There are only a few times I’ve truly lost my faith in humanity. A perennial glass-half-full person, I always try to find the best in people, in places, and in our perfectly imperfect little world.
This was put to its greatest test when I was living and working in La Paz, Bolivia. It was my first professional job out of college, and I had landed a job as an editor at The Bolivian Times. I was making $200 a month and living in a disintegrating pile of rubble with two smart, adventurous expats who seemed to get more out of every day than most people get out of a lifetime. Needless to say, it was one of the best times of my life.
The story I’m about to tell begins – like many life-changing stories do – coming home from a candlelit bar at four in the morning.
My head was full of perfume, Jack Daniels, and thoughts of great stories to write, great mountains to climb, and great things to come. Like I said, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.
La Paz is an extraordinary city of Gothic proportions and temperament. Wedged in a tortuous valley at an elevation of around 14,000ft (4,276 m), it’s a never-ending jumble of half-finished high-rises and mud brick huts, of conspicuous consumption and heartbreaking poverty, of contemporary revolutionaries, poets, thugs, and everyday working Joes.
The city is unlike most other cities in the world in that the rich people live in the lowest regions, while the poor people (mostly of Aymara and Quechua descent) live on the upper edges of the hills and along the Altiplano, which cuts clear across the rest of the nation to Chile.
Not being poor, but not being rich either – my $200 a month was four times the minimum wage in the year 1999 – I lived halfway between the ultra-wealthy and the destitute sections of town in a village-like neighborhood called Miraflores. The district climbed straight up the hill from downtown through cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways all the way to the Altiplano.
People always ask me how to stay safe in countries like Bolivia. The first rule is: if women and children are around, you’re generally safe. No women or children here.
The second is: don’t go down a dark alley at night. Well, I lived on a dark alley, and I didn’t really have a choice but to go down it. And it was four in the morning – and I was drunk and young and brave and stupid – so I didn’t really think to look up when I put the key in the door.
Suddenly a man, about 20 years old, loomed in front of me. He asked me in a drunken slur if I had some money. Sorry, I said. No money.
I felt a wire tighten around my neck. I was being strangled, pulled off the ground from behind, legs kicking in the air.
I’ve always wondered how I’d fare in a street fight. Turns out, not very well.
After my assailant had taken most of the life from me, I fell to the ground. Three shadowy figures surrounded me, kicking me, pummeling me. Then my lights went dim.
I’ve come close to death twice in my life. This was the first time. What I remember from the experience was a remarkable dream – or was I at Heaven’s gate?
I was sitting on my back, naked in the mountains by a stream. I could feel the hard river rocks on my spine. The cold wind ran across my body. I could see into the infinite expanses of the flawless blue sky. I knew it was perhaps the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
I woke up with a start. The thugs were gone. They had stolen my jacket, my wallet, and even my shoes.
They’d also stolen my key, so I couldn’t get in my house. I stumbled up the alley, cold as hell, thinking I’d go try a friend’s house, or a park, or find a policeman.
Around the corner was a bar. A young man came out and asked if he could help me.
It was four in the morning. I was covered in bruises, shoeless, and had just woken up from the dead.
I don’t know why that young man decided to help me (I don’t even remember his name). What I do know is that he agreed to take care of me.
After going to the police station and getting no assistance, he offered to let me sleep on his floor. I stayed there for the night, safe under a rough wool blanket. The next morning, this complete stranger gave me his shoes so I could walk home.
I guess humanity will abide after all.
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