Dear Reader of BelieveItOhrNot,
Hello from the very beautiful city of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, on the Pacific coast well south of Puerto Vallarta and about four hours north of Acapulco. Population of Zihuatanejo is 120,000, diagnosed cases of coronavirus: 3. In no way do I believe this very low number, but that’s for another blog post.
“Been there, done that”
I’m living through the worst case of deja vu I have ever experienced. It’s not just that we wake up every day to a life that looks very much like yesterday’s life. It’s much more than that.
For weeks, we’ve been following the news in the United States, watching the death toll rise and rise. For weeks I’ve been thinking (and telling the few Mexicans I talk to these days) that the same thing might happen here (Mexico is about three weeks behind the U.S. in terms of the outbreak, when it had its 1,000th positive case, 10,000th, etc.). But I have quickly learned that while most Mexicans have a good sense of what has happened and is happening worldwide, they (generally) do not think Covid will have a mass impact on Mexican life in generally and on their own lives in particular.
Some Mexicans I spoke with initially told me that they thought the heat and humidity would keep the virus low here, while others told me that even if it did come to Mexico, there was no way life would shut down like it had in the United States, Italy and Spain. Close the beaches countrywide during the Easter vacation week? Unthinkable! Stop school? Ridiculous! Close restaurants and cafes in a city that caters to not only U.S. and Canadian tourists, but thousands of Mexicans every weekend, and especially Easter weekend? Was I high?
The general consensus seemed to be that Covid-19 was an “other world problem” and that Mexico would not shut down because 1) the people here would never agree to stay at home; it’s just not part of the fabric of life. And 2) the informal economy consisting of beach vendors, street merchants and other street peddlers would not stop working out of sheer economic necessity. Again and again, I was reminded that half of the Mexican population lives in poverty, so shutting down their means of sustenance was simply out of the question.
So I stopped talking about what was happening in the U.S., though I continued to watch as American life unraveled. I was shocked and saddened at the sheer volume of things closing down, and watching a worldwide meltdown was sad and scary.
But please don’t think this is a “I told you so” piece of journalism, because it’s not. It’s just about what happens when you get punched in the gut … and then you get punched in the gut again three weeks later.
Fast forward to what’s been happening here. First, the government of Mexico decided to shut down schools and universities for two weeks, lengthening its spring break. Then, day by day, more and more things started shutting down. I knew things were really serious when all the beaches throughout the entire country closed. I knew the situation was bad when Mexico shut down all of its beaches during Easter, a time when Mexican families flock to them. Suddenly tourism in Zihuatanejo was at a complete and utter standstill. Then came the final nail in the coffin. We started hearing that tourist hotels here and in nearby Ixtapa (10 minutes away) were closing until the pandemic had passed. No more guests drinking from plastic party cups at all-inclusive resorts, no more tourists grabbing beers on the beach, no more shoppers buying trinket after trinket to take home as souvenirs. Even the Zihuatanejo airport stopped international flights eventually, although there are a scant few flights Mexico City (and one to Tijuana, I think) a few times a week.
The current situation
In the last few days, the death toll in Mexico has risen like crazy. It’s horrifying. We have about 16,752 positive cases and 1,569 deaths so far, and the situation is particularly bad in Mexico City and in Guadalajara. That might not seem like a lot compared to the United States (or Italy or Spain or elsewhere), but we are still early into the pandemic here. May 8 through 10 are anticipated to be the worst days. Luckily, the state where we are currently residing, Guerrero, hasn’t had that many cases (239 current positive, 39 deaths), and the numbers are extremely low in our “metro” area of Zihua and Ixtapa.
Mexico has a well-thought-out and comprehensive strategy approach to this contagion (and others previously, such as as H1N1 in 2009), and a very good approach to public health communications. This communications strategy has allowed them to quickly inform large numbers of people about Covid-19. There are continual public service announcements (PSAs) on the radio reminding people to stay in their houses, and there are similar TV spots encouraging people to stay at home, and there are even municipal-government cars that drive around beaming important messages (via a microphone and/or loudspeakers) to various communities and neighborhoods (many of them poor). It’s a great way to reach the people quickly. There are also huge billboards around town, homemade signs and grassroots art encouraging people to not leave their houses. In my last blog post, I introduced you to Susana Distancia. She’s my Covid-19 superhero. She wants you to keep your safe distance (su sana disancia in Spanish means “your safe distance!”
