Reflecting back on the turmoil of more troubled times reminds me that we do indeed have the resilience to survive sadness and despair. As we emerge from our sorrows to enjoy a bountiful lifestyle, we are mesmerized by the effect of having come full circle. Similarly, the misfortunes of others causes us to be thankful for what we have and to count our many blessings.
This brings to mind a traumatic experience from back in the 70’s. I’d like to share that with you. My husband and I traveled on business to Columbia, South America where crime was rampant and border police were as corrupt as the underground criminal element.
Our first shock came at the airport upon our arrival. Passing through customs was not smooth at all and taught me a lesson that I’ve never been able to erase from my mind. The customs official took our passports and proceeded to open and close them repeatedly as he mysteriously rubbed his fingers together while pretending to stroke his hair. Well, this didn’t make any sense to me at all and I had no idea what he was trying to tell us. I nervously glanced toward the glass where the party awaiting our arrival kept making strange hand signals to help us out. Oh my gosh! I finally got it! That nasty official was signaling that we were to place money in our passports before he would grant us customs clearance. My first reaction was shock that such an offense could happen…at least not in my world anyway.
Oh yes, I’ve been known to react first and regret it later and this was one of those times. True to form, I blurted out words that would come back to haunt me, “You must be kidding!” Immediately, he greeted my remark with a vicious scowl that assured me he most certainly was not kidding as I was about to find out. He wasted no time in letting me know just who was controlling this game and it surely was not me. He grabbed my suitcase, ripped it apart and strewed my belongings everywhere for all to see. As further punishment for my miscalculation, he made a special point of displaying my personal items most flamboyantly for others to make fun of. I’m quite certain that those next in line quickly reached for their wallets out of fear that the same or worse might happen to them. My privacy was shattered as I made a mental note to be more discreet on my return trip home. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would dare to bribe a US Customs Official that way but then, one never knows.
What happened next is surely the stuff that movies are made of. As I was scurrying about to collect my belongings and get this unfortunate event behind me, I realized that I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I had just retrieved the last piece of personal clothing—okay, if you must know, it was a lacy black negligee and maybe a bit unfitting for my surroundings! As I arose, I came face to face with a man who was sporting a black suit, black turtle neck sweater and a black hat that seemed highly inappropriate attire for the scorching heat of this tropical summer. For a brief second, he seemed to believe that I was his contact and I could feel the panic rising in my throat while my life passed in front of me. Standing right behind him was another man in similar garb who was carrying a bag and holding one hand over his chest. Now even I had seen that movie before! Was it Men in Black? Sorry, that was a comedy and this was surely nothing to laugh about. My husband got my drift when my eyes screamed the words, “Get me out of here now!” I was witnessing a drug deal going down right before my eyes and there was little doubt that these guys were packing items far more threatening than toy pistols!
I was thankful for the party on the other side of the glass who had witnessed our ordeal. He was the contact we planned on doing business with; hence, the purpose of the trip. In an attempt to calm our nerves, he explained what these events were about, that they were a way of life resulting from a devastated economy and an extremely impoverished population. I nearly knelt to kiss the ground as we emerged from that airport and begged off business until another day, to which he agreed. I needed to unwind and collect myself before I was ready to venture out into this unfamiliar world that I found myself in.
We stayed at the InterContinental Hotel in Bogota as our home base. En-route to the hotel, we were stunned by the natural beauty of the landscape yet bewildered by the contrasting decay of the buildings and the potholes that seemed to be designed into the roads. Little did we know that we were in for the culture shock of our lives. Extreme poverty and squalor were everywhere we looked and we quickly realized that we were experiencing the real Bogota, not the sights that were intended for tourists such as ourselves.
Before long, we checked in and were escorted to our rooms, the personification of luxury and a much needed respite from our terrifying events at the airport and the sad reality of the streets outside. We decided to order room service for our dinner and found it to be second to none. We’d been told to try their fresh Columbian coffee with our dessert and it came to us served in a silver service accompanied by an equal sized pitcher of hot milk. The perfect Columbian recipe for Café au Lait is half a cup of strong Columbian extra strength coffee syrup with half a cup of hot milk. Oh my…a treat we were not about to forget and one that I made a point of serving once we were home again.
That night, sleep did not come easy. We could hear the sorrowful cries of small children from the side street below who had nothing to eat or a place to lay their heads to sleep. Here we were, wrapped in luxury while these poor homeless babies were starving in the street. This was a scenario that reminded me of my daughter’s origins. We had recently adopted our darling baby daughter from Vietnam, out of the war torn ruins of a society that rejected GI babies and there were many. The prospect of adopting one or more needy children from Bogota was tempting but when we learned of the pitfalls of doing so, we quickly changed our minds. Yes, we could attend a hospital or an orphanage and choose the children we wanted to adopt but at a hefty price…a bribe if you will. Proper papers would not be provided to us which meant that we would never be able to legalize these babies back in America. We had no way of knowing if this was fact or not but it made perfect sense to give up the notion and play safe.
