Nothing crystalizes our senses like a heightened dangerous situation. While traveling around the world in the late nineties, I was held at gunpoint, by two armed men, on a moving bus, in South America.
If you’re wondering about the accuracy of any of the adages people throw around about dire situations; I am here to tell you they’re spot on.
“time stood still”, “my heart and stomach dropped”
As the incident unfolded, time viscerally slowed down. My brain permanently engraved the most unimportant of details. The whimsical, coral color, of one of the assailant’s shirt struck me as ironic. Bright and cheerful, the presence of the shirt made me sick to my stomach. As the wearer wielded a loaded weapon, haphazardly waving it around the crowded bus, I was repulsed by the inappropriateness of his wardrobe choice. The physiological phenomenon is crazy creepy. I’ve never felt my insides drop down to my intestines before, or since, for that matter.
Travel On A Budget:
My husband, at the time, and I were on an international bus going from Foz do Iguacu, Brazil to Cataratas International Airport in Argentina. We committed to a year long journey so we watched our budget very closely. Bus travel was typically our first transportation choice. That said, that particular bus is considered ‘expensive’, as it crosses the border. It is run by two men: a driver and a money taker. There’s cash on the bus.
Within ten minutes of boarding the bus, the man across from me utters something incomprehensible. At first, I thought nothing of it. We’re in Brazil. Everyone speaks Portuguese. I was used to ignoring random utterings. But, immediately thereafter, I witnessed the grotesque coral shirt, stand up, pull out a handgun, and glide right by me towards the money taker at the back. Another man, who was seated much closer to the front, took the driver.
Calm, KUEL, Collected:
What ensued for the next, however many minutes it took to rob the entire bus, surprised me and has provided comfort ever since. I did not panic. I did not fall apart. Remember the whole time stood still phenomenon? Well, that gave me ample time to methodically survey my surroundings. I estimated the distance between the seat bottom in front of me and the floor (to make sure I could fit). Then, I slightly nudged my over-sized, fully-stuffed, backpack closer to the edge of the seat. I needed a shield of some kind if bullets started flying.
I calmly communicated with my husband who was seated two rows in front of me. Given the full month we spent in Brazil, my Portuguese was not half-bad. But, let’s be real, one didn’t need to know the language to understand what was happening and what was expected of us.
Prepared To Be Robbed:
Tom had a US twenty dollar bill paper-clipped around a lot of ‘worthless’ local currency. I’ve written about how I was treated like property, or completely ignored, in parts of the world. South America was no exception and that is why I didn’t have the same set-up in my front pocket. The expectation was that my husband would have all the cash. Tom threw the money wad on the floor of the bus. Coral shirt scooped it up and all the change (literal change – these are very poor people). Driver gunman forced the driver to pull over at the edge of the bridge, right before the border crossing into Argentina, and they hopped out into a waiting get-away car.
Lesson Learned At Gunpoint:
Once the bus was free of the perpetrators, the riders became unglued, with loud cries and uncontrollable tears. I did not. Instead, I comforted the young girls, seated next to me, who were crying hysterically. Again, I did not panic or come undone. What I learned about myself that day provides me a sense of confidence. You want me in a crisis. For whatever reason, my analytical mind overrides my emotions and I immediately go into problem solving.
However, you don’t necessarily want me around for days after the acute incident. Let’s just say that the after effects of the whole ‘heart and stomach dropping’ cliche is not pretty. While the bus incident is undyingly vivid in my mind, the four days that followed the robbery are a blur of time spent on a toilet and waste paper baskets brimming with wet tissues.