The Price of Bliss (It’s Not About the Gun)

A gun doesn’t look like a gun when it’s pointed at you – at least it didn’t to me. It looked like a dark gaping hole – an ominous round circle, the center of which disappeared into a black void. That circle is the first and really the only thing I saw when I was mugged at gunpoint a couple of weeks ago about a half mile from my home in Barranquilla.

An artist's rendering of a black hole in the Milky Way, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An artist’s rendering of a black hole in the Milky Way, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It happened like this: I left the house around 4:00 pm on a Saturday afternoon, to do my weekly “long run”. I had planned to jog 18 miles through Barranquilla’s northern neighborhoods, but about eight miles in, I wasn’t feeling it. At mile 10, I reached the Parque Electrificadora that’s popular with many runners – there’s about a ½ mile loop around it – and stopped to walk. The sun had gone down, but plenty of people were out. I decided to walk toward home. I did not think this was a dicey decision – it’s about a mile between my house and the park on a busy street through an upscale neighborhood.

As I left the park, I had my iPhone’s Nike+ app that I used to track my runs on pause because I wasn’t sure whether I would start running again. As I walked, I realized that having it on pause was a bad idea; it caused the phone to stay lit inside its case on my arm, which meant that I was “dando papaya” – displaying a valuable that might attract thieves. I took the phone off my arm, pressed stop so that the phone would sleep normally, and then – as has been my custom ever since my first “crackberry” – I took a moment to check my email. The next thing I knew, the black circle was in my face.

What I did not see as I checked my email was that a motorcycle with two guys on it had pulled up behind me. (I was walking the same direction as the traffic on this one-way street.) The guy on the back jumped off and approached me with the gun. He never removed his helmet, so I never saw his face, and I could barely hear what he was saying. I think he was saying “dámelo, dámelo” – “give it to me, give it to me.” I reacted as if someone had told me a spider was crawling up my arm. I started viciously brushing any detachable items off my body – my beloved Armpocket, my iPhone, my brand new (brought from the U.S. by my dear husband) Amphipod water bottle, and my earphones – while saying in English (I usually switch to my native language when startled), “Take it, take it.” I threw everything on the ground in front of the thief. He leaned down and grabbed it all, careful to keep the gun on me. Then he hopped on the motorcycle and the two guys drove off.

The experience took probably 30 seconds. The impact was more lasting, and came in stages.

For those of you who have seen the Sex and the City episode in which Carrie is mugged and left standing barefoot and penniless on a dark New York street, you can sense immediately that she has been robbed not only of her Manolo Blahniks, but also of her power. That’s what happens in these types of incidents – you temporarily lose your power – but my first reaction was to deny it. In the immediate aftermath, I wasn’t so much shaken as intently focused on getting home so that I could turn on the “Find My Phone” feature in iCloud, call the cops, and get my justice. As anyone not blinded by adrenaline might have expected, tracking the phone was impossible because the thief turned the phone off, and calling the cops was futile given my total lack of information (no description, no plate number, etc.).

Once I realized I wasn’t going to get the phone or my power back, I started to feel shame and guilt. I had been warned multiple times not to take my phone out in public. This incident was going to cause my husband a lot of worry, not to mention time and money in replacing the phone. The robber had on a vest bearing the motorcycle’s plate number – a requirement in Medellín and Bogotá due the use of motorcycles in narco-related homicides in the 80’s and early 90’s, but not in Barranquilla – and yet I hadn’t focused on the number. And I shouldn’t have been running after dark in the first place. The list goes on. Still, I maintained a tough girl front.

No matter how “unaffected” I seemed, I realized the next day that that wasn’t the case. Two people in the supermarket kindly tried to stop me to return a 2000 peso bill (worth about a dollar) that I had dropped and I literally shrieked in their faces. This was despite the fact that it was daytime, the store was crowded, and my husband was standing next to me. The day after that, I was walking the baby to school in his stroller when a driver started reversing her car without looking back. The front wheel of the stroller – it’s one of those long three-wheeled running strollers – was just behind her back tire. I moved the baby in plenty of time, but when I saw that she was berating me through her rolled up window, obviously indicating that it was my fault when it was clearly hers, I went ballistic. “Tú! Es tu culpa!” – “You! It’s your fault!” – I screamed, before moving on. I shook for the rest of the morning.

