Walking down a dark Mexico City street late at night, I notice some movement out of the corner of my eye. 3 shadows are coming down the street towards us, moving rapidly. As they approach, their features become more defined… rough beards, hair a bit disheveled, their clothes a bit dirty. The one wearing the hoodie appears to be pulling a dark object out of the pocket pouch. “Buenas noches” he says with a friendly smile, as they walk on past
More than any other topic, safety is something on which nearly everybody wanted to offer advice when we announced our travel plans. All of this advice comes with the best of intentions, after all doesn’t everybody want their loved ones to be safe and secure?
- “You quit your job? What about money/health insurance/ability to get another job?”
- “You are going to Mexico? Please don’t take the buses there, they are dangerous.”
- “Are you bringing a gun?”
- “OMG, aren’t they killing people there?!”
- “Don’t drink the water or eat from street vendors, it isn’t safe”
- “There are drugs and homeless people there. They are dangerous!”
- “There are thieves/murderers/rapists on every street corner, why would you go there?!”
The general message seems to imply that if we stay at home, we are perfectly safe. If we travel abroad, its not a question of if something bad will happen, but when.
The specifics of the advice varied, but the emotion fueling the concern was universal: fear. Fear is a particularly dangerous emotion as it is often based on lack of information or experience. Generally speaking, the amount of concern expressed for our safety was inversely proportional to the amount of international travel experience and/or experience living in large cities. The New York jet setters in our circle of friends didn’t have much concern for our safety, for example, despite loving us as much as our homebody friends living in small towns.
Does this mean that we are safe in our travels? Sure. About as safe as we would be in Bellevue, WA, one of the most affluent areas of Washington State, or in Newtown, CT. Safety is an illusion, as people get sick, injured, and killed everyday from exposure to household chemicals, pollution, vehicle accidents, shark attacks, lightning strikes, and drowning in a bowl of breakfast cereal. Does this mean we should never ride in a vehicle, swim in the ocean, go outside in the rain, or eat breakfast? Of course not. What we can do is increase our knowledge and experience
Oddly enough, a key part of increasing knowledge is getting rid of the television. The sensationalist antics used by the so called news today do more to incite fear than inform. Oh My God! There is a drug war in Mexico, look at these graphic images of guns and drugs and dead people! Listen to this talking head explain how there are more and more guns and drugs and dead people everyday.
Once the TV is gone, that free time can be used to do a little basic research. For example, did you know that 90% of the “Mexico” drugs are sold in the US, that 87% of the crime guns in Mexico are sourced from US distribution channels, and that the drug business is controlled by organized crime cartels? It’s basically Prohibition all over again, with different chemicals, but with the same societal impacts: increased violence, increased incarceration of the general population, and increased power of anti-societal organizations such as the cartels (e.g. Al Capone.) In conclusion, don’t get involved in drug trafficking in Mexico and you significantly decrease the likelihood of exposure to dangerous situations
Over the course of the past 2 weeks we have had thousands of interactions with people of all walks of life here in Mexico. More than I’ve ever experienced in the US, the people we have met have been honest, helpful beyond description, and incredibly polite and patient with our attempts to speak the language. We haven’t encountered a thief or a violent character, but have had people return money when we have accidentally over paid and had random strangers help us navigate streets and translate menus. There are some obvious differences, of course: a different language, a preference for tortillas and salsa over bread and butter, and being on the opposite side of a line drawn on a map. There are also some powerful commonalities that exist amongst all people: the pursuit of happiness, working to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothes on our backs, and the desire of a better life for our children. There isn’t really an “us” or a “them”, just the “we” that come together temporarily as we go about our lives.
Many people may politely suggest that I am being naive or nonchalant about safety, and for them I will close with a story my Spanish teacher shared today. He’s from Michoacan, a state in Mexico that has had some publicized violence from the drug trade. Once upon a time, he told his mother that he was going with some friends to visit another city in Mexico. His mom’s response: “Oh, Enrique, don’t go there, it’s dangerous!”