Last weekend two good friends and one total stranger shared an article with me about a pair of European cyclists that were murdered in Southern Mexico. One of them also sent an article discussing how more Americans are murdered in Mexico than all other countries combined (unless you include the US of course). I’d be lying if I said that stories like this don’t put a sinking feeling in my gut.
These cautionary tales from friends and family are relatively common these days. Some are gentle jabs and jokes about being kidnapped by a cartel only to become a kingpin. Some are warnings from people that have legitimately been off the beaten path in Latin America. Most are ominous allegories from folks who’ve never been south of the border. Usually I brush them off with a “You only live once” kind of rebuttal. Sometimes I joke about my real fear being grizzlies or American motorists on their cell phones. At this point I’ve probably had at least 10 near death experiences while cycling in America. Few things scare me more than a 60 year old trying to text and drive. Nobody ever warns me not to ride my bike around town though.
Whenever I’m faced with a potentially stupid decision that I am hellbent on seeing through despite the advice of many a loved one, I do what anyone else would do to dissolve the ensuing cognitive dissonance: I rationalize the danger away. When Forbes has a headline like “Mexico: Where More Americans Are Murdered than in All Other Foreign Countries Combined,” it comes off as pretty alarming. What if the headline was “1 in 413,000 American tourists murdered in Mexico.” You might say to yourself, “Is that bad? That doesn’t sound too bad…..” Being 2018, you might then say to your phone, “Siri, what are the odds of being murdered in the US?” Siri would then tell you that it is a little less than 1 in 19,000.
The murder rate in the US is 5.33 per 100,000. The murder rate of American tourists in Mexico is .24 per 100,000. You’re approximately 20 times more likely to be murdered in America than while traveling in Mexico. You might say that a person spends much more time in America and is hence exposed to much more risk. Fair point. Assume that a person spends an average of 10 days in Mexico and all tourists went for the same 10 days, there would be 7.5 murders of American tourists each day. Compare that with 47.3 murders in America each day. It’s still not fair because we haven’t controlled for population right? Only 1 in 10 Americans visits Mexico. So multiply that 7.5 by 10 and now we have 75 murders per day. Now that is worse than the US when you put it that way, almost twice as bad.
If we focus on murder rate rather than population and adjust for how much time we will be there, things look a bit better. We will probably spend 60 days in Mexico, so maybe that makes us 6 times as likely as the average American tourist to be a victim of homicide. So that is about 1 in 70,000. That is still much safer than the US. I am going to go with this number and feel good about my odds.
The point is, that you can take the numbers and tell almost any story that you want. A multitude of factors that aren’t worth my time to account for could also play into this such as where the crime takes place. Heavy tourist areas (which we will typically avoid) tend to have higher crime rates. Maybe you can use the information below to try to come up with your own fun facts about homicide rates.
|Country||Population||# of Americans murdered annually||Murders per 100,000||Chance of being murdered||Avg # of days per year||Murders per day|
|US||323,400000||17,250||5.33||1 in 18748||365||47.3|
|Detroit||672,795||305||45.33||1 in 2,206||365||.8|
|Mexico||127,000,000||23,000||18.11||1 in 5,522||365||63.0|
|Mexico (American tourists)||31,000,000||75||.24||1 in 413,000||10||7.5|
The truth is that I don’t really know what to think about this. We’ve all heard the same tales about this part of the world. Still, it doesn’t scare me enough to not go. I went through a similar experience when moving to Detroit in 2011. People told me that I would get shot, robbed, kidnapped, etc. They told me that “those people” don’t value life like we do. This is what people in Southeast Michigan suburbs have been taught for 50 years and there is nothing you can do to make them believe otherwise. The day I told my mom that we were moving into the city she cried. She truly believed I would die. I tried to take her on a walk through our neighborhood once in the middle of winter and she looked like she thought somebody was going to jump out of the snow and steal her purse. It’s as if an entire population has PTSD from an experience that never took place.
Thumbing through podcasts today I came across a three part series on Radiolab called Border Trilogy. It was about an archeaologist who had grown complacent with digging up arrowheads. In a quarter life crisis he decided to begin studying the artifacts left behind by people trying to cross the Sonoran Desert. Hundreds of people die each year trying to make this trek. I don’t think it is something that any natural born citizen of the United States can understand. We might dream of a 3 day hike through Canyonlands or Death Valley. We buy the best shoes, backpacks, GPS, electrolyte tablets and jump on a flight. We walk on a park maintained trail for a few days and camp in our permitted site. Some of us have a loved one drop some water along a road so we don’t have to carry all of it. After it’s all done we post a few pictures, grab a beer, fly home, and get back to checking chedder.
