The Crowed Aisles of Walmart

July 16, 2020

Two to three times a week, I get the message or the email: “Did you see how many cases of Covid-19 Mexico is reporting?! Do you grasp what danger you might be in?!”

To which I always want to reply, “Gosh, no – er, what’s Covid-19, exactly?” Just to watch the reaction, you understand. I doread the updates daily, (or twice daily), but in my area we’ve been pretty safe. I chose to stay here because that was my guess back in the early spring. We have the advantage of low population density here.

In Amatlan (pop. around 1,200) I’m told we’ve had two (2) cases of the virus. Our municipality of Tepoztlan (pop. around 42,000) has an official count of 49 cases, of which two-thirds are considered recovered. No doubt the real tally is higher, but compared to the worst-hit areas of Mexico, so far we’ve dodged the bullet.

The story isn’t as good in larger places. Cuernavaca (pop. around 370,000 in the city itself), 17 km from here, has had over 900 cases, and its exurbs have more. As a historical parallel, its population was cut to 3,000 in 1918 during the Spanish flu, although it’s a fact that many people in the town had fled from the disease and the ongoing revolution of the time.

Cuernavaca is where I’ll go to shop for specialty foods, kitchenware or clothing, and its Walmart is often my shopping destination. Walmart’s a place I mostly scorned when I lived in Canada, resenting how its massive selection of Chinese-made goods had done great harm to North American manufacturing. Here, it’s a middle-class destination, stocking some Mexican-made goods – and the poorest people can’t afford it. But after nearly four months of not leaving the boundaries of Tepoztlan, my friend Ixchel and I decided we’d risk a trip there to get stuff we couldn’t find locally, or which needed replacement.

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The place of material plenty.

Yes, we can have goods delivered, both from Walmart and Amazon, but delivery in Mexico can be a fraught business. Drivers can’t always navigate unnamed streets or unnumbered houses, and other factors make delivery for those of us outside the main town complicated. So, we came up with our plan of attack, stressing we’d spend a minimum amount of time in the store. From memory we went through where each item would be in the place, and chose the route we’d take to get there in the Titanic. Our assumption was, we could do this efficiently, but we’d need our best smiles ready when we got back to Tepoztlan’s cordon sanitaire.

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Orange barriers at the checkpoint coming into Tepoztlan.

The Titanic is the 27-year-old Ford Explorer I currently have the use of, and while it shudders, shakes and makes a few alarming noises, it’s been reliable. In particular, it isolates us from other people. After having second thoughts about leaving the safety of our town – then third and fourth ones – we seat-belted ourselves in Tuesday afternoon, and headed out past the Tepoztlan quarantine barricade, near where the freeway exit comes into the community.

We’ve enjoyed a lot more personal freedom here than there is in many North American or European cities. For a start, we’re close to farmland and hillside trails, so we can go hiking for exercise without fear of running into large groups. And, with the low viral caseload here, we’ve been spared the hostile encounters or arguments about spacing and masking I read about in other places.

Not so Cuernavaca. Coming into the city, we found heavier traffic, and an increasing sense of greater tension. Once in Walmart’s underground parking, there were soon pedestrians yelling about us going the wrong way (like the four cars before us), and the hassle of locating a parking spot in a big, ancient SUV  And while objectively identifying a tense atmosphere is hard to do, I’d become so used to the more laid-back attitude in town, where drivers amiably yield to each other, that I wasn’t used to the city pace. I’ve lived most of my life in cities or large towns, but this was the usual city vibe plus an undeniable level of face-masked tension.

More strangely, the place was packed, on a Tuesday afternoon. I’d have expected this on a weekend, but we’d chosen Tuesday because it sounded safer.

We had to line up, buggies before us, masks on, and spaced at a two-metre distance, and slowly edge into the store. It was entirely … not what we’ve been used to. I’ve been in that store a hundred times or more, but now I felt like an asylum seeker at a border-post with especially hostile guards. Not that the security staff dispensing sanitiser were anything but polite, but an almost tangible edginess in everyone meant this was not a fun shopping experience. No, not at all.

Inside, there was none of the usual good-humoured interweaving of shopping carts and shoppers. People looked warily over their masks at each other as we navigated the crowded aisles. It felt very unMexican: a place without forgiveness. And dangerously crowded.

We made our separate beelines around the store, browsing as little as possible. Once we were back at the Titanic, we were both feeling an unfamiliar, fearful weirdness. Ixchel observed that what we’d just been through was what everyone we knew had been experiencing elsewhere.

Until this point, we’d been in our relatively safe Tepoztlan bubble, anxious about whether the pandemic would hit our community hard, but not confronted with actual cases. In the city, people were more aware of actual illnesses and deaths, and were under a corresponding pressure towards avoidance of contact.

We headed out with the loot from our retail raid without stopping until Tepoztlan, where we breezed straight through.  We ate a meal then decided to go to Ocotitlan, in the hills near here, for an early evening hike. The trees, the solitude and the meandering hillside trail helped expunge the tensions of the afternoon’s experience.

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The view above Ocotitlan, far from the crowded aisles.

The strange memories remain, though. We both decided Cuernavaca was off our list of places to visit again for the foreseeable future.

So yes, to return to my initial point: I do know what the country is facing, numerically speaking. But the dehumanisation that’s happening is now a lot clearer to me.

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