I sat at my desk reading the email inquires that had been piling up in my work inbox, only semi-conscience of my twitter widget flickering away in the corner of my screen. My fresh cup of coffee warmed my hands, and the smells from the nearby bakery were wafting up to the office windows. Another lovely morning.
Then something odd caught my eye. The words “cannibal”, “Lector”, and “zombie” seemed to flashing by in my twitter feed with surprising frequency. My curiosity was piqued. I clicked on one of the incoherent links next to a zombie hashtag and greeted with this headline: Man fights to live after face is eaten by naked attacker in Miami. ‘Guy had pieces of flesh in his mouth and he growled,’ witness says
I scrolled though the article in horror, and when I got to the end, the news site had kindly arranged a whole array of other lovely headlines for me to click on.
Surveillance video shows man putting baby in washing machine
Six in Utah arrested for stapling roommate’s lips, cutting him with power tools during marathon torture session
‘Help me, I’m cold,’ begs 3-year-old dumped on street by carjacker
These stories lay stacked on the bottom of the page, a morgue of human tragedy. My coffee had gone cold and there was a nasty milk skin on the surface.
I’ve taken enough sociology and political science classes on fear and journalism that I should not have been surprised by all this. More access to information means that instead of hearing about that one really bad thing that happens in your neighborhood every once in while, you hear about every horrible thing that happens everywhere in the world, all the time. There’s a reason the crime rate in the States keeps falling, but concern about becoming the victim of a crime keeps rising. As a lifelong NPR listener, and after spending over a year in Ecuador, outside of the overloaded informational slurry, most of this negative inundation has been filtered out of my awareness by consciencious journalists who know better, and my own self inflicted isolation. But this fearfulness and desire to seek out fearful information, makes me wonder about the effect on Americans’ relationships with the rest of the world.
When people found out that I was moving to Ecuador, there seemed to be a lot of concern for my safety, questions about the proximity to Columbia, and about the Ecuadorian people’s kidnapping proclivities. (Just so we’re all on the same page here, there is no Ecuadorian kidnapping thing, and every person I meet who has traveled through Columbia says its beautiful and full of warm open people.) Other Americans I meet here in Ecuador have similarly amusing stories about their friends’ and family’s reactions to their travel plans. The general response to “I’m going to Ecuador,” seems to be: “But…why?!” I don’t understand that question. Why would someone go to visit Washington DC, with one of the highest murder rates of any American city?
In contrast to us, the Dutch, Swiss, Germans, and even Canadians to some extent, do not seem to have the same reaction to news of a loved one traveling in South America. I asked a Swiss girl if her coworkers thought it was weird that she was taking 3 months to travel through South America. She looked at me funny and said of course not. A lot of them had all been themselves, or were planning a future trip. Our American fear of the unknown, and (dare I say it?) of poor brown people is one that doesn’t seem to shared with the same intensity by those outside our borders.
This fear is reflected not just the contrast between the reaction stories travelers bring with them, but in the travelers themselves. The vast majority of western foreigners that come through this part of the coast are Swiss and German. The English-speaking travelers I meet are mostly Australians, Canadians, and English. There are Americans, but considering the proximity and affordability of traveling here from the States versus from Europe or Canada, and our much larger population relative to Switzerland for example, the proportion of Americans versus Europeans here cannot be written off.
And how exactly are we Americans suppose to change our attitude about the rest of the world if we never want to cross our own borders? Where do we travel in our free time? A fancy hotel in Europe? A government planned resort town on some island somewhere or a constructed beach in Mexico? A cruise ship that stops for like 5 minutes so you can hop off in a tourist trap and buy some knickknacks. Don’t get me wrong, those types of trips are fun, and relaxing, and what is needed sometimes, but they cannot be considered a cultural exchange, something that we do not seem to value in our society the way other nations do. I have however noticed that Americans are the majority in Ecuador’s expat community if not the traveler community, however that has completely different social implications that I feel have more to do with the worse kind of cultural relativism. But that’s for a future post.
When I was still living in New York, I developed the bad habit of picking up hitchhikers. Always, a brief moment of doubt would obscure my good intentions, but then the guilt would get me and I would stop and pick them up. I have never once regretted it. An old man whose car had broken down, a college student walking back to campus to prepare for class after bartending all night, a high school kid who had run out of gas, a cleaning woman who had been waiting over 45 minutes for the bus home after scrubbing toilets all day. I’ve never become a nasty headline resting at the foot of some ‘yellow journalism’ story on a trashy ‘news’ website. However, I did stopped mentioning my bad habit to people because the reaction was always intensely negative.
Before anyone begins picking at my cultural criticism as being based in inexperience or naivety, know that I have not been free of “bad experiences” in my life. I haven’t been living in some Sesame Street world that has made me stupid enough to pick up a hitchhiker. Some of my in my life “events” have contributed to some of the frightening crime statistics that scare certain types of people into a more cloistered lifestyle. But through all that, I still maintain the belief that the vast majority of all the people you will ever cross paths with in your life are essentially good and do not mean you harm. It’s about being realistic about risk and the reward.
When someone asks me why there aren’t that many Americans here, sometimes I say something about how our economy sucks, or we don’t get time off work like other countries. While all this is technically true, I don’t believe it’s the real reason. Sometimes I say what I believe. The news teaches us to be scared of Latin America and think of latinos as criminals, or manual laborers. Or, just as offensively, sex-symbols and “hard-workers”. But I dare you to cross the imaginary line in the sand and see for yourself what it’s really like. Take as risk, Miami zombie man be damned!