I went to Bolivia to pursue my interest in journalism not knowing what to expect. As my last connecting flight from La Paz to Cochabamba soared over expanses of towering mountains, the reality of my imminent arrival in a foreign land where I knew not a soul dawned on me. I wondered about connecting with new people, about communicating in a language that is not my own, about adjusting to a new city and job, and about being so far removed from everyone and everything that had been familiar to me for the preceding eighteen years.
A mere four days after touching down on Bolivian soil, I was force-fed my first real lesson in what taking risks can entail. A fellow volunteer I had met the day before and I met up on a Sunday afternoon to visit La Cancha, Cochabamba's main marketplace. Guidebooks warn about the crowded, chaotic labyrinth of a market, but we were eager to embrace a taste of the local culture in our new home.
As we approached the frenetic heart of the market, we maneuvered over men in bowler hats and women cradling babies in colorful woven slings to hop out of a taxi trufi filled to the bursting. We lost no time in setting about to explore the twisting streets teeming with color and energy. Fruits and vegetables laid strewn across blankets lining the cobblestone paths, and rickety stalls hosted piles of fabrics and handicrafts. Vociferous vendors touted their goods and haggled with customers. Children darted amongst the throngs of shoppers while the elderly observed the commotion from whatever available niches remained.
I pulled out my safely stashed phone to photograph the whirlwind of vibrancy while my new friend examined some merchandise at a nearby stall. We were the only tourists in the market as far as we could see. Years of high school Spanish classes and hours spent poring over travel books in my preparatory efforts to blend in with the locals proved insufficient. I stuck out like a great white American sore thumb.
Conscious as I felt of my conspicuous foreignness, I evidently had not been quite as aware of my surroundings as I believed.
I feel a forceful tugging at my hand and before I have time to register the shock of being robbed, the pickpocket hastily disappears into the crowds and I am dashing right after him. I can hear myself shouting, alternating in Spanish and English, pleading for someone to stop him. The voice sounds distant and removed from my body. He tears through narrow, snaking alleys, attempting to lose me in the labyrinth. Athleticism is not included amongst my fortes, but I run faster than I knew my legs could carry me, willing my eyes to maintain sight of the thief's red shirt flashing like a bullfighter's flag ahead of me.
Three local market-goers pick up the chase, to my immense gratitude. At every turn, at every point where the route split off into a series of tortuous new passageways, the vendors stationed at stalls lining the way point my fellow pursuers and me in the direction of the pickpocket.
Just when I begin to think hope is lost, we turn a corner and nearly barrel into the crimson-shirted thief, tightly restrained in the arms of two fortuitously located gentlemen. At this point in the story, I sometimes speculate about the many things I could have said to the pickpocket in that brief instant I found myself face-to-face with him. But my capacity for coherent statements - much less grand, indignant ones - was all but extinguished along with my stamina. So I retrieve my phone from his clutch with just enough breath left to express thanks to those who had helped me.
Celebration of this triumphant retrieval was short-lived. My day's adventure was far from over.
I turn away from the scene and realize, with a dread that sinks like an anchor into the pit of my stomach, that I am utterly lost in a bewildering maze of crops and crafts.
My wandering begins. One vendor, an aging woman clad in a traditional shawl and pleated skirt with crinkles etched into the corners of her eyes, beckons me over to her stall. She bids me to sit down. "Cálmate, cálmate," she says, as she insists that I rest and drink a cup of Coca-Cola from a bottle she procures out of thin air. Quite soon, a small gaggle of locals gathers around. They ask how I'm doing, where I'm from, where I'm going.
I converse for a while and, after thanking them for their much-appreciated kindness and generosity, I set out bereft of the foggiest notion of what direction I'd come from or how to find my way back.
I tell myself that this fruit stand or that crafts display look like familiar sights I might have bolted past while making a shrieking, sprinting spectacle of myself shortly before. Truthfully, I am blindly choosing alleys and hoping I'll somehow end up on a main street.
Glancing around, I locate the tallest building in my near vicinity - a crumbling cream-colored structure topped with a billboard advertising sneakers. On my Bolivian pay-as-you-go mobile, I blurt out this description to my friend, and she exclaims that she sees it. The arrangement to meet there occurs just in the nick of time, for my phone buzzes directly after to inform me that I have eleven Boliviano cents of credit remaining (about two U.S. pennies) - insufficient fare for a text or more than three seconds of phone conversation. Though I had met this girl just one day before, I don't believe I've ever been so relieved to see a familiar face.
"TAMAR. Never pull sh*t like that again!!!" Came the inevitable response from a close friend back home to whom I later recounted the incident. In my best attempt to quell her concern, I promised that I was being careful and staying safe.
What I didn't add was an honest concession that, well, I'll probably pull sh*t like this again. Life is too short not to chase after what you want (or want back) - even hard on the heels of a fleet-footed filcher.
That day I crossed paths with the negative intent of one individual and the bottomless kindness of a whole slew of strangers - attaining a better understanding, in the process, of humankind's capacity for both. And perhaps that this was my most frightening experience stands as testament to how sheltered my existence has been thus far more than anything else. But each new experience contributes to growth, and the surest way to mature is to surmount self-doubt, to take the risks that demolish the cozy but constricting walls of comfort zones.
Heading into my Bolivian adventure, watching the mountains sprawling endlessly below me, I feared the unknown. But with each new encounter, each new discovery that chips away at my great white American ignorance, I have come to embrace it.