Have you ever been totally oblivious about something that has happened to you until one moment the light bulb of hindsight blinks on? Then you start to replay the reel of your memory and put more of the pieces together?
All it takes is for one small puzzle piece to present itself and then others arise and begin to fall into place. They trigger a thought, a suspicion, and as you continue to replay scenes through your mind, you find more and more pieces. However, some of those pieces seem a little fuzzy and you can’t quite recall where they fit.
Well, that’s what this story is about and as a new traveler I am learning that you can’t trust everyone, even those who have the intention to be your friend when you first meet them. Some people are opportunists and when circumstances fall perfectly into place their strong desire to have what is yours takes over like a demon.
For this story I am not going to use names because my hindsight remains a little fuzzy and if my gut is wrong, I don’t want to tarnish anyone’s identity. At the same time, this story needs to be told because many of us travelers are the victims of theft at some point along our journeys and we don’t always know when we have been taken advantage of until it’s too late. Sometimes we need to trust others, but whom? It’s a risk we take as travelers because people are coming and going so quickly. It’s so easy for a thief to slip away with your belongings, never to be seen or heard from again.
“What? He deleted me from Facebook? Really?” I thought to myself as I sat in the dark, dingy and crammed internet cafe in the small town of Viacha in Bolivia. I thought maybe there was something wonky going on with the computer or the WIFI connection. After all WIFI seems to run much slower here than anywhere else I’ve been so far. But no, I typed his name, carefully and slowly, a second time into my ‘Friends’ search bar. His name didn’t come up. That’s strange. He took my iPhone, brought up his profile and then handed the phone back to me. I was sure of it. I remember pressing the ‘Add Friend’ button and I’m positive he accepted the request, or am I just imagining he did? The memory is fuzzy now.
Something twinged in my mind and my heart sank a little. It can’t be. Why would he not accept the friend request? He told me to message him once I got to La Paz. He wanted to hook up, if you know what I mean. Yes, things kind of happened. He had led me up a rickety wooden ladder through a hole in the top floor ceiling of the six floor hotel we checked into in Copacabana. The dark, star studded sky sparkled up above and the full moon glowed brightly as it crept slowly overhead and eventually peeked over the roof awning.
He asked me if I had met anyone on my journey. Well, of course, and I began listing the travelers I had met and where they were from. At the end of the list I added his name. He grinned and asked me what I thought he meant by meeting anyone. “Oh, I see,” I said. “Well, there have been a few,” I admitted. Three months on the road is a long time. Then he asked, “Have you ever met anyone from Ecuador?” I responded hesitantly, “Not yet,” and then he pushed away from the balcony wall and approached until he was standing directly in front of me. His hands rested on my hips and he pulled me closer. “It might be interesting,” he said. “Yes, it could be,” I responded.
I studied my activity log for the original friend request, but it wasn’t there. Strange. Am I losing my mind? He disappeared into thin air as quickly as he appeared. He was a dark and handsome man who just happened to sit beside me, a solo female traveler, on the bus from Puno, Peru to Copacabana in Bolivia. He said he had just completed his architecture degree in Europe and decided to travel in South America before he settles down into a new career. We got along extremely well and talked for two hours straight out of the three-hour ride. He was one of those people that I felt extremely comfortable with and who I found so easy to talk to. My intuition, maybe too naive and trusting, eased in his presence.
He was a ghost traveler who briefly floated into my life and after he was finished with me he evaporated into thin air like an apparition. My mind can still see the slow smile play across his lips as he admitted, “I’m a really good liar,” while he coached me on a story to devise for the Copacabana police department the day my handbag, including a laptop, tablet, iPhone, a $100 US bill and a fresh wad of Boliviano bills, disappeared on the Isla del Sol after I had carelessly left it sitting on a rock.
My camera balanced on top of the salmon-coloured handbag as four of us stood smiling waiting for the self-timer to finish counting down and snap a shot. Quickly, I ran to check the photo expecting to set the self-timer up again for another shot, but the photo turned out great.
