My Mexican Neighborhood Teaches Me About Making Judgments

Derek Mexico 16 Comments


A white, rusty, beat-up, early 1980s pickup truck came to a screeching halt only seconds after driving right by me. And as I stood on the side of the road, my heart began to beat a little faster as the truck shifted into reverse and backed up at a frighteningly fast speed. Again, the tires screeched, this time as the truck stopped right in front of me.

The driver, a large man with a torn and dirtied t-shirt, and a serious, angry-looking face, remained in his seat while the passenger, an even larger man with a ripped t-shirt and lack of any expression resembling a smile, jumped out of the truck and approached me. Without a word he pointed at himself, continuously tapping his own chest as if trying to emphasize that I somehow had done him some harm. He then stretched both of his arms towards me, and without giving me any other option, grabbed the spare tire and wrench out of my hands.

He then jacked up the car, replaced my blown-out tire with the spare, handed me back the equipment, refused to take some money that I tried to offer him and then climbed into the truck and sped off again with his friend.

That’s the kind of neighborhood I live in.

AT FIRST GLANCE

At first glance, this area of Playa del Carmen may seem somewhat rough, a reasonable initial judgment given the abundance of shoddily built one-room concrete homes, half-torn-down fences attempting to protect properties littered with car parts, broken toys and trash and the semi-frequent presence of graffiti-covered walls.

If you were to visit me (and the invitation is always open!), I’m certain that after a few moments, you would repeat the same words that all of my friends and family who have either visited or seen the photos, have spoken: “Oh…hmmm…so this is where you live? This is what you came to Mexico to experience?”

But I wish you could be sitting here next to me right now.

I’m sitting on my small balcony. To my left is a view of the turquoise Caribbean Sea (the view in the photo above), straight in front of me is a large patch of dry jungle and to my right extends my neighborhood. Two elderly men are sitting on the curb a few buildings down, playing guitar and singing for nobody but themselves. A group of children are playing soccer in the street, smiling Mexican families are walking by on their way to the beach and a flock of parrots are providing some beautiful back up music to the two old men. The sun is shining and the air is warm.

As I sit here looking around at my surroundings, I’m happy to be living in such a place.

MAKING QUICK JUDGMENTS IS MORE COMMON THAN I THOUGHT

Truthfully, had this been several years ago, I would have immediately decided against moving to this neighborhood after seeing it for the first time. Driving past one cinder block hut with chickens running around the front yard would have been enough to make me want to live elsewhere.

While I was thinking about all of this today, it occurred to me how many times over the years I’ve allowed myself to formulate an instantly negative opinion about a certain place or even group of people without ever really getting to know them.

I’m sure, in fact I know, there must be hundreds of times. The more I think about it, the more I realize how many times, even per day, that I make rash judgments based upon insufficient knowledge.

For example, only a few hours ago I went shopping for food and decided to go to a supermarket that I’d never been to before. As soon as I walked in and noticed the concrete floors, unorganized layout of the aisles and piles of empty cardboard boxes scattered along the walls, I said to myself, “This place is terrible. Coming here was a mistake.”

But not wanting to head across town to a different supermarket, I stayed and did my shopping. Thirty minutes later, as I handed over my money to the cashier, I was thrilled as I could not believe how much food I had purchased for approximately 30% less the cost than had I gone to my regular supermarket. Now, I’ll definitely be coming back to this new place every week.

Of course, making a judgment about a supermarket is a relatively innocent and harmless situation. But I fear that I’ve made those same quick judgments about towns, cities, countries and even groups of people, more regularly than I’d probably care to admit. And when this happens, I am denying myself an opportunity to learn, because the desire to learn is greatly diminished as soon as we’ve made up our minds about something.

I’m also doing a great injustice to those who fall under my unwarranted generalizations – the people whose country I’ve suddenly labeled “boring”, “dangerous”, “not worth a visit” or “full of lazy people” after having passed through the airport or spending two nights there en route to someplace else.

(This is the reason for my general dislike of certain guidebooks, mostly those that seem to do a mighty fine job at helping people form opinions about places before ever even visiting them. But that’s an entirely different post!)

I’m not trying to say that all initial judgments and generalizations are negative and all future realizations are positive. But to me, the important aspect is not what those perspectives actually are, but how we arrive at them.

Did we see one police car zooming down the street with lights flashing and declare a place dangerous?

Did we hear a story from an Australian guy that taught primary school in Dubai about the rude and hateful parents he had to deal with and then declare the United Arab Emirates to be a terrible place? (Yes, it was during my earlier years of travel!)

Or did we interact with the people ourselves and get to know the culture and lifestyle as much as we possibly could?

Here in my current neighborhood, I would have maintained my initial apprehension had I not ventured out and interacted with the woman who owns the laundromat (as a customer, keep it clean!), the family who runs the local breakfast eatery or the staff at the 24-hour shop who take care of my late-night chocolate urges.

And now, I’ve been happily living here for two months and have nothing but positive things to say about this neighborhood, its people, the businesses that operate here and even the transvestite prostitute that hangs out a few blocks away (it’s not what you think – s/he just gives me a friendly ‘hola’ and doesn’t hassle me anymore when I walk past).

Initial judgments should be treated as thoughts to be built upon and crafted, not as absolute truths. When it comes to traveling, who are we, as outsiders, as travelers passing through, to categorize, classify or stereotype a place and its inhabitants?

