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Maybe I’ll Open a Tortilla Stand – or Not

August 4, 2020

Her friends saw her waving, and called out to the combi driver to stop for her. She clambered onto the van that’s the standard form of bus here, no facemask in sight, smiled at everyone and went to hug and cheek-kiss the guys who’d done the calling. Who also had no masks, despite them supposedly being mandatory on public transport.

Soon, she was explaining the latest changes in her camino spiritual to the young men, while I fumed silently that one way of manifesting such a camino would be to give a hoot about other people’s wellbeing via a mask. But the hippie kids who move here from the cities almost all seem to come from comfortably off families, and carry that sense of divine exemption from the everyday rules that the wealthy can assume.

One of the problems with this quarantine is irritation. I used to be determinedly patient with everybody’s naive theories and wacko explanations for how things are; after all, I have my own set of beliefs that don’t coincide with 21st Century materialism. But I’ve finally reached a level of impatience such that I sat on the bus pondering what might happen if I hit the hippie girl over the head with the roll of paper towels I’d bought in town. For certain, most of the other passengers were glaring at her over their masks. In the end, I just grumbled silently to myself until she finally got off.

Tres Combis.jpgCombis in town, waiting for passengers. Each holds about sixteen people, or twenty-two, if people jam in and stand.

Quarantine here isn’t like that of a big city. Mexico City, I understand, is much more uptight, and some people there have not been farther than their street corner in months. This morning, though, as Ioften do I went for a two-mile walk along a mountainside trail, and (with mask on) bought some bananas at the Thursday open-air market in the village. Such amenities are partly why I chose to stay here instead of going back to Canada.

Most restaurants in town have reopened (with spaced tables), but sales of alcohol are banned, in case drunk people start to forget the distancing requirements. And we’re supposed to eat and leave within an hour – no lingering. At least one major restaurant doesn’t seem to be coming back, and a hotel in the centre of our village has also taken down its signage and locked its gates. Boredom is miserable, but losing the business you poured your heart and your savings into for years has to be far worse.

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Luna Mextli (the names mean ‘Moon’ in both Spanish and Nahuatl) was one of the first places I ever ate at in town, well before I moved here from Toronto. It’s shown no signs of reopening.

But boredom is bad enough. I need new shoes, but I’d have to go on two buses to a nearby city to get a decent pair. I can’t any longer head into town and have a 90-minute conversation over a cappuccino with whoever’s around. I can’t make a day-trip to an archeological site and wander about, pondering what it was like in its heyday fifteen centuries ago.  I’m having to remind myself that the pandemic is still expanding in Mexico, even according to the utterly unreliable official numbers.

And writing blog posts about being bored (beyond this one, obviously) isn’t much of an option. I wouldn’t read them myself, so why post them?

I’ve been trying to gauge how the pandemic is changing Mexican society. Normally, everyone assumes the President is corrupt and ineffectual. This one’s unhelpful remarks, however, have polarised the society, with many of those who voted for Lopez-Obrador still holding him out as a paragon of equality, and the rest of the country increasingly mistrusting him. He’s thus emulated his northern neighbour in sharply splitting public opinion, and in conceding nothing to his critics.

And while round here families have so far been able to hold up each other, I’m seeing some indicators of economic stress beyond restaurants that have not reopened. For example, my next door neighbour’s wife, who usually does a little caretaker work for absentee homeowners but is mostly a homemaker, has just opened a little store selling tortillas. The price is six cents Canadian, or four cents US, per tortilla. I tried guesstimating the math, but I can’t be certain of my results. Maybe she’s making six dollars a day, but possibly she’s operating at a loss. I hope that’s too pessimistic, but I’ve decided against opening my own competing operation on the other side of the village.

Either way, I doubt that boredom is her primary concern. Though I’d understand if, like me, she was getting irritated. Or worse.

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The Door Creaks Open

July 1, 2020

Canada is celebrating its national day today, something I’m marking by taking my dog Punky for a clip of his straggling wool. Yes, the Punkster and I know how to party.

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There is a dog, Punky,  inside this shapeless wool rug.

