Eyes Open Even Wider

Remember back in kindergarten when you were taught basic rules of safety? Don’t take candy from strangers, and don’t get in a car with that nice man.

Sometimes I wonder if expats checked those rules at the border.

Don’t take food from strangers. That free sample at Costco is one thing, particularly if you’re among those of us who’re known to cruise the aisles for lunch. And so are those slices of pineapple and jicama offered by vendors at intersections. The stranger offering you a sip of something on the bus is another matter. Just don’t do it, not for thirst and not to be polite.

Forget answering your door after dark, if you’re not expecting visitors. Friends who drop by unexpectedly can call you on their cellphones, right from the street.  Domino’s is not going to deliver a pizza unless you ordered one thirty minutes ago, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses almost never come around after dark. The city is not sending a fumigator around at 7 p.m.  And the kid who wants to look for that ball that fell into your yard can just wait until you’re good and ready to toss it over the wall.

Don’t invite strangers in, not even for a minute. Sure, it sounds easy and hospitable to let that guy with a clipboard step in to your patio while you retrieve something from the house. Just don’t do it. Are you listening? There’s nothing rude about shutting the gate securely, making that person wait in the street. That’s how it’s done in Mexico. And that’s how polite people do it. You’re not going to be hurting anyone’s feelings. Get used to it.

Don’t leave garage door open.  Not even for a minute. And the same goes for your house or apartment.  Throw that deadbolt when you enter. What may have been perfectly safe back in Oklahoma isn’t the same here.

When you’re in your car, keep the doors locked at all times. Put your purse on the floor, not on the passenger seat, particularly when the windows may be open.  Don’t leave mail with your address within plain view. At an intersection, if someone taps on your window, don’t respond.

Take taxis. It doesn’t matter if you’re only 2 blocks from your destination. If the street is empty, or if something just doesn’t look right, spring for the cab. Cab fare is always cheaper than loss. You’re not lame for doing this.

How many times have you seen someone dawdle and fumble while looking inside a purse or wallet for their money on the street? They’re opening a window of opportunity for greedy mitts to reach in and help themselves.

Strangers’ stories are interesting. Read them at your leisure, but don’t waste your time and create a window of opportunity by listening to the saga of woe du jour from someone on the street who wants to tell you how she’s pregnant by her husband who took off for Tijuana a year and a half ago and now needs a prescription for birth control. Slings can fool you. What these people need is far beyond your pay grade in the first place. Do them a favor, and tell them to go to DIF, the Red Cross, or even the local church.

And those ladies going door to door, collecting for the church posada? Unless you personally know them, don’t give. Ask them for the name of the contact person at the parish church, and tell them that you’ll make your donation there.

“Did you hear about your neighbor who was in an awful car accident and died?”  The man at your gate points over to the house down the street, and you ask if it was Sara. Yes, he tells you, it was Sara, since you just provided her name to him. He goes on to explain how her family needs money for her funeral, so you dig into your purse. The problem is that Sara wasn’t in a car accident, she didn’t die, and her family doesn’t need money to bury her. You just gave that nice young man money some spending money.

“But he was such friendly guy, helping my carry groceries in and even the garrafón.”  Of course, the fellow had every reason in the world to be friendly: to establish trust, gain access to your house, and to establish that you were a team.  That charmer just put you into his debt.

Would you let a stranger hold your billfold for a few minutes? Don’t let others use your cell phone. The obvious is that they could easily walk away with it, which not only means that you could lose the cell phone, but more importantly, your directory of phone numbers and potentially your cell phone time.

Watch your friends. Friends who are saps can taint you by association. You’re hanging out with Herman, who is known for telling beggars “I don’t have any money, my wife has all the money.” And then he points to you, and you’re not even his girlfriend. The ladron will assume that you’re just as dumb as Herman and approach you.  Friends don’t make other friends victims.

“Oh, but these people have so little, and I have so much.” Keep that up, and the tables will be turned real soon.

“I wouldn’t want these people to think I’m prejudiced.” Not to worry, they’ll just think you’re dumb.

“Oh, I can’t be absolutely sure he stole it. I’d hate to accuse an innocent man” How many times have you heard that before?  “I’d really hate for him to think that I don’t trust him.”