I know that I’m going to start making an even more dedicated effort, not to avoid having initial reactions, this is a part of being human, but to avoid mistaking those reactions for ultimate conclusions.


Do you often find yourself making quick judgments and then being proven wrong? Are there places you won’t visit simply because of some small thing you heard or read?

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Comments 16

  1. Priyank

    Hi Earl, For some reason I had time and I decided to read all your Mexico posts and I’m glad to have come across this one, lol. It took me a long time to realise that I was being very judgmental about the things I saw; reaching hasty conclusions and making declarative statements. Honestly I am still closed minded to some extent but atleast I am aware of it and not ignorant.

    1. Earl

      Hey Priyank – I’d be lying if I said I was open-minded all of the time. It’s nearly impossible I’d say, although, traveling does help open up our minds significantly so that we don’t fall into such a trap as often. And being aware of it means that you want to change it as well, which is obviously the biggest step you can take in the right direction!

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon! It’s great to read your comments!

      I certainly wouldn’t believe anyone who said they never formed opinions right away. That seems to be unavoidable. However, we can work at maintaining an open mind and being willing to alter those opinions as we learn more about a particular place. I think that is the important difference.

      I’ve actually been traveling for about 10 years now through a combination of backpacking, residing in several different countries long-term, volunteering and working on board several cruise ships. One might say that I’ve become a bit addicted!

  2. Hulbert

    I love the introduction of this story. You would think that a random guy who pulls in front of you might cause you some trouble, but then he ends up helping you out. The world works in strange ways and before we start completely stereotyping a country, it’s best to often have first hand experience first to know whether or not it’s the truth. You’re story here shows that one doesn’t have to live in the Beverly Hills mansion to be be happy; just sitting on a balcony, watching the sea, and listening to people sing is enough to make a man feel fulfilled and appreciate life.
    .-= Hulbert´s last blog ..Do Your Blogging Struggles Still Bother You? =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Hulbert – You couldn’t have summed up my thoughts any better. First-hand experiences are vital to truly understand a place and once you start to realize that most situations aren’t as they at first appear, we can appreciate all of those small aspects of being alive that lead to a greater happiness than any amount of money could provide. Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. Shannon OD

    It is just so easy to let your current attitude reflect on a whole city or people – I’ve had hassles at the airport, and then let that color my judgment for the whole rest of the day against a new city instead of stepping back and recognizing that there are other truths right there.

    I certainly also have those same initial judgments – and they are almost always when something triggers my fears – fear of a rundown/working class neighborhood…or the car that suddenly stops nearby, or just generally the unknown and I slip back into my more Western thought patterns and immediately judge something for how it is different from what I expected 🙂
    .-= Shannon OD´s last blog ..A Little Lesson…The Best Advice My Dad Ever Gave Me =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon! It’s shocking sometimes how we can let one tiny negative moment turn into such a strong opinion about a place in general. I guess it happens all the time while traveling as we often find ourselves out of our comfort zone, leaving us more vulnerable to fear. But time and time again I’ve been proven wrong (and I’d be willing to guess that you have been as well) when what I initially fear turns into a rewarding experience.

      I’m looking forward to hearing about your upcoming Mexico adventures!

  4. Nate

    It’s all about questioning our thought patterns and realizing there is a greater wholeness there. Opening up to new possibilities is something truly remarkable because when we do this we expand our limits….and by limits, I mean the mind. It’s so easy to pass quick judgement (whether we deem it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’) and I suppose this can be a good thing at times, however, it’s when we examine those feelings and question where they come from that we can gain glimpses of our interconnection with everyone.

    I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your new home and town!

    Peace,
    Nate
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..Overcoming Our Attachment To Thoughts =-.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Nate – it is a great part of town over here!

      I like that you brought up interconnected-ness. The idea that such quick judgments can end up making me feel as if I am better than someone else or that one group of people is better than another is disturbing to me. I would much rather take the time to examine those feelings in order to keep that concept of interconnected-ness fresh in my mind at all times and avoid such dangerous classifications.

  5. Liz

    Hi Earl!

    I have two key words for this one: CONVICTIONS and BEING FLEXIBLE.

    Sometimes our CONVICTIONS are the ones that don’t allow us to see things in a different way. Un-learning them is tough, but it is well worth it! Being FLEXIBLE and OPEN MINDED is the right path to a life full of wonderful experiences.

    1. Earl

      Hi Liz – Exactly! We need to accept that our long-held beliefs sometimes hold us back if we are not open to new ideas. If we think we know everything there is to know about something, someone or someplace, then we lose the opportunity to learn from our experiences.

  6. Robyn

    I think it’s great you chose to give that town a chance and are living there for awhile – even more than staying for a few days, you’re getting an opportunity to be part of the nuance and rhythm of the place. Thanks for the reminder about how deceiving quick judgments can be.
    .-= Robyn´s last blog ..I Keep Coming Back to “Why Not?” =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Robyn – Thank you for commenting. I just keep thinking how much I would have missed had I followed my initial reaction and decided not to live here. And then I wonder how much we miss out on in life in general by doing exactly that – not giving a place or a person a proper chance.

      And great message in your last post by the way…you’re exactly right, “Why Not?”

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