Last week, after two and a half months in Ecuador, Jamie and I stepped on a bus headed to Peru.
Ecuador was a thrill ride. In Quito, I experienced the gifts and obstacles of living at a high altitude. In Olon, I learned to surf and had endless miles of beach to run on. In Cadeate, we did a house sit where I got to spend some time with two sweet dogs and a rare bird. It’s been incredible, but it’s also been cloudy. Quito has a year-round chilly climate, and Olon (along with most places in South America right now) is entering rainy season.
We were ready for some sun. An internet search revealed a little town on the northern coast of Peru called Mancora. This part of the coast happens to be a desert climate, so it gets 365 days of sun every year. The bus ride was about 7-9 hours and cost only $10-40 per person. We were sold.
The internet also informed me that it was crucial to get a direct bus across the border and to try to avoid stopping in a town called Tumbes. Stories of people being lied to, hassled, ripped off, pickpocketted, and sometimes even kidnapped and mugged are common. People again and again said this town was a terrible place.
The bus companies around here don’t post their updated schedules on the internet. They never pick up the phone. So, on the day of our departure, we set off to the Guayaquil bus station, hoping for the best.
We arrived at 2pm. The direct buses were at 7:20am or 7:20pm. Unless we wanted to wait five hours, we had to go to Tumbes. Since Jamie had to work in the morning, this seemed to be our only choice.
After we crossed the Ecuador-Peru border, a local man who wanted to practice his English came to talk to us. In-between stories about his country, he said he hoped we weren’t staying in Tumbes. He said, “It’s a terrible place.”
When we arrived, we were swarmed by mototaxi drivers. They told us that the connecting bus we thought we’d be taking wasn’t running anymore. We had to take a taxi to a nearby bus station. The internet had warned us about this happening, but we didn’t know what to do. It was almost 11pm at the time. Even the bus driver confirmed their story. We sighed and decided to get in the mototaxi.
We got heavily overcharged, but we did get to a bus station. There, the bus driver charged us more to get on that 1.5-hour bus than we had paid for our entire 7-hour journey so far. We were tired. We let it happen. It wasn’t an exorbitant amount of money. We just wanted to get there.
When we finally arrived to our place in the middle of the night, we laughed it off. All of those rumours about Tumbes were true. It really is a horrible place.
It had all become a funny story until the next day when I bought a Peruvian SIM card and went into my bag to look for the change purse where I’d been keeping all my SIM cards. In that purse, I was also keeping memories from our travels: small seashells from national parks and islands we’d visited, handmade bracelets I bought from local artisans in each town, a few cool rocks (one of which I specifically got as a gift for one of my life coaching clients), and change in various currencies. All those memories. Gone.
At first, I didn’t know what was happening. I thought maybe I’d dropped it somewhere in the apartment while unpacking the night before. I was very tired after all. But after I turned the house upside town, it started to dawn on me: the people who had overcharged us for the bus had probably rifled through our luggage.
We’ve been travelling since 2014, and I’ve never had anything stolen. I felt a mix of emotions: sadness, guilt, self-judgment, violation, loss. But as I’ve coped with this situation, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons. Here were my epiphanies, in the order that I had them:
1. Memories are more important than money.
It might sound dramatic to call what happened “being robbed.” People usually think of robbery as something to do with money. And funny enough, we had money in our luggage too. The apartment we are renting in Peru wanted cash up front. Jamie and I had split it and carefully hidden it in our luggage. I put that little change purse in the same bag, but I didn’t hide it as well as I hid the money. Some part of me values $300 more than 6 months of memories. I should say valued. I learned my lesson. I would much rather have lost the money.
2. I can admit blame without getting down on myself.
I should have hidden it better. That’s a fact. I have a serious history of beating myself up about these kinds of things, and for a long time, I thought self-love meant glossing over these situations. But there is no gloss. Yes, I made it easier for my things to be stolen, but that doesn’t mean I deserved it. It doesn’t mean I’m the only one to blame. And it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. I can take responsibility for my part, and that can be empowering rather than degrading. If I had a part to play, then I can help prevent such situations in the future.
