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August 16, 2010

Whan happens when you can't ask?

I shouldn't be here. To-do list 30 items deep and one hard deadline for everything. Saturday morning, when I'm taking off on the next trip.

But here I am.

What can I say... I miss you guys! And I want to wrap up the Ecuador reports.

So, this brings us to asking reflection #3 from Ecuador. My question for today's post is, Sometimes you cannot ask: What then?

A few days into the trip, I hitched a ride to a remote rainforest lodge. Most of our group traveled in a van, but I split off and went with two locals, to learn about their work in conservation. We were all heading to the same destination, and they had room in their car, so why not? About an hour into the trip, it started getting dark, and I started getting some darker thoughts. Who are these guys, really? How do I know I should trust them? Great move, getting separated from the group. What if they think I'm a wealthy gringa and blindfold me and take me somewhere awful and ask for a ransom and something goes wrong and I don't see my family again until I'm 52 and Mr. A will have a new Ms. A and my hair will have fallen out from malnutrition not to mention the other horrible things I don't want to consider unless i have to?????

As we chatted -- about biodiversity and saving the planet (looking back -- and even at the time -- I realize how absurd my worries were. These were upstanding people doing valuable work. But I'd rather find myself needlessly frightened than in a situation that warrants caution and miss the signals) -- I started plotting my escape. Unless it was a specially outfitted kidnapping truck, the unlock button was a few inches from my hand. It was night, so once I threw myself outside I could land in anything -- a field or a ferocious river or a ravine. But it was better than years of torture and humiliation, or worse. But my laptop! I couldn't leave without that... I would try to clutch it, but if it got stuck, I'd cut my losses... At least my notebook was small, and I could definitely cram that into my pocket... I toyed with the idea of asking flat out: "Where are you taking me and are you who you claim you are?" but I opted against that, since a) if they really were innocent biologists that would be incredibly insulting and b) if they were not, why would they confess?

Fortunately, there were some electric wires that ran along the side of the road, so once I hurled myself outside the car I could always let my eyes adjust to the night and then look for the silhouette of the black electric poles against the deep blue sky to find my way back. Then, surely a family would take me in, let me use a phone in exchange for eternal gratitude... and if I couldn't escape, maybe I could offer to write blog posts and do marketing for them, supporting their cause, in exchange for my life, and there I could encode messages for the U.S. embassy...

"Here we are!" my guide announced as we pulled up to the lodge.

"Awesome," I answered with a smile. I thought we'd never make it.

That night, I confessed my ridiculous thoughts to a fellow traveler, and she said she was in a different truck -- and thought the exact same thing. We fell asleep laughing and feeling safe -- and fortunate.

One more anecdote:

A few days later, while we were on a group hike, I made a wrong turn. I ended up alone, in the rainforest.


It's not as dramatic as it sounds (or hey, maybe it doesn't even sound that dramatic). I was on a groomed trail, and it was far from dusk. The problem was, I was separated from the group and as I advanced toward where I thought the lodge was, I kept coming to forks in the road. One led left, another right. One led up a hill, another into a valley. One of the forks had a map, but it was nonsensical. "To the lodge" it stated with an arrow, but the arrow pointed where I was coming from. Someone from the group had said the path to the lodge "is quick and easy" but this route was long and winding...

I was screwed.

For the second time in days, I didn't have anyone to ask for info or advice in an unfamiliar environment: which way? how long until we get back? could I be in danger? will things be ok? I had to sharpen my hearing and use my eyes more aggressively, searching for human figures through the trees.

I started doing some calculations. It's 11 a.m. If I get really really lost, I still have 7.5 hours before nightfall. I can always retrace my steps to the main road in that time. Worst case, I hitchhike. Or I can keep walking, since these are trails -- one has to lead to an exit, eventually. I have no food with me. Bad. There are no man-eating predators here. Good. I could always just wait here, until someone finds me. But what are the chances the lodge is just after that next hill? Are they all at the lodge having lunch? Or maybe the rest of the group is right behind me... I think I can hear their voices... Speaking of lunch, I wonder if there are any bananas in these trees...

I imagined this was my life: solo traveler, resourceful jungle woman. All I needed was a machete and toilet paper, and I would make do.

I walked and walked, until I got so far I was worried it would take too long to retrace my steps. And then I turned around. Eventually, I heard voices: some people in our group were not far behind me. And since everyone had broken off into smaller groups, no one even noticed I was missing.

Two comments. First, mom -- don't worry!! All ended well.

Second, not being able to ask for help, info, context or advice forced me to devise my own exit plan, study my surroundings, use my senses in a new way, test my imagination and anticipate things. I was never really scared in either situation -- it was daylight and I had no doubt I could make it back to the road in an hour or two, and in the truck every piece of info I had been given about my driver and the situation, plus my gut feeling, pointed to a happy resolution. But there were some risks. Slipping, getting hurt, walking away from the destination rather than toward it, meeting an unsavory character...

And let me tell you: both of those experiences remain among the most vivid hours of my trip.

Back in San Diego, I'm wondering how I can translate that resourcefulness into my everyday life.

Avoid complacency... put myself in challenging new situations, ask when it makes sense but don't depend on others to the point where it's a crutch, and relish in the ability to do things for myself -- not because it's the "nice" way or because I don't want to impose, but because I can.

What's your take: in what contexts or situations do you think NOT asking and relying on yourself can be advantageous? And a potential minefield of a question: Do you think men and women have different approaches to asking avoidance?

Looking forward to your insights.
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