Since those two days, I have been fine. I am grateful that no harm came to me and that the thieves didn’t take my wedding ring. That being said, the black hole was threatening enough to stay in my thoughts. In what is probably the final phase of integrating this occurrence into my personal history, looking at the specter of that gun repeatedly in my mind has brought into much clearer focus some important aspects of my life philosophy.

Despite this, I hesitated to blog about the mugging. I would have preferred that my parents not know about it, and they read this blog. (At this point, I’ve already told them.) I would also rather not play into the stereotype of Colombia as dangerous and crime ridden. After all, within a few blocks of my home in Miami, two of my friends were mugged and beaten up, and just down the street – outside my former office – a coworker was held up at gunpoint and stripped of everything, including her most sentimental jewelry. It could easily have happened there, and if it had, I think I might have feared much more for my personal safety. Here, even as the robbery was happening, I understood that the thieves wanted only the phone. Despite the stories I’ve been told of locals here being robbed of their phones in similar motorcycle heists (sometimes armed, sometimes not), I remain confident that Colombia – particularly the Caribbean region – is quite safe. I wouldn’t want my story to discourage anyone from coming.

So why write about it at all? For two reasons. First, this blog is largely about leaps of faith – their rewards and their challenges. If I talked to you only about the rewards, then eventually you would become skeptical. I owe it to you to discuss the challenges too. Secondly, I write because I want to share what the dark hole clarified for me.

Throughout my life, for better or worse, I’ve taken some major leaps of faith. I have done so because I believe strongly in the Joseph Campbell adage that you should “follow your bliss.” I am spiritual enough to think that when you are following the path that truly speaks to your heart, doors will open for you and “magical helpers” (another Joseph Campbell concept) will ease your way. But experience has also taught me that following your bliss is not without its price.

Plenty of inspirational, self-help type literature will try to convince you that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following your bliss. That is not my experience of it. My experience of following your bliss is that you will gain far more than you lose, but that you will indeed have losses. In ways large and small, you will pay a price for living a full, authentic life and being true to yourself. As the pianist Mademoiselle Reisz admonished Edna in The Awakening, if you wish to fly above “the level plain of tradition and prejudice” – and chances are that you’ll have to do that if you want to lead an authentic life – then you must have strong wings. If you want to fly, you will have to know yourself and be ready to learn, adapt, and re-route when you come up against your own immutable limitations (we all have them – another thing that some self-help literature would rather ignore).

So how do you know which leap of faith will be worth whatever price you have to pay? How do you know which will provide maximum rewards with minimum losses? I can’t answer those questions. What I can tell you is that you cannot follow your bliss and compromise your core values at the same time. Figure out what your core values are – mine are freedom, truth, and love – and protect them. Turn back from any path that threatens them. For example, since one of my core values is freedom, living in a place so unsafe that I need a bodyguard, or where women are oppressed by the State, would not be a wise for me. It would cause me to be unhappy at my most basic level. (With regard to the bodyguard, I know this from experience.)

Protecting your core values won’t ensure that your wins exceed your losses, and it won’t guarantee that every leap you make will be the right one. It will, however, ensure that you are able to maintain your integrity and self-respect. It will keep you whole so that you’ll be ready for the next leap if and when it’s appropriate.

Facing a gun was perhaps one of the prices I had to pay for blazing my own little trail here in Colombia. While it did cause me to do a check on my core values, they’re still intact. The leap has been and continues to be worth it, and really, I can’t ask for more than that. Onward.

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12 responses to “The Price of Bliss (It’s Not About the Gun)

  1. Onward, indeed. You’re a wise, brave and compassionate person. And for my two cents, the reason to blog about this horrific experience is because you’re a WRITER. And THAT is truly at your core: your creativity. It is how you process and interpret and make sense of the world. For someone else, this incident would ultimately devolve into an anecdote, or fodder for therapy. You share it, beautifully articulated, and turn it into part of an ongoing prism through which we can experience a world (American ex-patriate in Colombia) most of us only fantasize about: taking the leap, starting fresh, following our bliss. Now, do me a favor and buy a treadmill! Enough with this craziness!