The beautiful scenery is what prompted me to lay my handbag on the rock and take the photo. The smooth, white sandstone sloped down from the hill above and crossed the trail before it plunged down towards the deep, blue expanse of the massive lake below.
I had heard this lake formed as a result of glacier melt thousands of years ago. The guide on the boat called them ice mountains instead of glaciers, but I got what he meant. The clear blue sky, deep blue water and blanched sandstone was the same contrast of colour I had seen in pictures of Santorini on the Mediterranean Sea except this was the Isla del Sol rising out of the highest-altitude body of water in the world, Lake Titicaca in Bolivia at 3800 meters above sea level.
As we followed the meandering trail we stopped to admire the terraced hills of newly sprouted vegetation. They looked like young peas. The terraces continued all the way down to the white sandy beach.
The sand was so white that it made the shallow waters look the colour of aqua. It reminded me more of an ocean scene than a lake.
I imagine the sand must be the weathered product of the same white sandstone that stretched along the trail where I had taken the group photo. The beauty of the scenery reeled us in every few meters so we needed to stop and take more photos.
I became lost in a Shire-like dream. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” echoed in my subconscious. Did I hear it right? The dream continued. The only thing the small thatch-roofed houses needed were round, wooden doors to make this perfect Hobbit setting complete.
“Wow! I’m so happy to be alive right now!” one young woman expressed. Later someone mentioned, “I’m glad we came this way since there are restaurants. There aren’t any the other way until we get to the south side of the island.” My stomach rumbled and my subconscious snapped back to reality. “Oh, good,” I thought to myself which triggered me to look down. My salmon coloured handbag…where was it? Normally, I wore it diagonally across my body, but it wasn’t there. I glanced up at the others walking ahead. Nobody else was carrying it either.
My big pack was strapped to my back and I carried my camera in one hand and a large two litre bottle of water in the other.
“Oh my God…my bag!” I exclaimed. One of the guys walking up ahead held up the bag of food I was carrying earlier and said, “It’s ok, I’ve got it.” Our eyes locked for a split second and I continued, “No, I mean my purse! Oh, shit!” Quickly, I turned and ran.
Anxiety fluttered in my heart and a sick, sinking feeling weighed heavily in the pit of my stomach as I realized the extent of what I had done. As I ran, scenes of the last 45 minutes played through my mind. “Oh my God…the self timer photo. How could I have been so careless?” I cried out as I ran wobbling under the weight of my full pack. I unbuckled it, let it drop to the ground and then sprinted.
The thin air of the high altitude had my lungs burning. My breathing, fast and panicked, was a series of quick bursts that continued to stab away at my lungs. Sobs erupted from my innermost core. People stared as I approached. I burst out, “Did you see a salmon coloured bag laying on a rock?” When they looked confused, I quickly sobbed, “No? Ok,” and kept sprinting and faltering along the trail. “What have I done? Oh, what have I done?” I sobbed. “We walked so far. How could I not have noticed?” I scolded myself.
I was carrying so much, that I didn’t notice anything missing. Now, I was carrying nothing and my belongings were scattered along the trail somewhere behind me. Would it still be there when I returned? It didn’t matter. The most important things to me were contained inside the salmon-coloured handbag that had the words Life is Good embroidered into the design on the front: the electronics, my writing, the photographs and the rock. “Oh my God…the rock!” I cried.
It wasn’t just any rock although to anyone else it probably looked like it came from a construction site. While I was sitting in a small Spanish village at a cafe/bar last fall resting my weary feet after walking 245 kilometers of an 800 kilometer pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, a Spanish man approached me, opened up my hand and placed the small brown rock in the centre of my palm. As he closed my fingers around it and held my hand shut he said, “If you need anything, ask the rock.” That’s why I took the rock with me on this journey, just in case I needed anything. Many times I’ve held that rock in my hand and prayed. What I needed at that moment more than anything was the rock, my handbag and its contents back. I prayed to God and to the rock, as I ran up the trail, that somehow it would all be ok in the end.
