By Anne Lowrey
Bad Trip Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards
“Nunca ha pasado aquí,” he repeated. I shrugged as if I didn’t hear him, though I understood every word.
“This never happens.”
Except it did. I sat silently in the back of the rusted car that was taking me slowly away from the events of the past few days. I had run out of words to say in Spanish. In the middle of Colombia’s coffee country, with nothing but the clothes on my back, I was too exhausted to be angry.
“This never happens” was all anybody seemed to be able to say to me when I told them. Each time the phrase came it spoke with a loaded look that also pleaded, “Please don’t tell anyone.”
Why did getting robbed with a gun to my head feel like some terrible secret I’d be forced to keep?
I couldn’t think about that now. I needed to get to the nearest airport. There, with only a torn and faded police report in hand, I would somehow board a plane to Bogota and get to the U.S. Embassy for my emergency passport. Soon, I thought, I’d be home. I didn’t dare yet wonder what that might feel like.
As the car turned, I was jolted out of disorientation. Looking past the dashboard ahead at the road, I held back tears as the driver turned his weathered hands gently across the leather steering wheel. It seemed the closer I got to leaving Colombia, the more I let myself feel the depth of the pain. I thought back to my first few days in the country.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
Jaimee and I came to Colombia as travel writers, openhearted and eager to show the world a place safe and beautiful and worth traveling to. She and I had met only a few months prior on assignment in Acapulco, and under the blistering Mexican sun, became instant friends. Historically a glamorous oceanfront destination, Acapulco was now haunted by (and losing money from) its reputation for violence. Our job was to dig deep, guided of course by the local tourism board, to present the positives to prospective travelers.
The thrill of having achieved this in Acapulco left us both clamoring for our next adventure, both silently drawn to a place that perhaps was similarly misunderstood. Together we scanned the world map for the next country waiting to be featured and discovered. We imagined dots on an atlas as if each were waiting for us with open arms, filled with the culture and kindness we had come to expect, each brimming with beauty, stuffed with stories wanting to be told.
“What about Colombia?” I said.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” She, like so many before her, had asked.
“I hear it’s really improving,” I assured her. “Lots of people I know have gone and actually said it was their favorite place in South America.” Still, she didn’t seem convinced.
In the weeks that followed, I gathered the evidence to present my case: the brightly-colored doors of Cartagena, wooden stairs winding to the scenic top of El Penol rock, even a remote tropical island off the coast of paradise we could scuba dive from. What was your favorite part about Colombia? I’d asked of the many travelers in my life. Their answer was always the same: the people. That alone was good enough for me.
“We can do all of this and more with a month there,” I explained. “Though we’ll want to leave a bit of time open, to see where the stories take us.”
Before long we are buzzing the front gate bell of a hostel in Medellin, one of the country’s best-known cities. There the story is clear: in a place that once had the highest murder rate in the world, a city made infamous by cocaine and cartels, there is still much beauty to be found. From the interiors of the trendy Colombian cafes to the revitalized urban plazas, to the tram that now runs from its gleaming metro all the way to the fringes of the rainforest, it seems that Medellin is rising and shining out of the shadows. From above, you can spot shiny new escalators and even elegantly designed new local libraries, each running through the comunas dotted below and, as we are proudly told, providing residents access to non-drug related prosperity for the first time in decades.
Our days pass quickly in beautiful Medellin. Plane tickets are booked, itineraries formed, friends made. We feel especially fortunate to meet one woman in particular. She is the leader of the free city walking tour we take through otherwise intimidating parts of Medellin. With her light skin, reddish hair, and perfect English, at first we don’t recognize that she is Colombian.
“I’m not just Colombian,” she tells us. “I’m paisa.” Born and raised in Antioquia, the department of the country Medellin is in, she beamed with pride in her heritage and like many others from there, sees herself as a bit different than the rest of Colombia.
Jaimee and I begin to ask her questions we wouldn’t ask anyone else. We learned quickly not to mention the name Pablo Escobar, arguably the world’s most infamous criminal — for the wounds are still fresh and the whole of the country yearns to be known for any thing other than him.
Even our new friend’s family had been personally affected. For members of her family, like so many, the choice was to leave their home or lose their lives, which I gather is part of the reason she’s so firmly grounded in her paisa identity today.
