Small Delays Might Save You
What a scamming taxi driver and other mishaps taught me about patience
I sometimes wish I could’ve been like everyone else who studied abroad and came home raving that their semester was amazing. Mine wasn’t meant to go that way; I’d ultimately need a therapist to process Quito. Regardless, at the end of that semester, something amazing did happen that forever changed the way I look at life’s frustrating little delays.
In my last two weeks there, I began to notice something suspicious: two officers on a police motorcycle began following me to my bus stop on the way to school. It would wait uphill from my house, above the intersection of my street, and as soon as I’d step into view, it would start to follow me, driving all the way down the long slope, slow enough to stay behind me the entire way. The logistics looked not-at-all accidental. I was terrified.
I’d heard warnings since Day 1 at orientation to be very careful not to get framed for anything illegal. Ecuador’s jails at the time were apparently rife with foreign women insisting their innocence in the face of drug charges. Ponder that detail: women.
Indeed, over the months, life made it increasingly difficult for me to trust the keepers of law and order. Lest this sound like a vague and baseless accusation, I’ll explain: in addition to the university’s warnings about the possibility of women being imprisoned on false charges — and the vulnerable personal stories from a quiteña friend about the ubiquity of dangerous, unchecked machismo all around us — a man I met through my homestay also warned me that the police were known to abuse detainees and that they’d once offered to plant drugs on the rental property of someone he knew, just to have reason to make an arrest.
For my own part, having witnessed an egregious lapse in professionalism from even the presidential guards themselves — who catcalled me while on duty—I found all these stories eminently believable. It was hard for me to feel safe in Quito, including around the very men whose job was to serve and protect… particularly when such men began to follow me. Daily.
Around the time that the police started following me, something else unusual also began to happen: someone started coming to my homestay to summon me to the post office. Ostensibly, there was a package for me there. (Spoiler: there was not.) Anything else I’d ever received from the U.S. had no problem arriving at my homestays before, no personal pickup necessary. Moreover, with me scheduled to fly home soon, no one had been sending me packages.
My host mother tried to negotiate: Laura’s too busy, just bring her mail to the house. But the mail carrier was insistent: Laura has to go there.
I avoided this. Until less than a week before my departure, when I had a legitimate reason to go: my luggage couldn’t fit everything. I needed to mail a box to Pennsylvania.
It was a Friday, and for whatever reason, I delayed my errand until well into the afternoon. The post office was a fairly clear shot down a main boulevard from my homestay, and I knew the way, but I figured I’d take a taxi.
Shortly after the cabbie arrived at the Avenida 6 de diciembre, I realized he was taking me for a ride — an unnecessarily long and expensive one. Rather than driving the straight shot to the post office, he decided to circumnavigate one of Quito’s largest parks. I was already pissed that this man was trying to rip me off, but I was even more anxious that his dishonesty and greed might prevent me from making it to the post office before closing time. Friday traffic was clogging the streets. I seethed, silently, in the backseat.
I made it to the post office only to arrive to a long line, annoyed now at the thought of how many people must have arrived while my driver was scamming me. I watched the clock until finally just one person remained in front of me, and she was jamming up the works. What was the holdup? She was trying to mail a parcel to some place the employees couldn’t understand:
“Ahss-lay-tunn. Ahss-lay-tunn…” She kept sounding it out slowly. My impatience gave way to curiosity. Why did this sound familiar?
She spelled it out: “H-A-Z-L-E-T-O-N.”
Good God. My hometown. Hazleton, Pennsylvania is neither large nor home to a large Ecuadorian diaspora, but this woman right in front of me was delaying the line to mail a package to my hometown.
I forgot my impatience and immediately introduced myself. We chatted while the attendants finished up. And at last, minutes before 5:00, it was my turn. I put my box on the counter, explaining that it was going to the same exact place. And just before leaving, as an afterthought, I inquired:
“By the way, I was told there’s a package here for me. I’m not expecting any packages. Could you please tell me who it’s from?” I was already reluctant to say I wanted this package, because I didn’t trust that it was legitimate.
