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by Peter Moskos

February 12, 2011

Be Thankful... and nice to strangers

All this revolution and celebration got me thinking...

One of the things I'm always surprised at when I travel, at least when I travel anywhere other than the US and Western Europe, is just how sweet and kind and generous the average person on the street is. I've seen it Egypt, in Syria, in Thailand, and in Mexico. In so many places in the world when people see a stranger--a stranger who probably has had a much easier life and yet, because of luck, also has much more money--and the poorer local person offers to help, or give away what they're selling away for free, or at the very least offers a smile and heartfelt welcome.

Honestly, one of the things that makes Cairo so tiring is that everybody won't stop welcoming you to Cairo. It's like this millennia-old metropolis has never seen a tourist! (The dirt and lack of sanitation are also problems.) But I'll never forget this old man in a ratty traffic-cop uniform who took me under his wing to make sure I could eat a falafel sandwich at the falafel sandwich place (just FYI, I can manage eating a falafel sandwich in any country pretty well on my own).

"You see," he told me with a big smile while demonstrating with his own sandwich (I'm just making up what he said because I have no idea what he was saying), "You take a pinch of salt and put it on your falafel, maybe a pepper or two, if you like it spicy, and then put it in your mouth... Atta boy! Now chew. And here, have a sip of water from this communal cup. Welcome in Cairo! Do you like Egypt? Where are you from?!"

Here you can read what my wife says about the goings on in Egypt. There's also a link to some pictures from our trip to Cairo, a very tiring city, pre-revolution, in 2007.

It came to mind today because I've spend weeks at a time in Mexico and Thailand without hearing anybody yell. Think about that. Tonight I went to Manhattan for dinner with friends and, as is all-too typical, saw the following:
One person on the subway say, "I told him, 'that's not a threat, that's a promise' because a threat is something you may not do! And I promise you, I'll take him out."

Another person walking down the street, talking in his hands-free phone saying with passion, "I'm just going to flatten him. Put him out!"

An argument between a young woman and a taxi driver that wouldn't take her. It culminated in her spitting on him and, as you can imagine, much more yelling after that (for what it's worth, I believe the cabbie wasn't willing to take her party to their location, which does, technically, puts her in the right--minus the expectorating).
We live in a rich country. A good country. We have basic freedom and democracy. Most of us do not want for life's necessities. So why are we so quick to take offense? So rash to assume that everybody is out to do us wrong? Why are we so angry?

And just because I stumbled across this picture from that trip, here's one of my favorite displays of statistics, this from a colonial-era Egyptian book. Look! Imports and exports are both booming... in 1924. It's such a beautiful chart!

And finally, check out this BBC graphic of Tahrir Square. Dude, it's just like Burning Man!


Anonymous said...

"It came to mind today because I've spend weeks at a time in Mexico and Thailand without hearing anybody yell."

Cool. You mean no ignorant people yelling in to their cell phones because they think you want to hear their drama. Must be nice. I can't get through one shift at the hospital without hearing that.

Your mention of the hospitality of people from Mexico particularly hits home with me. My wife is originally from Juarez (Thankfully, she and her family got out of there over a decade ago). Though my wife and I may differ with her parents on some issues, they have been so eager to share their culture, their language, and their food (Que bueno!). They seem to take such pleasure in just sharing a meal or watching a novella with us. They appreciate time with family and leisure time a bit more than most Norte Americanos, I believe.

Dave H- IL

Johnny Law said...

Gee I've live in America for many years and never seen a bunch of heads in a duffle bag. Guess Mexico has it's own issues huh?

PCM said...

Yeah, mostly issues of violence related to the War on Drugs. Problems caused by our demand for drugs, their easy access to US guns, and us insisting and paying/bribing them to fight our stupid War on Drugs!

The culture that we export isn't just Micky-Dees and MTV.

They got problems... problems we gave to them! (don't get me wrong, they also have some problems of their own).

Mexico's homicide rate (officially, by the way, I would assume it's actually higher) is 15 per 100,000. That's more than the US but still less than many cities in the US. And the homicide rate in the Yucatan, where I've spent the majority of my time in Mexico, is lower than Canada's.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for educating Johnny Law so I didn't have to. Nowhere in my post did I say that Mexico was the land of milk and honey. I was just talking about experiences with my wife's family. Jeez.

Dave H- IL

PCM said...