Our town of Tepoztlan is trying not to party, but might flunk that effort. After three months of more-or-less quarantine, and a small but continually growing caseload of virus infections, it’s opening more restaurants today, albeit with well-spaced tables, while hotels that carefully check their guests can also open again. The barricades at the two entrances to the town remain in place, but I’ve been noticing more outsiders showing up since mid-June.

I blogged earlier about how difficult it would be for a community with an economy heavily dependent on weekend tourists to stay locked down for long. My neighbour’s taxi often just sits outside his house these days. Some people have had to move back in with parents or other family to cover living expenses. Street vendors struggle to get by when there are no visitors. I’ve not even seen the musicians of varying talents who normally haunt the market in town, because they’d have no audience anyway.DSCF2387

Naty’s restaurant, named for the owner’s grandmother, has been a Tepoztlan institution since 1987. But until this past week, it had been shut since March.

Yep, same story as everywhere around the world. Now it’s supposed to change, though by gradual degrees. But as other governments in other countries have found, many people take any easing of restrictions as a green light to drop all caution. Add to them the people I know (and am avoiding) who still think all this is a hoax, or something overblown (cue those 5G Facebook memes!), and you can see the emerging problem. Our municipality’s case numbers to date were under 30 just ten days ago, and yesterday the tally was 43. That number should probably be multiplied by three or four to give an accurate figure.

So, my more sensible friends are nervous, and so am I. At the same time, the idea of having a meal at an outdoor restaurant is irresistible after the monotony of my own cooking since March. I’ve been to a couple of outdoor places that have remained open because they can distance their tables, but the hunger we all get is for variety more than for lunch.

Nobody has found a good answer to all this. Or rather, no-one had managed to convince enough people to be cautious enough for any decent answer to work well. Infection curves might be flatter, but in not many places are they actually flat. Mexico has been particularly bad, and most of the country is still seeing serious increases in cases. Our official death tally is just under 28,000, while the national case count is 226,000. But many cases in smaller towns go uncounted, and there’s always the problem of whether an older person who died did so because of the virus, or because of the virus plus an existing condition.

Whatever the numerical reality, we’re not at a good news point yet. I’m glad I’m in a village when plenty of open space and quiet trails where I can go for a walk. It does makes things easier.

 

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The Unbearabable Lightness of Quarantine

May 11, 2020

This afternoon, while I was lying around not really getting into a nap, it occurred to me that I’m doing this quarantine thing all wrong. I’m not, I realised, learning anything significant.

I am learning a lot of things, or maybe I should say observing a lot of things that I already knew. For example, that dogs are far better at handling tedium than humans. They sleep at least 14 hours a day, and can boost that by several hours if there’s a lack of stimulus on offer. Can dogs even get bored? I don’t know, but they seem designed for it much more than humans are.

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Victoria contemplates not needing to contemplate anything, because she’s a dog.

I’ve also observed that faith in commmunity barricades is misplaced. Each time I’m waved through the “frontier post” outside the village, I wonder just how much it keeps out anything. Last week, coming back on the combi microbus, I watched a young man offer a persuasive line and a dodgy document to the woman checking passengers. Given the knowing looks he and his girlfriend from the village exchanged after we were waved on, it looked like they’d pulled off a small scam. And I don’t doubt others manage this.

But then, trucks come in every day bringing propane, drinking water, and supplies for the stores. The combi drivers aren’t from the village. And so on: it isn’t one building being kept secure, it’s a community of 1200 people we live in, and the traffic, while light, is constant.

The oddest experience at the checkpoint came on Saturday when, after driving two friends into town to shop, so we wouldn’t have to share the bench seating in a combi, I was bidden to roll my windows shut. A man with a motorised spray system then stepped forward and subjected the aged vehicle I’m using to a stream of some form of antiseptic. Not us (there were by then just two of us in the truck), but the vehicle’s exterior.

Admittedly, it didn’t have a giant face-mask over its grille, and it might not have kept a two-metre distance from other vehicles in the parking lot, but somehow this seemed utterly pointless. Somebody had had an idea; and, like all those over-excited Youtube conspiracy videos I hide from, it perhaps seemed superficially plausible at first. But I can’t imagine spraying the fading paint-job preserved anyone’s safety.

