The title is actually not quite right, it should be ‘6 Life Lessons I learned While Locked Up Abroad’, the most important lesson I learned was definitely…don’t get locked up abroad!
I found myself in the situation every traveler fears, during my time in Nepal I got on the wrong side of the law, and paid for it.
I was initially told I would have to spend 90 days in jail, which was then reduced to 40-50 days, ultimately I would serve ‘just’ 17 days. Although shorter than I was first told, and not quite the years long of some of the horror stories out there, let me assure you 17 days in a Nepali jail is not a pleasant or short experience.
A Not So ‘Warm’ Welcome
The night of my arrest was quite possibly the longest night of my life. After spending 3 hours ‘discussing’ my situation, I was guided to a circular outdoor cage, and told I will just have to wait here for a short while.
Furnished with only a concrete block there was no warmth and nowhere to hide from the cold in this cage. It had been a beautiful sunny day, so my choice of vest top and shorts was sensible in the morning. Ten o’clock at night in the bitter cold it was no longer such a good choice.
I thought that by going to the toilet I may at least catch a few minutes of warmth, the cold was now getting to my bones. I asked the guard where I can use the bathroom, he looks me up and down then with a smirk on his face points to the other side of the cage and turns back around.
As I begin to realize I will be in the cage all night, I curl up on the floor and try to sleep.
All of a sudden I am woken up by the guard, he comes into the cage, pulls me up, slaps handcuffs on me and throws me in the back of a truck. It’s still pitch black, and I have no idea what time it is, or where we are going.
We arrive at a hospital, it’s 3am and I am asked two questions, ‘are you drunk’ & ‘why are you here’. I could have thought of many sarcastic answers, but thought the better of it. After 15 minutes I am back in the truck and on my way back to the cage.
One Night Becomes 16
After finally (it took over 24 hours) speaking with my embassy, I was moved to what would become my home for the next three weeks. Up until this point I kept being told I would be released within hours. Now I knew this was not the case.
When I arrived at the prison, I was immediately told by the Chief Inspector I would be here for the next 90 days, and the best thing I could do is prepare myself mentally for what was ahead.
My cell was roughly 5.5 x 9.5 feet, and shared with 10 other inmates. I looked around as their eyes pierced through me and understood very quickly that this was going to be a tough test.
My ‘bed’ was a small space on the concrete floor, which I would have to share with an abundance of insects. There were no pillows and only a few blankets with very questionable odors. Warmth however was not an issue, as the lack of space ensured we would all be close enough to share body heat.
The toilet was joined to the cell, and the smell of stale urine was something which would become as normal as hearing the screams of the guards or banging of metal bars. There was no natural light, 24/7 we would be exposed to extremely bright artificial light.
Entire days would be spent in the cage, no natural light, no fresh air, no exercise and no care. The others and I would struggle to communicate, and for the first few days I was extremely afraid, and not wanting to show it, as I was skeptical of my new companions.
Meals were served twice a day, which was a prison spin on a popular (and usually tasty) national dish, dal bhat (rice and a vegetable curry), served from two industrial buckets at 10am and 5pm.
“Spending 24 hours a day in a small, over-packed cell with ‘criminals’, I was terrified to begin with. I was the only foreigner”
How Did I End Up Here?
Like I said in the beginning, I was on the wrong side of the law.
Jack and I had decided to head out and enjoy the day on motorbikes. Riding through the Himalayan mountains, sun shining bright and beautiful landmarks, it was a beautiful day.
The day was coming to an end and we were still a couple of hours from our hostel and wanted to head back to play some chess (one of those wild nights).
Riding back through the winding mountain roads it was easy to get a bit carried away, we were racing our bikes down with some serious pace. Overtaking each other at seemingly every corner and really pushing the limits, we speed round the corner near the bottom of the mountain and there was a random police checkpoint.
As we stop about five police officers rush towards my bike with huge grins on their face and almost starved looking eyes.
Oh Shit! It all clicked in my mind. Remembering how my (stereotypical) appearance works against me sometimes.
I was caught with a small (8g) amount of hashish in my backpack, although it grows freely in the Himalayan mountains, it is NOT legal.
I knew this, so I wasn’t going to feign ignorance (which would have been a waste of time), what I didn’t know was just how strict the drug laws are in Nepal, in retrospect I got very lucky.
The 5 Life Lessons I Learned (or Were Reaffirmed)
Sometimes we fall into the same cycles and learn nothing and sometimes life will give us hard lessons to finally learn what we need to as we progress through our journey.
How many times do we fall for the same type of guy or girl, or using phrases such as ‘this always happens to me’.
Until we hold ourselves to a higher standard, until we commit to uncomfortable, we will keep getting bitten in the ass. In my case the bite was real hard, but I understand what lessons I could and needed to take from this experience.
1. The Strength of Human Spirit
I have read about the true strength of the human spirit enough times, incredible people that have stood up in the face of the most dire situations. I always considered myself to have a relatively strong spirit, life hadn’t always been the easiest and I have pushed through some decent adversity.
This was probably the toughest psychological and physical experience of my life, and I had to really be aware of this. It is so easy to be good when everything is going well. Sounds basic, but the true test comes when things aren’t going your way, that’s when we have to remember to be strong, show strength and have faith.
Spending 24 hours a day in a small, over-packed cell with ‘criminals’, I was terrified to begin with. I was the only foreigner, there was a huge language barrier and initially not the most honest or friendly guards. Ironically I felt very alone.
