Friday, August 10, 2018

Life on the edge: getting out of a knifepoint mugging

So, yesterday I had a unique and terrifying experience. Someone tried to rob me at knifepoint in a suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica. I got away unharmed, and he didn’t take anything. (I wasn’t carrying much anyway. My ATM Card and driver’s license cause I had to go to the bank later, and the US equivalent of $15 in local currency. And also some fresh lychee fruit that took me forever to find.) 

Because of the craziness of this year I decided I wanted a little vacation and decompression time before starting the new semester. So, I cashed in some airline miles and decided to head to Costa Rica for a couple weeks of pacific coast scuba diving and Spanish lessons—two things on my bucket list. I’ve been to south/central America many times and love it there. Usually I travel with other people, but I couldn’t find anyone who could come during the time I had off, so I proceed with the trip solo. Solo travel is actually pretty relaxing and enjoyable, and you meet plenty of people along the way. For much of this trip I’ve been with groups or new friends. 

Okay, now on to the knifepoint story. I’m decently travel-savvy and fairly street smart, so on the occasions where I walk alone I check my surroundings consistently and stay in crowded areas. While walking the .8 miles to my Spanish school this morning, I reached a point on the typically-crowded road where there was a lull in people and cars. An older-looking man crossed over to my side of the street. Rather than walk past me, he stepped right in front of me and started speaking quietly and intensely in Spanish. 

My spidey-senses immediately went off. Something was not right. And that’s when he pulled the knife from under his shirt. 

When someone wields a knife on you and you can’t understand what they’re saying, a few things run through your head rapid fire.

Why did this guy step in front of me? What is he saying? Are these Spanish lessons even working at all? What is he pointing to? Why is he pointing with a knife? A KNIFE?! Okay so this is not friendly chatter. Why is the knife so obnoxiously big? Is this his first day as a bad guy? Okay, so he either wants me to come with him to that empty field (no gracias) or give him my tiny bag (also no gracias—getting a stab wound stitched up would be less painful than filing paperwork with the DMV to replace a stolen driver’s license. Also it took me forever to find a market that had lychees and I was really looking forward to eating them for  my snack.) 

This man might’ve had a knife, but he grossly underestimated the number of Jason Bourne movies I’ve seen. So, I went into a mindset I didn’t know I possessed: action mode. 

I very quickly gauged the situation—and I mean, this thought process took place within milliseconds—this man was older (so probably not too fast or agile), had a knife the size of Texas (he was trying too hard to look intimidating so probably he’s in the Kindergarten Criminal program), he seemed a little nervous and didn’t want to attract attention (see previous comment), there’s a crowded intersection just around this corner so if I can get to there I’ll be okay.

Also, in that moment, I got incredibly angry. I just buried my brother. One of my dearest friends is dead. I was up all night because I’d had a bad batch of fried plantains. There was no way I was going to let this man take anything from me. I’m aware I look like a grown American Girl Doll and reek of tourist, but I have two things on my side: healthy lungs and long legs. So I used the element of surprise and, pardon my expression, I raised hell. 

I immediately dodged him and began running toward the bend in the road. He was just far enough away that I knew he’d have to try really hard to stab me or grab me, and I instinctively knew he didn’t possess that kind of reaction time. However, he started to run after me, so I began yelling at him so loudly and in English and what I could muster in Spanish. I think I said something along the lines of “GET AWAY! NO THEY WILL NOT ROB ME TODAY!” (Nonsense, but it worked.) 

Just as I thought, around the corner were a lot of people. I ran to a group of men who were talking to each other and looked back to see my assailant turn around, put the knife away, and walk in the other direction. Fortunately one of the men in the group spoke some English. I told him what happened and he asked if I was carrying anything valuable, which also struck me as a suspicious question. Probably he was asking if they took anything valuable in his broken English, but I was on level 7,000 alert, so just in case they were working as a group with knife-man, I said no and kept walking, grabbed a cab, and went the remaining .3 miles to school that way.  

As the adrenaline rush wore off, the reality of what had happened, and what potentially could have happened hit me. I was incredibly proud of myself for how quickly I reacted. I also knew I’d be taking cabs and Ubers the rest of my time here. (Which, fortunately I leave Sunday. I’m definitely ready to go home.) 

Lastly, and I’ve debated whether to write anything about this at all, but after thinking about it, I think it may be helpful to address. As I’ve told people what happened, on more than one occasion the initial response has been, “well, you shouldn’t have been walking alone.” You might’ve even thought that as you read this blog. 

Here’s the thing: I walk in groups as much as possible. But, when you travel alone, it’s not always possible to be with someone. Even when you travel with people it’s not always possible to be with someone. Sometimes you have to get from point A to point B by yourself. I take cabs or Ubers if I’m not sure about an area. Should I have taken a bus or cab sooner? Maybe. I’d walked this same path several times with other people before walking it on my own. It was safe. I’d been told by several locals, including my Spanish teacher, that it was safe and good path for tourists, even when walking alone. The only difference between this and other times was I was coming to class late because I’d not been feeling well, so the typical morning bustle was less than usual. 

Still, this didn’t happen at 3am in some abandoned back alley. This happened in a busy, middle class neighborhood in broad daylight. It was close to schools, churches, and police stations. (In fact, this all happened about 50 meters from a police station.) Is traveling in a group ideal? Sure. Realistic? Not always. Also, unfortunately, I've heard stories of groups getting attacked. 

