Last night I wandered the city, looking at apartments. "Whoaaaaa!" yelled a man from his pick-up truck as I scuttled down a dark street near El Centro. Every fibre in my being told me to walk fast, look straight ahead, and trail any women nearby as closely as possible (poor things! They probably thought I had designs on them!).
I ended up on a deserted street corner and called the owner of the apartment. "I already rented it," he said crossly. "I emailed you." A Chinese family of five materialized out of the gloom, carting bags full of Styrofoam containers. They looked at me inquisitively. I wanted to follow them, to go back to their home, to eat dinner with them in the light of some safe and double-triple locked house. But soon I was alone again. I needed to get back to the subway as soon as possible.
I took the Metro to the Angel of Independence and walked north and along a side street littered with Japanese restaurants, small parks, women walking their fluffy little dogs in the dim street light. It was a normal residential street in a high-end commercial district. "This is perfectly safe," I told myself. "The unit has to be fine."
A man buzzed me in and I climbed the claustrophobic steps to a spacious though ratty second floor apartment. A lean man with bad teeth and greasy hair ogled me. "Do you use the Internet?" he asked, pointing to a computer that could have possibly been a Commodore, if such a thing could handle Firefox. This would have been amusing except for the fact that the grungy little man was on the phone calling over his room mate and all I could think was, "Did the doors lock behind me?" I felt a mounting sense of panic. "I forgot something," I blurted out stupidly. "Be right back!" I dashed downstairs, fled down the street, and away.
When do you know when your fear is telling you something real, or whether you're simply reacting to prejudice? We often hear of people who ignored their instincts. "He walks through the tunnel early every morning to get to the Metrobus," my friend told me. "But this time he felt something different, that he shouldn't go. He ignored it. A man put a hand on his shoulder and told him that something awful would happen if he didn't give him all of his possessions, his money."
Conversely, two years ago I stayed in the town of Tulum, Mexico. I wouldn't even go on the side streets during the day time because I was afraid something would happen. In the four weeks I've lived in Mexico City my definition of what is sketchy and what is perfectly normal has changed radically. I walk the side streets by the Zocalo with confidence (though still avoiding the area that leads into Tepito!), navigate the city at night, and enter the homes of random people I meet on Couchsurfing. I'm always impressed by how safe, warm, and exciting this city can be. Meanwhile, in my home town of Toronto a man is sexually assaulting a number of women.
The question I've been pondering is: how comfortable do I really need to be? How important is an absolute sense of security? Uncertainty is a constant here and amidst this fluctuation are days of incredible brilliance. The night I was told I couldn't return to my apartment a new friend took me to a wild salsa club in a pulsing night life district in the far south of the city. I learned salsa and merengue and met many new people. I stayed at my friend's house overnight and her wonderful family made me a special breakfast of Chilaquiles with plenty of hot chocolate and pan dulce. Then I left to pack up my room and start anew.
It's said that you can either have a life that is comfortable or that is interesting. I've chosen the latter and am trusting in my fear to allow me to experience that which is new and enriching, while steering me away from that which is destructive. This policy has kept me safe so far and brought me many fantastic experiences, but I still wonder if the prevalence of this fear is a sign I've sunken into chaos.