I would recite mantras, meditate, learn some Nepali, and even share laughs with my cellmates on occasion. I quickly removed myself from any anger towards the guards and victimization I may have felt. Neither of these were going to change or help my situation.
I focused on being present, on my relationships with my cell mates, and keeping my thoughts in check. This would and did help me with my situation, I felt stronger than I ever imagined I could.
I spent my first couple of days avoiding others, curled up in the corner of the cell holding back tears and wishing to be somewhere else. I would end up learning a language, making friends and even sharing life advice with others that were struggling, even gaining the respect of some of the most hardened prisoners.
2. Everything is Temporary
“Tomorrow you will be free, this is no big problem” was what the police officers that caught me first told me.
“Just one night in here and tomorrow morning you go my friend” was what the prison officer first told me.
“You will stay for 90 days, maybe 40-50 if you are lucky” was what the Police Inspector told me.
Needless to say for my entire time I had no idea how long I would actually be kept there and that was one of the most difficult aspects. How do I mentally prepare myself?
I slipped a couple times, of course, and found myself struggling to keep my sanity. For the most part I remembered one of life’s most important lessons. Everything is temporary, whether the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, it will pass, so be present.
I have a much better sense of value for time and freedom now that’s for sure. But while inside the jail I also understood that this was a life experience that was going to shape me moving forward, whether positive or negative it would have a major impact on me.
With this understanding in mind, I was able to visualize how this was going to impact me, what I was going to do once I was given my freedom back and how I was going to grow from this experience. Almost every night I would dream about being free and with loved ones, then wake up to the harsh reality of my small concrete cell. This was difficult, but also a stark reminder of what I want to be doing, what I will be doing and the people I love dearly in my life, which has shaped how and who I am today.
3. The Power of Gratitude
Once we have the ability to be grateful for everything in our lives, we immediately let go of so much bullshit we harbour and let drain us of our energy.
Food was served twice a day from a bucket, and I made sure the guards knew I was grateful for this.
If I was asked to take out the rubbish, I would show gratitude (it also gave me two minutes of fresh air and sunshine)
Asked to clean the bathroom (which was essentially a hole in the floor and a cold water tap to shower), I am damn grateful.
It stopped me from feeling sorry for myself, to allow me to understand how the small things in life are beautiful, and how to appreciate exactly where I am. It also came with benefits. The guards became impressed, instead of trying to impose their superiority on me they would look after me.
If anybody disturbed me while reading, or made me feel uncomfortable, they knew very quickly not to.They would also share pictures of their family with me and chat to me regularly to make sure I was ok.
This was a far cry from the kicking and shoving I first experienced. I was sure to show my gratitude for this. I was also sure to find anyway I could to help another prisoner if they needed it. From giving extra food to helping translate words in books from English into (very basic) Nepali.
Gratitude allowed me to stay humble, stay strong and begin to foster a feeling of community inside. It also kept my situation in perspective…
We all know the saying, ‘somebody has got it worse’, it couldn’t be more true, somebody has ALWAYS got it worse, yet it is easy to think life is shitting on us…it’s not.
Getting locked up in Nepal was tough, but even there it wasn’t the toughest. I had hundreds of people on the outside (including senior journalists, national personalities and politicians) offering or providing their help alongside a powerful foreign embassy. I had a fundraiser started for me, and my family found a great lawyer.
I was very privileged, there was not a single other prisoner who had the same level of support or resources that I did. I was very aware of this.
Were the prisoners the only ones locked up…no, so were the guards and this realization changed everything. They also had to spend everyday behind bars, they may be able to go home to their families (every 2-3 days), but they were still spending all day everyday behind bars. Eating the same food, probably experiencing the same boredom and monotony, wishing they were somewhere else.
Perspective is taking a step back, observing, showing empathy and compassion. Perspective reduces anger, hatred, and bigotry. Self-victimization hinders our personal growth, its stops us from moving beyond the superficial, perspective allows us to practice forgiveness and step away from irrationality into understanding.
5. Never Give Up
This is one of the simplest, and hardest lessons to execute. It holds true through every aspect of our lives, from nursery through to adulthood. Every day we will make choices and if something is hard or uncomfortable may of us want to try and avoid it.
Giving up is in essence not moving towards anything we are passionate about, dream about or desire. Instead of waking up early we press that snooze button. Instead of working at something we watch TV. Instead of reading we play games. By making these choices we are giving up on our dreams before we have even started. I’ve been there and it has been (very) difficult to move away from there.
When getting released from prison, many of my friends and family were relieved and extremely understanding of my decision to stay in Nepal and carry on living my life of nomadic travel. They understood my mindset, they understood that I was going to continue moving forward towards my dreams and there was no chance I was going to come back and in my view give up.
They understood and knew this, because for years I have made the little (and big) choices everyday to work towards my goals, with unwavering commitment and faith. For me there was no choice, before I knew when I was going to be released, I was already planning my next steps and how this experience would become a platform for my success.
Never giving up is a mindset crafted over time and one which is essential to achieving absolutely anything.
Live Your Dreams
For the past five months I have been living in Bali, one of the most beautiful islands in the world, tropical weather, wonderful people, amazing landscapes and so much fun.
Eight years ago I was a college dropout that had just been fired from the only job I had ever known (McDonald’s).
Seven years ago my dream was to get a degree, generate my own income, travel the world, have amazing adventures and live life on my own terms.
These lessons five lessons have been fundamental to my achievements, being locked up abroad gave me the opportunity to understand them in more depth and truly appreciate the life I lead.
What are some of the life lessons or powerful experiences that have helped shape you? I would love to hear more, leave your comments down below