My heart pounded and my lungs exploded as I continued to sprint along the trail nearing the bend. Almost there. I could see it, the smooth, white sandstone, but the salmon coloured bag was gone. “Oh no!” I exclaimed as I laid my hand on the surface where it had once been in hopes that somehow my touch would will it to reappear.
My thoughts turned to the snack booth up the hill. Maybe whoever picked it up was headed in that direction and dropped it off there. I hurried down and around a curve and began ascending the hill, but I couldn’t make it. My lungs couldn’t take it anymore and I fell to the ground, sobbing. I pounded the dirt bank with the palm of my bare hand and let out a desperate scream. I cried, “It’s gone, all of it, my writing and the images. How could I have done this?” My body heaved and my breathing quickened. I began to hyperventilate while I laid there. A French group stopped and tried to calm me down, so I could explain what had happened. A woman handed me a bottle of water and ordered me to drink, but I couldn’t.
The ghost traveler, appearing out of nowhere, dashed past us and up the hill towards the snack booth. He could see where I was headed, but after a while, he came back empty handed. “Nothing?” I asked in desperation. “No,” he said. We began making our way back towards the others, but I couldn’t walk. Desperation gnawed at me and I needed to run again and get to the little village at the end of the path fast. Maybe someone picked up my bag and handed it in at the tourist office.
Thankfully, the others were on the trail waiting with my pack as I quickly approached. “Nothing,” I said hurriedly, “I have to keep running and get to the tourist office. I’m sorry. Thank you so much.”
Quickly, I strapped my pack back on and began a wobbly run towards the little beach village. Along the beach front, people turned to stare at the sobbing tourist who would frantically stop and ask people if they had seen a salmon coloured handbag. A Bolivian man tried to stop me as I ran through the village, but I couldn’t stop, not until I reached the tourist office at the end.
When there was nowhere else to go I stopped and looked around. Large yachts were docked waiting to take tourists to the south part of the island. A few stores and restaurants lined the street, but there was no tourist office. Nobody I asked had seen a salmon coloured handbag, with electronics in it, either.
Exhausted and feeling defeated, I dropped my backpack, unstrapped the sleeping bag from the bottom of it and threw it. I shouted to God, “I don’t want any of it! Take it all!” and then I walked away and lay in a crumpled heap on a small, wooden dock that was only long enough to tie a row boat to. Then, I cried into the old, splintered wood until my body was too exhausted to continue. My eyes felt puffy and my cheeks felt tight from my dried up tears.
The ghost traveler quietly appeared at my side. He beckoned for me to come with him to the south side of the island on a boat. A French tour group was headed there right now and they would take us. We could ask at the tourist office if my handbag had been turned in. He said there is a check point where bags are looked through for any artifacts before anyone leaves the island. After arriving we found there was no tourist office at the south end of the island either and there was no mention of a check point. All we could do was return to Copacabana where we planned to wait for the boats to return so we could question people as they disembarked.
The ghost traveler was so kind. He held me, sat with me and helped me the rest of the day. He stood with me at the docks and asked people in Spanish as they disembarked if they had seen my handbag. He even translated the situation for me to the police officer at the station. He said the officer thought a Peruvian tourist was tracking me because they saw my electronics and when the opportunity arose they grabbed my bag. It was interesting to me that he blamed a Peruvian. Obviously there is some dissension between the two countries. The officer suggested I visit the other police headquarters tomorrow and talk to them about it, however I would soon find out it would be a useless effort.
I explained to the ghost traveler that I should make a police report for a travel insurance claim, however it would likely do no good since they only cover stolen contents if they are on you at the time of the robbery. Carelessness doesn’t count. “You could make up a story,” he suggested. “Yeah, I suppose I could,” I replied, “But I’m not a very good liar. I would really need to practice.”
His sly smile and response, “I’m a really good liar,” echoes in my mind now that he’s vanished into thin air. What did he really mean by that? It didn’t faze me then as we talked about using the Bolivian police officer’s story that I must have been tracked by someone except with the additional detail that the thief had yanked the handbag off my shoulder when I was distracted taking photos.
