PAULA MEHMEL — Shoot The Rapids: A Son’s Lost Wallet And A Stranger’s Kindness In A Land Far, Far Away

It’s the second worst text a parent can get from a child who is traveling alone abroad. “Mom, my wallet was stolen. I don’t have anything. No documents, no credit cards, no money.”

When I backpacked through Europe in college and then around the world when I was 24, I didn’t have the option of letting my parents know what was happening. The No. 1 means of communication was letters — delivered two or three weeks after the events occurred. I called home once during my year abroad — Thanksgiving 1988 — from Cairns, Australia, one of the only developed countries I visited.

Thinking back, there were some definite upsides to my parents not knowing what I was doing, when I was doing it. Because the truth is, I did some really, really stupid things. Like the time I decided to walk between landmines at the Malawi border to say I had been to Mozambique. Or the time I drank a little too much after deciding on a whim to go to Hungary and sort of got lost in a Communist country at night, wandering the streets of Budapest. Or the time I illegally photographed the South African Army’s Panzer tanks in the squatters village of Crossroads (where, come to think of it, I was also staying illegally.)

My parents were probably glad they didn’t know I was hitchhiking through South Africa, riding around India on a motorcycle, staying in very seamy parts of Nairobi and Bangkok to save money or traveling on some very questionable buses as well as a slow boat through China as I was dealing with a deadly parasite and the GI tribulations that accompanied it.

Because of my own personal history, I could hardly say anything when my oldest son, Duncan, told me he and his best friend, Charlie, were going to go hiking in Cordillera Huayhuash, one of the most challenging trekking circuits in the Peruvian Andes.

And given my own penchant for cheap, frill-free travel, I had to bite my tongue when they said they were doing it alone — without a guide, porters or animals. In their words, they were their own donkeys.

I think Duncan was about 8 when I saw him listening to my tales of travel with bright and eager eyes that I thought to myself, “oh oh, I’m going to pay for this. What goes around, comes around.”

So I should not have been surprised when he told me, at the end of his trek with Charlie, he was going to spend a few days in Peru alone, exploring.

Then came the text. The second worst text you could get from a child, who was traveling alone, in Peru.

He was stuck in a rural village, just outside of Machu Picchu, physically and mentally exhausted in a way only travelers can really understand, at the end of a challenging journey, destitute and without any form of identification. And completely alone.

Except for his cell phone. Thank God, for cell phones.

I quickly realized the gravity of the situation and was grateful for both his level head and the fact that I am a pretty calm presence in a crisis. And that I had a photocopy of his passport.

He was caught in a Catch 22. I couldn’t wire him money without any identification. And without money, he couldn’t get anywhere close to a U.S. Consulate to get an ID.

But what could have turned into a series of unfortunate events —including the fact that the next day was a federal holiday, thus closing all consulates and the banks — seriously, who celebrates St. Peter and St. Paul Day? And I’m a pastor! — turned into a serendipitous experience of grace:

The older Argentine man, who befriended Duncan on the train (his ticket for that was the only thing not stolen) and who bought Duncan a ticket for the bus that got him back to Cusco, home of both the U.S. Consulate and the airport that would take him back to Lima. The same man who made sure Duncan arrived safely at his hostel after the bus arrived around midnight.

The hostel employee to whom I wired cash. I wired cash to a stranger in Peru. I’m pretty sure that’s like getting contacted by relatives of a Nigerian prince. But Duncan chose a good man, “a real homey, mom,” who could have left Duncan in the lurch and literally taken the money and run, but instead went the extra mile for him.

The wonderful woman, Laura, who works in Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s office in Fargo, who connected me with the U.S. Consulate with their wise council, and then called and emailed and called the embassy again to help make what is unheard of happen.

No one gets an emergency passport in less than a day. But Duncan walked into the embassy and out with a passport in less than 90 minutes. And on to get his stamp at the Peruvian Immigration Office.

What usually takes two full days was accomplished in less than three hours. On the day after a holiday. On the last day of the month.

If you’ve ever dealt with the bureaucracy in a foreign county, you know this is truly a complete, unadulterated miracle.

So by the grace of God, and the kindness of strangers, my boy is on his way home from his first true, solo adventure.

No one ever wants to get that text from their son. But it’s nice to know when there is so much fear of the stranger and travel has become an avenue for spreading terror, that there is still so much good in the world. And that my son still wants to continue to explore it.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL — Shoot The Rapids: A Son’s Lost Wallet And A Stranger’s Kindness In A Land Far, Far Away”

  • DeAnn Grommesh July 1, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Entertaining as always! It’s so nice to hear a story about the good in people!

    1. Paula Mehmel July 2, 2016 at 10:40 am

      Thanks for reading it!

  • Patricia ( Mehmel ) Craig July 2, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    I love your writing …….being a parent is a challenging job at times but hearing the news your son presented you with would be enough to have me loosing sleep and giving up food until he is safe at home with me!! For me, I would feel the grey hairs popping out in great abundance ……at least that’s the excuse I gave my children. Safe travels always to you and your sons


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