The workers checked my name against a list, one of them broke away, and the employees exchanged concerned glances. This was unsettling enough, but it got stranger: I could not pick up the package, they informed me, because the gentleman who was in charge of my package had just gone home for the weekend. Come back next week, when he will be here.
I didn’t like the sudden firmness and anxiety in their voices. I didn’t like the worried glances that appeared after they looked into my inquiry. I didn’t like the fact that this package — whatever the f*ck it was and wherever the f*ck it came from — apparently had its own personal guardian to whom I needed to present myself in the 19-year-old flesh.
“Look, nobody I know has even sent me a package. Can you tell me anything about it? Who is it from? What is the name? Please just tell me that.”
They were sorry, no, they could say nothing. The man had my package. I had to come back. In person. Next week. Instead, I boarded a plane four days later as scheduled, leaving behind a deep and rapidly growing sense of foreboding.
One year later — after insisting tirelessly that “Laura doesn’t live here anymore, just bring it to my house” — my host mother was eventually able to wrest my “package” from the post office’s possessive grip. And what was it? No package at all. All that had been addressed to me was a single postcard. From the Bahamas. From a friend on spring break.
This merited a personal guardian? And required a flesh-and-blood appearance before a very particular man?
Nope, not shady at all.
To this day, I can’t know exactly why the police were following me or what the post office nonsense was all about back in 2004, but I see reports on arbitrary drug arrests and police and prison guards abusing suspects and detainees in Ecuador, and I thank God for that cab driver who ate up half an hour of my time for an otherwise-five-minute drive, or for the long line once I arrived there… or the mom who held me up just a few minutes more with her package addressed to Hazleton, of the strange and exotic name. Because every single delay just might have saved me from a very unpleasant (and entirely unmerited) fate.
This story comes to mind again because there was recently a car accident in Berlin. The driver of an SUV veered onto a sidewalk, his vehicle knocking down a traffic light and killing a crowd of pedestrians. This was an intersection where I, in fact, intended to be. And probably right around the time when it happened.
I had errands to run that evening, but small inconveniences got in the way. A close friend happened to call and keep me on the phone longer than expected; I even told him with some frustration that our conversation delayed my necessary errands. Then, when I finally did leave the house, the special machine I needed at the laundromat was unavailable; I had to wait another 20 minutes or so before I could use it. When I left, I saw the half-dozen police vehicles and an ambulance on a street I intended to take. It turns out the accident had happened just 30 minutes or so before.
Were it not for my friend having droned on during that call, or for the fact that I couldn’t use that particular washer without substantial delay… I might’ve been at that intersection when the SUV off-roaded and killed a crowd.
Hence, reading the news, I was reminded yet again that life’s small frustrations are often its great mercies.
Over the years, through no responsibility of my own, I’ve become known as the coincidence friend, the one to whom astronomically odds-defying, Really Weird Stuff happens on a regular basis. It tickles me whenever some beautiful and uplifting pattern of interconnection woven together behind the scenes suddenly presents itself before my eyes. Like a gift of stunningly delicate and masterful lacework, or a humbling glance at a tiny corner of the tapestry of space–time. I treasure moments of synchronicity because they’ve made my life what it is. They help me to understand, sometimes, which direction I “should” take... and which direction I shouldn’t. They also help me stay optimistic when times get tough; I’ve come to see that even “impossible” situations have their own unthinkable cosmic solutions, given enough time, so I might as well keep on keepin’ on, because new roads have a tendency to open up eventually. Frustrations tend to find their own once-unthinkable resolutions.
I’m not “special” in this regard; I think this happens for all of us. It’s just that some of us are paying closer attention, and that’s why we seem to experience more moments of “wow.” We notice them.
Indeed, some may argue that noticing synchronicities and finding meaning in mundane circumstances is just a matter of selective attention, a relic of humankind’s survival-instinct penchant for sussing out patterns. (You know, since being able to recognize patterns helps us optimize our choices.) I’d argue, having once trained as a demographer, that some of life’s interconnections and “coincidences” are far beyond selective attention, but that’s momentarily besides the point.