We stopped in at an internet cafe and I logged into my Facebook and e-mail accounts to see if anyone had left me a message. After all, anyone who had the good intention of returning my handbag with my electronics would see that I had Facebook and e-mail on my devices, right? It would be the first thing I would think to do, but no, there was nothing. Then I thought maybe they were staying an extra night on the island and didn’t have WIFI, so my plan was to intercept boats throughout the next day as well.
The ghost traveler sat at the neighbouring computer and listened to me while I talked about changing the passwords on my various accounts. It wasn’t long before I noticed that something was amiss. I exclaimed, “Oh, no. I’m missing some photos from Drop Box!” The ghost traveler asked with a sly grin, “What? Are they naughty photos?” I replied, “No, not naughty, but they are professional boudoir photos that I had taken on a beach in the spring. I don’t want to lose those. They have to be here somewhere. Would someone really delete them or take them?” As it turns out somebody did, but luckily the photographer still has the files, so I haven’t entirely lost them. My concern now is did the person just simply delete them or did they download any? And if they did, what are they planning to do with them?
Later the ghost traveler and I had dinner together at a restaurant. He had helped me out so much that I gladly paid for both of our meals with money I had stashed away. Luckily, after the last time I was robbed I learned to separate and hide money in different places.
That night we shared a room to save some money, but ended up waking up late. Breakfast would be over in 20 minutes, so I told him to go ahead and that I would be down in a few minutes. He left, but when I was in the bathroom cleaning up, he returned to the room. Did he forget something? But, now in hindsight, I wonder if he was concerned that I might think to look inside his backpack for my handbag. I’ll never know.
After breakfast he said he had to leave. His bus to La Paz was at 1:30 p.m. and he still wanted to check out a site up on the hill above the lake. He said goodbye to me, gave me a hug and told me to message him once I got to La Paz the next day. It was the last I ever saw or heard of him. He just vanished.
Luckily, as I sat in the small, dark and cramped internet cafe in Viacha, I remembered his last name and found his profile again. I sent him a thank you message and told him my plans to volunteer here in Viacha and stay for a while.
When I didn’t get a response and realized that he hadn’t even seen my message, something twinged. A suspicious thought arose. The light bulb of hindsight blinked on. The first puzzle piece was revealed. We had got along so well in Copacabana. Even after the ordeal on the island we had a great time. His vanishing act was beginning to make sense.
A few days later, I sent another message, “Hey, how is La Paz? I’ll be headed there soon. Are you still there?” Nothing, no response. Then another couple of days later, I asked him, “It was you wasn’t it?” Nothing.
Whether my gut is right in believing it was him, I will never know for sure. The reel keeps turning in my mind and sometimes I am certain it was him and at other times I can’t fathom how someone who comforted me and witnessed my grief could follow through with something like that. Then I dismiss my suspicious thought.
However, what I have learned through my experiences is that unfortunately thieves can come in many different forms, even possibly in someone who poses as a friend. What thieves want is for you to trust them and once they have that, they’ve got your things and they can slip away just as quickly as they appeared.
Unfortunately, today I found out that whoever has my electronics, whether it is the ghost traveler or someone else, has been tracking my every move and reading my Facebook conversations until today when I inadvertently discovered how to disconnect from my old devices. I thought I had done that already, but no. They are in La Paz and were logged into my account this morning at 8:00 a.m. What a creeper. It’s unbelievable to me that there are people out there that prey on others in this way.
Aeschylus says it brilliantly…”Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart. So that in our sleep, against our will, in our own despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
I am positive things will work themselves out in the end. You cannot hide from the seed of karma you plant, even if nobody else knows what you’ve done, because it’s there, growing and one day when you least expect, it will ripen. This is a person we should actually have compassion for because they are unaware they are creating their own future suffering.
Check out more photos from the Isla del Sol gallery!