And on the sixth day, I was robbed.
I don't start like that to make you feel sorry for me, I just don't think a preamble is necessary. I had been in my chosen city for 6 days...and I was robbed on public transportation. This story is not big news, or even surprising news. During the 2012 Olympics in London 1,700 people were pickpocketed a day. 33% of travel insurance claims are made for lost or stolen possessions. Every day 400,000 people are pickpocketed around the world. The fact that my wallet and phone were stolen out in broad daylight is not fascinating, if anything it's just another statistic.
For my situation it was basically accellerated culture shock. It was like the people I was desperately trying to embrace were saying, "Welcome! Now get out."
I had been alternating between looking forward to and dreading this day since I arrived. Every new team member does a self-guided tour of this city within their first couple weeks. It's basically a scavenger hunt, except without the race component. We were given a list of important locations in the city, directions on how to reach them, and suggestions for what we should do there. In reality, I was already feeling somewhat emotionall drained and more than a little bit distant. I had not cried yet (or shown any real emotion) about the fact I had left my home for 2 years. The only thing I was really feeling was annoyance. Everything smelled. All the food was spicy. Everyone stared at me all the time because of my glaringly pale skin and "pointy" nose (their words, not mine). I was trying very very hard to force myself to like my surroundings, or at least tolerate them with a smile. I clearly remember sitting on a bus that morning as we started the tour and forcing a smile only my face so the people on the bus would think I loved it there. I didn't want to insult their pride, and I had ample proof that people were already watching me.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't regret coming. I was just shocked that I wasn't going through the touristy "Oh, isn't that so quaint!" phase and just skipping straight to the "they do things differently here, and I'm 57% sure I don't like it" phase. It was a bummer. I had always prided myself on adapting well emotionally with other cultures. "I never got homesick in college, and that's two times longer than this!" or "In Honduras I didn't start feeling homesick until the 10th week, I'll be fine for while. It probably won't be too bad." Instead I was feeling a bit like a failure as a Goer.
But when I got robbed the switch flipped. I instantly transitioned from pretending I was enjoying myself to emotionally revolting against everything. Here is what happened:
We were instructed to go see the city's biggest mosque, it was recommended that we take an oplet. This is a small, van-like taxi that can carry a a couple handfulls of people at once. The street is crawling with them. If you know which oplet to take, you can go nearly anywhere in the city. It costs the same as a bus, but it is quicker and you have more control over where you can step off. Additionally, I knew that I was going to have to take an oplet in order to get to school (which I'd be starting later that week), so I was paying very close attention to the entire process. Are leaders advised us to avoid getting in an empty oplet. The reason was that if a bunch of foreigners get in an oplet we would very likely be charged extra. The driver could decide to give us a "private tour" whether we asked for it or not. So, naturally, as soon as we reached the street an empty oplet pulled up and began beckoning us into the car. Trying to be smart, we haggled price. Our best lanugage speaker made sure the driver would only charge us the regular rate. The driver and his assistant agreed, we got in, and at the last minute a man actually jumped into the oplet with us. They car took off, I sat in the corner with my companions on either side of me. We got out our money, I checked my phone, put my belongings back in my purse and closed it. Almost instantly the driver's assistant started making a ruckus. He decided it was too hot in the oplet (which it was) and that we needed to have our window open. I was sitting in the middle of our group, but I was in the best position to help open the window. Nevertheless, I refused to help. I didn't see the point and was, frankly, annoyed he was being this insistant. He kept yelling and jabbering that I should help open the window and finally, out of annoyance, I agreed. The window was hard to open and required I use both hands. Fresh air flew into the stifling car. The man who was riding with us jumped off. Within 45 seconds I knew what happened. My purse was empty. I began to panic.
The driver, his assistant, and the man who jumped in at the last minute had worked together. They coerced us into their car, distracted us all, and took my phone and wallet out of my purse.
In retrospect I should have communicated what was happening more clearly. I kept saying that my wallet and phone were gone, talking loudly, breathing heavily, and getting angry. I doubt I was using full sentences. The oplet driver stopped the car abruptly. His assistant began screaming for us to get out of the oplet. Some of my companions got out. I stayed in and held my ground, digging through my purse and shopping bag, hoping my belongings would magically appear, yelling and causing a scene inside the small vehicle. The asssistant was yelling even louder, his eyes wide, angry, and red. But I wouldn't budge. My housemate pulled me out of the car while I continued to yell. The oplet pulled away the second my foot left the car. I pounded on their windows, becoming absolutely frantic. The oplet was gone. My purse was empty. We were on the side of the road in a strange city, and I couldn't take it any longer.
The only emotion I registered was anger, and lots of it. I couldn't get deep enough breaths. I paced back and forth, no longer yelling but moaning in despair. People were gathering around us, drawn to the side of the road by the hysterical white girl. I eventually lost so much control I had to sit down on the side of the road and curl into a ball. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. I wanted to melt into the sidewalk.
I wanted to go home.
I began running through the contents of my wallet in my head, identifying the cards that needed to be cancelled and the amount of money that was stolen. Doing this while mentally berating myself for allowing this to happen, completely unable to fathom the fact that this had happened to me. I was rocking forward and backward, barely registering what was happening around me. I don't know how much time passed, but it was not much. Soon my companions pulled me to my feet and took my to a car. By the grace of God, one of my more established teammates happened to be driving by and saw crowd gathered by the sidewalk. She took us away to the language school, and it was there that I finally began to cry.
I could talk more about the rest of the day. I could describe the police station, with the cigarette smoke that filled the air and aggravated my lungs. I could dissect my anger, which was directed completely at myself, ashamed that I had allowed this to happen to me. I could describe the people's faces as they looked at me with pity, and the fact that I finally learned the local word for "wallet" as I listened to people discuss what happened over and over again. I could explain the pain that ripped into my chest every time someone told the story, and how I longed for everyone to pretend it never happened, like I wanted to.
But I won't. My feelings on the subject are still too complex.
I spent the rest of the week crying intermittently. Reliving the moment in my head and drowning in shame.
Since that time I have come to grips with what happened. I still don't blame the people who did it, I am sure they do this to people every day. I doubt they feel any guilt. They don't know any better, and if they do, they are the ones who have to deal with it. I don't blame the culture. In reality, everyon here is very trusting. Stores leave their money unattended and out in the open. Every local person who hears about what happened to me is overcome with embarassment and anger on my part. I am known to my community (and a few others) as the poor American girl who was robbed on the oplet.
And I've learned that I need to stop blaming myself (although I am still working on that particular task). The people who stole my things are good at what they do. They chose a girl sitting in the middle of all of her friends. They had a well-planned system, and I am sure they would have found a way to get to my belongings even if I did not open the window. I did not make them steal from me, and blaming myself is unnecessary.
But more importantly, this experience forced me to face my feelings about where I am. After the incident we were sitting in my neighbor's house and she asked me to describe what I was feeling. Through tears I explained my anger, my insecurity, and the fact that I was afraid this would push me over the edge, that I would stop trying to tolerate the world around me and just begin to hate and fear it. What she said next surprised me, "You don't have to like it here. You chose to come here, but you don't have to force yourself to be okay with everything. You are on the other side of the world, everything is different, and it is going to grate on your personality. You are allowed to hate things." Weirdly enough, hearing that changed my attitude compltely. I stopped forcing myself to tolerate things, and somehow that freed me to learn to understand them.
In that week I felt lonely, brutally homesick, scared, anxious, angry, violated, and endlessly sleepy. But more importantly, I felt wildly cared for.