“Fear of danger is a funny thing, too. It … definitely has an agenda of its own. It’s ironic how danger doesn’t present itself when we’d expect, but instead creeps and connives to appear when we feel the safest.” — Kira Salak, The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu
It was dark after work in Chorrillos, a neighborhood in the south of Lima, Peru, and I hailed a cab. They’re small there, with all the girth and luxury of a Yugo, their doors rickety enough to require slamming them upon entering.
“San Borja,” I told the driver. His brown eyes appeared in the rearview mirror as I further specified my destination and prepared for the same twenty- or twenty-five-minute ride I’d been taking for months. He’d drive me north through the neighborhoods of Barranco and Surquillo, and over to San Borja, where I’d been living in a local family’s house. This routine was something to love after bumbling about in various countries. I planned to put on headphones, sink into some jazz, and relax but the driver made a U-turn.
I looked out the window. Lights of the Metro and Plaza Vea supermarkets, cheap TopiTop clothing stores, and Chinese restaurants, or chifas, flashed by. Quickly enough they seemed to grow farther apart. A large wooden sign I’d never seen before appeared on a hillside reading San Juan de Miraflores.
“Where are taking me?”
“No te preocúpes.” The soft spoken man told me not to worry. He said something else over the low sounds of his talk radio but panic disabled my hearing.
Before I started traveling I didn’t have many of the fears or feelings of subjugation most other women do. That’s a benefit of being born into a generations-strong matriarchy. It’s a birthright that illustrates what Rebecca Solnit has called “privelobliviousness.” She means the “advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware [of something] and, often, isn’t.” Born rich, for instance, you can’t relate to budgeting or using coupons. Born white you can’t relate to watching pedestrians cross to the other side of the street because of your skin color. This also applies to people who are brilliant or beautiful or talented or in possession something else we deem enviable. There’s a certain swagger the lesser nobles see among the priveloblivious. I had it, that stiletto swagger, at least until I started traveling abroad. But it wasn’t men or women in other countries that confronted me with the sexism that raised my brow. It was American colleagues, friends, strangers.
“Alone? You travel alone? Aren’t you afraid?” They asked.
It’s dangerous. You might be beaten, mugged, or drugged, they said.
All of those had already happened to me– within the U.S.
You might be murdered.
Murder has already touched my life. Twice.
You could be kidnapped.
Well, more on that later, but for now I was beginning to wonder whether Americans believed this country’s crime existed only on ABC and Bruce Willis movies. There’s something else on the tellie: our mass shootings. News stations all over the world report on them. To people in other countries, the US appears to be reliving its Wild West days. The likelihood of being kidnapped or killed abroad scared me less than being anchored, being trapped in one city, state, or country for the rest of my life. That’s a consequence of a childhood spent moving from state to state and city to city. Too much stability’s like a life sentence. There’s always more to see. Always more to experience. Always the question: What else is out there?
That’s how the story of Buddha starts. Some stories claim that the first time the Buddha, also known as Prince Gautama, saw anything beyond his family’s palace gates he saw a sick elderly woman. That’s when he realized a whole world existed outside his sheltered life, so much to witness, experience, learn, even smell. And like Prince Gautama’s family asked him, the Muslim man from my favorite corner store asked me, “Why would you leave the riches you have here?”
Riches¾ and patriotism¾ were hard thoughts as the calendar page flipped from 2008 to 2009. Having been among thousands of journalists whose careers were thrust into the fiery pit of the Recession, and therefore seconds away from eviction from my apartment, I snatched a university job offer in China. It was the only sustainable offer to come along in months of job searching. Still, everyone from the One Percent constituent to the corner store owner shook their head. The Recession? That’s no reason to abandon your country, surely? No, it wasn’t just that. It was Bernie Madoff and bank bailouts and subprime mortgages and a Presidential campaign that failed to send a woman to the White House. Yes we can, and so I did.
My backseat view of the cabbie revealed his hair was more grey than black. He was married, and from the wrinkles visible in the rearview mirror he was old enough to be a grandfather. He moved like a gentleman, I noticed before seeing that we were barreling toward the shadowy mountains in the distance.