Still, my main point is, I’d hardly call this a significant discovery. Have I realised that early 21st Century capitalism is failing? No, and I suspect it will come through this unhindered, at least in general. Will the pandemic persuade everyone to care more about other people? Possibly, but mostly, we’re all just getting grumpy with each other. Have I concluded we’ll finally grasp we have to stop overexploiting the planet’s resources? I haven’t, and I doubt it.

All I really notice is the aforementioned grumpiness; that, and a longing to sneak into town every morning for a coffee and a conversation, even a pointless one, as often occurs with randomly arriving acquaintances. For now, I see the two friends who came into town with me fairly regularly, but that’s it. And yes, we try to keep proper distance.

Meaning, and meaningful realisations, arise out of having a basic measure of social interactions to ground them. They can’t exist effectively in a field of abstraction. Even in prisons, people preserve their sanity by setting up routines. Solitary confinement drains that groundedness, that sense of meaning arising from connectedness. Being alone produces boredom, which vitiates even the need for meaning.

I’m therefore left with one learned truth, one positive conclusion so far. People are predicting more pandemics in future, and to be prepared from them, I’ve realised I need to come back in my next lifetime as a dog.

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Othering

April 8, 2020

What concerns me right now isn’t getting the virus, but the hunt for scapegoats. China and the World Health Organisation, says Washington. The New World Order is in there, obviously. And somehow, Bill Gates became a bad guy, too. In Mexico, (apart from the annoying President), it’s anyone who’s “other.”

Sunday night, the village’s ayudante (a sub-mayor, basically) announced the new rules over the speaker system attached to the church. They were even repeated in somewhat halting English. A friend of mine reported feeling included by this, while I felt an implicit threat: “You too, gringos! So listen up.”

I hoped my friend was right.

Our nearby town, Tepoztlan, like many others in Mexico, has officially shut itself off from the outside, without perhaps considering how this will work. Or won’t work. Most of our food comes from neighbouring communities, as does … well, most of everything. With 80 truck drivers a day coming in, as well as various workers, how isolated can things be?

My village, as previously noted, has its own barricade on the highway. In theory, this could have helped, but it was put up weeks too late to make a difference. We have our first case of Covid-19 here, a woman who reportedly visited the U.S. recently. This morning, I chatted with my neighbour as we took our garbage down for the weekly collection, and she said there were also two cases in the town.

I had “the talk” with myself in late March, reminding myself that I was in Mexico, not Canada. If I chose to stay, I’d be responsible for myself. People here don’t necessarily grasp how viral infection operates, and social distancing only works when everyone realises they could be an unwitting carrier. I’d have to be look out for myself. Which, of course, would mean I was also looking out for others, even the ones who thought my face-mask was amusing.

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The village’s highway barricade, take from a safe, socially distant distance.

The couple of times I’ve been through the security barricade outside the village, I’ve noted some of the people manning it standing close to each other, maskless, and drinking. Not all of them, but if a third of the people don’t grasp what the problem is (and it’s probably more), then there’s no safety created. But hey, they’re keeping out the sick people, right?

Putting the blame onto someone else – outsiders – shifts responsibility. But at 11.00 last night, there was loud music at a house 200 yards away, and you don’t blast late at night just for yourself, unless perhaps you’re an unrepentant Black Sabbath fan. There are some in Mexico, but I knew the noise meant people were sharing some of the village’s rapidly diminishing supply of beer, and probably not sitting five or six feet from each other.

The nastiest thing that’s emerged has been attacks on medical staff at hospitals and health centres. I’d hoped it was just a couple of over-hyped instances, but yesterday I read that nurses and doctors had laid 28 reports of some form of attacks.

They’re “others,” the dangerous people who might be carrying the bug. Not like us people who aren’t sick – we’re not a problem, but those people in the green or white scrubs might be. No, you can’t get on this bus to go home, you dangerous, albeit self-sacrificing, hospital employee.

And no, you outsiders can’t come to this village where most of us continue to ignore any suggestion to maintain our distance from each other.

I can only hope such abuse doesn’t happen round here, and there’s some appreciation for the medical personnel risking their lives in the under-equipped health centres and hospitals. Those, I stress, are much better than what was on offer a couple of decades ago, but this pandemic will push many of them over the brink.

