I believe small experiences can reveal large truths.
My wife Hilde and I were driving the Baja highway north between San Ignacio and San Quentin. There were rocks, sand and cactus, and turkey vultures circling high in a pale, hot sky.
“Look,” said Hilde.
“Up ahead.” She pointed. “Maybe they need help.”
I’d ben eying the turkey vultures, and then I saw the three men standing alongside the lonely road.
They were young, twenty-five or thirty, sweaty and dirty, wearing faded khaki pants and soiled white T-shirts. Two of them leaned on shovels. I wondered if they had buried somebody – relatve, friend, enemy? – somewhere out there in the desert. I’d often heard the standard bandido stories about murders, rapes and stolen cars, so I also wondered what might happen if we stopped.
As we drove by they stood on my side of the car and one of them, the one without a shovel, looked into my eyes and made a two-handed gesture of entreaty. “What’s wrong with you?” his hands and his expression seemed to say. I believed they needed help and I could tell he hated me for passing by, and I didn’t blame him.
I’d just taken my foot off the gas when Hilde said what I was thinking:
“We can’t not stop.”
With my head turned I could barely see the road over our camping gear as I backed up slowly.
When the window went down the heat that entered the car was a palpable force.
“Aqua?” the man without a shovel said.
“Si,” I answered.
Hilde reached into the back for a gallon plastic water jug, and I handed it out.
“Gracias.” Quickly, he twisted the cap off, raised the jug high and drank in long swallows, water tracing rivulets down his chin.
I reached back for another gallon jug and handed it out to another of the men.
After all three had drunk their fill they offered the jugs back.
“No,” Hilde said. “Para Usted.”
“Gracias,” they answered in unison, but without expression, without even looking at us as we pulled slowly away; but seconds later, when I waved my hand out the window and checked the rear view mirror, it made me very happy to see the three of them waving back.
I believe our subliminal fears of unfamiliar people who happen to differ from us in trifling ways are almost always irrational. Edmund Burke explained an important guiding principle long ago: the concessins of the weak are the concessions of fear. These concessions are always dangerous, because opportunists cynically exploit unreasonable fears to promote their own selfish ends. I believe the opportunists are the people we rightly ought to be afraid of.
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