“I don’t know how you can live with yourself,” a reader wrote to me. “By recommending places like Ecuador, you’re placing the lives of Americans in danger. Don’t you remember the four church women who were killed in Honduras?”
This e-mail—and dozens I’ve received just like it—teaches a good lesson about stereotyping.
The incident with the church women was in El Salvador, not Honduras. And it was more than 30 years ago…during a war. What’s more, it’s got nothing to do with Ecuador, the country he was actually criticizing me for endorsing.
So the e-mail shows that we have long cultural memories. And that we’re willing to paint everything south of Texas with the same brush, making little distinction in Latin America between one country and another.
But as with most stereotypes, there’s an element of truth. I’ve found non-violent crime in many areas to be more prevalent than in my former homes, especially rural Vermont or suburban Pennsylvania.
Like me, many boomer-expats come from suburban or rural environments… because these were the most desirable areas when we were growing up. Safe, secure neighborhoods where you didn’t need to lock your doors or bring things in from the yard at night.
But when we move abroad, we usually move to cities, because the cities have the basic services we want—like Internet, cable TV, public water and decent shopping—while foreign suburbs often don’t.
So we find ourselves among more petty crime not because Latin America is more dangerous than North America, but because we’ve often changed to an urban setting from a suburban or rural one. I find that big-city dwellers are seldom crime victims abroad, because they already have the right behaviors.
The truth of the matter is: Living abroad—in any country—is as safe as you make it. And your individual conduct and common sense will have more to do with your personal safety than any inherent characteristics of the country you’re in.
I’ve learned this myself; the hard way.
In Ecuador, my camera and backpack disappeared like magic in the bus station as a 75-year-old man created a masterful diversion while a 10-year-old boy ran off with them…a minute or so before I even noticed. My passport vaporized when I left it unattended on a table at the Notary’s office. And a freshly-withdrawn $300 efficiently ended up in someone else’s pocket while I watched another skillful diversion on the bus.
To be honest, I fared far worse in Montreal, Philadelphia and Baltimore. But my early experience as a Latino city-dweller did serve to change my habits.
My first U.S.-style reaction was to buy a .357 at the hardware store and get a license to carry it. The next guy who tries to steal from me, brother, will wish he’d picked on someone else.
But that wasn’t the answer. It was my awareness and personal conduct that have kept me out of trouble for the past six years.
I learned to heed local advice about where to avoid…knowing that the bad neighborhoods in Latin America often don’t look bad to me. I use extra care in tourist areas, where petty criminals tend to work.
And I apply the same good sense I’d use in a big city in North America. You’d be amazed at the number of people who will wisely avoid the bad neighborhoods of Los Angeles, but will walk freely through the slums of Bogota with a camera around their neck. In these areas, I carry only the money I intend to spend, or the credit card I intend to use.
But the most-valuable lesson was to keep petty crime in perspective.
In 12 years of traveling and living in Latin America, I’ve never been threatened with violence. And we don’t experience hate crimes, serial killers, violence for fun or even vandalism. People generally take what can be easily converted to food and shelter. So if someone ever manages to pull one over on me, it’ll be like losing a hand of poker…annoying maybe, but I’ll get over it in time for the next hand.
The reality is that the 75-year-old man and the 10-year-old boy I mentioned above are unemployable. And they live in a country that has no welfare, unemployment compensation, Medicaid or Social Security. So my $800 camera (for which I had a spare) no doubt fed them for more than a month.
I’ve squandered lots more money on far less-worthy causes.
So employ good sense abroad, and maintain an awareness of your surroundings, and don’t carry more than you need. But if that fails, think of the hand of poker…and appreciate the fact that you’ll still have enough to stay in the game.