I used common sense. I knew my surroundings and I was even aware that there was a strange lacking of people on that part of path. I’ve walked plenty of sketchier places both in the United States and foreign countries alone and been fine. 

When something like this happens it’s natural to try and find what the victim did “wrong” so we can avoid that same situation. But here’s the unfortunate and harsh truth: these things happen anywhere: in North America, in Central America, in “safe” places, and even to people who are careful. We like to believe that we can completely prevent these things if we do all the right things. I fully believe you can take wise precautions to avoid them, but sometimes they happen anyway, and you need to be ready and vigilant. That’s the reality of the terrible, fallen world we live in.

So feel free to lecture me on walking alone, but do it in your head. 

Overall, it’s been a wonderful trip with wonderful diving, people, and experiences. This was a fluke thing that could’ve been way worse, but fortunately is now a crazy story I get to share at dinner parties and maybe even gives me enough street cred to become a rapper. All that said, I’m ready to come home and have Chipotle. 





Saturday, April 7, 2018

Humor and the art of inappropriate grief

It’s been a little over three weeks since I got the phone call telling me that my younger brother had been killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Almost a month has passed since my family earned our lifetime membership into the bereavement club. (Definition aside, bereavement is a terrible word.) It feels like it’s been both a minute and a lifetime since hearing the news. When you’re grieving, the minutes, hours, days and weeks get put into a time blender. There’s now a date on the calendar where life permanently changed.

Tomorrow I head back to Atlanta to get back to “new normal.” I have several comedy shows and speaking gigs this week, and today I spent most of the day distracting myself by writing an accordion parody about IKEA. You know, typical grief coping stuff. (I did have a line about being found shriveled up in a living room display three years after following the wrong arrows, but I came to my senses and replaced it with a less gruesome jab at Swedish Meatballs.)

As a comedian, laughter—and what causes it—has always fascinated me. Some of the best comics I know have trauma and loss in their past. As I’ve learned in recent days, death and tragedy alter your perspective on life and change the lenses you use to observe the rest of the world.

Before experiencing it on a personal level, I had a vague idea of how grief would look and feel. One thing I believed about tragedy and sudden loss was that laughter would be very slow to return. I was absolutely wrong. Everyone processes tragedy and loss differently, but for our family, laughter happened pretty much immediately.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about grief humor: it’s wildly inappropriate, morbid, and was--and continues to be--absolutely necessary for us to process Mark’s sudden and tragic death. We laughed at the strangest, darkest things in those first few days. 

Grief and lack of sleep absolutely destroyed my filters for the first week (and I admittedly don’t have the best filters to begin with), and some very blunt and dark observational humor regarding our circumstances escaped my mouth unchecked. (A/N: My deepest condolences to anyone outside my immediate family who was on the receiving end of my dark sense of humor during this time. I don’t remember a lot of what I said, but from what people have told me, much of it was intense. I’ve been told there’s no wrong way to grieve, but I may have pushed the limits on that belief, and someday may write a book for people who “inappropriately” process grief through sarcasm and dark humor.)

However “inappropriate” this form of grief, I know laughter helped us survive our tragedy. Anyone on the outside probably thought my family needed to be sent immediately to the nearest asylum, but our closest friends and family bonded and processed our sadness through the random thoughts, memories, and ironies about our situation we collectively found hilarious.

A couple days after the crash I began thinking ahead to the comedy shows I have on my calendar. Despite sarcasm and humor being my grief-handling buddies, I knew telling jokes on a stage in front of strangers would be different, especially since I have several jokes in my act about Mark. My opening joke right now is about moving to the south and getting matched with my brother on E-harmony.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with those jokes. Mark was always lobbying to have more jokes about him in my act. He came to a show last October—the last he’d attend before his deployment—and his one criticism was that I didn’t have enough material about him in my set. He had a very absurd, goofy, and random sense of humor and I know he’d love it if I made large groups of people slightly uncomfortable joking about him posthumously. Long term I’ll probably keep the jokes that include him (and who knows, maybe add more, but not to the point of making audiences feel weird about laughing) but right now I may shelve them. Most likely I’ll decide once I’m on stage.

I’ve heard people say randomly over the years how much they needed to laugh. How they were glad for a chance to take their mind off of the trials of life. I know what they mean now. I’ve consumed a LOT of comedy these past few weeks and I have a new appreciation for laughter as medicine. I’m a fan of comedy anyway, but I watched and listened to more comedy in the past three weeks than I typically do in two years.

Despite being horribly sad about my brother, I do not have the market cornered on grief, loss, and tragedy. Many of you reading this have known incredible loss, and many out there are suffering similarly. I know comedy and laughter heals. I took it for granted before, but I’ve experienced deeply the power laughter has to give us hope. Hope that death doesn’t win in the end. Grief is such a heaven burden, laughter lifts the weight temporarily so we don't get crushed. At the very least, venting emotion through laughter provides a nice break from crying.

I will never stop missing my brother. Grief will always be here, but Lord willing, so will laughter.

So now, I move forward and use the gifts and time God has given me to provide a little bit of healing to an increasingly hurting world.