The ‘Shaman’: A Committed Solo Traveler Struggles to Reconcile Being Raped While Abroad

As an avid solo traveler—and proponent of the empowerment traveling alone can offer women—Laura Yan has been conflicted about revealing she was raped in Bolivia.

Laura Yan | Longreads | July 2016 | 13 minutes (3035 words)

 

Three years ago, I quit my job in New York to go backpacking in South America. It was a blessed time, full of postcard travel highs: swimming in mirror-glazed lakes dipped in sunset, burning coca leaves for mystic rituals, falling in love with a hippie as we hitchhiked beneath the stars. I was 23, and learning to be wild and light and free. I spoke about my travels with an editor at The Hairpin, and wrote about it elsewhere. Sometimes readers emailed me asking for travel advice. They asked mostly innocuous questions: What should I pack? How do I save up to travel? Where should I visit? I tried to answer when I could. One girl asked if I’d ever been in serious danger.

I didn’t know how to reply.

Most of the time, I’m right to trust strangers. They’re rich with stories and kind, so unexpectedly kind.

I travel alone. I’ve never been nervous about the Bad Things that might happen to a woman who does. I’ve never carried pepper spray, or a safety whistle. I invite strangers I meet in the street to my apartment and offer them a place to sleep. I get into cars with people I’ve just met, even if I’m uncertain of the destination. I’ve been called brave, or maybe I’m just reckless. All I know is that Bad Things might happen anywhere; as likely when I bring a man home from a date as when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language.

Most of the time, I’m right to trust strangers. They’re rich with stories and kind, so unexpectedly kind: I stayed with a family in Peru who lived in a neighborhood on the outskirts of a poor city, where the manhole covers were sold as scrap metal, and they refused my offers of money for the food they fed me or the place to sleep. An adventure sports tour guide I met in a small town in Colombia took me to his friend’s finca in the countryside, a house with red walls that felt like a wonderland: there were lush family portraits on the walls, a green parrot who hopped on the table to steal bites of breakfast, a line of goose waddling in the fields in the back.

I had hooked up with plenty of strangers, so why was this different? I couldn’t tell how much of my discomfort was real, and how much of it was just in my head.

I didn’t think anything of going home with the artesano I met in Tarija, Bolivia. I’d been backpacking for over six months and I knew my way around the artesanos. I’d befriended many, just like him. He had long hair, wolf-like eyes. He was selling macramé jewelry in the plaza, and told me wonderful stories about his life: he was a gaucho who’d come from a family of shamans, had been traveling for most of his life, taught poor children how to make macramé bracelets. He told me that it was his birthday. “Want to go dancing?” he asked. I was fascinated. I smiled and said, “Yes.”

Instead of a bar, we went to his room, somewhere in a concrete building behind the hospital, a small, gray, square with a sleeping bag on the floor, a piece of green fabric that covered the light from the window. He offered me a drink and started telling me about the tribes of Colombia. He seemed to hold a secret history, an account of a world that was forbidden to me. “Did you know that there are still carnívoros?” He asked—but that didn’t make sense. I too ate meat. Did he mean to say caníbales? I didn’t ask and he didn’t explain. The tone of his voice was changing, he was changing into a shaman before my eyes.

He smoothed medicinal cream over my palms and then pressed my hands together. He told me to look into his eyes. We kissed. It went according to script until it didn’t—something felt off, something about the way he held down my hair, bit me too hard. I like aggressive sex but I didn’t like this. I surprised myself. I started to cry and asked him to stop.

He did. “If you don’t feel anything, I don’t want anything,” he said. But he kept talking, trying to convince me of something. He put on a shaman costume, a big, woolen poncho and a colorful hat. “I can see your eyes shining,” he said. I was thinking that he looked absurd. He started to tell me about a ceremony, a ritual that would change my life. “Take off your clothes,” he commanded.

For a second, I paused I wondered if I should believe him. I wanted to, but the jagged unease inside my stomach was stronger. I shook my head. “I want to go,” I said.

He walked me back to my hostel. At the door, he tore a silver, heart-shaped locket off his keychain and gave it to me. It had a picture of his saint on the inside: Santo Gauchito, folk hero, cowboy and protector of outlaws. Protégeme, the inscription read.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I was restless, disturbed. I had hooked up with plenty of strangers, so why was this different? I couldn’t tell how much of my discomfort was real, and how much of it was just in my head. I was prone to over-analysis, second-guessing. The stories he told me were so fantastical. Late at night, half asleep, I had a strange thought: What if he had made it all up? In a way, it was all too perfect.

I decided not to think more about it. I wouldn’t have to see him again. I’d come to Tarija at the recommendation of a Bolivian friend, but there wasn’t enough here to make me stay. Tomorrow, I’d get out of town.

