Well, I've been back in the States for about two weeks now, and it's been great. But first let me talk about my trip back.
I knew it was going to be a long haul-- I had three stops and hours-long layovers in each location; however, something rather. . . unsettling. . . happened when I got to the airport in Porto Alegre that kept my mind busy for the first two legs of the trip. I was checking in my bags and trying to negotiate them all the way to Chicago (no luck) when a young man approached me and questioned, "Jessica Lee?" After a second I recognized him as one of the Brazilians who had friended me on Facebook-- I had accepted his friend request even though I didn't know him since we had some mutual friends in Brazil; however, after he started commenting on all my posts and our mutual "friend" told me she actually didn't know him that well, I felt uneasy about the situation and deleted him from my friends list.
So here I am speaking to this man for the first time. . . in the airport. As I'm leaving the country. Hmmmmmmm.
Naturally I asked, "What are you doing here?"
His response? "I'm going to Chicago!"
Oh, shoot. Chicago? Really??? Now my mind is racing. Why is he going to Chicago? Is he stalking me? Should I be worried? To his credit, he's a really friendly and charming guy in person. Had I met him at school or with some friends I would have liked him immediately. But that's not how I met him. I met him in the airport going to the same place as me. He approached me after creepily friending me and apparently stalking me on Facebook. And now we were at the airport. Could this guy be for real?
Of course, before I can ask any more questions that might help me figure out if I'm in any danger he says he needs to finish checking-in and that he'll find me later so we can talk. He hurries away and I immediately scurry to finish checking-in and find a place to lie low for a while. I had arrived pretty early to catch my flight, and this was a busy airport. I figured if I just hung out in a crowed place in some remote corner of the airport I would be safe and he would catch his plane and that would be the end of it.
Traveling can be dangerous, especially when you're moving from city to city. Whenever possible, it's a good idea to keep family and friends updated on where you are, who you've seen, and where you're going. Taking precautions may seem paranoid to some people, but I've always thought that I'd rather come off as paranoid or cautious than dead or missing. My problem was I was completely alone and didn't know anyone in the next city who I could meet, so there weren't many precautions I could take. I basically had 32 hours of travel in which I would be completely off the grid-- if something were to happen to me, no one would even suspect something was wrong for nearly two days.
Still, I had several things on my side. I was traveling by plane, so there were people everywhere. I'm a firm believer that if there are people around, then you are safe. Sure, someone might pick your pocket, but no one is about to kidnap you. Also, I knew the name of the person I was suspicious of. As I waited for my flight I sent a text message to my roommate in the States telling him that if I went missing he should tell the police to investigate this guy. Even if he were completely innocent, he'd seen me at the airport and could recognize me, so he'd be the best bet for an investigation.
Right before my flight, I quickly cleared security and got to my terminal. I didn't see the guy (let's call him George) anywhere, so I figured I was in the clear. I boarded the plane and settled in for the ride to São Paulo.
Once in São Paulo we got off the plane and into shuttles that took us to the terminal. My shuttle was very crowded, but I was in an elevated part of the bus and had a good view of everyone else. Which is why it was super easy for me to find George looking right at me, trying to make eye contact. As my heart raced I gave him a puzzled look that I hoped would communicate, "Why in God's name are you here on the shuttle with me?" He held up a finger as if to say, "Don't worry about it, I'll explain later." Ha, not if I could help it.
Once in the terminal, I rushed to get into a crowed place. I took a turn that led me away from the terminal I was supposed to be at. I found a crowded restaurant, sat down, changed my shirt, put my hair up, and waited.
I feel compelled to remind you again that had I met him in other circumstances I wouldn't have been so jittery. I've just read so many stories about kidnapped Americans or people who trusted strangers and things turned out badly. I know these occurrences are few and far between, but at the same time I really didn't want to be a statistic. I've done plenty of dangerous things while I travel, including sleeping in bus terminals or even just sleeping in the street. I've gone home with strangers and hitchhiked on the rare occasion. While I don't recommend that travelers do this as a rule, my gut always told me things would be fine in those situations. And they were. Some of my best memories are when I let myself do something risky and got to know new sides of the country I'd been traveling in.
But here I was in São Paulo, and my gut was telling me to be as cautious as possible. I wasn't convinced that George had bad intentions, but I wasn't convinced I could trust him either. I tried to think if I'd posted anything on the internet that would give him access to my flight information, and I couldn't think of anything. I have extremely tight security settings on my Facebook profile, and I don't even have my full name on there (though it's not difficult to figure out since I have this blog). All the same, I couldn't think of a single thing George would have access to that would tell him about my flight information. Heck, my flight schedule hadn't even been finalized until the day before I left. This information helped me calm down, though I stayed in the restaurant until the last minute.
After a few hours I got on my next plane. I didn't see George again. He did send me a Facebook message a few days later explaining that he was in Chicago for a conference, so I guess the flight thing was a coincidence. I suppose I believe him. After all, we had only one flight together, and he did let me keep my space. All the same, I was one freaked-out traveler for a while.