swallow me whole and consume any part of my being ever again.
There are days I have lived that have haunted or applauded me along my journey. I keep and savor the latter, relishing in all the laughter and absurdity it offered me then and now. But the haunt? Maybe that was the lesson in this all. Don’t give away pieces of yourself to those who are undeserving, to those who have caused you trauma.
This recollection is not for the faint-hearted. It is not going to make you feel warm inside. It is not going to make you think I am wise in living a life on the fly. This story is not intended to be perceived as fear-mongering. It is not to be seen as an everyday experience in being a woman abroad. It is to be perceived that this could have happened anywhere at any time. This is a story. Simply that. One that I lived. One that may make you hug yourself and the stability you breed. It is not instragram-worthy. It is not all the glitz and glam that some would love to believe the wayward lifestyle encompasses. It is not a knock on my life, but rather a confession. A tale I must tell to show that there’s tragedy in all lives, that sometimes everything is not what it seems. These are words. These are words in a story I must tell. It is one that I must let breath and then let die.
This is to you, January 24, 2016. This is to the tangible terror of helplessness. This is to the survival of the ever-changing and challenging lives we lead. This is to living loudly. This is to the kindness of others. This is to improvisation and hoping it works — that it’s convincing, that it’ll save you from a seemingly f*&^ed fate. This is to intuition over prescription. This is to being a woman in this wild, wicked world. And this is NOT to you, those who have ever thrived off of the fear of others.
January 24, 2016
Barranquila to Cartagena, Colombia
He unsaddled our shared, large backpack and put it at his feet, holding it upwards as we waited for the attendant to shove it into the storage compartment of the large bus we were getting ready to board. I had just recently surfaced from a nap I drifted into from the last bus we were on from Santa Marta, but was alert enough to realize people were crowded at the entrance of the bus, filling the seats inside quickly.
I looked to my travel companion and ushered him away, telling him to find seats inside while I made sure our belongings were loaded. In Colombia, it was commonplace to fill a vehicle of transportation up to the brim. Standing room, sitting room, crouching room. If there was an empty space, there could and would be a human body to fill it up. I lived for adventure, but I currently wanted a seat. A seat where I would fall soundly back asleep, into the dreams where my skin was no longer sun-burnt, where I was alongside my sister, laughing until we cried about nothing in particular, where the book I was writing was finished, published, hacked away at and made whole.
I walked up the stairs, instantly noticing the poor shape my surroundings were in. The door separating the drivers area from the rest of the bus creaked as I lost my balance and leaned on it. The seats were stained, torn and poorly aged. I looked for my comrade, the person I was dating at the time, and saw his tall frame crunched into a seat. A seat in the very back of the bus. The back of the bus where a large group of boys ranging in the ages of 16-20 were seated. I held my breath instantly as I took in the nature of the group at first glance. While they were dressed simply enough, the elements of their appearance — expensive glasses, diamond earrings, shiny watches, accompanied by the lack of age and skill they very obviously didn’t possess raised concerns. They hung off the edge of the seats into the area of others, an unsettling arrogance floated off their frames. They spoke only to challenge each other, their faces full of determination to stir the pot of shit as fast and as hard as they could, into the faces of bystanders. A noticeable hierarchy became clear with each step I took towards my seat. They were grouped, clustered, surviving as a cohesive unit.
I was acutely aware of every element and feeling dictated by my surroundings. My compression shorts, worn for comfort and the pressing humidity, seemed to suction even more tightly to the bottom of my body, leaving nothing to the imagination. My regret for not studying more before arriving in South America, my Spanish speaking skills severely lacking in the most inopportune moment. The raised-eyebrows from the young mother in the corner seat of the back row, cradling her baby to her chest, looking away from me as if it would cause her to care too much about my well-being. And finally, every set of eyes from the group of boys firmly resting on me as I found my way to that dreaded seat. I fostered fear. It overtook every cell in my body, and while I tried to fight it, I knew that an undeniable red alarm was going off and spitting its sirens into my blood, into my organs, through my pores and to the ends of my hair.
My seat shot forward and to the ground when I made an attempt to softly sit, precautions for avoiding any additional attention that I was the sole Western girl in the last half of the large, towering bus. I nervously laughed and smiled to those who re-focused their attention on me and studied my movements. While shoving the disheveled seat into place, I demanded myself to find a distinct composure from within. Eye glances and body motions were filing in towards me. I tried to make conversation to the guy I was with, but I’m not sure what was said. It was lost. It is lost.