She lets us in the local secrets hidden underneath this new, shiny facade: why, in fact, prostitutes stand counterintuitively by the church, where the best fried chicken can be found, why Colombians are so eager to celebrate life. Motioning us to come closer, she is the first to tell us about “dar papaya,” a phrase in Spanish that every Colombian who values themselves knows intimately. Translating roughly to “giving papaya,” it is “unnecessarily giving the opportunity for something to happen, exposing himself, risking himself, being in danger, being innocent.” In simple terms, it’s knowing that flashing your wealth means someone will want to take it from you.
“For Colombians,” she explains, “‘dar papaya’ is one of the biggest sins anyone can commit, because they believe that there will always be someone who takes advantage of it. That is to say, someone will always take the fruit that is shown.” We nod in understanding.
We share our love of Colombian coffee with her. At her and so many others’ urging, we decide to move on as the city prepares for Halloween, one of its biggest celebrations. We sleep soundly that evening with plans to get the next bus to the coffee country first thing in the morning.
The morning bus, and as it turns out the only direct bus, is already fully booked. Advised to head to the station to see if we can’t grab a spot regardless, we strap on our well-worn backpacks and step into the depot wide-eyed and ready for the countryside.
I hand over my card to pay for the route, an eight or so hour ride on a plush-looking coach to the city of Armenia, where we’ll catch a smaller bus for less than an hour to the scenic small town we have booked our next guesthouse in. I hand my large backpack to the bus attendant as we approach our ride, and he inquires in Spanish what my final destination will be.
“Vamos a Salento,” I tell him. I pause as I look at him juggling 4 or 5 large suitcases, his thin arms buried by the weight of all of our things. He can’t be more than 12 or 13 years old.
“You should get the direct bus to Salento,” he tells me, still conversing in Spanish, to which I reply that there are no more direct buses today.
“You should stay in Medellin and wait for the direct bus,” the small boy insists. But I explain that tonight is Halloween and all the accommodation I know of is fully booked. His wide eyes shift sharply away from mine. He seems conflicted. No matter his hesitation, his job was still to make sure I got on the bus. Rushed to board by the shoves of passengers behind me, I stepped aboard the bus to Salento despite his low whispers.
Eight hours later we found ourselves in what seemed exactly like the same depot we departed from. There were the same rows of black and red coach buses, many blaring rhythmic tunes and most surrounded by some small person selling snacks. Jaimee and I know we have to find our next bus quickly, as it’s the last one that runs for the evening.
“Salento? Dónde está el autobús por Salento?” We run through the station strapped to our heavy packs, stopping men in cowboy hats and frantically asking many people to kindly point us in the right direction.
Our frenzy to arrive on the right bus ends with us being the first to board a much smaller vehicle, one that couldn’t have held more than twenty people. It feels eerily empty in comparison to the flurry of activity elsewhere. I continue to ask passerbys my one-word question, “Salento?”
Some short minutes later the bus has obtained a few more fellow passengers, and we begin to crawl out of the depot. I wonder as I look around at the others around me, Am I on the right bus? I had asked enough times to be more than a little certain. I did notice that we were the only tourists…but since when, in all my years of traveling, was that a cause for concern? I put in my headphones and drifted off, leaning my head against the cold window as I prepare for the final leg of our long journey.
The bus slowed to a halt no more than ten minutes later. Out the window I notice the shadowy outline of a church. It’s not yet dark out, but it’s getting there. I didn’t realize this bus stopped anywhere else, thinking no more of the five people we pick up on the outskirts of town. With them a few families climb on board, squishing into the back beside me. Little girls no more than five years old, dressed in their sparkling princess costumes, are eager to show me their trick-or-treat loot. I smile widely at them and decline their offer to share their candy as we giggle together and speak softly in Spanish. The sun continues to set.
I awaken sharply from my daydreaming out the window. Nearly just as soon as the light had disappeared from the sky, I feel my headphones yanked suddenly and violently from my ears. Before I have time to realize what is happening, I feel the chain of a favorite necklace similarly ripped from my neck. With the bus picking up speed and the fluorescent lights flung on, I see from the periphery as five men leap to the aisles of the bus. Each of them held a black handgun.
My eyes scan the small bus interior in utter disbelief. One of them stands defiantly at the front. Another holds a gun to the bus driver’s head. I look over at Jaimee and see a woman beside her. She is armed as well, and searching frantically my friend’s seat for her Apple laptop.
I struggle to take all of this in; I hear the woman in front of me sobbing like her life depends on it long before I notice the teenager shaking in front of me. Like the rest of them, he had a gun fragilely draping from his fingertips.
