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Marko Milanovic / Stocksy

Stories

Learning How to Travel after Trauma

An adventurous globe-trotter rediscovers how to travel with confidence again.

Even seasoned adventurers can find their confidence shaken after experiencing trauma during travel.

It is 3 in the morning, and I am stumbling back to my hostel on the one main street in town, embarrassingly drunk. Spatially, at least, I am aware. The waves of the roaring Caribbean beach are to my left, and on the right, a slew of shops and a dense, tropical jungle. It is a Friday night in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, and the Costa Rican beach town near the farm I will be living at for the next six weeks is deserted, save for the last couple of lingerers at the reggaeton bar I just left. Aside from a couple of incandescent street lamps and the occasional light bulb in front of the shops, it is pitch dark. The evening is illuminated primarily by the moon.

“I just . . . I just don’t trust men,” I find myself saying to the Frenchman walking next to me, whom I have no recollection of meeting before this very moment. I feel a lump in my throat and promptly force myself to ignore it, surprised at the sudden onslaught of emotions. Where did that statement come from? What were we even talking about? Who is this guy?

I defied conventional travel tips because I was adamant about not subscribing to common fears. I believed that people are inherently good, with a fervor that was borderline religious.

Behind us is my hostel roommate, a fiery woman from Quebec named Jessica who I had met two days before on the bus. She is chatting away with another French guy we met at the bar. This guy who’s talking to me must be his friend, I think.

The Frenchman motions behind me. My hostel roommate and her guy had turned into an alley to look for her bicycle that she rented. Also presumably to make out. We are only 10 feet away from my hostel. We stop and I decide to wait for her. Drunk as I am, I have enough common sense to maintain the buddy system.

“What do you mean?” my Frenchman asks. “Not all men are bad.”

“I don’t know! I just don’t, OK?” I say, finding myself getting increasingly annoyed by the questions. How did we even get into this conversation? Irritated and tired of waiting for Jessica, I’m about to dramatically stomp away to the hostel by myself when I feel that I’m being violently grabbed.

“Money! Give me your money! Money!” a man barks at me. There is a knife at my wrist, angled so that with a little bit of pressure, it could easily slice me. The weapon is being held by a stocky man with a heavy accent. The Frenchman latches onto the man’s knife hand and screams at him to let me go. There is a lot of yelling. He takes my purse, my cash, and cell phone, and runs away.

I don’t remember his face or what he looked like, I tell the police officers. No, I don’t remember whether he wore a mask. I was too focused on that knife and how it glistened in the moonlight.

Costa Rica
photo by Clarissa Wei

Two mornings later, there was a dead body in front of my hostel, just a few feet away from where I had been robbed. I watched, stunned, as the blood and guts were washed away from the street. Just like that, an entire life was gone.

The man who died was a tourist who was also mugged. Maybe by the same guy. The difference was that he fought back.

It was only a few days before being robbed in front of my hostel that I had been scammed by an unmarked taxicab driver and robbed of $50 in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. I had already tucked that memory away and forgotten about it.

This I could not. Knife on wrist. A murder. How do you reconcile with that?

I never thought it would happen to me. Before my Costa Rica trip, I had led backpacking trips on volcanoes in Nicaragua. I had camped in the far western corners of China, where most Chinese people are afraid to travel. I had gone by car to Honduras, a country which is under a US State Department travel warning. For two weeks to study Spanish, I was the only tourist in an Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador. I had walked home alone on countless nights in many cities across the world. I had hitched many car rides from people whom I just met on the streets. I had gone scuba diving by myself in Mexico. Once after being kicked out of my tour group in Tibet, I befriended locals and drank beers with artists and restaurateurs I met in town.

I defied conventional travel tips because I was adamant about not subscribing to common fears. I believed that people are inherently good, with a fervor that was borderline religious.

