´Laura, don´t go to Columbia!´

January 4, 2009

 

Reading my birthday messages last week, I saw an email from my Aunt Cherry, whose message can be summarized as, ´Happy Birthday, Laura. Don´t got to Columbia!´

´Don´t go there, there´s lots of robbers,´´Take a  taxi, it´s dangerous,´Ýou´ve been there (subtext – and you didn´t die?)?´´Ís is safe?´ are some of the refrains I hear on my travels. It seems that every place I go to is known for some danger or other, while, for many, capital cities are no-go areas (despite the fact that usually millions of people live in them). The fact that I feel safe walking around downtown San Salvador leaves some locals astounded. This climate of fear comes from two sources; Western or, perhaps more accurately, developed countries, and the local people and media. The first, I find both powerful and laughable. Looking at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office´s tourist information for every country in the world (www.fco.gov.uk), which is replicated inn various European countries, it seems that as someone who has recently visited Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, I should by all reasonable expectations be dead. Or at least severely mutilated in a chicken bus crash, robbed at gun point and sexually assaulted in the dark alley of some busy city. The fact that nothing bad has happened to me must, according the FCO, qualify me for some statistic-defying prize. Before leaving for Guatemala, I was horrified by the website´s description, which covers current political situations, natural disasters and dangers to tourist, I desperately needed one good friend´s assurance that I was not going to be in any extreme danger in the face of the FCO´s message, which seemed to be ´Don´t go there, you´re gonna die!´A few weeks later I arrived in Guatemala and was immediately whisked out of the city for fear of being robbed, mutilated or otherwise attacked and on my way in a very beat-up coach to Xela. 

Guatemala has a reputation among some for being dangerous, and with a crime-ridden Capital, institutionalized racism, a huge drug-trafficking problem, and, like the rest of Central America (apart from Costa Rica), a death-defying (or not) public transport system, people have good reason to be worried. However, I can´t help but feel that the extreme fear most richies like me feel originates in a form of cultural racism rather than being based on hard fact. After all, the West has every reason to fear those countries it has systematically fucked over in the name of democracy or whatever, and doesn´t it itself face many of the same problems? Whoever advised anyone against going to England because it´s dangerous? Faced with people who live so differently to us, our impulse to scream and run away must be linked to our collective guilt. There is no way we could live in the luxurious and unnatural way that we do if it weren´t for the price these countries have to pay. This is part of what I think must be the source of fear. I haven´t encountered any problem here that I haven´t also experienced in the rich countries I have lived in (apart from the earthquake, and doesn´t California have plenty of those?). The collective fear that makes some refuse point blank to visit any country blacklisted by the FCO seems to me totally ridiculous. It only serves to bolster the superiority complex of developed countries at the expense of others. El Salvador and Nicaragua are two of the most avoided countries in Central America, yet I have nothing but love for El Salvador and have great expectations of Nicaragua, according to what others have told me. My first day here has gone fine. And one of the countries with the worst reputation for danger in the world, Columbia, is the place travellers I have met have loved the most. The hype surrounding this country has led to some hilarious dialogue in my family. Telling my parents that I planned to go to Columbia if I could (I no longer can, for various reasons), they went into what can only be called a mild form of hysterics. There was no yelling, but every time I spoke to my parents for a few weeks they would tell me they didn´t want me to go, and every time I checked my email I found another message listing another reason why I shouldn´t. The situation has become so hilarious that, ´Laura, don´t go to Columbia!´ has become a running joke among my travelling friends. Of course I realise that my parents are concerned because they love me, but the fact remains that, according to other experienced travellers, Columbia is one of the safest, friendliest and most beautiful countries in Central and South America. The locals are so anxious about their terrible image, and so happy to see visitors in their troubled country, that they go out of their way to welcome you. Measuring my own experiences with the stories I have heard about Columbia, it appears that Guatemala is a far more dangerous country (and one which I survived), yet its reputation is much more benign. I can´t help but think the government and Western media´s description of other countries serves its own political and economic purposes more than we might ever suspect. The fact that my parents seem to have transmitted their Columbian hysteria to other members of the family demonstrates the strength of our collective cultural prejudices against countries poorer and with different problems to our own much more than it does their living situation.

The other, local fear I am obviously less familiar with, and understand less. As each country does have its own problems (such as the theft of babies for adoption in the U.S – outrageous, I know! – in Guatemala, and gangs in El Salvador), some areas are seen as more dangerous than others, while cities are seen as the dens of vice they always have been in our cultural imaginations. However, I feel unqualified to discuss this type of fear.

None of this tirade is meant to deny the fact that there are dangers to tourists, rather to question the extent of our fear and its foundations, to ask whose interest it serves to imply that one country is bad while another must be good, which then means that those people are dangerous and bad, while we Westerners can be assured that we are trustworthy and blameless.

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