Whether or not a coincidence is just a coincidence, there are things we can’t influence and yet they shape our lives profoundly. Some of these are small, like a stranger’s load of laundry. Some of them are annoying, like the pointless conversation that delays us a little too long. Some of them are even ill-intentioned — on a human level, if not a cosmic one — like the unscrupulous taxi driver who goes 30 minutes out of the way just to extract more fare.
But all of these things can save us.
Yes, all of these things can put us in the wrong place at the wrong time, too… but just think: the vast majority of your life, you have not been in the wrong place at the wrong time. You are here, alive, reading this right now, for lots of reasons, some of which were probably tiny and life-saving in ways you may never even know.
You’re here, quite possibly, because you stayed up late to comfort a friend and subsequently overslept. Or because you delayed a few seconds before work to change the cat’s water… or you tripped over the cat… or both. You’re here because that university rejected you, or you got food poisoning, or that person who stole your wallet prevented you from going out with your crew, or you missed your train, or that scammer — God bless him wherever he may be — prevented you from getting to the post office in time to be detained for a 10-year-minimum drug sentence (and very possibly also raped by the cops who trailed you for half a month) for a fake crime you didn’t commit.
I don’t mean to trigger OCD ruminations here. (Believe me, I understand the temptation to think of the world that way.) I’m not suggesting there’s only one pathway to survival in this complicated world. I suggest, rather, that this is a universe of limitless possibilities… and sometimes things that look like setbacks actually save our lives and fill them with blessings.
I once lamented to my best friend about how my semester in Quito “hurt” me. How being followed by cops, hounded for a fake package, catcalled every single minute while out in public, and even sexually assaulted twice in broad daylight broke me down. I struggled with PTSD for years. I, who’d grown up dreaming of travel, was too traumatized to dream again for many years thereafter. And even when I did dust off my wings and set out to explore new continents, I found that I still carried the nagging fears Quito had instilled: there are places I won’t go as a woman alone, and since I don’t have any man to join me, I simply don’t go at all.
My world is smaller since Ecuador. I still feel sadness for this.
“But just imagine if you’d gone there, Laura, and you had a wonderful time. Imagine if Ecuador instilled in you a false sense of trust. Imagine if you didn’t learn to be so careful. And imagine if you then went somewhere else — and worse things happened, because you were unprepared.”
True. Life does this too: at the very least, it teaches us. And that learning can be what saves us also.
There is no deserving / undeserving dichotomy. I believe in a universe wherein all components are immeasurably valuable. We are all components of that universe. “Bad” actors can still yield “good” ends. Nobody deserves tragedy. I was not any less deserving of fabricated charges than any of the other innocents in Ecuador’s jails, nor was I any more deserving of survival than the pedestrians who died on that sidewalk in Berlin. Same with you and your own near-misses. But this is not a reason to feel guilty. You’re here because things happened to prevent you from peacing out… but you’re also here simply because you’re here.
If it helps you to feel like you have a grand destiny to fulfill — if doing so gives you a contented sense of motivation, warmth, and purpose — then by all means, follow your calling. But if the stress of feeling like you need to do Something Big wears you down, then just let that go. If you want to “make the most” of your life, just live it. You don’t have to go wild and push every one of your boundaries. Living with quiet reverence is enough… as is losing yourself periodically in moments of connection, love, pleasure, and joy.
I read once about a faith tradition in which it was held that rituals of joy (e.g., weddings) should take precedence over rituals of mourning — because life continues, and we don’t actually honor the departed by putting joy on hold. We honor them by living to the fullest. By infusing our own remaining moments with happiness and love. In the same way, this is how we show our gratitude to life — or God — itself.
So next time you experience a near-miss, offer your sympathy for those who weren’t so lucky… but then ground in gratitude for your own inexplicable good fortune. Your time will come when your time comes. For now, apparently, it’s time for you to keep being. To keep living and loving. And to keep loving life.
And next time life throws you a needless delay or a frustrating hiccup… try not to blow a fuse. Maybe, just maybe, you are exactly where you are meant to be. And you are exactly on schedule for where you are meant to be going.