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The Proverbial Slap in the Face

Getting robbed in a strange place was the proverbial slap in the face I needed to turn off cruise control and come back to the present moment.
This was the first instance in my life when I really had to stop watching and letting things happen, and actually stand up and take some steps on my own. Image of a stone Buddha amidst bright green leaves, rain has fallen on the cheek of the Buddha giving the appearance of tears of relief.

A master of the Southern School of Ch’an Buddhism used violent methods to shock his disciples to enlightenment. Whether it was with a shout, a slap in the face or strikes from a stick, the idea was that the sudden jolt would pull the disciples away from their thoughts and to the present moment. This part of my story is about my proverbial slap in the face and how it changed the entire flavour of my travels.

A bad start

Squeezing my eyes shut away from the light in the shared hostel room, I rolled over and pulled the thick, down blanket up over my head. Eventually, my roommates and fellow travellers shut the lights and left. Gratefully, I poked my nose out from beneath the blanket and inhaled deeply, relishing the cool, mountain air. It had been two days since I had arrived in La Paz and I had spent the majority of my time between this very bed and the bathroom.

‘It was that mango,’ I thought sullenly. A vision of the colourful fruit sitting on top of the heater in the overnight bus came to my mind, ‘It fermented and made me sick. That and this altitude. What are we, 3000 m, 4000 m above sea level?’ Moaning, I got up and hurried to the bathroom once again.

Later that evening, I ventured out to a small, sandwich vendor close to the hostel. The bathroom visits were much less frequent but I still didn’t want to stray too far from the hostel, or risk eating extravagant food. Purchasing a sandwich I retreated to the hostel for the night.

proverbial slap in the face | The Proverbial Slap in the Face

The next morning, I woke up feeling significantly better. Feeling determined, I had breakfast and packed some coca leaves for the day to help ward off altitude sickness. Grabbing my bag, I set out to explore.

Colourful markets with exotic clothing, food and people welcomed me.

I smiled to myself, enjoying the hubbub of the busy markets and wandering happily around La Paz. I hit all the popular spots in town, guided by the tourist map my hostel had graciously provided me. After a while, I began to get tired. Locating myself on the map and the direction I needed to go, I started heading back to the main road. Once there, I stored the map safely in my bag; it was a good bag given to me by my mother. It was water resistant with a thick, durable strap and many pockets to store things. Keeping one hand on my bag, I headed down the road to my hostel.

A stout, nervous-looking woman carrying a map approached me and asked for directions. I smiled, knowing what it felt like to be lost. Noticing that her destination was just down the road from my hostel, I invited her to walk with me, making small talk to make her feel more comfortable. We stopped at the lights, waiting for traffic to let up.

We moved with the crowd, circumambulating a partial guard-rail hugging the corner of the opposite sidewalk. She moved ahead of me and we walked through the narrow passageway between the building on the corner and the curved guard-rail.

A stocky police officer approached us from the other direction and asked to see our passports, explaining that Bolivia was plagued by fake money, documents and crime. I clutched my practical bag and watched as the woman readily handed over her passport. She nodded reassuringly to me, “This is normal, it has happened to me four times in the past two days.”

Hesitantly, I opened one of the many pockets in the cross-body bag and pulled out my passport. Unwilling to hand it over to the officer, I pointed to my entry stamp.

“Let me see,” he waited patiently for me to hand it over.

At the woman’s nod, I let go of my passport and the rest is a blur.

Looking at both passports, the man claimed that we both needed to accompany him to the police station. “Don’t worry, they just need to verify something and they’ll let you go. You’re not in trouble.” The backseat car door slammed shut behind me. The woman handed over her purse to get her documents verified and the officer began going through it, aggressively pulling things out and shoving them unceremoniously back in. The car began moving. My passport was tucked into the sun visor of the passenger seat. My purse was next. We stopped somewhere, the driver got out and walked around. The woman pulled my attention to her. The stocky officer continued to question me. The driver came back and continued to drive.

The car stopped, I was told I could go. He handed me back my passport and my bag. Looking around in confusion, I walked back in the direction we had come and back into the safety of my hostel.

Sitting down to stop my heart from racing, I opened up my purse to look for my phone only to find that it wasn’t there. My eyes widened and a feeling of dread grew inside me. Unwilling to see the fruit of my own foolishness, I opened up all the pockets of my practical, water-resistant purse; they were empty as I knew they would be. Credit cards, cash, cell phone, everything was gone. All that was left was my passport and the map I’d used to navigate the city.

I began hyperventilating.

I rushed to the front desk and explained what had happened in tears. “Why did you take your passport with you? Why did you take so much cash with you? You could’ve left it all here. We have lockers!”

The front desk agent picked up the phone to call the tourist police and a backpacker who had overheard my story offered me his phone to call my credit card company, call home and do what I needed to do.

He sat with me and told me about his own experiences getting robbed and pick-pocketed, “It’s kind of a right of passage. It has to happened at least once, then you smarten up.”

I didn’t know what to do next.

Most of the cash I’d taken out for the trip was gone. My mother demanded that I board a flight and come home. I was frozen, unsure of how to process the situation. The next few days passed in a haze, everyone was sympathetic, they shared their own robbery stories and time with me, but somehow it was different because it was happening to me. There’s no way they’d understand. Using borrowed cell phones, I continued to call home and listen to my mother’s pleas. I sat down in front of the hostel computer, wrote emails, cancelled reservations I’d made and began looking for flights. I wasn’t ready to go home but maybe travel wasn’t for me after all.

proverbial slap in the face | The Proverbial Slap in the Face

A familiar face showed up, it was a girl I’d befriended on my way here. Using public transit, we visited badlands just outside the city, “You don’t need much money to do things here. In fact, many hostels will let you volunteer and stay for free. Sometimes, they’ll even throw in meals. Then you can use what you have to do other things.” She told me about a comfortable, central hostel in Cusco, Peru with hot water, breakfast and other amenities. “Go there, volunteer and take time to decide what you want to do.”

She told me about cheaper local buses that I could use, “The bus stations you’ve been using are for tourists. Local buses are much cheaper.”

I was still unsure. Could I do it? Could I be that strong?

‘Don’t come back home, Parm. It’ll leave a sour taste in your mouth and you’ll never travel again,’ a good friend responded to my email. She was the only one who encouraged me to stay.

Making up my mind, I spoke to a woman who worked at the hostel where I was staying. She told me about a local bus station not too far away. The bus heading to Cusco was leaving in an hour.

My uncertainty took a back seat, I packed my bags while she called me a cab. Giving her and my friend grateful, goodbye hugs, I rushed off to board that bus.

I didn’t come here to quit.

In the beginning of my travels in South America, I was a spectator to most things that happened in my life. I participated in my life but only to the extent of performing basic functions, like eating, dressing myself and sleeping.

Getting sick and getting robbed in a strange place was the proverbial slap in the face I needed to break the mould I was in, turn off cruise control and bring my attention to the present moment. I had been asleep, drowning in a dense haze created by my own mind until the castle I’d built in the air came crashing down and reality rushed up to meet me. This definitely wasn’t the only proverbial slap I needed, but it was the first instance in my life when I really had to stop watching and letting things happen, and actually stand up and take some steps of my own.

I faced many, many more challenges but I can definitely say that this was a turning point in my life.

proverbial slap in the face | The Proverbial Slap in the Face
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Parm Saggu

Hey, I'm Parm! I help people who long for a deeper meaning in life but feel caged by societal expectations to break free, uncover the secrets of life, and forge a path to be the difference they want to see in the world.

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