Sri Lanka, 2013
"Eureka!," I wanted to exclaim on my afternoon beach walk the other day, "finally I found one!" I've been living near the beach in Sri Lanka for months and spend many, many hours walking and jogging along the shore. I see families with small children, people of different ages engaged in exercise, couples, groups of friends, fishermen, tourists...but what I consistently fail to find is the proverbial beach bum drug addict. Yet there he was, an obscenely skinny guy sitting with his friend drinking a beer. He seemed to fit the part perfectly. And he's the only one I've seen.
Yet to hear the locals tell it, the beach is full of them. They loiter on the beach, harass young women, kidnap small children, and steal from the houses nearby. They are a persistent threat and menace. And apparently I am too nearsighted or unobservant to notice them.
Many people in my neighbourhood refuse to go to the beach out of fear of encountering these frightening characters. My landlord recently raised the wall and started placing broken glass on the top in order to prevent them from jumping over it. Previously the wall had been low enough that the neighbours could lean over it to chat with the family members. When I pointed out that in any case he leaves the gate unlocked all day, he said that he was going to replace it with a proper gate that would stay locked. He finally agreed to remove the broken glass from the wall, though he plans to put a metal grille when he gets more money. Meanwhile, his mother suffers from the disruption to her social life, much of which occurred by chatting over the wall.
I don't know exactly how the breakdown of trust begins. In the case of my landlord, the impetus seems to have been his daughter nearing adolescence and one young man on a motorbike peering over the wall at her. But once one family tops their wall with glass or otherwise retreats into their fortress, others are likely to follow suit. As the neighbours can no longer lean over the wall to chat, they drop by less. Friendly interactions diminish. Fewer friends and acquaintances mean more strangers, and we all know that we should never talk to strangers.
Never being one to follow the rules, I consistently do talk to strangers. I've made various good friends striking up conversations with people I meet in random places: a bookshop, a park, the beach. I smile at most people and mostly they smile back.
Occasionally people are troublesome, but I have yet to face anything that isn't easy to handle. So I guess I'm a bit unsympathetic to the fear of strangers. I am also deeply bothered by it, because mistrust of others obviously contributes to the breakdown of community which is precisely why strangers then become dangerous. More interactions equal more friendliness, more safety...and precisely the opposite can also occur.
A woman I met at the beach told me about a friend of hers, a local woman who had spent many years in LA. She now owns a big house full of modern appliances. The two were supposed to go see a movie together, but the friend called to say that she couldn't go. Why not? Because her burglar alarm wasn't working and so she couldn't leave her home.
Occasionally I try to point out to people how many daily interactions involve trust. When we're served food in the restaurant, we trust that neither the chef nor the waiter has spat on it. We trust that car drivers won't speed up to hit us as we cross the street (or, depending on where we live, we expect them to do precisely that!). We trust the bus driver not to drive like a maniac. Boys in Dhaka selling tea in ceramic or glass cups trust their customers not to break the cup and to pay what they owe after they finish. These may be silly examples, but the point is that no society can function without trust. Yet we tend to forget how much trust is involved in our daily lives, and focus instead on the rare incidents wehre someone violates that trust. Worse, we allow the media to influence our worldview, so that something that happened far away can take on more importance than all our daily encounters.
The crises that we are facing now are not minor ones. Peak oil has already been passed. The worldwide economic crisis of 2008 continues, and economic growth may never return. Climate chaos is wreaking havoc, yet political leaders seem unable to face it. The days of (seemingly) endless cheap fuel and all the benefits (and problems!) it brought are over, and together we are going to have to make some major adaptations to a drastically different—and in many ways better—lifestyle. The process of adaptation would happen far more smoothly if we could work together, cooperatively, on the basis of mutual trust. If instead we allow our prejudices, and the fear that the media continually generates, to rule our lives, then it will be that much more difficult to adapt to new realities.
So whatever our local version of the beach bum drug addict—blacks, Hispanics, the jobless, the homeless, Muslims, people from this or that country—we need to open our eyes and see for ourselves what we really need to fear is, as FDR said, fear itself—not strangers or the "other." We need to break down, not raise, our walls; we must be free to talk across our walls with neighbors and strangers alike. In the process we will naturally, almost unconsciously, devise ways to live and work together in a challenging world.
Text and photos by Debra Efroymson