Recently, Rita and I took a week long exploratory trip up the coast, along the “Ruta del Sol” of Ecuador. When we announced our plans to friends and family back in the States, I was surprised at how often we heard some variation of the admonishment to “Stay safe!” Now I know that usually it is meant along the lines of “drive safely”, but sometimes there was a darker undertone as well, an idea that we should keep in mind we are in a foreign country, and therefor “not safe”.
That four-letter “s” word seems to be coming up all the time. In the US, politicians scream that you are not safe unless you vote for them. In online forums, expats always are being asked if it is safe where they live. I am constantly asked if large cities in Ecuador are safe, if riding the local buses is safe, are the cabs safe, is it safe to jog with my iPod, and so on.
What is this obsession with being “safe”?
Curious, I looked up the word in the dictionary. For those of you born after 1985, a dictionary is a book that contains most of the words of your language, listed in alphabetical order and providing information on pronunciation, definition, and usage. Not to be confused with a thesaurus, which is not a part of the female anatomy but is instead a book of synonyms. Synonym of course is something you can sprinkle with sugar on toast.
But I digress.
The word “safe” means: 1 –
Notice how often another four-letter word, risk, shows up there? People want to know if living in Ecuador is without risk. Well, that’s any easy answer – hell’s no! And guess what? Living in the US is also not risk-free. In fact, living is not safe!
Let’s face it, the mortality rate for being a living person is 100%. You are not safe. You are going to die. This is such a sure thing, there’s an entire industry based on making money off the fact that you will die. The insurance industry not only knows that you will die, they know the odds of when and how you will die, and so although they do pay out, they have tons of spreadsheets and auditors tracking the risks to make sure they charge you enough so that the house always wins.
What the insurance companies understand, and what the American people do not understand, is the idea of risk. There are degrees of risk, but the people as a mass don’t seem to get it. They just want to be safe.
This tendency has been growing for a long time in the US. You can try to blame it on 9/11, and politicians certainly do like to use that tragedy for their maximum benefit, but I believe it only sped up a process that was already there. Before 9/11 there were still things like bicycle helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, etc. for kids. There were warnings posted at DQ about the possibility of deadly peanuts lurking in your ice cream sundae, hospitals offering to x-ray Halloween candy (in spite of there never being a case of someone finding a razor blade), stranger danger alerts, and other indications. Look at the prevalence of something as simple as hand sanitizers, to keep you safe from germs.
Take my word for it, it was not always like that in the US. I mean, for years the most popular present for kids 10 or over was their very own Daisy air rifle. Just BB’s, right? Ever get hit with one? You could punch through a tin can with a properly pumped Daisy air rifle. No, I blame the whole preoccupation with safety on one playful little item: Jarts.
Again for that post-1985 gang, Jarts were an amusing little lawn game, fun for kids of all ages. The Jarts kit consisted of two plastic hoops, which you placed a set distance apart in the lawn. Then you took the six Jarts, which were small, hand held missiles with a very heavy metal tip, and gaily decorated plastic fins in two bright colors (for teams!). You then took turns, and I’m not kidding here, lobbing these missiles underhanded in big looping arcs while standing at one circle in an attempt to have it plummet down and pierce the ground within the opposing hoop. The tips were not particularly sharp, but the Jart – which was a shortened word for javelin dart, which I guess should have been a clue – could fall with a force as high as 21,000 pounds per square inch, if tossed high enough.
Fun? You bet! Safe? Not so much. Especially since each team stood behind their own hoop.
I had a set myself, and I remember playing a variation with a friend of mine, where we each stood with the hoop on opposite sides of the house. We proceeded to take turns lobbing our Jarts over the roof, blindly trying to hit the unseen target. Of course your opponent was on the other side so he could yell out encouragement or insults, as the case may be. This continued until my mother stuck her head out the door and yelled for us to knock it off before we (sing along with me) “put someone’s eye out!”
There were, rather predictably, a number of injuries caused by this product. Enough so that they were finally banned from sale. They were definitely and demonstrably not safe, and appropriate action was taken.
But getting back to the US and Ecuador, now we are talking about risks that are harder to define, and appropriate steps are not usually taken. For example, according to the CDC in 2014 over 2.6 million Americans died in the US. Almost half of them (1.4 million) died from two causes, heart disease or cancer. In that same year, 24 Americans lost their lives in terror attacks. That’s almost 50% of all deaths due to heart disease or cancer, and about 0.0000092% by terrorists. That means you would be safer if TSA was confiscating knives at your local steak house instead of at the airport. But do you see Congress rushing to pass laws to make you safe from heart disease, or to provide better funding for research into causes and cures? Of course not. It is to their political advantage to make you afraid of something else.
Meanwhile here in Ecuador, the best stats I could find from the State Department on violent deaths of expats in the year 2014 stated there were 6 reported. Granted, they openly acknowledge that these may not represent them all, just what was reported to the State. But still, only six. Of those half dozen, three of them were suicide, one was a traffic accident, and the remaining two were homicides.
Over the recent years it seems to me that the trend in the US has not been to make you safe from harm, it has been to make you feel as unsafe as possible. And Americans increasingly seem to want to feel safe. It’s like the nation is entering into a second childhood, yearning to be enfolded in the trusted arms of an adult, and protected from all harm.
And again, that’s not going to happen. You are never going to be safe. There will always be risk. What you need to do is decide what is the real degree of risk involved, and what are the potential rewards for taking that risk. Choosing to live overseas is definitely taking a risk, it is not a safe choice. But that does not mean you are necessarily any safer by merely staying where you are.
For what it is worth, my wife and I have found Ecuador to be very “safe”. We are comfortable in all parts of our lives here. However, we do not frequent bars, we don’t walk around late at night in bad neighborhoods, and we don’t flaunt our comparative wealth. We live rather simply, enjoying shopping at the local Mercado like the Ecuadorians, taking the buses, and trying our best to use the language and fit into the culture.
Of course there are risks. Heck, just crossing the road here can be an adventure, and I’ve had wilder rides in taxis than anything you would find in an amusement park. But we feel we face no more risk, and possibly even less, than we would living in the US. And the rewards of living in this beautiful country have made our lives much richer.
So if you are considering life overseas, I suggest instead of trying to find reassurances from others that you just go and see for yourself. You don’t have to pack everything and take off blindly. Take a vacation or two in your target country(ies), get out there and look around at the world and see for yourself what the situation is. Yes, you should take reasonable precautions, whether you are traveling to Ecuador, Italy, the Philippines or even Boston.
But for myself, living my life in fear, intent on staying safe, and risking regret that I didn’t see and experience as much of life as I possibly could? Well, that’s one risk that I don’t want to take.
Image courtesy of www.retro-cafe.com