The boy searched my body for valuables. I nudged my small backpack, the one I keep on me at all times, the one with my money, computer, camera, lenses, and passport in it…thinking that if I pushed it enough under the seat in front of me perhaps it would go unnoticed. The reach of his hands continues across my lap and then, underneath my clothes, causing me to force his hand away. It was a sudden movement I wouldn’t have made from any place other than pure instinct, and a mistake I quickly realized wasn’t smart with a gun pointed at me.
He stopped his search of my body and proceeded to the floor. I’ll never forget the noise he made when he found my bag under the seat. It was a sound as if to say nothing more than, ah…this is what you’ve been keeping from me. This is what I thought you might have on you when I boarded this bus with this loaded gun.
With every valuable I owned now in his arms, the teenager who had been assigned to rob me stood in the aisle beside me. The bus lights went down, and I sat slightly petrified next to him. The Colombian woman in front of me was still crying.
How could he sit there with all of my things? He’s just a kid, I thought. And why did this happen to me? I wasn’t giving papaya — other than my blond hair I didn’t stand out; I am dressed like a ragged backpacker. I don’t look rich, but I don’t look Colombian either. This kid doesn’t stop to know I grew up with a Colombian aunt, that I’m here to prove how wonderful his country is, that I’m near fluent in Spanish.
With complete calm, I realize the one item that I need to ask him for in this moment. I speak in a low whisper, channeling my aunt’s accent to him. The Spanish flows from my lips without thought. I need my passport.
He begins to search my small bag, eventually handing me a red leather luggage tag that is nearly the size of a passport. I had removed it from my black backpack when we landed, realizing it made me stand out too much.
It was not my passport, but he was trying. He began to ask me where in the bag he could find it. For a moment, I felt that he might be able to give me the one thing I really did not want to let go of.
Mid-sentence I sense the presence of another man, another gun. I raise my eyes from the floor where my bag sat and stare directly into the barrel of a loaded gun. I feel the cold metal pressed lightly to my temple. Acting again out of pure instinct, I duck and cover my head with both my arms.
I now know that part of my mind has blocked this moment out to some degree, but in this moment I do feel that I am about to lose my life. I can no longer see the figures of the hijackers, not even their outlines. I only feel them, feel the charge in the air that must come from the waiting for their moment of escape, from the holding of a firearm in each of their hands.
I don’t look up again until the lights flash on and the group of men and women with guns rush to depart. We have reached their exit point. They leave the bus with every bag on board. They take every item I have traveled with, down to the cheap jewelry I was wearing. What will they do with my journal, I wonder? They can’t even read it.
The bus drives slowly on, the driver now without a loaded gun at his head, until it stutters to a stop. The lights remain on, but the darkness is fully upon us. It hits me that we are in the middle of a Colombian jungle. I feel the woman seated in front of me reach for my hand. She squeezes it with every ounce of her strength, as though it might transport us both out of this nightmare. I look down at my hand as if to feel some pain, either physical or emotional. I feel nothing.
The bus isn’t going anywhere. I’m eerily calm and clear-headed, almost detached from everything happening around me. Sitting in shock and disbelief, I’m as if I’m merely a witness to it all, watching everything take place from behind a protective partition. It’s not until cars begin to pass us, and the young girls, still dressed in their princess outfits, begin to bang loudly with their small hands on the bus windows to try and get their attention. Each car flies past us, a bus full of people stopped in the middle of the highway, but no one will stop. The cries of the small girls grows louder and more desperate. This is yet another sound that I will never forget.
The policia arrive suspiciously soon. They seem overly concerned with what I lost in the hijacking. All I can think about is how the bus still isn’t moving. As the police officer asks me to estimate the total amount of what I just lost, my mind wanders to imagine the robbers running back to the bus and shooting us through the back window. Can we please turn the engine back on and drive away to anywhere that isn’t here? For the first time in all my life, I feel completely powerless.
I don’t think I formed a coherent thought for the next few hours. Not even the Spanish that flowed effortlessly from my mouth, words that I didn’t even know I knew, came from a conscious place. Then sitting in the Salento police station, where we had been escorted, I was jolted back to reality with a few words from one of the officers, “can’t you just get the money back from your American insurance?”
I lost a necklace that belonged to my grandmother. I lost a journal that I’ve kept on five different continents. I lost photos I didn’t have time to backup in between trips, I thought. No, the money from the insurance I don’t have will not buy me back these things. I believed my life would end tonight. But how do I begin to explain this?
Name? Address? Age? Profession? The questions barked at me in Spanish are seeming endless. I shudder to think of navigating the experience had I not known the language. I notice that hardly anyone else from the bus has accompanied us to the police station.
