As I told my fellow American friends, relatives, and coworkers I was preparing to travel to Mexico, everyone had advice to give.
“Don’t drink the water.”
“Don’t eat the shrimp.”
“Don’t eat at the local restaurants.”
“Don’t go into the downtown areas.”
“Don’t drink beverages with ice.”
“Don’t get bit by bugs.”
“Don’t go out at night.”
“Don’t swim at the local beaches.”
Remind me again, what is the point of travelling to another country if I’m not going to explore, eat at the local restaurants, try the drinks, and experience local culture? In my opinion, there isn’t one. If I’m not willing to actually experience a foreign country, I might as well just stay home and find a nice beach in Florida.
Americans in particular have been taught to fear travel, strangers, and foreign foods. Even more so, we’ve been taught to fear the unknown. Going out of my comfort zone can be nerve-wracking, but if I constantly stay in my bubble, I will never experience life. Isn’t exploring the unknown part of why people travel? If I already knew everything, why would I bother discovering the world? I want to face the unknown and learn about myself and the world, even if that means taking a risk.
Experiencing a foreign country doesn’t mean simply staying in a tourist-friendly, transplanted, miniature version of my own American bubble. I would see essentially the same beach, stay in the same type of hotel or resort, and eat Americanized food in multiple countries around the world instead of really experiencing the local culture. Actually, for that type of trip you don’t even need to travel; Disney World has EPCOT.
If I desire to really experience the world, I have to let go of fear and paranoia and start adventuring. I choose to stop being suspicious of locals and instead believe that people are generally helpful. Am I suggesting naiveté? Absolutely not. Safety precautions are certainly needed! My point is simply that being safe doesn’t necessarily equate to only viewing a country through the window of a tour bus.
While in Mexico, I ate at the local restaurants, even eating shrimp and local fruit. I drank smoothies and alcohol. I went to the local beaches and hung out in the downtown areas. I took a collectivo to a Mayan ruin with no idea of how I was going to return. I walked around at night and savored the evening. I found my way to my accommodations without pre-arranged transportation. I had a great time and never once did I feel unsafe.
Of course I was smart about safety and cautious at times. I’m conversational in Spanish so I asked for clarification frequently. I only drank bottled water and in general I didn’t use ice. I wore bug spray with Deet from the moment I woke up until I went to bed. I researched the towns and activities beforehand so I had a good idea of where I was going. I didn’t walk around at night by myself or with luggage in tow. I intentionally didn’t travel to areas of the country with drug traffic. I didn’t flash cash and valuables.
I didn’t walk around like I thought I owned the place, but I did walk around. I went to Mexico and I intentionally saw the country, not just another resort that happened to be in Mexico.
And you know what? I didn’t get mugged. Nothing got stolen. I didn’t have any dietary or digestive issues. I didn’t get sick in the country and I didn’t get Zika. (Although I did come down with a cold upon arriving home.) In fact, I only got one bugbite and didn’t even get a severe sunburn! Despite the negative perception of Mexico and the many cautions I received, I honestly felt just as safe, if not safer, in Mexico as I have in any other country.
I didn’t discover a Mexico where I constantly had to look over my shoulder (although I’m sure there are some parts of the country where that is true). Instead, I found a Mexico steeped in culture, with friendly and intelligent people who have opinions on global issues. I found a Mexico with a transportation system that far outclasses my own and with some political policies I would love to see implemented at home. In my ethnocentric naiveté, I expected to find a country where I pitied the locals, instead I found one that inspired me with people who in many ways are far richer than me.
I’m so glad I ignored almost all of the fear-inducing advice I received about traveling to Mexico. Instead, by trusting my gut (and a few basic safety measures), I actually experienced a sliver of the real Mexico. Getting outside of the tourist areas is precisely how we discover more of the world. It’s an act that requires some guts, but also one that connects people across the world, bringing hope as cultural barriers begin to break down.