I was walking on the street the next day when I ran into him. It was a surprise, and then it wasn’t. He was with another foreigner, a French girl. Her presence reassured me. She told me she used to be an elementary school teacher, but she’d been in South America for two years. Her VISA would expire soon, and she did not want to leave. I thought she and I were alike. She and the shaman told me they were going to an old winery outside the city, and urged me to come. They promised I’d be back by the afternoon.

I relented. (After all, I told myself, there was another girl there. It must have been safe.) At the winery, he wrapped his arms around both of us, planting wet kisses on our cheeks. The two of them were belligerent and red-eyed. Drunk, I realized, and then felt stupid for not seeing it earlier. By then it was too late. We tasted too sweet wine, and he finished the glasses I couldn’t. At the restaurant next door, the waiter didn’t want to let us in, and they argued with him until he relented. The shaman ordered an entire pitcher of wine and started talking about the ritual again. The French girl had done it, she said. It had changed her life, and it would change my puta vida. It was something about shamanism, maybe something to do with drugs. I told them, again and again, half laughing, that I didn’t believe it.

“This is the last time I ask you,” he said. He switched into his shaman mode, eyes narrowed in half moons. “Remember when I spoke of carnivores? I am one.”

He grabbed a piece of meat off the plate and gnawed at it, his teeth exposed. He ate a fistful of corn from his palm. He slammed the wine pitcher on the table. Even then, it felt like theater.

He said, “You don’t know how many times they’ve done that before.” They. It hit me. There were other women. He knew, and I knew, exactly what was going to happen next.

I paid for all of us, then we took a shared van back towards town, squeezed in the back row. The French girl started to laugh, sing, ramble to herself. She seemed possessed. He dozed, slumped low, his hand around my waist. The driver asked how much wine we’d had. Was I drunk? I couldn’t tell. I leaned my head against the window. That was what I believed in: the open window, the wind on my face.

We were going somewhere but I wanted to stop at my hostel first to get my guitar. I wanted to play it beneath the sun. I was so naïve.

When I came out the French girl hugged me tight, as if she hadn’t been expecting me. The shaman said he loved the guitar more than a woman’s body, but when he plucked a string at random, I knew he was lying. The French girl started rambling again on the sidewalk. I was dizzy. Everything had the hue of unreality. He pulled me into a cab and closed the door. “I always have to leave her when she’s like this,” he said.

I wanted to want him, his tattoo of Santo Gauchito, his tales of shamanism, of a world beyond what I was allowed. (The world that I was allowed: Where are you from? You don’t look American. Your Spanish—English—is so good! Oye amiga! Cuanto cuesta? Una cerveza. Dos. Hermosa. Chinita. Que rica.)

We went back to his room, with that piece of green fabric that hid the light. He started kissing me, and then the panic started to rise. I told him to stop. I struggled. He pinned my arm down. “Stop, por favor,” I tried, again. “I’ll scream. I’ll call the police.”

He said, “You don’t know how many times they’ve done that before.” They. It hit me. There were other women. He knew, and I knew, exactly what was going to happen next.

I’d imagined this happening, countless times before. I’d thought about it as a taboo fantasy and as a worst-case scenario. I’d imagined the witty things I’d say to try and stop it. I’d say: Okay, but please use a condom. I’d say: Okay, I’ve always wanted this.

This time it wouldn’t matter what I said, if I protested or if I fought. “Do it,” I said, laughing and crying, at once. Not consenting, but mocking him as he fucked me. “Que rico! Gracias,” I shouted. I couldn’t let him have the satisfaction of hurting me. I couldn’t let him win.

Afterwards, he said, “Do you see my power? I made you believe it happened.” As if nothing had.

I remembered being certain that I was broken. That everything I’d ever done was a mistake.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world and an estimated one in six women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. You probably know more than six women. Bolivia’s rape rate ranks one notch below that of the U.S. (“Rape rate”–isn’t that a funny term?) Argentina, where my rapist said he was from, has a rate three times lower than that in the States.

I wrote a profile of a man who walked a 64-meter slackline high in the sky, without a leash to tie him to the line. Most people think he’s crazy. The first time I met him, I asked if he was afraid of death.

“No, are you?” he replied instantly. He was so sure. Once he had been driving to set up a highline when he saw four girls get into a car crash in his rearview mirror. One girl probably died on impact. Another was screaming and screaming. Blood everywhere. He and his friend walked the line in the sky and went home. Life is like that. People get attached to statistics and probabilities, forgetting that numbers don’t account for stunning exceptions. Once a man was killed by a cow falling through the roof of his house. What were the chances?

The day after the shaman raped me, I walked to an Internet cafe. I passed a mamita in a bowler hat selling bunches of violets. I felt sick looking at them. There was an overwhelming, nauseating perfume in the café as I wrote and wrote. I still have the frantic words I typed: It could have been much worse.

After he raped me he got a phone call. It sounded urgent. He went next door to get his neighbor and that was when I got scared, really scared. He handed his neighbor something that looked like a gun. He slid a large machete against his shin and pulled his pants over it. When he started fastening his belt I begged him to let me go. He no longer seemed to care.