“I’m a journalist,” I tell them. Though I usually have to think through whether to divulge this information when abroad, I state it matter-of-factly, and for the first time in all this organized chaos, I see an officer’s ears perk up as if something is out of the ordinary.
“I came to Colombia to write an article about it, to help bring tourists here.” I tell them. “How can I do that when I just lost my livelihood?” I scan their faces for a reaction, for any recognition of the meaning of my words. I get nothing.
“You need to wait here until we finish filing the reports. Then we’ll take you to your guesthouse.” They gesture to two empty chairs at the end of a row in the main room. I don’t want to go with them to our guesthouse. I don’t trust them at all. But without money or so much as a cell phone, what choice do I have?
We arrive at our planned accommodation on a small finca, or farm, in the back of cop cars like a couple of fugitives. Over the next few days that is exactly what we will feel like…we’re not guests at the house, but two terrified travelers waiting out the holiday weekend. We were two friends without so much as an identification card or a clean pair of underwear on us. We didn’t dare cry or complain, and as I would soon learn, we most certainly could not ask any questions.
This never happens.
Which is how I found myself sinking into the bench seat of that rusted car. The sadness in the eyes of that old Colombian man expressed understanding as I ran inside to the guesthouse computer to email my mother, powerless on the other side of the world, the numbers and letters of his license plate. At least she’d have this information in the event that she didn’t hear from me in the next 12 hours.
I had had plenty of time to call and block all of my credit cards, to plead with the embassy to process our emergency passport applications the moment they opened, to search the faces of every local I met for a shred of empathy. I hadn’t yet had a moment to wonder what this meant for me as a traveler, as a human being who had trusted nearly every person she came into contact with, no matter what part of town or which foreign country she found herself in. I was numb. I was terrified. I was relieved to be alive.
When they took my passport photo for the emergency passport in Bogota, I was so exhausted from crying and not sleeping that I couldn’t even keep both eyes open. My eyes twitched back and forth frantically as if in constant search of respite.
I was so scared of getting in cabs even to and from the embassy that I stopped three different police officers each time to vet the drivers before I would get in. I had “exchanged” money with a fellow traveler at the guesthouse, a young German backpacker who had given me cash after my solemn story in exchange for my promise to PayPal him the money once I got home. I had taken just enough to pay for our passports and our taxis, and no more.
So when the American embassy told us we’d be required to purchase passport-sized photographs for our rush application, we asked why no one had told us we needed money for that prior. We’d also need to leave the embassy to get the photos taken. That wasn’t “a service they provided.” I searched the American agent’s eyes for empathy, but again we were met with none of the warmth I had come to expect.
“Please, we have no money for our cab to the airport if we spend the last of our cash on these photos. Is there no way you can take them here?” She pursed her lips and nodded no. They can’t help us. If they gave money to us, they’d have to give it to everyone. She tells me she is sorry. I sigh in disbelief, but also relief at feeling perhaps one step closer to leaving this place.
The final hours before our departure were stacked with the additional stress of not being guaranteed same-day processing for our passports, the single item we’d be boarding the plane to go home with. As I sat in the hard plastic chair, I felt some tiny comfort knowing that at that moment, I was technically on American soil. I closed my eyes for the first time in days, took a deep breath, and heard my assigned number called over the loudspeaker.
“A46?” The American embassy agent confirmed with a question as I leapt eagerly to the counter.
“Your passport has been issued. Have a safe trip home,” she said as she passed the thin blue book under the glass partition. She met my eyes. I looked back at her with quiet resignation.
A few steps from the window I opened my passport and glimpsed at my own passport photo with devastation and pity. I did not recognize the woman in that photo.
Flipping through the final two or three pages, I came upon some money tucked into the back. Puzzled, I turned my head as I felt a half-smile come across my face. This wasn’t policy — she had made that clear. But in that moment, she gave me more than just what I needed to get home — she gave me understanding.
The words she had spoken moments earlier became the last sound from Colombia I’d never forget.
“This happens all the time.”
Anne Lowrey is an award-winning freelance travel writer based in San Francisco. She is a member of the content teams for both TripAdvisor and Skyscanner, with freelance work appearing in publications such as BBC Travel and Eater. Anne passionately believes you don’t have to give up the life you’re already living to see the world. She blogs at Part-Time Traveler, which emphasizes the connection between and balance of travel and home. She holds degrees in English and Global Studies from UCLA.