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Meetings and Masks

May 3, 2020

Usually, exiting the barricade outside the village is easy. It’s getting back in when you need to smile your smiliest smile, and be ready with proof that you live here.

But they’ve changed the rules, and yesterday, when three of us went for shopping, we had to stop to obtain a ticket. The new requirement is that we get back within two hours. Which, for the three of us, was pushing it. We were headed into town to take care of a bunch of chores and shopping, and allowing us scarcely more than an hour in town to handle them was not going to be enough.

Robin is the best negotiator of the three of us, and she managed to get us a one-hour extension. So, we went on in, and I got the cash I needed, and the gas for the truck, and a few other things, while the others went off and bought what they needed.

There were far more facemasks in evidence now than there were even a week ago. Tepoztlan officially has two cases of the virus, though one source says three. Either way, to date we’ve dodged the worst of it. Since we’ve had an extended hot spell, with a lot of sunshine, I assume the weather been a major ally, since social distancing happens intermittently, at best.

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My collection of facemasks is growing. The fabric ones were a friend’s gift.

As we headed back, I wondered: would the barricade guardians turn us into a pumpkin and mice if we were late? But we never found out, and they just waved us back in.

In the afternoon, the village was holding an informational meeting, so I headed down to the civic plaza, to learn what I could learn. It was no surprise (this is Mexico) that the meeting started late, but they might have set a new record for waiting time. There was a diversion when a man showed up with a disinfecting unit to spray all round the plaza, and everyone had the sense to move away from him. But otherwise, we sat, a hundred or more of us, most of us in our masks, and waited. It was an hour and a half after the announced start that the community leaders were ready.

While I was waiting, a man came and sat next to me on the wall surrounding the plaza. He was not, unlike most of us, wearing a facemask. “It’s not started yet?” he asked, and I assured him it hadn’t. I inched further down the wall while he chatted with someone on his other side.

After some playing around with electrical supplies and a speaker, the meeting finally began.

There was, as a woman who lives on my street complained, no news. They needed more volunteers for the barricade,we were told, especially on the night shift. This disease can be really serious, especially for older people. And we have to avoid going out if we can. Which, for almost everyone, begged the question: Why then, are we here? It was like an outtake from a bad Monty Python movie. “We’ve called you here to remind you all to stay home as much as possible.”

After fifteen minutes, I became the second person to leave.

The battle here, obviously, is with educational standards and comprehension. The idea that an asymptomatic person could be a disease carrier is hardly ever mentioned, so most people still believe that if they have no symptoms, they’re fine. I saw two men greet each other with a handshake, and on the way to the meeting, passed a half-dozen people coming for a Saturday evening family gathering.

Mexico City, I read, has well over 5,000 cases, and accoding to health ministry staff, probably far more that are unreported. This state, Morelos, has around 400 in total, about a quarter as many as in the main city of Cuernavaca. But it isn’t social distancing and masks that are keeping us safe. I mentioned the warmth and the sunlight as possible helpful factors. But mostly, I think we’ve just had incredible luck so far.

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The Delusions of Andres Manuel

April 4, 2020

The last three Mexican Presidents are not looked on as howling successes. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is acronymmed as AMLO, and came to power in 2018, will probably go down as the worst of a weak bunch.

He’s had some international press for his most stupid remarks, including telling people to go to fiestas and continue eating in restaurants during this emergency. Having hugged as many people as he could reach at public events, he refused to quarantine himself, for fear that it would allow conservative opponents to take over while he was sequestered. The tale gets still sillier, but you probably have the point by now.

There are also well verified stories about him pulling funding from health programs last year, while presenting himself as the man who cares about poorer and indigenous people. An estimated 10,000 medical professionals were laid off across the country. He looks, by the way, about as blond as I do, except he has more thatch on his scalp. Mexican Presidents are rarely stellar, but a surprising number have had remarkably good hair.

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President Lopez Obrador – the man with the right hair.

I dwell on this man because people are starting to wonder if a coup might be necessary. Almost all coups are really bad, of course, and cause lasting damage to the countries in which they occur. But I caught the gossip this afternoon, after a trip into town, and wondered if it could happen. The country has no clear leadership – even a leader who postures and struts and moans about fake news, as I’ve heard might exist in at least on other place.

I’ve explained previously that people over 60 are supposed to stay home, and I’m 70. But there is no enforcement of this. My supposedly sneaky food-shopping trips into town only raise eyebrows because I wear a facemask; today I saw only eight or nine people with them on. Two were the people who “snuck” into town with me. The mixed messaging from the top has made people here decide to ignore any sense of alarm, and wait to see what God requires of them.