I remember walking down the stairs, slowly, unsteadily. My mouth was parched. I looked up and saw him and the neighbor watching me. “Where are you going?” He said. “Come here.”

I thought of the maybe-gun and how easy it would have been for him to pull the trigger. In that dreary gray building where no one asked questions it didn’t seem impossible.

Outside, my throat didn’t work as it should. I asked a woman at a cigarette stand where to find a taxi. It was late, dark. I could barely give the cab driver the address. “Tengo muy muy mala suerte,” I said, hoping so desperately he would ask me what was wrong.

He said nothing. I kept crying.

After it happened, I called my closest friends. I left choked up voice mails, ambiguous emails, pleas for them to call me back. I forced myself to tell the story over and over again. Every time, my throat went dry. The crying stopped and then started again no matter how self-possessed I wanted to be. “I don’t know what to do,” I said.

My friends advised me to get out of the hostel, leave Tarija, call my parents, go home. One of them told me I should wait. Leaving now meant letting him win. I thought how I had to tell everyone when I went home, how I could no longer be a vocal enthusiast for the life-changing effects of traveling alone, no longer attest to the ways in which traveling changed my life for the better. How I’d have to admit that I was wrong about my choices, wrong about my optimism, just wrong.

I stayed in Bolivia. I took another bus to Samaipata, a small green village in the North, where I met other macramé-making artesanos and tried to forget. I developed a crush on an American boy and then switched my affection to a guitar player from Uruguay who sang as we drank wine beneath a starry sky. I thought I was recovered. I’d always been quick to get over things.

Then, one night, I craved a drink, to get drunk. I’d never felt it before. I drank and drank and drank until I lost the night, my memories in patchwork pieces. I remember having sex with a stranger I didn’t find handsome, and that I started crying while trying to explain and how the word in Spanish, violación didn’t seem strong enough. I remember weeping on a hammock before dawn, and someone feeding me coffee and bread. I remembered being sprawled on the floor, a wreck, and how the hostel dog came and lapped at my face. In the morning I found cigarette butts and a condom wrapper in my room and I felt dread, that pinch in the pit of my stomach, the wrongness of everything.

I remembered being certain that I was broken. That everything I’d ever done was a mistake.

Despite my feminist schoolings, after it happened, I thought: my fault. I started it. I told him to do it. I believed him. I was hopeful or I was delusional. I was brave or I was reckless. I was young and I was a woman and I was traveling alone.

This is history but my stomach still churns when I write it.

I have friends who are fiercely reactive about rape culture and sometimes their rage feels more intense than mine. “I want him to die,” one of them said when I told her the story. But I didn’t feel the same way. Charlotte Shane, an author and sex worker, wrote an essay about how sometimes the trauma of rape didn’t have to be so traumatic. Sometimes, not relenting to it meant holding on to my power. He didn’t have the power to ruin my life with a single act.

“How pathetic and impotent he seemed to me,” she writes of a client who raped her, “or how little he could ever truly hurt me in the ways that matter.” I keep thinking about how I kept laughing as the shaman raped me. How I didn’t let him win. How I was more angry about how he’d ruined my trip than the rape itself. How I was more frightened of the maybe-gun and the what-ifs than I’d been of his cock. How I was more afraid of what it said about me than what he did to me.

Despite my feminist schoolings, after it happened, I thought: my fault. I started it. I told him to do it. I believed him. I was hopeful or I was delusional. I was brave or I was reckless. I was young and I was a woman and I was traveling alone.

I booked a flight home. It felt like time. I had a few weeks left in Bolivia, so I followed my hippie friends to Cochabamba and decided to take a paragliding course. I didn’t know anything about paragliding, but Cochabamba was the cheapest place to learn how to fly.

For ten days, we drove out of the city for lessons in the mornings. The days grew hot quickly. The parachute, which looked so graceful in the air, was heavy and bulky on the ground. I practiced inflating it, running until it lifted, just for a moment. The parachute kept getting snagged in thorny bushes. My fingers bled when I tried to untangle the strings. I tried to remember the names and tempers of clouds, how to navigate. It was complicated, and I was fairly terrible at everything: clumsy and awkward with the parachute, forgetful of the basics of aerodynamics.

But the course went on. On the third day, I took my first tandem flight. On the fourth, I would be running off a hill alone.

“Are you nervous?” My teacher asked on the ride up. I shook my head. I wasn’t, not really. It was too late to be nervous. He counted for me at the top of the hill. Three, two, one. Go.

I ran. I ran fast, against the wind, eyes squinted shut, until the parachute rose from the ground and arced overhead. I felt the sharp tug at my shoulders, the lift.

Then I was alone, midair, gliding: light.

* * *

Laura Yan is a freelance writer, wanderer and artist from California. She still travels alone.

Editor: Sari Botton