I looked out to the window and back to my surroundings, the gawking onlookers shifting their focus onto a new, tall character walking to the back of the bus, toting an armful of soda and snacks. The capability of their attentiveness was at its height. This was their leader, the captain in command, the King of the Jackals. He smiled and I felt myself repulse. He tilted his head to the ground, never breaking eye contact with the group and spoke, his followers holding onto every last word he spit out of his mouth. The boy in front of me grabbed onto the air conditioning unit at the ceiling of his seat and started to rock it off its hinges, giving up before it broke completely. They started to stand, to become abhorrently riled by their leaders words. From the corner of my eye, the mother behind me held her baby tighter. I clenched onto the straps of my backpack. The bus rolled away. I fought with myself internally. I found myself infuriated with my decision to stay put, for not putting in the time to research a surefire, safe mode of transportation.
We were Cartagena bound. We were hell bound. We were, for the next few hours, wholly bound together.
I attempted to let my attention soften, determined I had over-assessed the situation at hand. Failing miserably. Plans were being made between the group, and I understood next to nothing that they said due to their Caribbean accent and rapid delivery. They began to drink alcohol and my body became more rigid as I watched the fire fully ignite around me. A boy around their age was collecting money for the bus ride, making his way down the aisle slowly. In between payments, his eyes occasionally wandered to look to the back of the bus. A dissatisfactory look smeared across his face anytime he looked at one of the carousing boys, which I had come to the conclusion, were a gang.
I sat there helplessly, melting away with emotions. My anxiety of the situation increased as the boy collecting money made his way closer to me. He was asking questions I couldn’t comprehend to each person. Soon our fate would unfold. Every person within earshot would be well-aware that we spoke next to no Spanish, as I would look quizzically to the boy’s question and then once to my partner, who knew even less Spanish than myself. My breath held stale in the middle of my throat.
He asked his questions and I shrugged my shoulders, concern filling both my own and the debt collectors faces. Every head snapped back as I mustered out a, “Yo no entiendo.” Laughter was had by the group and it was largely discussed that the gringa was clueless as to what was going on. It was there I realized using my intuition and recognition of body language would be the only way to fulfill the rest of my minds inquiries.
More people loaded onto the bus. A mother and her young teenaged daughter headed towards us. The boys howled at the daughter’s youthful, glowing face and the mother pointed her towards the front of the bus, keeping a stern, unmoving expression during the entire exchange.
We went from city to dust. Faces crowding the outsides of the windows to the window blinds being shut by the boys who surrounded us, a haunting darkness filling our area. The leader of the group never stopped talking, never stopped passing around the drinks, never stopped counting down the minutes until they would act on what they were discussing. “Veinte minutos mas,” I heard first. I kept tabs on my surroundings and as I attempted to move my head to the back, I realized a hand was clenched on the braid in my hair. I rapidly tugged myself free and lurched to the front, glancing back at the boys who sat behind me, the one who had his hand on my hair sitting completely naked with a giant red piece of red fabric in his lap. The boy next to him, holding a rope.
The boys to the front of me laughed at my fear and dipped their bottle of alcohol in my direction, offering it to both me and my boyfriend while simultaneously pulling out a bag of cocaine. A few boys traded seats and another took off his shirt, revealing on his waistband, a freshly polished, shiny handgun. “Ten more minutes,” it was announced from my left. It wasn’t said in English, but it was how I understood it. It was how it played out in my head dozens of times after being said. They discussed a few things. They spoke of the police and running. They spoke of me, and while I couldn’t understand their every word, I could feel it. Someone snorted a line of cocaine off of a book on someone’s lap. The girl sitting next to me looked at me with concern, with eyes that told me to run, with a sickness that flooded my lungs and ceased any ability to breath. My body went limp. I felt like they were slowly suctioning my life away. With every villainous laugh, I felt more and more at a loss of what there was I could do. My power was being drained, I felt lifeless, helpless, like all of my worst fears combined were being thrown in my face.
But, I wouldn’t let that mentality live. I changed my demeanor. I became light. I wondered if I was imagining this whole situation. I prayed to all of the gods that this was a figment, a misconstrued event. And so I looked to my partner and said, with a smile on my face and to also question my reality, “I’ve never been so sure that I may be raped and killed.” He didn’t look me in the eyes, giving me all of the validity I needed. I breathed in, nodding my head. To those who surrounded me, my words must have seemed at peace, calm and singing the praises, “What a beautiful day to be alive.” But that was my case and point. They were feeding off my fear. They were leeches to the terror I had flooding my everything. This was it, I thought. These were my last and final moments. On a bus in Colombia, traveling to a city I wasn’t even that fond of with a group of ravenous, soul-less scoundrels who would aid in my demise. There was no radiance involved. No passport stamps worth what would come to be. It could not be conceived the grief I felt for being in a situation such as this. Could this have happened anywhere? Even in America? Sure. Of course. Oh, yes. But in my mind, in this moment… it was all I could think of. How stupid, how stupid, how stupid.