Now, I expected something like this, and I’m not shocked. As I’ve written already, I appreciate their attitude, as well as their refusal to try living on no income, private or governmental. But as the tally of Covid-19 cases rises, I keep wondering how people are going to manage the impact. The President is enabling denial, not trying to abolish it. The face-masks will come out here, but far too late to make much difference.

The one statement I keep hearing that does drive me bats is, “We’re probably safer here than in other places.” It’s obvious nonsense, since it only needs one person to transmit the virus, and away we go. But when the guy at the top indicates the situation’s not all that serious, then no-one here is going to be serious. Most of the state governors realise the risks, and there are some draconian measures being implemented (not always sound, I add), but “The Autonomous Republic of Tepoztlan” is going its own way, convinced it is uniquely admired and blessed by the Creator that endowed it with such splendid mountain scenery.

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The mountains north of Tepoztlan, taken from one of the highest.

The old journalist in me is fascinated by all this: the pride, the self-sufficient attitude and the sheer myopia of the approach. It’ll be a marvellous tale to tell later. The old guy inside me is nervous.

Tonight, though, I simply wonder whether that man in the Presidential residence (the Palace is only used for certain formal events now) really thinks he knows what he’s doing. Or whether, as a believer, he’s assuming God, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, the nation’s Mother-figure, will sort it all out for him. For the sake of the currently un-masked, I’d prefer he was an atheist.

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The Worry Game

March 23, 2020

Pepe has sold flowers from his corner close to the San Miguel church as long as I’ve lived here. I had visitors coming for part of last weekend, and one was an older woman who likes roses, so I went to buy some to put in the house.

My guess is, he was offering unsold flowers from the day before, since he was pulling off dead outer petals when I found him. The government had finally asked people not to do unnecessary things, so no-one was going to visit grandma and show up with a bunch of flowers. He was almost surprised to have a customer, but relieved as well. His profit on a dozen roses is perhaps half what a  waitress, for example, might make in a day. The town lives off visitors, and while we’re not in quarantine or a lockdown situation, people are starting to avoid a lot of things they’d normally do.

You’re probably wondering why I was allowing visitors at home, but this had been pre-agreed. One of the women, a close friend for many years, was having her birthday, and there was a small fiesta planned for here in the village. She and I had had, to borrow a phrase from the field of diplomacy, “a full and frank exchange of the issues,” but a scaled-down event was finally decided on. For the eight of us there, it was probably our last social get-together for weeks to come.

As it turned out, two of the other guests were heading back to Mexico City that night, and offered my friends a ride, which they accepted. Thus, I was home alone by 8:30 when the doorbell rang.

Now, this is Mexico. You don’t usually answer the door after dark, unless you recognise who’s knocking or ringing. I leaned out the window, and found it was some young people working for the national census, which is being held this month.

I went and answered their questions, and remarked to the senior of them that it was perhaps a little odd to be going door to door, talking to huge numbers of people, during a nascent epidemic. He shrugged and nodded slightly.

“We need these jobs, señor,” he said.

And that’s the problem here. Pepe probably has a tiny pension that would scarcely feed him, so in his seventies, he still sells flowers on a street corner. This town has maybe forty hotels and posadas, and a greater number of restaurants. Between them, they employ hundreds of people, maybe even a figure in the low thousands. They don’t have access to lines of credit, or cash advances on their credit cards. Many don’t even have credit cards.

This morning Lindsey, our local organic baker, moaned to me that he wanted to close, because all day he handles money and breathes other people’s breath. But he has someone who helps him, and minds the store while he’s making deliveries, and to lay him off would mean the man has no income. He doesn’t know how to tell his employee “Sorry, but you’ll have to starve for a few weeks, since this business is too small for me to continue paying you.”

And even the gangs are having a tough time. A lot of fake goods, plus the ingredients for the fentanyl they produce, come from China, and they’re running out of supplies. Viruses are very democratic in this way.

I’m reasonably philosophical about what could happen in the next few weeks. I’ve laid in some supplies, including extra dogfood. I’m currently alone in the house, so I’m appropriately isolated. My next door neighbour and I are looking out for each other, and a bunch of us expats have made ourselves available to each other if one or more get infected, and there’s a need to deliver food or water. Also, as a Canadian on a pension, my own income is guaranteed at a time when the peso has lost 20 per cent of its value against the loonie.

I also have a close family member who got the virus, but not seriously, so I’m hoping we have immune system abilities in common. He’s recovering okay after a week at home, though he can’t go outside for a while, as he might still be infectious.

But Mexico will be very hard hit as the economy starts to sink. GM and Volkswagen have closed their plants for now, and schools are also shut. People are holding it together for now, but they have either few options or none if they’re forced to stay home and not work. So while I’m not very worried about the disease, I’m seriously concerned about how this society will handle the next months, as recession sets in.