The trek through the Sonoran is somewhere between 80 and 100 miles. Migrants do it in 20 year old Chuck Taylors that have probably found their way to Mexico via a Planet Aid bin outside a four-buck-a-cup coffee shop in a traditionally Latino neighborhood that has been gentrified by people from Boston that came to show you what “real” Mexican food tastes like. They carry school bags and old two liter coke bottles filled with water. Garbage bags are strapped to the outside for their bedroll (if they have one) and anything else they want to keep dry (as if they would be so lucky to see rain).
With all of the craze about warrior dashes and Spartan runs, it amazes me that nobody has come up with the “Run for the Border Race.” It would of course be sponsored by everybody’s favorite “it’s late and I drank too much and have to eat something” taco joint. A hundred miles through the desert, crossing the Rio Grande, barbed wire, and a small army of “patriots” standing in your path at the end….. Moderately fit white girls with “Desperado” written on their stomachs would line up next to frat boys in sombreros and fake mustaches to win a bucket of warm Coronas at the end. They’d probably drop a hundred bucks a head for this experience.
Your average border crosser doesn’t buy a Fitbit to help them train for this hike. As far as I know they don’t get a t-shirt or a medal. Actually they have to bring their own clean set of clothes for the end to not look like they had just crossed the desert for ten days. They’ll most likely watch people, sometimes friends and family, die along the way. Some of the people that die are children. All of that to get to a place that generally doesn’t want them. When you look at it this way and hear a few tails of tourists getting killed; there is a good case for never wanting to go there I suppose.
But here’s the thing. You have to go there. Why? It’s right next door, but a world away from the life we know. Simultaneously, it is infinitely more like our America than we could ever imagine. People drive nice cars to work at shitty insurance agencies and banks with names like JP Morgan Chase. They get drunk after work and watch sports on the weekends. They want nice things for their kids. Sometimes they’re even more American than we are. Their cowboy hats are bigger and everyone knows how to change their brakes. The gold crosses around their necks shine a bit more. In a time of ultra-nationalism, it’s important for us to have a reminder that we’re all more alike than we are different, certainly more than we want to admit.
And here’s the other thing. For the last 5 years I have thought about doing a large bike tour damn near every day. And before it was bike tours it was thru-hikes, and before it was thru-hikes it was hitchhiking, and before that it was laying on beaches eating fish tacos. When I was in my early twenties I hopped a train to Seattle and a boat to Alaska. Somewhere along the way I read Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and I remember thinking to myself how incredible it would be to live that life (minus the debilitating addiction to alcohol and benzos). And then I realized that at that moment I was living that life.
When you’re young you tell yourself that you’re going to do these things forever. It seems perfectly logical. Hitchhike across the country, meet friendly strangers, drink wine, sleep on their couch, climb a mountain, rinse and repeat. Somehow you reach this point in life where the only dreams that are generally accepted by society involve purchasing things that you can’t afford and a weekly ritual of pouring water and fertilizer on your front lawn so it will grow faster only to be cut down by a riding mower powered by petroleum based fuels. Rinse and repeat. No judgement for anybody that wishes to engage in this nonsense, it’s just that I could never find a way to justify it for myself and am fairly convinced that it is one of the great rouses of Western civilization.
Making babies is also something to aspire to. Another thing I hear these days is “Do it now before you have kids,” as if that’s a given…..
This is all fine, but it’s not really for me. When I read books like “On the Road” I still wish that those were my stories. I want to be able to look back at my pictures and words one day and think, “That was good.” I see too many people that force a smile when asked about life. I remember a friend with a toddler in one arm, fumbling car keys in the other, bags in her eyes from sleep deprivation and what appeared to be regurgitated apple sauce all over her shirt saying, “I swear this little angel is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” Maybe it was. I guess I’m just not convinced that it would be the best thing that ever happened to me.
Maybe one day we'll will find a little place where I can lay in a hammock, relax, and read books all day. The beauty of a journal is that you can write little notes to yourself in the future. Things that are important in this moment but you know won’t matter a few years down the road. You can look back and see how stupid you were and how far you’ve come. When I think about my options over the next two years and I think about what I want to be reading about when I’m 90, it’s just not a hard decision. I get it, maybe something happens on this trip and I don’t make it that far. But maybe next time I’m out riding in America that old man that spent everyday of his life wondering if he should have done something different with his time ends up clipping me while trying to turn the radio to Fox News and it all ends right there.