This photo was taken October 30th, 2015: twenty-four hours before my friend and I would be held at gunpoint and robbed of all of our belongings in the country of Colombia.
It's been five months since the incident happened, yet I still hear whispers from the passenger next to me repeating the word "tranquila" (calm): encouraging me to keep my composure as our bus heading to Salento was hijacked by six gun wielding passengers. Heeding the man's advice, I invited thoughts of tranquility into my mind. Keeping my gaze fixated on the gun's barrel pointing at my head, I relinquished the grip of my possessions, and in that moment, my passion for travel right along with my hope for humanity: hands held high over my head. I remember one guy holding the gun, while another patted me down as I assured him, "I don't have anything else. That's it." A cycle of thoughts ran through my mind: Was I going to make it out alive? Would they make us get off the bus and kill us one by one? Would I ever see my family and friends again? Is this really happening to me?
In this moment I realized that I am not immune to the dangers of this world.
I caught a glimpse of my friend sitting across the aisle in the same state of disbelief. How ironic that the 28 years I've spent my life getting worked up about any and every little thing, I'd find myself feeling more sedated than ever as I experienced an armed robbery in a foreign country. We were just six days into our three-week backpacking adventure to justify that Colombia was indeed getting safer after its turbulent history marked by drug cartels, violence, and government corruption. Go figure.
Five months ago I was filled with so much anger and sadness that this happened to me, more than I care to admit anyway. And if I were to attempt to write any account of this experience back then, my words would have been riddled with those sentiments exactly: anger towards the six people who threatened my life and took everything in my possession, anger towards the people of Colombia for a collective lack of empathy in the aftermath, and anger towards the US embassy for not providing as much assistance as one would hope to receive in moments of dire need. And even though I'm fully aware that this kind of crime (or something far worse) can happen anywhere in the world, I would have turned this into a tirade filled with hate instead of an opportunity of healing and growth.
But the reality is, as much as we often hate to admit, there are so many lessons we can learn from the painful experiences we endure, especially when we make our way out of situations alive. The truth is that "yes", I was indeed a victim of a violent crime in Colombia that pained me and brought me to one of my weakest moments in life. But after coming home and trying to make sense of what happened, I experienced an epiphany of sorts that made me pay closer attention to the desire God has placed on my heart: the desire to help others by sharing both the pleasurable and painful parts of my journey in hopes that others will use it as a source of inspiration for their own comfort, growth, and healing. But first, I needed to begin the process of healing myself from the inside out. I needed to spend the next several months that I affectionately called my "season of stillness", to improve my mental health, and strengthen my spirituality and relationship with God.
As an opportunity for transparency, being victimized in Colombia made me realize that I've spent several years of my life perpetuating hurt just like the men on the bus that evening. Except for me, I've spent a lot of time playing the victim card in situations where I was actually the one inflicting my own pain: most recently settling in a relationship way past its expiration date hoping the other person would change, and using my hurt as an excuse to say and do hurtful things to the people I love the most.
But five months ago I made a choice of refusal. I refused to let this experience harden my perception of Colombia, the world, or let me continue on in my own vicious cycles of pain. I made a choice to tend to the wounds of my past: healing them for good this time.
Being robbed at gunpoint in Colombia stopped me dead (no pun intended) in my tracks and really forced me to slow down, think about my life, and deal with some deeply rooted issues face-to-face. I spent the majority of last year traveling a lot. I went from practicing yoga in Bali to exploring the colorful world of Antigua, Guatemala to tanning on yachts in Mexico. And while I was running around from country to country, I was also running away from myself. It's one thing to let your travels transform you, but it's another to use travel as a means to escape issues, hoping they will disappear the further you go. But no matter how many flight miles you accrue, how many active volcanoes you hike or how many photos you take of yourself gazing out into a serene landscape, your problems will surely follow you and keep popping up everywhere you go if you don't commit to the inner work that's begging for your attention.
How often do we point the blame at everyone else instead of looking at ourselves in the mirror and admitting that we are in fact the ones who need to change?
I'm a firm believer in divine intervention. I believe things do or do not happen for a reason. I believe we are often denied access and experience rejection to block something even worse from happening. I believe blockages also happen when an internal shift needs to occur. And the pain we experience can often mean something inside of us needs our undivided attention: the attention that only we can give ourselves to make things better. There's something we need to discover within to help us understand why something is happening or why we keep showing up in the same scenarios to learn the same lessons over and over again.
We are the only ones who can save us from ourselves. We are the person we've been looking for.
Although I cannot change what happened on that bus in Colombia last year on Halloween night, I feel so grateful and blessed that God decided that's not how my story will end: that there's more work for me to do. I am so grateful this experience has paved the way for my new journey of self-discovery: a journey of healing and growth, an opportunity to step out of the old narratives and into a more healthy, mindful and vibrant me. Over the past several months, many people have asked me, what lessons have I learned from this traumatic experience. The answer is pretty simple actually: at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many miles you travel across the globe, the most important journey will always be the journey within. Sometimes we put ourselves in bad situations. Sometimes no matter how much safety we practice or how prepared we are, bad things do happen to good people. And sometimes, if you're lucky, things happen to jolt you into a new awakening.
I am proud of my new ability to find the light in moments where it seems I'm surrounded by darkness. I am thankful for finally being open to discovering the grand lessons during painful experiences.
I am so grateful for this new season of awakening.
This post originally appeared on Jaimee's blog, This Way North.