What’s the situation like in Zihuatanejo?
I am happy to report that a lot of people in Zihuatanejo are staying home, and many have been doing so for quite a awhile. (You know how they say thousands of lives in New York could have been saved if stay-at-home started sooner; well, here in Mexico, it pretty much did start sooner). These days, some sections of the city are absolutely empty. The usually foreign-tourist-dominated area of La Ropa beach (where my mom lives from Oct.-March) doesn’t have a soul in sight, neither on its world-class long beach nor on the streets where some stores and restaurants, and tons of condos and casitas and hotels, are located. Where we live, closer to downtown, most of the streets are not very crowded, but they are not as empty as the La Ropa area. The amount of foot traffic is half of what it normally is, or perhaps two-thirds on one particular street that is loaded with fruit/veggie stores, pharmacies and loads of small stores catering to everyday Mexicans’ everyday needs.
Sadly, those who are out and about (and by that, I mean Mexicans, because only about 150-200 foreigners have remained in the area, according to one media report) generally are not practicing social distancing and are doing their shopping while very close together. About half are wearing masks. This is the case in the fruit and vegetable district a couple of blocks away from our house. Andy and I shop for our fresh fruits and vegetables only in the “off hours” (generally early evening) because we don’t want to be near people who are not practicing physical distancing. When we do go out now, I always wear a mask, too. I just bought these two fashionable beauties.
About our living situation
While it’s very difficult staying home day in and day out, we are really happy we made the decision to ride out Covid-19 in Zihuatanejo rather than returning to the United States. Rene, our landlord is taking great care of us. His family home is on the ground floor below our rental unit, and though we keep safe distances, he checks with us several times a day to make sure all is well. We feel very well taken care of. I have mentioned before about the generosity and lovely spirit of the Mexican people, and Rene has treated us like his own family. We are very grateful to him and to his family.
In addition to side-by-side, fully equipped, one-bedroom apartments with a/c, we now also have access to the empty apartment across the hall, mainly its huge front balcony overlooking our quiet street (we have coffee out there nearly every morning nowadays). We also have access to a huge rooftop terrace and a small backyard pool. And everything is kept immaculately clean. Since Rene’s taxi work has completely dried up, he is spending nearly every second of his days meticulously cleaning, mopping, and doing improvements to the property and its two empty units.
It’s a great living situation, and while we were hoping to be back in Morelia on May 1 (following a trip to Michigan for what was supposed to be my dad’s 80th birthday celebration on April 25), we’re safe and well taken care of here. Andy still is working about 15-16 hours a week and it’s proven to be a nice distraction. I’m working a bit, as well, but having a hard time concentrating for long stretches at a time. I continue to run on a paved path three mornings a week, we take short walks on the others days, and we are very fortunate that two friendly dogs live with the family downstairs (one is a rambunctious terrier mix who loves to fetch), and we play with them at least once a day in a big, gated, garage area (think of the carport area in “Roma” times three, minus the car and doody). And we watch a lot of classic, old, foreign movies by some of history’s great directors. We found a great free, streaming source via our local library (Kanopy). We’re also power watching “Malcolm in the Middle” (which we both enjoy) via the free on-demand option on our Mexican cable service. And we managed to save “Tiger King” on Netflix for weeks; we just started it last night.
Some days are harder than others and, yeah, life isn’t easy these days But many people have it a lot worse, so I try to focus on gratitude — that is, when I’m not feeling short-tempered and on edge. Our plans are to go to Morelia as soon as it’s prudent; the colonial home we had for six months last year is waiting for us. I hope we will be there by June 1, but we might be hunkering down in Zihuatanejo a little longer depending on the situations in both areas and the country in whole.
Stay safe! Be healthy! Be kind!