  2. Beautiful post. So glad you are okay. As Glennon Melton would say, Carry On, Warrior!

  3. So glad you are OK. What a frightening experience!

  4. Onward indeed.

    I used to believe that Joseph Campbell only applied to within the USA and Canada, two divine civil countries. Outside of the USA and Canada, you can only hope.

    I admire anyone who moves to Colombia and I enjoy your blog but I must say that I would never jog in Killa. Too much poverty, lost of guns. People get hot sometimes.

    My wife was almost robbed at gun point near Parque Venezuela at an open air “restaurant” like Fast Food near Harvi. Her brother was shot 7 years ago. I remember the day she learned of it.

    I would buy a treadmill, a stationary bicycle, join a gym or swim at El Prado hotel or Com Barranquilla. Not saying that Killa is a prison but in all due respect I am saying that it is not Central Park.

    But what happened to you could happen anywhere at almost anytime.

    Glad it only ended with you being in emotional shock. Wish you a return to normal emotions.

  5. Scary! I’m so sorry you had to go through that but glad you’re ok. Something very similar happened to a gringa volunteer back in April. She was jogging in Olaya (a bit south of Colegio Americano, a much less affluent area) with an iPhone around 7pm when a moto pulled up and pointed a gun at her.
    Your thoughts on “leaps of faith” ring close to my heart as well – there’s a certain risk of crime and violence living anywhere but being a foreigner amplifies the threat. A lot of gringos that I know naively go on and on about how “safe” Barranquilla is and it makes my paranoid heart race even faster! I’m going to share your story with my volunteers if you don’t mind.
    I hope this is your one scare and it’s only tranquilidad from here on out!

    • Hi Brighid! Definitely feel free to share the story. After this happened to me, I had local after local tell me the same story. The motorcycle thing with the phones seems to be common. I was always focused on the threat coming from the “sidewalk side” of the sidewalk; my radar wasn’t up at all for the threat to come from the street itself.

  6. Holy crap! Looks like my Sept 12 comment was very prophetic … I almost feel guilty, like I caused it to happen.

    Courtenay, I have to say many of your posts have been very naive and you’re still seeing Colombia through rose-coloured glasses. Just because you’re a nice person sure as heck doesn’t mean everyone else is! That said, I don’t want to dump on you any further and I’m very sorry this happened to you.

    You did absolutely the right thing by giving up everything you had, and fast! Be proud of that. In all probability you would have been shot if you hadn’t. In today’s El Heraldo, there’s an article on a 22 year old, 6 month pregnant woman who was stabbed for her tablet.

    I don’t live in BAQ, but I’ve been there many times and hope to go again this year for Christmas … so far nothing has ever happened to me, but I often wonder how something like this would tarnish the love I have for the people and country.

    • Actually, your comment came just a few days after the incident, and I was like, wow…. how could I not have understood all along that I shouldn’t have run with my phone like that? You definitely understood the risk… particularly with motorcycles (I just didn’t really expect the threat to come that way)… better than I did. Thanks for your input!

  7. I did indeed get a gym membership. Yay! Thank you all so much for your concern and kind words.

  8. i am visiting Colombia and your City in January …the one thing i have learned in research is they will rob any phone ipad computer over anything else at anytime in major cities…told to me by mainly Colombians..usually on a street fast getaway…Im glad you shared this with us as confirmation to us ,,it really is more common to be robbed like this over time than not to be i am told..especially phone or electronic gadgets….bad experience..but your cup is very full yet.

  9. sorry if this posts twice…I have friends in Your city.. yes they feel safe there..but yes this type of robbery with motorbike is all too common in major cities…cooperate? and they leave fast with you unharmed…good fast thinking for you…we all learned from this Experience..In the States also

  10. Pingback: Five “Normal” American Things That Can Seem Pretty Weird | Barranquilla or Bust!

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