The next day, we emerged fresh from a delightful breakfast and determined to explore the city. All the while, we were praying for our safety yet anxious at the same time to learn more about this part of the world. As we exited the hotel, the manager cautioned us to hire a guide and directed us to where it could be arranged. It should have been that simple but trouble seemed to be following us wherever we went. I had one foot inside our taxi when I was abruptly knocked to the ground by a mugger and commenced a wrestling match that would have put the professionals to shame. I fought the good fight on that dirty pitted pavement while the mugger struggled to remove my jewelry. The taxi driver was yelling, “Cover your ears!” Just then, the police emerged and chased him away. I was later to learn that he would have cut off my ears for my gold earrings had I allowed him to get away with it. Where was my husband you might ask? To be fair, he was on the other side of the car and it was all over before he even realized what was going down.
After this sordid ordeal, I was hysterical and wanted only to hide out in my hotel room all day but it was not in my nature to give up so easily. I wasn’t about to let some dirt bag ruin my day so we returned to our room to clean up but you can bet that I left my jewelry behind.
Anxious to move on, we decided to seek out merchandise to market through our business back in the USA. Foremost in my mind were cultural products but especially dolls. At the very least, I would seek out a doll in native dress to bring home to my little girl. Once again, our driver instructed us to shop with caution and always be aware of our surroundings. I could only wonder if there was anywhere in this dangerous city where we could feel safe and at least enjoy a shopping expedition. So, armed with his sage advice, we headed downtown to walk and shop the area where he dropped us off.
What happened next gave new meaning to the concept of sightseeing. By no means was this a pleasurable downtown stroll for window shopping. Simply navigating the numerous potholes kept us looking down so as not to risk a broken leg or ankle. Once I looked up only to find myself confronted by a policeman holding a bazooka carefully aimed at criminals close by. Eeks!
Now it all made sense. Those hundreds of potholes were not the result of traffic overuse at all but caused by overactive weapons in the hands of the so-called police. Just a few feet away from where we stood was another police officer with a machine gun and that was when sheer panic set in.
Feeling threatened didn’t even begin to describe the spine-chilling fear that propelled us to run for our lives. By no means was this a shopping mecca fit for tourists and our only objective was to make it back to our hotel quickly and safely with our heads still sitting squarely on our shoulders. Never again would we feel safe enough to stroll freely anywhere in this city and all future excursions would be in the company of a guide with our taxi driver parked within feet of our destination. Suddenly a return trip to the airport didn’t seem so threatening after all and the certain knowledge that we would soon be departing South America was somewhat reassuring.
The next morning we dressed and went about our way to conduct the business that we had come for which was importing leather hides from Bogota and Cali for our business at home. Everything went as planned though we couldn’t shake the prospect of danger everywhere we went. The highlight of our day was that our business did come together in Cali where we also found the best treasure of all. Yes, we were able to purchase a large supply of that spectacular Columbian coffee to take back to America.
Now that I’ve shared this reflection with you, I can only express my heartfelt thankfulness for my lot in life. Would I appreciate what I have so intensely had I not seen how the other half lives? Likely not but that doesn’t ease the sadness I feel whenever I recall how those poor people lived. Poverty most assuredly leads to crime and the police state that we visited so long ago.
Giving thanks and reflecting on my good fortune includes my marriage of twenty-five years to a man who has protected me in the worst of times. And so I ask you, “Do your reflections spell turmoil or grandeur?”
Before I leave, may I share a touching meditation about reflections. It comes from the National Park Service in Jackson, Wyoming where we traveled this summer.
A MEDITATION ON PHELPS LAKE
A feather floats on Phelps Lake
a cradle of light
rocking with the breeze.
Wind speaks through pines.
Light animates granite.
An Eagle soars – its shadow crosses over us.
All life is intertwined.
We see the Great Peaks
mirrored in water-
Reflection leads us to restoration.
Nature quiets the mind
by engaging with an intelligence
larger than our own .
Mindful of different ways of being,
Our awareness as a species shifts-
We recognize the soul of the land as our own.
The path of wisdom invites us
to walk with a humble heart
recognizing the dance
between diversity and unity,
action and restraint.
The Scales of Nature
will always seek equilibrium.
A feather can tip the balance.
-Terry Tempest Williams
Thank you for visiting The Write Room. You can find my reflections elsewhere but
recently told in my new book title: Reflections of Mamie: A Story of Survival http://www.Reflections-of-Mamie.com.
It’s a story of abuse and hope–with the sale of each book,donations are made to Dreamcatchers for Abused Children and Kitsap Humane Society for abused and abandoned animals.
Help us stop abuse! Please send your additional comments or share one of your own reflections with me at: Mamie@Reflections-of-Mamie.com.
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