Costa Rican beach
photo by Clarissa Wei

Yet after the robbery, I found myself uncharacteristically paralyzed while living in Puerto Viejo. I couldn’t go into town without a friend. I stopped drinking. I suffered panic attacks when I took walks on quiet streets at nightfall, regardless of whether I had company. I found myself stereotyping people based on color, a reality that I am embarrassed and horrified to admit.

The hard truth is that I was naïve.

As a traveling writer who had traversed the globe by herself for the last two years, I prided myself on my ability to trust people. But my confidence was shaken. Forever the idealist, I wish I could say that I have reverted to my old self.

I haven’t. I’m a lot warier.

The hard truth is that I was naïve. It wasn’t safe to get into strange cars or stumble around drunk in the middle of the night on my own—no matter what city I was in. A woman shouldn’t have to feel unsafe walking the streets in the dark, but unfortunately that isn’t the reality we inhabit.

Costa Rica
photo by Clarissa Wei

One evening weeks later in that same Costa Rican town, my girlfriends were determined to hitchhike to a nearby town to eat at a restaurant owned by a man we had met earlier that day. We began to walk in that direction, until the shops began to taper off and it was just jungle and beach and a few streetlights. And as the sky turned from cotton candy pink to rose to a deep navy blue, I began to panic. Here we were: four girls, walking alone on the streets with very few people, looking to hitchhike.

My hands began to tremble. We reached a part of the road where there were no more shops. Just cars and darkness. More darkness and darkness. The trauma of being at knifepoint came rolling back. I remembered the exact texture of that blade on my wrist. The fear I felt. How it took me completely by surprise.

“Guys. Sorry. I need to leave,” I said to my friends. I backed away, the sky rapidly changing hues. They looked bewildered.

“This has nothing to do with you guys,” I assured them. “But I really can’t be here.”

I took my sweet time walking home, taking in the sounds of owls, insects, rodents, and all living things. The sweet fireflies, the hooting and whooping of mysterious things. Immediately, I felt a wave of relief.

And then I ran. I ran in the direction that we came from until I saw a little restaurant with a light. I ran inside and begged the owner to call me a taxi. She told me a bus would be there soon. I told her I lived in the jungle and that wouldn’t do. A taxi picked me up, and in my broken Spanish, I relayed the entire story to the driver. About the robbery, about the murder. Because I needed to get it out. Because I needed to connect with this taxi driver, who was taking me—alone—to my home in the jungle. He could sense my anxiety and tried his best to make small talk, as if indirectly assuring me that nothing would happen and that I could trust him. I did. We turned left off of the street onto an unpaved road, straight into the mountains where the farm I was staying was located.

“Tigre?” he asked half-joking when he dropped me off, suggesting a jungle cat could jump out and eat me. I assured him I could manage and I bid him a thankful goodbye. In the pitch dark with my headlamp strapped on, I began to stroll. I took my sweet time walking home, taking in the sounds of owls, insects, rodents, and all living things. The sweet fireflies, the hooting and whooping of mysterious things. Immediately, I felt a wave of relief.

I still hold steadfast to my belief that most are inherently good and the malicious are few and far between.

In nature, creatures are not evil. In the forest, I am safe. Unlike man, it takes only what it needs. For the first time on my trip, I was walking alone at night without any sort of apprehension. My mind was startlingly quiet.

This moment reminded me that I am not deterred from traveling alone. While not all people are good all the time, I still hold steadfast to my belief that most are inherently good and the malicious are few and far between.

I had found my limits and acted accordingly, with no shame and embarrassment. I could trust myself to stay within those limits. That was when the healing began.

Three months later I visited my French companion in France, where we ran down sand dunes and picnicked by the beach with wine and delicious rabbit pâté. The Costa Rica incident, at this point, was just another story. As we sat there, continents away from where we had first met, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the first words I had said to him: “I just don’t trust men.”

He handed me a glass of wine, and we had a toast.

“Salud,” he said.

“Salud,” I replied, smiling and marveling at how far trust had taken me. Around the world, to France, and sipping wine with a stranger who was now my friend.

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