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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Welcome to the Jungle

Written by Danielle Ditzian
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      It was the event that would solidify my love for solo travel. It was also the most intense moment of my entire life.

      Before my travels began to Peru I was faced with a painful breakup, and the fact that the trip we had planned together would be faced alone. I decided that it was best to still go off on my travels, and it was the best decision that I have ever made. 

      I had been warned by all of my friends and family to be very careful, especially as a young North American girl traveling alone, and there was one day when I was neglectful, leaving my iPod out in my empty dorm room while I went sandboarding. A taxi driver had wandered into my hostel and up into my room, and had taken my iPod. While I was frantically searching for it, this man re-entered my room to replace the iPod he had taken with an older (and broken) model, which he had put in my iPod case with my headphones. Fortunately I caught on, and, with the help of an amazing receptionist, retrieved my iPod.

      Soon after I would wish that this had been how I had lost my iPod.

      For a week I traveled with a Peruvian fellow I knew named Pepito. We had stayed with his family in a couple of towns before heading north towards the jungle. In Tingo Maria we booked a bus ticket for 10pm to head up to Pucallpa. We boarded the very uncomfortable bus. It was immediately one of the worst busses I had been on in my month and a half in Peru, with seats that wouldn’t recline properly and a mess of garbage. No matter, though, it was all worth it for travel. I popped my headphones in. 

      Half an hour or so in a soldier boarded our bus. Since the region directly north of Tingo Maria was known to be a dangerous drug-ridden land, he was there to protect us. Strangely, we had to each give him a little bit of money for him to stay on the bus. I listened to my iPod and I passed out. The soldier would be long gone by the time I awoke.


 

      At around 3am, I was startled awake. As I opened my eyes and saw the image before me, I truly thought I was still dreaming. Pepito and I were quite close to the front of the bus, in the fifth row from the front. In front of the closed door that separated the passengers from the driver there stood a man. He wore a black mask covering his face, and he held a massive black gun that was pointed toward us all. He yelled out in Spanish, and I knew barely a word of this language at the time. 

      Everyone’s arms went up in the air, so I followed suit. Then a bunch of people stood up and began walking off of the bus. I stood up to follow Pepito, but he looked at me and said, “Only men.” I sat back down with my arms still in the air. 

      The first thought that passed through my mind was, “What are they about to do with the men?” which was quite rapidly followed by, “What are they about to do with us women?”

Then all of the warnings people had given me came to mind. I had disregarded them at the time. Guns? Kidnappings? These were things I didn’t have to worry about; the world was simply not as scary as my sheltered family and friends believed. In that moment, however, all that had been told to me rushed to my mind. I was a young, and very pale North American girl on a bus in the jungle surrounded by only locals. You could say I stood out just a bit. 

      “What are they about to do with me?”

      This question was quickly followed by the one that would define my life. “I might be about to die. Am I ok with that?”

      Though my answer came in a millisecond, it was as if time slowed. I thought about my life previous to my travels to Peru. I thought about how much I had learned in that short month and a half, and how I had seen more and gained more insight into myself and others in that time than in 20 years of life combined. I did not want to die by any means; my life had only just begun. But if my choices were having stayed home and carried on how I had been for many years to come, or having seen all that I had in that brief time, I would choose the latter, no matter the cost.

      “Am I ok with dying? Yes.”


 

      Our arms remained in the air as the masked man marched the men off of the bus. Another masked man, this one with a small silver pistol, then boarded the bus. He began going through all of our belongings, tossing anything that was not of value onto the floor, and taking worthwhile objects and money. Since I was seated near the front and he had started on my side of the bus, he arrived at me quite quickly. He took my iPod that had slipped beneath me as I slept, and then he took my camera. These two objects were the most important things I had. 

      When he took my camera, I used what little Spanish I knew: “Mi photos, mi photos de Peru,” I pleaded. All I wanted was the photos. He pulled my camera out of his pocket for an instant, as if contemplating, before quickly shoving it back into his pocket and saying “memory card” in Spanish. To this day I know not how to say memory card in Spanish, but I understood him in that moment.

      Next, he asked me in Spanish where my money was. There are some words you can’t help but pick up when you are traveling in a foreign country, and the word for money was one of them. I understood him. He had already looked through my wallet, but since it was just a pouch that contained my money, debit and credit cards, and a lot of pieces of paper with contact information of the people I had met, he simply did not see the money. I answered him, “No hablo español.” He repeated his question, and I repeated my answer. He looked at me for a second before continuing on to the rest of the bus; he must have decided that I wasn’t worth the trouble, seeing as everyone else could speak his language. Where I got the guts to refuse giving the man who was pointing a gun at my head my money, I will never know. 

      As he continued robbing the rest of the passengers our arms remained in the air. Some women cried, fearing for their or their husbands lives. It struck me that, while I had lost my camera and iPod to these men, I could replace them when I returned home. Some of the people on this bus, however, simply could not do this; they were being robbed of all or nearly all that they had in this world. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. One woman started coughing and couldn’t stop for 10 minutes or so. I had an unopened water bottle with me, and I so badly wanted to give it to her, but I didn’t dare move or let on that I knew a few more words of Spanish than I had pretended. 

      It must have been half an hour or so that the man was on the bus, though time was entirely warped. He never took his finger away from the trigger of that silver pistol. The whole time a nagging voice inside my head told me that they were just robbing us, but if anyone should do or say the wrong thing, things could change for the worst in an instant. At one point, my anxiety ridden-self pulled a cigarette out of my fanny pack and proceeded to smoke it. Once finished, I had a second one. A third masked man boarded the bus, and put his hand out to me without saying a word. I understood, and I handed him my cigarette. He then left the bus, and re-boarded without the smoke. I can only imagine he tossed my cigarette out. The hilarity of this event did not escape me – I was being prevented from having a cigarette on the bus, while these men were robbing us! Which was more illegal?


 

      After what seemed like a lifetime, the masked men left the bus, and the men marched back to their seats. I would later find out from Pepito that there were six masked men in total, and that the men had been robbed as the women had (one man even had his shoes stolen, but he was in good humor – the masked men hadn’t taken a single other thing from him!) The bus backed up for two or three minutes for a reason unknown to me, and then continued on to Pucallpa. 

      We stopped at the first town to speak to the police, but, as is usual in these situations, the police couldn’t do anything (except of course make it take us even longer to arrive at our destination while we filled out police reports and such). 

      Eventually we would arrive in Pucallpa, and we would all part ways. No one had been injured in any way, though the knowledge still filled my mind that many could not replace what had been taken from them. 

      It was exactly halfway through my first travels that this all occurred. I had been stripped of my music and my photos, along with the ability to take new photos. I had faced precisely the type of thing I had been warned of in going to a country like this. And I had survived, completely unharmed. Does one, then, call the family and ask to be sent home early? Was it time to cease traveling and return to what I knew?

      Three and a half years after this event, there is nothing I love more than traveling. And this event alone showed me the true strength and courage that I have within me. I finished my travels in Peru as planned, and I have returned since, without an ounce of fear. For when you have considered that you might die at the age of 20 on a bus in the middle of Peru, far from everything and everyone you have ever known, the world is no longer a scary place. 

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Last modified on Tuesday, 30 April 2013