This week our collective nation mourned the loss of a bright young man. An adventurer who leapt at an opportunity to see a part of the world most of us can’t even imagine.
When I saw the headlines, my heart sank.
But it was different than most tragic news reports. When we can’t relate to something, we are able to move past it, keep on with our own lives.
However, something about this young adventurer stuck with me, and I wasn’t sure why.
I couldn’t figure out why the story affected me so much. Why it gripped my heart and wouldn’t let go.
Not because I am a parent and I feel for how the parents must grieve.
It was because I was that kid.
I was the American that heads to another country excited to “see the world.” The American that assumes that nothing bad will happen to them.
And for most of us, nothing bad will happen.
But for some of us, we get an unexpected and brutal education on life in the rest of the world.
When you realize that the rest of the world is not America, and you are not inherently safe.
It CAN happen to you
Ten years ago I was a Spanish minor in college when I jumped at the chance to live and study in Mexico. I can best describe my experience as the “Real World: Mexico” — we worked all day and partied all night. It was paradise and a college kid’s dream.
I hadn’t even been there a week and I found myself pinned against a brick wall on a deserted street. I dodged punches from my assailant as I tried to wriggle out of his grasp.
I will never forget the thought that ran through my head: he is actually trying to hit me.
It was such a novel idea, unthinkable really. I was a female. I was American. And this stranger was trying to hurt me. And possibly worse.
In the midst of a terrifying attack, I had a moment of clarity. You could die here.
“You could die here”
It sounds extreme, but in my heart I know it was true. I could have died there. Alone, away from my family, in a country that wasn’t mine.
I know what my attacker wanted. And it wasn’t my purse, still looped safely over my shoulder.
Beside me lay my teacher and our escort on our walk home that evening. He was unconscious and bleeding from a head wound, incapacitated right off the bat by one of two men who had suddenly appeared behind us.
A few feet away, my roommate was engaged in a full-out fist fight with the second attacker.
I screamed and screamed, but there was no one to hear us. All of the houses safely tucked in behind thick walls.
It seemed like a long time, but in reality was probably only a few minutes.
My roommate (I’m forever indebted to her for her bravery and her Army Reserve training) landed a couple solid blows on the smaller man, and they decided to run. Likely hoping the get out of there before someone finally did hear us.
The police later told us that our attackers were only after our money, that they didn’t want to hurt us. But I know that wasn’t true. Because they did hurt us. And they never once asked for money.
I was a lucky one.
By the grace of God, I returned home to my parents, shaken, but ultimately unharmed.
Dear Parents of Student Travelers
Here in America, we’ve done a wonderful thing. We’ve provided our children with one of the safest places on earth to grow and live.
And yet in a sense we’ve failed them, because our children are not prepared for the “real world” that’s out there.
Our children grow up in a bubble, a bubble of safety, a bubble of prosperity. And when we travel to the parts of the world, we feel like that bubble must follow us wherever we go. But it doesn’t.
Please don’t stop your child from traveling
Traveling is a life-changing experience, and I fully advocate for students seizing the chance to see and study in other parts of our amazing planet.
In fact, I want my girls to see the world. But I want them to be more prepared than I was.
I’m not just talking about basic travel safety tips. We all know to leave the flashy jewelry and our best clothes at home.
I’m talking about educating our children on the reality of life for millions of people.
We cannot gloss over the terrible reports that pour in from war zones. We must stop sheltering our children from the scary things happening in other places (and even at home).
If our children don’t know what’s really out there, how can they know to protect themselves?
But this is probably the most important thing…
We need to teach our children respect. They are a guest in someone else’s home and need to treat it as such.
I’m no expert in life. I’m not even an expert on world travel. I’m simply someone who has been humbled and had my eyes opened.
I made a promise on that street in Mexico.
As we sat huddled and crying, waiting for someone to find us and help us I said a prayer. I promised that if we were delivered home safely, I would never take one single day for granted. That every day I would wake up and be thankful for another chance.
I was young.
I was naive.
But I got another chance.
Rest in peace Otto. You deserved another chance too.