Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

One Journalist’s View, By Linda Ellerbee

I too support the reality-based wisdom expressed by Linda Ellerbee in this email which we recently received.

Sometimes I’ve been called a maverick because I don’t always agree with my colleagues, but then, only dead fish swim with the stream all the time. The stream here is Mexico .

You would have to be living on another planet to avoid hearing how dangerous Mexico has become, and, yes, it’s true drug wars have escalated violence in Mexico , causing collateral damage, a phrase I hate. Collateral damage is a cheap way of saying that innocent people, some of them tourists, have been robbed, hurt or killed.

But that’s not the whole story. Neither is this. This is my story.

I’m a journalist who lives in New York City, but has spent considerable time in Mexico , specifically Puerto Vallarta , for the last four years. I’m in Vallarta now. And despite what I’m getting from the U.S. media, the 24-hour news networks in particular, I feel as safe here as I do at home in New York, possibly safer. I walk the streets of my Vallarta neighborhood alone day or night. And I don’t live in a gated community, or any other All-Gringo neighborhood. I live in Mexico . Among Mexicans. I go where I want (which does not happen to include bars where prostitution and drugs are the basic products), and take no more precautions than I would at home in New York; which is to say I don’t wave money around, I don’t act the Ugly American, I do keep my eyes open, I’m aware of my surroundings, and I try not to behave like a fool.

I’ve not always been successful at that last one. One evening a friend left the house I was renting in Vallarta at that time, and, unbeknownst to me, did not slam the automatically-locking door on her way out. Sure enough, less than an hour later a stranger did come into my house. A burglar? Robber? Kidnapper? Killer? Drug lord?

No, it was a local police officer, the “beat cop” for our neighborhood, who, on seeing my unlatched door, entered to make sure everything (including me) was okay. He insisted on walking with me around the house, opening closets, looking behind doors and, yes, even under beds, to be certain no one else had wandered in, and that nothing was missing. He was polite, smart and kind, but before he left, he lectured me on having not checked to see that my friend had locked the door behind her. In other words, he told me to use my common sense.

Do bad things happen here? Of course they do. Bad things happen everywhere, but the murder rate here is much lower than, say, New Orleans, and if there are bars on many of the ground floor windows of houses here, well, the same is true where I live, in Greenwich Village, which is considered a swell neighborhood — house prices start at about $4 million (including the bars on the ground floor windows).

There are good reasons thousands of people from the United States are moving to Mexico every month, and it’s not just the lower cost of living, a hefty tax break and less snow to shovel. Mexico is a beautiful country, a special place. The climate varies, but is plentifully mild, the culture is ancient and revered, the young are loved unconditionally, the old are respected, and I have yet to hear anyone mention Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or Madonna’s attempt to adopt a second African child, even though, with such a late start, she cannot possibly begin to keep up with Anglelina Jolie. And then there are the people. Generalization is risky, but — in general — Mexicans are warm, friendly, generous and welcoming. If you smile at them, they smile back. If you greet a passing stranger on the street, they greet you back. If you try to speak even a little Spanish, they tend to treat you as though you were fluent. Or at least not an idiot. I have had taxi drivers track me down after leaving my wallet or cell phone in their cab. I have had someone run out of a store to catch me because I have overpaid by twenty cents. I have been introduced to and come to love a people who celebrate a day dedicated to the dead as a recognition of the cycles of birth and death and birth — and the 15th birthday of a girl, an important rite in becoming a woman — with the same joy.

Too much of the noise you’re hearing about how dangerous it is to come to Mexico is just that — noise. But the media love noise, and too many journalists currently making it don’t live here. Some have never even been here. They just like to be photographed at night, standing near a spotlighted border crossing, pointing across the line to some imaginary country from hell. It looks good on TV.

Another thing. The U.S. media tend to lump all of Mexico into one big bad bowl. Talking about drug violence in Mexico without naming a state or city where this is taking place is rather like looking at the horror of Katrina and saying, “Damn. Did you know the U.S. is under water?” or reporting on the shootings at Columbine or the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City by saying that kids all over the U.S. are shooting their classmates and all the grownups are blowing up buildings. The recent rise in violence in Mexico has mostly occurred in a few states, and especially along the border. It is real, but it does not describe an entire country.

It would be nice if we could put what’s going on in Mexico in perspective, geographically and emotionally. It would be nice if we could remember that, as has been noted more than once, these drug wars wouldn’t be going on if people in the United States didn’t want the drugs, or if other people in the United States weren’t selling Mexican drug lords the guns. Most of all, it would be nice if more people in the United States actually came to this part of America (Mexico is also America , you will recall) to see for themselves what a fine place Mexico really is, and how good a vacation (or a life) here can be.

So come on down and get to know your southern neighbors. I think you’ll like it here. Especially the people.

Photo by Bob Fisher

See also…

Familiarity breeds insouciance

I have never liked the expression “familiarity breeds contempt,” probably because I never really understood the etymological and root meaning of the word contempt. I can understand why neglect can lead to contempt; and as one source tells me the “familiarity breeds contempt” expression can also mean, “The better we know people, the more likely we are to find fault with them.”

Or as Benjamin Franklin said, “Fish and visitors smell in three days.”

And yet, one psychological study I read recently suggests quite the opposite; that in fact:

“Given how irritating other people sometimes are, it’s surprising how many of us are eternal optimists about forming new relationships. Indeed people seem primed to like others: the ‘mere exposure effect’ is a robust social psychological finding demonstrating that just being exposed to someone causes us to like them more.”

Well I prefer to put my money on optimism and on using initial “familiarity” as the point of departure for finding out more about a travel destination, because I am convinced that more often than not, we only have time to skim the surface.

And yet, if we had the time, resources, and willingness to go deeper into the subject matter (i.e. the destination), we would probably learn a lot more and understand more about the very complex persona of any travel destination.

And while I am on my soapbox, I mustn’t forget to mention “the fixed notion.”

As I learned recently from Gregory Berns, author of the fascinating and very brain scientific book Iconoclast: A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, the human brain is (neurologically-speaking) a lazy brain; it likes to take shortcuts. In part, this is because of all the information and sensory stimulation that bombards it. In brief, it can actually make erroneous judgments, jump to conclusions, indulge in over-generalizations and … here’s the core message folks … apply unwarranted fixed notions to people, places, and other stuff.

And we do this with destinations, even if we have not visited them… or not re-visited them recently.

“Why would I want to go to India with all those people, all that poverty, and all that hot spicy food?” Well, I’ve been to India … one of my all-time favourite destinations … so what can I say other than you may be indulging in a fixed notion?

What I learned in Cancun and Quintana Roo

Well, I learned once again (my brain gets lazy too you know) not to apply fixed notions to a destination. I learned that there is always more than meets the eye … and all the senses for that matter, including the conceptual sense.

I learned once again to be wary of dumbed down media coverage of travel destinations and hysterical “if it bleeds it leads” media coverage.

I learned that there is no single Cancun; that it is a multidimensional destination

And that is why Travelosophy is pleased to present the following stories from Cancun and Quintana Roo:

The Lessons of Cancun

The Lessons of the Maya

Kanché and Puerta Verde: A Role Model for Alternative, Grassroots, and Indigenous Travel

The Spatial Sense and Sensibility of Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta


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