When I was 21, my older boyfriend suggested it might be “cool” to backpack around South America. I naively jumped at the chance of a romantic trip. Getting kidnapped, robbed and dumped wasn’t exactly what I envisioned.
In my youthful arrogance, I hadn’t done much planning, nor learned the language. I figured we’d just work out the details together as we went. Then he decided that, as the higher earner, he could afford a longer trip. He headed off and I was to follow, solo, a month later.
In Chile, the airport was chaotic. I recalled the one fact I’d gleaned from the guidebook I’d only cracked open for the first time on the flight – beware of scammers at Santiago airport. As taxi drivers thronged around me, I was on high alert but embarassingly underprepared, stammering “No hablos español”. “No un poco?” (not even a little?!) came their derisive response.
To my relief, a friendly, uniformed man appeared, flashing an official-looking ID and ushering me, in English, towards a taxi, aided by a man who appeared out of nowhere to help with my bags. It was only as I jumped into the backseat that I realised something was up – both men hopped in too, flanking me, and the driver took off rapidly.
“What is happening?” I yelled, but the three men only laughed and joked to each other in Spanish. Trapped, I sat frozen, fearing the worst. We eventually pulled up at a gas station ATM and I was instructed to empty my bank account if I wished to be returned safely to the city. Having handed over the cash, I was dropped, tearful, in the suburbs. On foot, it took me five hours to find my hostel, where the kind-hearted staff helped me get money transferred from home.
The next leg of my trip was Bolivia, where I would reunite with my boyfriend.
Immediately after I landed in La Paz, my boyfriend semi-sheepishly announced he’d met another woman, making the 13-hour bus ride together to our next destination rather awkward. He flew off to rejoin her and I checked into a hostel, crying every night in the shower.
I was drowning my sorrows with pisco sours in a bar one evening, when a charming woman approached me. Soon we were spinning around the dancefloor. She leaned in and kissed me. For a moment I hoped my heartache was over … but as quickly as she’d appeared, she melted away into the crowd. It turned out she hadn’t come into my life to relieve my troubles, but had in fact relieved me of my wallet.
I’m not sure how I managed to make it physically unscathed on to my homebound flight from Rio, but needless to say, I returned home to Australia a little bit wiser and a lot poorer.