The gun sent me over the edge. The rope made me unable to keep my breath steady. The group crowded more closely together, making it seem as if they had plans to blockade the back of the bus. One boy stood in the aisle, others atop of the seats, their legs draped for blockage.
I lurched, folding over into my lap dry heaving. I gagged. I sunk my eyes to the back of my head. I demanded from myself an Oscar nominee worthy delivery of the early stages of almost puking on everything and everyone in sight.
The group, these humans who acted as if they considered themselves men, shrunk rapidly into boys. They recoiled and slammed their bodies against their seats, flinching at my sudden movements, at the way I clawed at the seats and fell to the ground in fraudulent sickness. A plastic bag was thrown in my direction. I grabbed at it and ran to the front of the bus, breathing heavily and feeling like I had only made it halfway through this glimpse of what it was to be truly tormented. I stopped towards the front and sat on the ground, staring deep into the plexiglass door that showed a slight reflection of all that happened behind me. My partner followed, stumbling out of the crowd of bodies. Those around me looked down in concern and I realized I was surrounded by mothers whose hair stood on end, knowing as they saw me arrive. They suspiciously glanced to the back of the bus and asked me questions, assuring I was okay.
The bus ride continued for two more hours. Into the dusty roads of middle earth Colombia. There was no escaping either dreadful fate. For if we exited the bus, we would be stranded, Spanish-less in the middle of fields that went on for miles with no water. I sat on the dirty floor of the bus, never allowing my gaze to shift from the plexiglass door, watching them act together, watching them, watch me. At one point, the main leader came to the front, demanding water that I refused to produce, hiding it between my legs and backpack and taking instead, my partner’s. The boy who had collected funds came to the main section of the bus to announce an upcoming city. He saw us on the ground and became uneasy, asking us more questions in Spanish I had no hope of understanding. He looked to the back, where things had become, yet again, rambunctious and disappeared into the front, leaving us to exist in the black hole we found ourselves in.
It was a blur. A slow, dwindling blur that I felt would resume at full speed the moment we exited the bus. The imminent fear had slowly drained, but I knew that while I was out of the direct touch of those who could hurt me, I was not not free from the danger I felt pulsating in my direction.
People moved out of the bus and I threw my belongings and body into a pair of seats a row up from the ground I was sitting on. As I went to offer my boyfriend the chair next to me, one of the boys from the back ran up and sat into it, turning his whole body to stare coldly at me, to offer the information that this battle was not yet over. I turned my head to the window and saw a taxi, telling my partner we should get off the bus immediately. I would pay every dollar I had to get off that bus and into the arms of a taxi. I would give every belonging. I would shave my head and swear off sweets. I would stay in one place for longer than six months. I would call my mother and tell her I loved her. I would finish my book and be damned if I didn’t publish it. I would hug myself and say that I was safe. I would write these words and let it be known. I would do anything, everything, to find my way to the sweet serenity of a place far, far away.
We ran to the front and the woman in charge of the bus became confused, refusing to let us leave the bus in the middle of this very small town, but understanding our situation, as her co-worker, the debt-collector, explained in full. She looked back to us and nodded her head, disappearing into the back and shutting the door, leaving us to sit on the dashboard of the bus as it moved along. I heard her scream with anger. I heard her tell them the police would be waiting. I heard her wrath come in with a vengeance and I knew that I was almost, completely safe.
Our awaited bus station was minutes away. We were inside of Cartagena and nearing freedom from the decrepit walls of this bus that almost swallowed us whole. As we rounded the corner, as we pulled into the station I thought I would never see, the woman instructed the driver to open the doors, sending her co-worker out the doors to unlock the luggage compartment even before the wheels had stopped turning. She sent us out next and in one swift motion, we grabbed our backpack from the slowly rolling bus and ran. We ran to the other side of the terminal. We ran to the yellow taxis happily waiting to whisk us away to safety. We ran and ran and ran.
I was freed from the moment. I was freed from a fate I had conceived as absolute. I was freed, but holding onto its ghosts as scars. I was freed then, but I truly wasn’t for so very long. Banishing the demons of an event of the sort is the last step. And I bow out gracefully from all that was involved. For it changed me and it changes me, but it is now for the better and not for the worse.
I am free, I am freed.