Act like prey, and you’ll be treated like prey.  Even if you don’t know the terrain, act like you do.

And we’ll have even more in the next installment.

Eyes Wide Open

Your nephew is not at the bus station. Not in Guadalajara, and not in Dallas. And Bill Gates isn’t going to send you $100. Don’t volunteer information to callers.  If your troubled nephew’s really calling, he’ll tell you his name right off the bat.

Pay the extra $12 MXN for an unlisted phone number. Who looks up friends in the phone book anyway these days? Telmex charges practically nothing to change your old number.

Get rid of that bilingual or English-only recording on your phone’s answering machine. Everyone who would deign to still leave a voice message already knows the drill.

Particularly in San Miguel de Allende but also in other expat havens, gringos love to name their houses, often revealing their own names or their children’s. It’s quaint, and it’s cute, but it’s a really bad idea. Take your name off your house.  “Casa Newton” may sound perfectly fine on your house back on the Jersey Shore, but it’s not a good idea in Mexico – no matter how proud you may be of your abode.  You don’t need to broadcast “Gringo lives here.” Don’t waste that pretty tile plaque on strangers; put it in the inside where you can enjoy it.

You’re not the only soul on the block who speaks English, and you’re not Travelers Aid. Give up your Good Samaritan dreams – or spend them on someone deserving. Someone who runs up to you on the bike trail or parking lot or even approaches your home with that “Do you speak English?” is rarely looking for a conversation class. Let the pros do their work. Hand out their phone number – 066 – with reckless abandon. An operator’s always standing by to take a call from the troubled.

Leave your home address off any cards you may have printed. You’re not in retail these days. Sure, that may mean giving up bragging rights to that genuinely awesome vacation rental on a swank street in a place like San Miguel de Allende, but it’s also an advertisement that you don’t need to make.

Whether you’re approaching your house on foot or by car, if there’s someone hanging around the door that doesn’t belong there, move on. Take a spin around the block rather than chance a potentially dicey situation.

At the grocery store, don’t leave your purse or parcels unattended in your cart, not even for a minute while you answer some stranger’s question. Keep your purse attached to your body, even if it means strapping it cross-chest Arab-style.

Don’t take Mi Casa es tu Casa so literally. There is a huge temptation to show off your house to new-found friends you just met on the plaza and to welcome friends of friends to parties and gatherings. Be careful. That friend may be as trustworthy as an Eagle Scout, but what about that friend of a friend?

Citizenship and fluency in whatever your native tongue might be are absolutely not harbingers of security. We tend all too often to place misguided trust in landsmen. Crooked Irish people hung around Ellis Island waiting to take advantage of good, honest newly-landed Irish, and the descendants of those scam artists are still in operation in Mexico. Yes, you read that right: more than a few criminals share citizenship with their victims.

Leaving town? Don’t leave your house unattended. Keep the lights on, a radio on, and have someone check up on things at random hours. Better yet, have someone stay in the house. If you can afford to leave town, you can afford to guard what you’ve left behind.

Estadounidenses seem to have a deep-seated need to be liked, to appear friendly, to engage, and perhaps even more so when they’re abroad. And so many of them feel so darn sorry for what they encounter in Mexico that they’ll go overboard, checking their common sense.  Observe how Mexicans of your station act, and take your cues from them. You don’t need to open the door to everyone who knocks, hearing out their tale, and you don’t need to explain anything. You’re under zero obligation to provide answers to anyone.

And that talkative cab driver, the guy you met for the first time when he opened the car door? He may only be bored, but that’s no reason for you to tell him your life story, including how and why you live in Mexico.  Really, would you share that much information with a random taxi driver in Chicago?  Talk about the weather, if you simply must talk.

Criminals don’t always look like thugs. Some of them even wear genuine Lacoste, not even pirated, because they can afford to, all the better to blend in. Some of them even look like you and me. Appearance is no guarantee of morality. Take a look at Bernie Madoff.

‘Tis better to be considered rude than robbed.  Why should you be concerned about offending someone who’s out to offend you?

Learn to look straight ahead, and learn to be deaf to those pleas. Pretend that you’re French or Spanish or Israeli or one of those nationalities not known for taking on Estadounidense attributes.

What you know, as in conocer, is not dangerous, but what you don’t know is.