I had just snapped some pics when I heard what sounded like GUNFIRE ring out. As I turned, I saw the security guards from all the surrounding restaurants run in the direction of the sounds. At the same time, all the Colombians turned quickly and ran in my direction and away from the sounds. I immediately ‘got’ that the locals recognized the difference between the sound of exploding firecrackers and gunshots so I turned and ran as well. I don’t know any details but as I hurried out of the area, police units were arriving from every direction–what an incredibly quick response time! This took place this afternoon as I was walking in the Lleras Park area of Medellin, the city’s most well-known entertainment district. It’s located in a very upscale neighborhood near the apartment I’m renting for a month.
Some of you will say ‘stay inside and be safe,’ just as I’ve been repeatedly warned by American relatives to ‘please return to the USA.’ This was especially true during the eight years I lived in the Middle East. I suppose it’s normal to feel more comfortable, and therefore safer, when we’re close to the place we call home, regardless of the reality shown by statistics.
Of course, we can’t live our lives in fear and hiding, because we’re constantly surrounded by threats, regardless of our location on planet Earth. Citizens of the developing world seem to naturally understand that there’s no security in life. They realize there’s an inherent risk in everything we do on a daily basis. Just getting out of bed or walking out your door carries risks. And then, of course, people have been killed while lying in their beds by falling trees toppled by a storm or collapsing walls due to an earthquake. So you see, there is no real safety anywhere.
We’ve all witnessed the media frenzy when there’s a major ‘terror’ attack, and following such incidents, we usually read reports about gun sales in the USA rising sharply. I’m sorry, but I don’t feel safer knowing that lots of folks around me are packing concealed weapons! Plus, our ideas of danger are misplaced according to government data.
Statistically, the most dangerous thing an American can do is get into the car and drive down the highway. Of course, remember that even if you manage to avoid an accident, there are still drivers around you with guns inside their cars. This is a fact I’m always aware of when I’m back in the USA and behind the wheel of a car. Just drive and don’t gesture at anyone else I tell myself. Ironically, and despite family worries, driving was also by FAR the most dangerous thing I did during the eight years I lived in Oman, a very peaceful country in the Arabian Gulf.
I’m not completely sure where some of this American fear, and at times outright hysteria, comes from. Most Americans I know are quite brave and independent. Sometimes to a fault. Sure, the media is partially responsible for instilling fear in individuals, as is the American government itself. George W. Bush’s administration did a fantastic job of whipping up fear in the masses following the 9/11 attack on New York in 2001 so they could push their doomed agenda. In addition, the constantly updated travel warnings dispensed by the US State Department don’t do much to soothe a traveler’s nerves prior to departure. I often chuckle while reading those updates on a given country and suggest that such warnings would be more relevant (and therefore useful) if they were paralleled with facts and figures from various regions of the USA as well.
In today’s incident, however, the Colombians reacted in exactly the same way anyone would react to gunfire on a public street–they ran toward what they perceived to be a safer environment! So, is Colombia a safe place to travel? I read this question over and over on sites such as TripAdvisor, Inc. You can check for yourself; it’s usually an American asking.
Colombia in general, and Medellin specifically, had the dubious honor of being declared ‘the murder capital of the world’ back during the US Government financed War on Drugs which pitted Colombian entrepreneur extraordinaire (and drug kingpin) Pablo Escobar’s private army against the forces of the Colombian police and military. Note: other drug cartels were also fighting each other for dominance during this period. If you’re interested in seeing a gritty presentation of this dark period in Colombia’s history, I highly recommend the Netflix series “Narcos”.
The violence reached a crescendo in 2009, and since that time, the Colombian central government and mayors of Medellin have worked tirelessly to create a modern city that offers a high quality of life index. However, as today’s events attest, it’s still only about as safe as an average American city of similar size. Are you shocked that I’m using that comparison?
According to Business Insider, a list of the fifty most violent cities in the world (outside war zones) in 2017 includes the US cities of St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit, but not Medellin. This fact should change our perceptions of danger around the world. Of course, there are parts of the Middle East and Latin America that are quite dangerous for everyone (especially the locals!), but we do ourselves (and others) an injustice when we generalize about a country or region based on media hyperbole.
Whenever I’m discussing the USA abroad, the one thing I’m intent on making clear is just how very different the country is from one city and region to another. When I’m traveling within the USA, the differences sometimes seem so great I almost expect to have to go through formal immigration procedures between states. The most recent Presidential election is a vivid example of the different world views espoused by various regions of the USA.
So, let’s stop generalizing about life in foreign lands and do some thorough research before we form our opinions. As I always say, travel is the best education you can give yourself!