I have a habit of talking to touts who approach me in a foreign country.  I mean, if someone asks me a question my first instinct is to answer it.  Pat has to keep reminding me that this isn’t always the best or safest thing to do . . . especially in a dodgy bus station in South America.

My natural inclination to be helpful and friendly bit me in the ass while we were in Arica, Chile.  We had just finished a 10-hour bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama and I was tired and fuzzy headed.  While Pat was buying tickets for the next leg of the bus journey I was standing guard over our bags.  A woman walked up and asked me where the bathroom was and, while I was being the helpful American, her partner in crime lifted one of our small bags.

By the time we realized the bag was missing it was long gone.  I suspect the thief was very disappointed when he cracked open the bag, though.  I seriously doubt he’ll be able to off-load a book of partially completed New York Times Crosswords, two blow-up neck pillows, and a 2-year old Irish cell phone.


We got back to San Miguel on Monday and called home to tell our families we had arrived safely, although I’m not sure that safe is the word they’d use.  It’s clear to us that there are many, many people back in the United States who think of Mexico as simply a place to get swine flu or be murdered by a drug cartel.  In Spanish class today, our teacher mentioned that in the many months he’s been here he’s had one visitor from the United States, his mother.  Most of the class had had no one visit them, despite having been in Mexico for many months or even years.  A classmate who has lived here for 13 years said everyone in the U.S. thinks we’re all crazy for being down here, and the whole class agreed – not with the idea that we’re crazy but with the certainty that Americans back home think we are.

Americans have a strong streak of paranoia, and we couldn’t help but notice it when we were back home.  Amy and I were relaxing at the coast, watching TV, when a Brinks Security commercial came on showing a man breaking into a home, prompting the woman and young daughter to hit an alarm and call the security company.  Next came a commercial showing the risks of identity theft and the difficulty of protecting yourself without buying an expensive service.  Finally, there was a commercial describing the dangers pets face from ticks and other bugs.  Our lives, identities, and even our dogs are in peril!

We haven’t watched that much television in other countries but we did see enough to know this kind of “Oh my God, we’re in terrible danger” paranoia seems strongest in the U.S.  Unfortunately, this attitude spills over into public policy, so now America can’t possibly extend American legal rights to those arrested as terrorists (even when the government admits some have no ties to terrorism), or even keep them in a prison on American soil but must house them overseas and torture them to try to get information.

It used to be that Americans would have opposed such measures but our fear has trumped our commitment to American civil liberties.  Some columnists on both the left and the right have recently pointed out how un-American our current attitude toward security versus freedoms is.  The columnists point out the Founding Fathers adopted a Bill of Rights that protected citizens against unlawful search and seizure, for example, knowing full well this was a choice of freedom over security.  But they did it anyway.

I suggest to other Americans that the world isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be and it’s a fun place to see.  You should try it some time.

rabbit-snowman1.jpgCork has a reputation as a generally safe city, but there are still pockets of crime in a city of this size.  One gray dreary January day, Pat and I decided to divide and conquer in an effort to get several errands taken care of a bit more efficiently.  As I was crossing the bridge over the River Lee to scout out the location for my written driving test, I was thinking to myself how nice it was to be able to walk around a fairly large city by myself and still feel safe.  This bubble of false security was ruptured rather violently not long after this moment of blissful ignorance. 

I walked around the corner on to a slightly less busy street and was quickly confronted by a young woman with slurred speech asking for “two seconds of my time”.  I shook my head and began to move away when she grabbed my hair and then started slapping my face and body.  I pulled away from her only to be accosted by her male counterpart a few feet away who also grabbed my hair and attempted to detain me.  I once again escaped and then sprinted toward a group of road workers who were about 25 yards further down the street as I screamed for help.  I was glad to have someone to run toward, but the men made no move whatsoever to help me or to check to see if I was okay.  After I had stared wide-eyed at one of the men for several seconds he mutely shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. 

I very much hope this degree of inertia is the exception to the rule and not the norm when someone witnesses another person being attacked on the street.  Of course, hopefully, I won’t find myself in such an unsavory position again.  But one never knows.  The encounter has definitely raised my level of alertness when I am out and about on the streets, though.