I spent the last month in both Paris and Colombia.
In Colombia I was a victim of violent crime in a “safe” area of the country. With a gun to my head, I lost my passport and all of my possessions, along with a large part of my faith in travel and in humanity. The days that followed were some of the darkest of my life.
Mere days earlier I was feeling all too light in the City of Light — my happy place, my beacon of beauty, a place that brings light to my eyes and fire to my soul. I return to Paris as often as possible — but not too often, for I yearn to experience more of the world. I know that the globe is far from being full of pastries and side streets, pungent cheeses and cute cafes.
With that in mind, I booked a ticket to Colombia — partly due to the recommendations of other travelers, partly to give a previously ‘no-go’ destination a chance. I was confident, I was comfortable, I was fearless.
I wanted to experience the “real” Colombia. I believe, sadly, that is exactly what I got. Never could I have imagined I’d be part of a bus hijacking. Never did I think I’d actually be faced with a moment in which my life could have ended, just because I was traveling there.
It was my first time in South America.
It was easy to blame Colombia, blame myself for going there in the first place. Since I’ve returned home, I’ve spent countless hours to the point of obsession reading about Colombia’s history, politics, and unfortunate legacy of violence. I’ve researched methods for intervention in the cycle of violence, and the ways others are working to solve the problem even here in the United States.
Holding my emergency passport in my hands at the US embassy in Bogota, printed just in time to board the plane that would take me home, I had never been so grateful for my life and the country I happened to be born into. (I had zero help, compassion, or empathy from Colombians after it happened. Yes, you read that right. More on that to come.) I felt lucky to be able to leave that world behind, and resolve to never return. It was my initial way of coping with the pain. I felt that if I could compartmentalize the violence to one specific part of the world, I could feel safe again — and better understand why this happened.
You can then imagine my heartbreak to see violence take place on the streets of the very place I dreamt of returning to, the country I felt most opposite of the one I had just been victimized in. Suddenly, the blame was harder to place.
I’ve stayed silent aside from the occasional social media post about the experience, mostly because I don’t know how to adequately express what I’ve been feeling. I’m searching for the right words to tell the story and violation, the impact this violent crime has had on me. I resort back to my initial frame of mind, back to when I made the decision not to buy travel insurance on flight there, and it echoes: I have heard that it happens, but it won’t happen to me.
But it did happen. Some days it feels like it would be much easier just to leave the experience behind me and move forward. I will not.
Colombia’s tourism board and government have both reached out to me. I haven’t written back. The only time remorse was shown was when told the police I was a journalist. The only question of concern I felt was “Who do you write for?”
I will write about this.
Yet when I woke up to a worldwide travel alert from the United States State Department, I found that I had something to say — right now, to you. In light of Colombia, in light of Paris, in light of every place people are scared to travel (or scared to live.) It might not be what you want to hear, but I have to write it.
I understand fully that fear is one of the things that keeps many of us from traveling at all. For this reason, many of us who travel seek to inspire others by easing or downplaying fears. And when someone tells us we can’t or shouldn’t do the thing we love most, we feel as if someone is restricting our greatest passion. Many feel the need to counter it with strong proclamations.
Cue an onslaught of travel bloggers telling you to reject the warnings, to “be fearless.” Travelers are standing up and proclaiming “not afraid!” like it is some badge of honor.
If I learned anything from staring at my own death in the face, it is that I am not afraid. The criminals took so much from me in that moment, but they also gave me a window into my own inner strength. It turns out fear itself is much scarier than when the moment you fear most actually occurs.
Fear won’t stop me from living, from traveling, from loving. I will live, travel, and love differently as a result of my experiences, especially this one. Fear should not dictate our choices, but we should listen to it. Listening instead of rejecting fear may have prevented this from happening. I now have a reverence for fear, and I refuse to ignore it or push it aside for any reason in any aspect of my life, from now on.
I have much more still to write, to share. For now, I plead with you: please do not reject fear. Understand it, respect it, acknowledge it. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “This is my fundamental opposition to the mythological dream of fearlessness, and the frustration I feel whenever fearlessness is held up as a virtue. I just feel like that it’s the wrong battle. Because for one thing, you don’t want to get rid of your fear; you need it to keep you alive. We’re all here because we had fear that preserved us. So there’s a little bit of a lack of appreciation for fear when we say that we want to be fearless.”
Travel is my passion. Many of you have asked me if this incident will stop me from traveling. I’ll admit, what I went through in the days following the armed robbery, what I’m still going through now…it made me feel like I’d never want to travel again, like it wasn’t worth it. The truth is, that travel is my heart — and when your heart is broken, it doesn’t mean you’ll never love again. It does mean you might take some time apart, time to heal and process and rebuild your faith and your strength. When I do, I’ll be back on the road.
To love is to risk, and travel is no different.
With each experience we grow and we learn and if we’re lucky, we live to share those learnings with others who haven’t walked in our shoes.
To me, real strength is not about being fearless — it is acknowledging risks and fully digesting the feeling of fear. It is about bravely facing the truth and acting accordingly. It is about what you choose to do with fear, not what you choose to do without it.
In many ways, I am scared to write about what happened to me. I fear the process of reliving it, of exposing my heart and my wounds, only to have it not be understood, or worse: not read.
Life is never easy and everyone has a story. This is now part of mine, and I will not be silent about it.
For what it’s worth, I offer you the following words regarding the travel alert:
The US State Department’s worldwide travel alert is not telling you not to travel. It’s not even implying you should be scared.
It is asking to you be aware of your surroundings. In my experience, that is never a bad thing. We could all use the reminder.
I used to dismiss warnings like this. Let’s remember that alerts are created to keep us safe. Monitor the news a little more closely — I wish I had. It doesn’t mean you have to listen to it.
Don’t let fear dictate your travels. But don’t dismiss warnings from the state department, either.
Let’s use logic to form our travel decisions and our reactions, instead of emotion in the form of inaction or rejection.
I want to thank each and every one of you — readers, friends, friends of readers, complete strangers — for the kindness and support you have shown me in the past three weeks. Although I have yet to respond to all of your messages (honestly it is still painful to talk much about it) each word has truly lifted my spirits a bit higher (and that is saying something!)
If you prefer instead to donate to an organization that is working to solve the root of the problem, in a revolutionary way, both in the United States and increasingly abroad, consider Cure Violence. Three pilot programs are in process for Colombia.
I will be sharing the entire story of my experience in the coming weeks. The denial and apathy I was met with makes me that much more determined to speak out. If you know of any outlet that can amplify my voice, please get in touch.
Most of all I urge you to travel. More than ever the world needs us to be traveling, showing compassion, and increasing global tolerance and international understanding. Please just do so alongside your fear, not in spite of it. Do not ignore the cues of warning, and always, always be aware.
Your time, efforts, and kind words have not gone unnoticed. Thank you, thank you, thank you. <3