Disclaimer: my decision to publish this post wasn't without intense inner debate. In addition to feeling the sting of utter humiliation by playing the victim in a repeat scenario,* I was worried that its contents would keep some from taking that first step towards the wonderful world of travel. Still, I hope that it's my attitude and optimism that are contagious, and that others are no less inclined to step out of their comfort zones than before reading this.
*Admittedly, this is the first time I've had the locked door to my private room busted open, which was then ransacked of whatever I owned.
Twenty-four hours have passed since I first sat down to process and post a raw, hot-blooded reaction to my third experience of being robbed abroad in as many trips. Nothing came from it then, and I'm not sure much will come from this, either. But writing, if nothing else, is an emotional purge, and I'm in need of something cathartic.
It's not easy to admit being duped over and over again, especially as a meagerly-sustained travel writer and budding international globetrotter. Like a semi-pro quarterback with a weak OL or that pal from childhood who had everything bad happen to him (a bad haircut, chicken pox and a broken arm…in the same week!), I can't help but ask the same question they probably did:
It's a pretty futile question, not to mention quasi-pathetic—and it certainly reeks of self-pity, while undermining the fact that globally, being victimized by a thief is still pretty commonplace. But the inquiry comes on the heels of analyzing stories and statistics of other travelers like me, who have had at most one instance of lost property, major breakdown, or outright con while on the road. My three separate instances on separate trips in separate countries begs the question: Is this some kind of cosmic bitch-slap, or do I just have dumb luck?
I've already ruled out the possibility of drawing unnecessary attention to myself. While traveling, I wear muted colors, keep my beard long, and speak plainly in the local language. My backpack is smaller than most, and I obviously carry much less. I walk deliberately, but not briskly. If I need to check a map, I never do it out in the open, and anything other than a book or food stays in my pack until I'm within the confines of a hotel with a locked door. My bleach-white complexion doesn't always blend in, but my attitude and demeanor do.
Twice last week in La Fortuna, cars pulled up beside me laden with passengers: "Donde está Calle San Ysidro?" asked one man hanging out the passenger window. "No soy de aquí," I answered with a shrug. Wherever I go, I'm mistaken for a local, a friend of a friend, or someone vaguely familiar. I'm the haole everyone knows, thinks they know, or (hopefully) wants to know.
Thankfully, I've never been drugged in Istanbul like Rolf Potts. I was never privy to the express kidnappings of Mexico City in the 90s, and on a larger scale, I've managed to steer clear of any sort of embassy disaster. This last misfortune was the least devastating of my run of robberies (resulting only in a stolen camera and my entire travel wardrobe, save the clothes on my back), but it was also the most bizarre: while I was away at breakfast, a hostel guest in Liberia broke into my locked private room and made off with my main backpack. Of all the times I've asked myself, What could I have done differently to avoid this headache?, my guesswork in this circumstance always turns up empty-handed.
I've contemplated throwing in the towel more than once. How easy it would be for me to scoot off to the nearest airport and buy a ticket home, never to return to the international scene until my nerves restore. My insides feel like chicken wire shot with electricity, and in my mind I gather that the quickest remedy to this sensation is found at cruising altitude, onboard a homeward-bound sterilized/pressurized airplane with a window seat and enough whiskey to make the gods of Olympus recoil and clench their nostrils shut.
But I also know that if I do that, I won't get back in the game for a long time. The idea of giving up on travel would mean giving up what I've proclaimed to be not only a privilege, but a responsibility. For all of its potholes, obstacles, and general windiness, the road of the traveler bestows upon its pilgrims the gifts of self-sufficiency, harmony with the world, and joyful spontaneity. I've learned more about the world by seeing it for myself than reading about it in the news. Some of the best friends I have now are from encounters abroad, and those once-rare elaborate improvisations in transit have morphed into my M.O. not just for travel, but for the rest of my life, too.
Saith the soothsayer Vonnegut: "Unusual travel plans are dancing lessons from God."
And boy howdy, this gringo puede bailar.