In 2007 people struggled with the idea of me living abroad. I’ll never forget the looks exchanged when I shared my travel plans in trusted circles. The assumption was that I was lost and travel would help me “find myself.” Fifteen years ago, my peers couldn’t understand why I wanted to globetrot alone. Travel through Europe was socially acceptable—I ditched “the yard” my junior year at Howard University for an upscale flat in London, and returned to campus forever transformed—but where I was going now, not so much. In 2006, I did a stint in Costa Rica and split my time between San Jose, Limon and Guanacaste.
Going became addictive. I was ready to flee again.
So, I plotted. Finally I decided that San Pedro, Belize’s most developed Caye, would be my base, with stops in Caye Caulker, Belize City, Xunantunich to check out an impressive Mayan ruin and Nohoch Che’en for cave tubing, zip lining and cliff jumping. I had it all figured out. The plan was to save enough to cover at least three months abroad and when I did, dip. By February 2007 my flight was booked and accommodations secured.
My homegirl insisted on tagging along to help me get settled. I complied, in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. As we arrived in Belize City, two men approached us as we stepped off the speedboat, struggling to keep up with our luggage. One was tall with braids and deceptive eyes. His caramel skin was covered in unsightly blemishes. The other was short and charismatic, with the warmest smile. They worked for a water sports company on the beach and were pushing their services before we had a chance to figure out how all our belongings were getting from Belize City to the house San Pedro.
The same way I ignored the persuasive men in Time Square trying to lure me onto a double-decker bus, is the same way I would ignore men like these. Being friendly to the wrong people in a foreign place can lead to trouble. The less they know, or think they know, the better.
A few days later they spotted us lounging on the white sand beaches of Ambergris Caye, then again, after dark at a bar in town. The short one did the talking, and the other just observed. “So where you ladies staying?” the short one asked over a round of tequila that my girl was fronting. She was eager to find me some friends before she flew back to JFK. “The big white house on the lagoon, you know it?” she asked. “Yes, I do,” he replied. No one on the island knew where we were staying and I preferred to keep it that way. “Mami, it’s ok,” she said, pulling me onto the dance floor. She knew I thought she was doing too much. “They’re good dudes, let’s just have fun!” she said. “Fineeeee,” I replied, ignoring my intuition. “We’re heading to a fete on the north side of the island, it’s a twenty minute drive, you girls wanna roll?” the short one asked. “Si mi amour!” my friend said. “And how bout you?” the tall one asked. “I guess,” I said. We went, danced, drank way too much tequila, and then stumbled up the steps to our flat at the end of the night. “META-NOYA, waitttt!” my friend cried as we approached the front door. We stood startled, hand in hand, the front door was ajar. “Mami, we got robbed!”
Here are some things that I learned that will protect you in the future.
Listen To Your Gut: If it doesn’t feel right, chances are, it probably isn’t. Don’t let a few hours of fun cloud your judgment. If you’re hanging out with strangers, gather as much information about where you’re going and what you’re doing as possible. If at any point you feel uncomfortable or even worse, in danger, go!
Remain Alert, Always: Please don’t be naïve. Keep up with your belongings and be aware of your surroundings. Engaging in any activity that can leave you in a compromising situation is a strong no! We shouldn’t have been drinking on the North side of the island with two questionable men that my spirit never took to. Lesson learned.
Make Friends With at Least One Local You Can “Trust”: It can be little old Maria selling fresh fruit at the market you visit daily, a bartender you established a rapport with, your Airbnb host, or a friend of a friend of a friend. It’s helpful to have at least one person on the ground you can turn to, just in case… We had no one.