I knew those mountains. Had seen how desolate they were on a bus trip weeks before. That time I took the wrong bus¾ without incident, without panic, with some irritation. When, misled by the word Pachacamac hand painted on the side of the large green bus, I hopped on, believing it’d take me to the old Inca fortress by that name. Instead it bounced me up and down and side to side an hour in the wrong direction, my first foray out of the city for a brief U-turn through the mountains.
Don’t worry about taking the wrong path, instincts told me. Years of living abroad tone up your instincts, convince you that worrying is just thinking in the wrong direction. Instincts helped me to navigate a solo planes/trains/automobiles journey from north to south China. They told me not to get on that Italian man’s motorcycle. They led me to make a friend of Rakesh, who later took me to hospital before my appendix burst in India. Those instincts did not, however, prevent that date rape drug from finding its way into my pisco sour in a Lima bar or from having my purse stolen– twice. Those instincts surely were slumbering the second time.
It happened one evening at a builders conference in Mumbai, surrounded by hundreds of people. A young man wearing a tilak, a Hindu religious symbol on his forehead, tricked me into dropping my purse, with all the money I had in the world and my iPhone and my passport, before he ran off with it.
“Where did he go?” Some conference goers sitting two feet from me looked lazily at me. No one seemed to have seen it happen. To them I must have looked like some cartoon character, squawking about, spinning in circles to find the guy who robbed me.
We can’t always be graceful travelers. Though sometimes we can be lucky. On Christmas Day 2010, at the Mahim Junction train station, again in Mumbai, my boss was late to arrive for lunch. The overhang from the train station provided refuge from the heat and sun, and beneath it children’s eyes grew big as they ogled some vendors’ LED lit toys. Their mothers, aunties, and older sisters kept half on the eye on the kids from the produce vendors’ makeshift stalls and picked purple eggplants and ridged green okra, saffron colored turmeric, and glossy red chilies. The scent of my cigarette and nag champa incense added to the rickshaw exhaust and old, hot train metal. Cars honked in cacophony. And two men walked toward me along a boardwalk ramp, hands over their mouths as they spoke to each other. They stopped each time our eyes met and they pretended to glance elsewhere. I wasn’t their destination, I was their target. Looking around for escape routes, safety appeared: two cops standing, reading the newspaper across the hood of a police SUV. Inside it two more officers were engrossed in laughter. The encroaching men were closing in when they too spotted the cops. I think I grinned then. I think I looked at the cops, looked at the goons, and grinned. They stopped, paused at the boardwalk’s handrail, pretended to take in the scene then departed in their original direction with a single glance back. I smiled– smirked, actually, there in the safe proximity of the policemen who would be happy to learn even in ignorance they’re powerful. My boss arrived minutes later and carried me away on his motorcycle.
What did those men want? What would they have done with me¾ to me? White slavery and sex trafficking? What exactly are those things? Surely this cabbie¾ or the sex trade group he works for¾ won’t be interested in a woman in her mid thirties with a little extra padding around the middle.
No, wait. Latin men like a little jiggle.
Research suggests sex traffickers and serial killers don’t only target pretty young women. Of the thousands of international kidnapping cases reported, 75% occur in Latin America, primarily in Columbia, where tourists from a variety of countries are often kidnapped for ransoms. They’re also kidnapped for slave labor or prostitution¾ sometimes both. The International Labor Organization sites 11.4 million women and girls are forced laborers. Four and a half million females are sexually exploited. Females. Not men.
Men don’t have that worry, the worry of possibly being raped. They aren’t born with an instinct to protect themselves against rape, Kira Salak reminds us. She’s a real badass, a true explorer, more Bear Grylls, less Bill Bryson. As the travel writer explains in The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu, she did have to use that instinct. Along a six-hundred-mile journey down the Niger River with nothing but two backpacks and a raft, she went up against a pod of hippos, dangerous tribes, and witches. Her travels remind us that it’s a lingering handshake from a man or a look in his eyes, sometimes even less than that, and we’re instinctively alarmed to be on the lookout. She experienced just such a handshake. It was given by the husband of an African couple, strangers who provided her safe harbor one night. When the husband entered her sleeping space uninvited, he persisted and persisted that she sleep with him. Salak, spotting his wife climbing the stairs just beyond Salak’s sleeping area, called out to her, severing the man’s advances.
