Friday, May 21, 2010

Subjectivities of fear

My very first blog entry written last September was about the dangers of living in Quito. I wrote about my third night here when someone was shot in front of my apartment building. I also told of the tragic murder of a French woman in the nearby neighborhood of Guapalo. I dedicated this first entry to the fear I felt living here. Everyone kept warning me that Quito has become an “incredibly dangerous” city and it felt like they were right. However, when I lived here ten years ago people said the exact same thing so I keep wondering if it’s really that much more dangerous than before. Unfortunately, events in the news and my friends’ anecdotes remind me that indeed Quito’s violent crimes are at an all time high.

Despite the steady crime rate, I have undergone a remarkable transformation. I have learned that I cannot live with a heightened sense of fear all the time. It’s just not sustainable. In my first month, I used to walk down the hill to catch the trolley bus with a pounding heart. I would glance behind, in front of, and to the sides of me every few minutes. I would practically run down the stairs that have been built into the steep hill. Once on the trolleybus I would hug my bag tightly to my chest, peering into the faces around me with suspicion. Everyone was a potential mugger. I walked swiftly to my research site in the historic center from La Marin, the bus depot, terrified that someone would assault me on my way. I never flagged down taxis from the street, instead always calling for them. I never walked alone after dark, ever. I certainly did not stay at my field site after dark either. Known to be dangerous during the day, at night it gets even tougher.

So what happened? Quite frankly, I became tired. I got lazy. A bit sloppy. Perhaps it’s human nature. It’s exhausting to be on high alert. Sometimes I don’t feel like going though the effort of calling a taxi when I see a free one on the street. Or perhaps I don’t have any minutes left on my cell phone to call a cab. Whatever the excuse, I don’t always take the same precautions. Nor do I want to. I recognize the danger in my current position—i.e. the danger in no longer feeling danger. My guard is down and that’s exactly when I am most vulnerable, but what’s the other option? To live in constant fear? That’s not much fun. When I first arrived, I carried terrible anxiety with me every time I left my apartment. It is natural to let go of my fear, after all, I have created a home for myself here. I don’t think I could live anywhere where I feel constant danger.

However, I must constantly remind myself that this is an illusion of safety. My “feelings” are simply not accurate. The crime rate hasn’t changed. It’s as high as ever. The stories of muggings, druggings, kidnappings, murders, etc. continue to dominate the press. Quito is no safer than the day I arrived, but I have changed. I truly believe that I am safer. I walk with confidence. I don’t look like your average tourist, despite my gringo appearance. I speak Spanish fluently. I know the dangers around me. Perhaps my newly found confidence is a deterrent to potential robbers. I know what I’m doing, where I’m going and walk as if I live here. More than anything, I’ve decided that I can’t live in fear. I have decided that if and when “it” happens, there’s nothing I can do to prevent “it.” It will happen. Despite occasional slipups, I still try to avoid walking alone after dark. However, recently I walked home five blocks in the pitch dark. Did I feel scared? Yes. At the end I broke into a trot, but I arrived at home safely. It simply wasn’t my time (yet).

Perhaps part of my heightened feelings of safety comes from the comfort I feel at my field site, one of the most dangerous areas of the city. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, in my “turf” people have got my back. Not just any people, but the very persons that under other circumstances might be my perpetrators. However, I receive daily reminders that nothing will happen to me under their watch. Even today, walking back to the corner from lunch, two of the women and one of their boyfriends (a very tough guy), joked with me and said, “Not to worry Anita, as long as you’re around here, we’re your bodyguards.” I feel safer with them in this part of town than I do in my own neighborhood where no one watches out for me. Indeed, I live in one of the most elite areas of Quito, known for muggings. When I’m doing my neighborhood errands I feel completely alone. There are no groups of unemployed men (employed by illicit activities) always hanging around, keeping an eye out for their gringa friend.

The subjectivity of fear fascinates me. It depends on time and space as my constantly shifting feelings show. It is bizarre that I feel most comfortable in the supposedly most dangerous part of the city, but I’ve learned that once you become part of a community, the place where that group hangs out becomes a safe haven, regardless how “objectively” dangerous it is. Again, I feel safer in El Centro than in my own neighborhood, which is supposedly much safer. My friends would never hang out on the streets where I work, nor should they because as unknowns in the area they would be targets. Unfortunately, my “bodyguards” only exist in a tiny fraction of the city and as they say, they can’t protect me if I drift even two blocks in any direction from them. It doesn’t give me much geographic room but at least I have a (small) patch of space in the city where I feel completely safe. In the meantime, I try not to let my guard down in any part of the city, especially in areas where I feel safe.

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