And yet … I realise that if I get seriously ill, it’ll be a risky business. But because there is space in this village, and wide streets creating no need to pass close to other residents, I feel honestly safer than people who live elsewhere probably assume I do.

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I’ve stocked up on essentials for the next month … or two.

Beyond that, I’ve stocked up on essentials, set up a mutual support group with local friends, and take exercise only where I don’t expect to run into anybody else.

Plus, just as every other pet owner has noticed, the dogs like having me around more. So I do feel appreciated.

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Embarrassment of Near-Riches

April 7, 2020

A few days ago, there was a ‘scandal‘ in the UK over the fact that Somerset Capital Management, the investment firm founded by cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg in the UK, was advising customers which stocks to buy in the downturn. While I’m no friend of plutocratic investors (at least till my lottery ticket comes up, at which point it’ll be “So long, suckers!”), it struck me that SCM was like the dentist who tells you your molar needs a filling. The dentist makes profit providing the service, but he’s really only doing what he’s supposed to be doing: helping look after your teeth before they decay excessively.

I reflected on this when considering how I’m slightly embarrassed (but only slightly) over the fact that I’m mildly richer now than I have been since I moved back here. The Mexican peso, since 2018, has hovered between 12 and 14.5 to the Loonie. This evening, it’s down at 17.5.

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Not worthless, but definitely worth less.

I took out cash today and the withdrawal was substantially less, when I checked my Canadian bank account, than usual. I have more disposable income than I’m used to having. I also have virtually nothing to spend it on. I did buy extra dogfood, and put some gas and a litre of oil in the car I’m currently borrowing. But I don’t want to go to one of the nearby cities to do more serious shopping, since I’d be around lots of people. My sense of self-preservation told me to head home after dropping off some supplies I’d picked up for a friend. And, after talking with her for a while (in her garden, separated by 10 ft of air), I did so.

Most restaurants locally have either closed for the duration, or are concentrating on home deliveries. I had a sneaky hope while in town that I could stop at my favourite place for a take-out order of empanadas, but it was locked. Maybe the owners are still opening on weekends, but I have the impression they’ve given up for now. Another place I frequent, 200 metres away, was similarly shut.

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Argentine-style empanadas and a glass of vino tinto … now just a memory?

This transitory sense of wealth does bring some guilt, of course. I got myself a take-out coffee at a place I’ve been going to for years, and the owner was there alone. She’d laid off her staff, she told me, since business was almost non-existent. There was just the odd in-and-out person like me, the occasional pseudo-libertarian denialist, convinced that this is all a Chinese/American/George Soros hoax, and a few people who will tell you (sans face-mask) that you only have to beef up your aura or reinforce your chakras with the right mantra to deal with this. But those laid-off waitresses have zero income at the moment, whatever the condition of their chakras or auras.

The market isn’t usually busy on a Tuesday, but I still sometimes need to wait for a customer to finish a purchase. Today, people at the stalls were checking cellphones, to offset the boredom. The guilt/empathy here was double, since technically I’m supposed to have sequestered myself at home, where I grow no veggies and can’t bake my own bread. At some point, I imagine, the police, who have almost nothing to do but look for people to whom they can issue parking tickets, might start harassing older shoppers, but it doesn’t seem likely right now. There are few cases of virus in our state of Morelos, and there’s still the whispering hope that we’ll somehow continue like that. I’m more pessimistic, but I can’t help hoping that will be what comes to pass.

Ah, hope. When Pandora opened her box, hope was the one thing that remained after everything else flew out. But hope can be a tormentor, providing false optimism. Will the lockdown finish at the end of April? Will people go back to work soon? Will the kids go back to school? Will there be a cure-all antiviral medicine soon? How about garlic and turmeric? Hope, hope, hope.

Meanwhile, like a small-time Ebenezer Scrooge, I count my modest but accumulating dollars, shift them to my modest savings account, and wonder just how strange this will get before it’s all over.

And how will we know it’s truly over? The strangeness will stop, I imagine, and I’ll be back to my usual, almost hand-to-mouth existence. However, I think the strangeness will continue for a long time to come. And I’ll be financially semi-comfortable for a while.