3. I felt like I lost something, but was it mine to keep?
Taking those few rocks and shells could be considered environmental destruction. If everyone took a little shell or rock from every beach, there’d be none left. And would I have necessarily remembered the places they came from years later? Was it worth disrupting the ecosystem? And the money I collect from different places I visit: is it mine to keep? I took about $3 worth of coins and bills from Colombia. If every single tourist did that, the Colombian economy would seriously suffer! Did I have a right to own the things I was calling mine?
4. Memories aren’t gone just because the way I wanted to remember them is gone.
I never used to buy bracelets. I bought my first one in Medellin because a scruffy-looking local guy offered me one for the equivalent of $2. I want to support street musicians and artists as much as I can. Better he sells bracelets than drugs! My second one was from a young Venezuelan punk who was seeking refuge from the troubles in his country. My third, I bought directly from an indigenous tribe. It contained a small 1000-year-old stone in it from the protected land around the Lost City in Colombia. There were many more such stories. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have those bracelets anymore, but I wasn’t buying them to have them. I was buying them, first and foremost, to support the local artisans. I’ve still done that. The act of buying them remains in the past. Over time, the bracelets became symbols of the places I’ve visited. But those memories aren’t gone. I still have my memories, even if they are not in the form I think they should have been.
5. Just because something isn’t in my direct possession doesn’t mean it’s gone.
Maybe the people who stole that purse opened it and felt disappointed. But what did they do with its contents? Maybe they gave the bracelets to their kids. Maybe one of those kids will grow up and become an artisan because of that. Wouldn’t that be even better than what I had planned to do with those things (keep them in a jar/box/bag/bowl somewhere)? If I can expand my concept of “self” to include more than this meat sack and include humanity, nature, and even the universe into my idea of who I am, then I haven’t actually lost anything. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Everything that was here is still here, changing form, changing location. It wasn’t mine to keep, and it’s never truly gone.
6. Being free from materialism means being able to lose sentimental objects too.
In 2014, I sold my things to travel. It liberated me in ways I can hardly describe. By getting rid of the possessions attached to me, my sense of self became more grounded, more authentic, more fluid. But I still have some boxes of journals, cards, and memories at my parents’ house. I still value those objects. Are those necessarily good for me, whereas owning a blender or a couch wasn’t good for me? If I can feel freedom in separating from material things, then I can separate from all material things, even the ones I gave meaning to. Some people, after all, give meaning to their couches and blenders. I am an impermanent being fueled by an eternal energy. I can’t take my objects with me when I die, and they are not essential to my progress or happiness. Yes, I lost things I treasured, but in the end, they were just things.
7. The thief is having a more impoverished experience of life than I am.
Did that person make a conscious choice to steal from me? Did he sit down, ponder all his options, and decide that this, truly, was the most useful course of action? No. He’s functioning unconsciously. His circumstances and environment dictate what those unconscious actions are likely to be. As I heard again and again, Tumbes is a terrible place. When we asked the man on the bus why it was so terrible, he replied, “A lot of poor people. They get desperate.” Am I really suffering so much from losing a few pieces of memorabilia? That thief is worse off, whether or not he acknowledges it.
I learned a lot. But these lessons weren’t my way of “looking at the bright side.” I’ve never been much of an advocate for that kind of thinking. I have always seen the flaws, the disappointments, the darkness. I couldn’t ignore them if I tried. I’ve always been the one lifting up the covers, looking around corners, wanting to know what lay beyond the shiny exterior. I don’t want to ignore reality. I want to welcome it in all its glory.
Rather than positivity, these lessons are about alchemy. With certain ingredients, all matter changes form. With certain perspectives, all experiences change in meaning. That is the power of being a self-aware human being: we can play with our perceptions. We can rewrite our stories. We can grow, learn, and thrive through anything.
It took me a few days to write this, but when I began, it was Nelson Mandela’s birthday. This man was a symbol of just the kind of alchemy I’m talking about. Imprisoned for 27 years, he had every reason to fall into despair, numbness, depravity. He chose to evolve, change, thrive. We all have this power, if we only stop being afraid of the responsibility that comes with using it.