Self-preservation in potentially dangerous moments abroad signals you to repeat practical facts like mantras in your head. Your address: Two thirty-nine Vesalio Road. Dos trentinueve Calle Vesalio. Two thirty-nine…. The Castellano word for help: Suc…sac…socorro! They force you to think in pure, practical terms.
I imagined myself in those mountains I couldn’t now see, stumbling toward safety beneath a solitary street light after… after what? After escaping? After waking up from being drugged, raped, mugged? The actual crime against me will only be part of the battle. What if I make it out alive? How do Peruvians react when they see someone in danger? Let’s hope they don’t act like the Chinese.
One particular Chinese commercial always made me yell at the TV. An older man is clutching at his chest, fallen breathless on the sidewalk. In a flash a group of his compatriots are standing in a circle above him. They’re staring at him, staring and pointing, actionless. What was that commercial about¾ How to recognize a heart attack or stroke? The thing was in Mandarin so I didn’t pay attention to those details. I just remember how it inspired me to think, OK, if anything happens to you in public, don’t expect any Chinese heroes. You’re on your own, kid.
Peruvians could turn out to be like Rakesh, the Indian man who saved me from a burst appendix. They could also be like the Mumbai conference goers. Or maybe they’d be like Kitty Genovese’s neighbors, who at 3 AM in 1964 Queens, New York, did not interfere when a man named Winston Moseley attacked her with a knife on three occasions over thirty-five minutes. Thirty-eight people heard the events that night. Some of them turned on their lights. All of them ignored her screams because they didn’t want to get involved. When someone finally called the police Genovese was already dead.
My phone illuminated: “10% battery remaining.” I clicked it off to conserve power, racked my brain to remember the Peruvian version of 9-1-1.
Oh, 105, it’s 105!
Does that work from a cell phone? Maybe I should call someone now. Caroline… Arshak… Charro… my house family? And say what?
Time slowed to a crawl. Street lamps flashed their light on the gunked up door handle as we sped past, and I decided to jump. Just jump. Open the door, curl up and roll out. Cross the traffic and roll until you reach a bus stop. Now!
I reached for the flimsy door handle. Panic paralyzed my fingers. Then a new idea sprouted: Wait until he stops at a light or a sign. Until he slows down. Then jump.
The driver veered right, into the exit lane, passing beneath a green highway street sign: El Centro.
Downtown? That’s far away from the mountains. Signs passed for Miraflores and San Isidro, neighborhoods bordering mine. Was he going back toward the city?
He swirled up the exit ramp and we landed at a traffic light in a residential area. People were walking their dogs. Lovers were kissing on the corner. My fingers uncurled. My tongue unstuck itself from the roof of my mouth. There’s that restaurant I liked– and the corner store I didn’t.
We turned right, another right, and stopped at the corner on Calle Vesalio. Just a few houses from mine. It took a minute to catch my breath, but I didn’t want to give the impression I was frightened. He was such a gentle man, who played no real role in my white-American-girl-abroad moment of terror. Gathering my belongings and opening the door, I told him I didn’t like the route he’d chosen.
He looked in his rearview mirror, smiled gently, said something about bypassing traffic then, “Discúlpame, señora. No era mi intención asustar a usted.”
I believed him, that he really didn’t mean to frighten me. His soft gaze almost embarrassed me as I paid him and deflated with a sigh watching him drive away. How did one unusual turn in my daily routine lead me to play out that mental horror show? That’s all it was. One turn out of the ordinary that sent my mind to ugly places.
Maybe that’s the root of fears of traveling alone or leaving one’s country. Too many opportunities for wrong turns, for kidnapping cabbies. To travelers like Prince Gautama and Salak and me, however, we see wrong turns as opportunities. Sometimes they aren’t, though. Sometimes they shatter superiority built on gender or nationality. Sometimes they burst your priveloblivious bubble and reveal you aren’t such a badass after all.
A nonfiction writer, my work centers on art, architecture, and travel. My work has been published in Fanzine, EastLit, World Literature Today, PANK, and elsewhere. I also write a monthly Ploughshares blog series on Asian lit and indigenous lit from around the world. My work has won some awards.