I almost always like your comments, but it seems a bit flippant and off-the-point to dismiss what is being said about the nature of people in these countries by saying there's a lot of criminal violence in much of Mexico.

No shit.

I'm not saying these countries are better than ours. But I am saying, or at least bringing up the possibility, that the people in these countries might be nicer and less filled with anger than your average American.

Have you been to Mexico? I'd be interested in your thoughts on the interactions you've had with Mexican strangers. Especially compared with, say, the interactions Mexicans might have with strangers in the US.

PCM said...

Maybe I should say "Mexican tourist in the US." I've heard too many stories about the cruel treatment Mexicans show to poor immigrants in their country.

Johnny Law said...

Yep. I've been to Mexico multiple times. Sometimes its good, sometimes its bad. I've seen drunk pissing in the streets, I've seen street fights, and I've seen cops shaking people down for money.

I've also seen very helpful taxi drivers and friendly Catholic nuns.

Mexico has good and bad. I get irritated at the whole theme that Mexico is such a great place because they are nice to tourists. There are plenty of tourists who have been robbed or assaulted in Mexico. It's a dangerous place and trying to portray it as some morally superior place to the US is annoying.

It's also annoying to place the blame on the current violence square at the feet of the US. Maybe we should blame Mexico for the drug problem since it provides us with the actual product? Let's not ignore the fact that the government is corrupt and ineffective. It always has been.
America didn't make it that way.

PCM said...

Fair enough.

Maybe America didn't make Mexico corrupt, but we certainly keep it that way (see: Merida Initiative).

And I thought of another reason perhaps Americans are less kind. It happened on my block tonight where a guy who grew up on my bock was ranting and raving and totally broken, on crack. Banging his head on the ground. Talking to his father on his phone, except his father is dead. His father, in this mental conversation, told him he was a fuck up. And then he would slap himself.

I talked to him. Needless to say, he wasn't all there. But I asked if he could stop please shouting and swearing and scaring the block. He didn't.

I (and, it turned out, half the block) called the police. They came. They left.

This guy refinanced his house to fund his drug habit and then lost his house a few years ago.

One of my neighbors, the daughter of a cop, who's known him his whole life, said he needed help: rehab and a psych ward. I bet he won't get it.

Meanwhile he's still somewhere out there, homeless, no doubt to return until he harms himself or others.

Then he'll go to jail or prison.

Drug addicts are a good way to make people unkind and callus.

And (thanks again to the war on drugs) we do lead the world in illegal drug usage.

Johnny Law said...

They have drug addicts everywhere in the world. I seem to remember quite a few homeless in Mexico. I'm willing to bet Egypt has a quite a few of both as well.

PCM said...

Of course they have drug addicts everywhere is the world. But that ignores the point that we have more.

But America leads the world in illegal drug consumption. We *do* take more drugs (per capita) than every other country in the world.

Certainly when it comes to crack and crystal meth, nobody comes close.

Not too many drug addicts in Egypt, by the way. Probably not too many homeless either (though what some call home you may not want to live in). People take care of family.

PCM said...

I heard something on the radio a while back where I guy ran across a homeless person in Central Park.

Having just arrived in America (I think from Iraq), he didn't understand the concept of homelessness. He called 911, assuming it was an emergency, seeing somebody sleeping outside in bad weather.

After describing the situation, the 911 operator told him it wasn't an emergency, the guy was just "homeless."

He couldn't believe such a think exists here, since it didn't exist in the poor country he came from.

He laughed as he related this story from a few past, and how naive he had been before becoming a US citizen.

Hell, I don't remember homeless people (as we know them today) in America before the 1980s. But maybe I was just too young to recognize them back in the 1970s.

PCM said...

Johnny Law,

Why do you think we have homelessness in America? (I'm not asking why a person is homeless, but rather why we as country have so many homeless people, if you get the difference).

Is it because we're not a rich enough nation to prevent it? Or do you think is it something that is simply inevitable in a modern society, with drug and mental problems some people have?

Is homelessness something that we as a great nation simply cannot solve? Because if we could eliminate homelessness, then why don't we?

I would propose that the main reason we have so much homelessness (and more today than we did just a few decades back) is not because of the recession or because America is poorer, but because we (as a nation) made the choice in the 1980s to cut federal funding to cites by 60%. And closing SROs (flophouses) certainly didn't help.