It was a beautiful day in the tropical country of Costa Rica and I was surrounded by my best friends. I was working for some organizations in the capitol city, San Jose. My favorite organization is Lightforce International. This amazing group of people fights against sex trafficking and towards the rescue of girls trapped in prostitution. I've volunteered for them several times both in and out of the States. Working with them has opened my eyes to things unseen and truly I have become an aware person from my training.
This specific day we were celebrating my friend Tono's birthday. My sister and two best friends were in Costa Rica working alongside of me, so the five of us and another Costa Rican friend, Jeff, decided to make an excursion to the beach, Holla!
You know those moments when you are so full of life that your skin crawls with joy? This was the day. All 6 of us crammed into an SUV with Jeff in the back, Tico style! (Tico = Costa Rican) and journeyed three hours to the beach with the windows down, music blaring, sun in our face, wind beating across our skin, and Tono swerving his way through the winding Tropical roads. These are the adventures I live for and the memories that I treasure.
We arrived at the beach mid-morning and decided it was time for breakfast. We stopped at a small restaurant and ordered our preferences of Gallo Pinto and tortillas. We enjoyed time together celebrating international friendships and Tono's 21st birthday. My best friends are, how should I put this ... loud and proud! We are Southern women -- beautiful, bold, and chatty. We were using our "outdoor" voices on this open patio and had just covered our swimsuits with light jackets. We were laughing and rolling with the good times.
Two men walked into the restaurant and sat at the table next to ours. I had direct sight to their table from my position. As time went on, I realized these men acted oddly. They were clearly co-workers of some sort but unlike the friendly Tico, way they didn't exchange a word. And they didn't sit across from each other but side-by-side directly facing me. They ordered their food, spoke no words, received their food, ate, and were still silent. The only active habit they had was creepily staring at our table.
Time passed and the eerie feeling of these two men started to make me feel on edge. "Hey guys, if you are going to speak in English, talk quietly, and cover up. Zip up yours jackets and put away your phones," I warned my table. I didn't want to cause too much concern or let the men know I had become aware of their hunt, so I watched with an eagle's eye over the entire restaurant and took mental notes of what I observed.
As we left the patio, I made certain to stay in the back of the group, my fist clenched. We filed out of the restaurant and my loud friends were totally oblivious to the situation that unfolded. The two men pulled aside the two Tico guys with us and asked, "Are these girls in high school here?" The boys, confused, slowly answered no and walked away.
Every red flag had been signaled and I was alert as to who was near us or watching as we returned to the car and drove off. We piled into the car and resumed our gallant ways of goofing off and safely made it to the coast. The crew unloaded the towels and sat around each other gazing into the beautiful horizon, listening to the waves crashing upon the shore.
I had my best friends safely with me and started a conversation that I knew was going to be uneasy.
"Tono, do you know what just happened back there?"
"What do you mean?"
"Those creepy men, do you know who they were?"
He was puzzled and realized I knew something he didn't. Let me break it down for you.
1. Two large men who work together sit alone in silence in a restaurant as they are clearly there only to watch us.
2. They targeted four young, white, foreign women who spoke English and, as far as they heard from my friends, our Spanish was non-existent.
3. When they pulled aside someone from our group they chose the boys since they would have to get through them first anyway before getting to us girls.
4. They didn't inquire as to how OLD we are but how YOUNG.
5. They asked if we went to school "here" to receive an answer as to whether we even studied anywhere in Costa Rica, hoping the answer was "no," hinting to our American citizenship.
These men were traffickers. And we were potential prey.
Tono and the rest of the group were shocked and startled. They could see that I was disturbed by their obliviousness because I care about their safety.
The conversation that took place was painful as I told stories of trafficking in their own hometown. Tono and Jeff had never been told in detail of the crime and were shocked to find out that the largest hotel is actually a brothel and that most of the prostitutes are forced, one way or another, to work against their will.The piece of information that was perhaps the most eerie and uncomfortable was that the same brothel in the hotel was, at the time, building a sister brothel on the very beach we visited. The men were, no doubt, scouters. The group became silent, their brows scrunched as they gazed across the ocean, and all I heard was waves crashing against the shoreline. One conversation changed their life.
Later that night, I was guest speaking at a church, Tono's precious father is the pastor. I was asked to speak about my work, or really anything on my heart. I had my speech planned out but when I arrived at the church I pulled out a blank page and scribbled a brand new message.
I took the stage, humbled and feeling burdened. I introduced myself and the work I was doing in their country and I explained how honored I felt to share with them my experience. I then daringly gave a series of intense facts about trafficking in their country then I instructed, "Please raise your hand if you knew." In the same way that silence roared on the beach with the waves crashing on the shoreline so too did this room become silent and suddenly those small crickets outside of the doorway had my attention. With my statement I peered over to the pastor, who had a cracked smile at my bold move with all hands hidden out of sight.
No one was aware.
I proceeded to inform the people about the problems in their own city. One conversation changed those people. One conversation broke through everything they thought they knew about their country. And one conversation was the beginning of a changed world. Let the waves crash.
So, readers. What are your thoughts?
I encourage you to become more aware.
My challenge to you is to have a conversation with a friend about trafficking, discuss and research it.
Not For Sale by David Batstone is an incredible introductory book to world trafficking and leaves you feeling inspired and empowered to help. Check it out.
Until next time, Cara Hope Starns