I’m in Guadalajara right now, in the midst of a two week trip around Mexico.
It’s certainly an interesting time to travel here, during this prolonged aftermath from the spate of horrendous headlines earlier in the year. Although Mexico hasn’t been as much in the news recently, my upcoming journey seemed to trigger anxieties for a number of people I know, even for those who are well-traveled and not terribly jittery. In the weeks leading up to my departure, I attended several screenings of vivid mental horror movies starring narco-terrorist drug wars, violent crime and everyone’s favorite villain, the Swine Flu.
There’s a sociological phenomenon called “Mean World Syndrome”, which is created by media coverage that focuses excessively on the crime and violence (or disease and illness). It convinces people that the world is more unsafe than it actually is.
I contend that Mean World syndrome is as widespread as the common cold, particularly when it comes to travel in the developing world. Bad news creates lingering bad impressions that are difficult to overcome. The fact that the US State Department lifted its swine flu inspired recommendation to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico back in May 15th 2009, and that it now seems just as likely that you can contract this flu in the United States, does little to convince people that a visit to Mexico now is nothing like licking a H1N1 lollypop.
As for Mexico’s crime problem, well, I don’t want to minimize it. I never even considered visiting the areas that are the most dangerous at this moment — Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua City, Nogales, for example. But cities, let alone entire countries, are big places. In any city, in any country, there are parts of town that you don’t want to go, ever, and parts you don’t want to go to alone, and parts you don’t want to visit at certain times. I’m not completely sure I see the difference between geographic over-generalization and stereotyping.
All of what I’ve said so far are the arguments I could martial in response to the mental horror films before I left home. But it’s hard to really know how you’re going to feel in a destination before you actually hit the ground. So now that I’ve been here for four days, and can say this: I’ve felt no more menaced in Guadalajara than I’ve felt walking around in any large city, which is to say, not at all, not during the day, and not during the night. In fact, between the billboards for Rachael Ray, Starbucks, 7-11 et. al., there have been many times when my mind wandered and I momentarily thought I was in Southern California.
I’m not saying it is just like the United States here — it’s not. But this afternoon, as I strolled around the arts district of Tlaquepaque, admiring purple corn roasting on the grill, inhaling the scent of freshly made tortillas, eating a vanilla and walnut ice cream confection, and threading my way through crowds enjoying the same, I realized that what I was experiencing was about as far away as it’s possible to get from a country that’s alternately thought of as a petri dish or a war zone. And it’s one of the many pleasures that the Mexican strain of the Mean World Syndrome is obscuring from the broader view.