March 28, 2020
My corner of Mexico this past week was a little like the US stock market. That was gripped by dark realism for a week or so, then it bounced back, irrationally. This weekend, it seems a little of the caution that was cutting in here has been set aside. One restaurant in town that had closed even re-opened for the weekend traffic.
There are probably three main strands of social attitudes. A lot of people do believe bad stuff is coming (we have just 850 cases officially as of tonight), and are preparing and buying their face masks and sanitiser. Others think so too, but are having a last grab at fun before the lockdown we expect to come by Easter. And of course, there are still the denialists doing their best Jair Bolsonaro impression: it’s just a little flu, right? You can ignore those pesky doctors and so-called experts.
Legitimately, people here laughed at the toilet paper crisis. The stuff is still available in the stores. But we are securing certain basic supplies we’re going to need, and they’re probably different to what people in other parts of North America are after.
One is water, the most essential physical commodity of all. Our area has decent aquifers, but the water still has to move to people’s houses.
I think I’ve noticed the water delivery trucks working more than usual. We do have piped water in the village, but the system was hard to design for an area built across hillsides. Also, when it came in, people had to pay a large amount to get connected. On the elevated area where I’m living, there was no certainty of good water flow, so we never acquired it. We capture and store rainwater when it falls heavily from June to November, and that lasts us through to January or later.
But we do need to buy two or three tanker loads after that, to get us through to the next rains. My second load of the year is coming on Monday, and that should hold us through till May. I trust the civic fathers not to risk their own lives by banning water deliveries. But anything could get more difficult under these conditions.
The other concern is one a card-based society might not think of. There’s a fear that currency might run low, and the banks will have to limit what they put in their machines. Some places, I hear, are already doing this.
Mexican currency, ready to be concealed inside a sock … or someplace.
Hardly any small businesses except some restaurants and a few gourmet stores offer payment by credit card here. Fewer still offer debit capabilities, there being some lingering concerns over the security. Visa, which I use occasionally, commands a premium that the restaurant or store owners either swallow or, just as often, ask the customer to pay.
And so much business is based around neighbourhood abarrotes, the little grocery stores in every town and village, which won’t switch to electronic payment for years, if ever. Want to go into town by a combi, or a taxi? Cash only, thanks.
The quandrary is that if people hoard cash, it could become in short supply. And if they don’t, they might find it’s in short supply anyway, and they can’t buy essentials. A great deal of the economy is informal, and this sector might well keep us going when larger enterprises fold.
As a result, we’re all carefully hiding a few hundred extra pesos or more in our houses, just in case the banking system collapses. And I can even imagine a barter system emerging if things become truly bad. I’m not sure what I could barter for food, but I might have to get creative.
All this said, so far things round here are holding up. People still smile a good morning in the street, and the police are laid back. Civility is still with us.
I mix my own muesli cereal from seeds and grains I buy at a particular store in the market. A few days ago, I bought some sliced almonds, but when I got home I realised I’d misplaced it somewhere. Hardly the worst tragedy of my life, I decided, or even of this month.
A corner of the Tepoztlan market.
Anyway, I stopped by the place today, to buy some extra supplies, including a replacement batch of almonds. The young woman who served me passed me my purchases, then her father stepped over, and pulled out a small bag from under the corner.
“Señor, you forgot this last week.”
They’d kept it there for me for four days. Its total value? Around 30 Canadian cents. Mexico is still Mexico, despite the craziness, and the determination to hold the society’s values in place hasn’t ebbed. The government might be clueless, but people are still looking out for each other in the small ways that are the most critical.