Calm before the storm
I’d been living in Mexico for more than a month before news about the spread of coronavirus began to turn dire. Borders were closing down, trapping travelers in Europe and South America. Thousands were getting sick and dying across the globe due to overstrained healthcare infrastructures. State-issued warnings advised anyone still overseas to return to their home countries immediately if able, or risk months of separation.
While the world seemingly collapsed around me, the quaint and laid-back oceanside city of Puerto Escondido in southern Mexico, where I happened to find myself, continued on its laissez-faire path of surf and sunshine.
Every day was gorgeous and hot, the beaches were pristine and even less crowded than usual, and life was cheap and fun. The prospect of returning to quarantine and self-imposed isolation was less than inviting, especially when juxtaposed with the backdrop of rolling waves breaking upon sandy shores and beach bar parties night after night.
I was torn between the allure of ongoing freedom and the security of American resolve. Sure, at the time, America was in far graver turmoil, emerging as the epicenter of the global pandemic. But an eerie sense of impending chaos in Mexico had me on my toes. I thought myself a sailor caught in the calm before the storm. The virus was undoubtedly coming, it was just a matter of when and how hard.
Weighing the odds
Returning to my home in Vermont was a daunting notion. The spread of the virus was exponentially growing by the day in neighboring New York. Ski mountains had closed down. Social distancing guidelines were in place. I’d have to navigate airplanes and airports, risking not only my health but the health of my family to whom I’d be returning. Once there, I’d be bored and cold, though presumably somewhat more at ease.
Staying in Puerto Escondido had its obvious benefits, but it too was a notion plagued in peril. Friends and family in Vermont urged me to return home, concerned for my safety. Mexico has a fraction of the ventilators and equipment necessary to address the projected number of patients that will require intensive care. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health factors prevalent among Mexicans threaten to exacerbate medical demand. The economic and societal institutions are weaker, posing the question as to whether they will hold in a time of crisis. But I was at the beach every day getting a tan and no one around me seemed to worry.
As incoming tourists dwindled, locals and expats kept the routine of surfing, snorkeling, and beach beers at sunset alive, at least for a while. I decided to stay until my original departure date in early April if only to partake in said activities for a little while longer. The apocalypse would be a lot prettier with an unobstructed view of the sun dipping below the Pacific horizon, I surmised. Others apparently agreed, as I even met two Seattleites who’d managed to skate travel restrictions to refuge in a beachside Airbnb.
Into March, things began to change. Socially-conscious hotels and restaurants started to close their doors. Makeshift hand-washing stations started popping up in front of the shops that remained open. Face masks and hand sanitizers sold out in pharmacies. Nightly activities diminished and hangouts grew fewer and farther between.
Nevertheless, many locals and ignorant tourists failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. Beach vendors continued to sell their wares and drinks; handshakes, hugs, and kisses were still the norm; and everyone was still partying, just in smaller circles.
It was clear to me that when the virus arrived, it would spread like a wildfire that even Puerto’s humidity would be unable to dampen. Luckily, I had an apartment in a secure hotel that had stopped taking new reservations and a small established group of friends that I trusted would practice proper hygiene and social distancing.
The daily news didn’t help my nerves; each day was worse than the next. It was becoming very possible that my flights would be canceled. I’d be stuck in Mexico for who knows how long. Without access to adequate healthcare if I needed it. Pushing these thoughts aside, I sat on the beach and tried to relax.
The timing really couldn’t have worked out more perfectly for me. I can’t say the same for all the other travelers riding it out down in Mexico.
On April 4th, Mexico officially closed every beach in the country for 30 days. I learned this the day prior from speaking with two police officers who’d come to the beach to politely inform beachgoers that it was the last day. I watched as the officers walked the whole coast telling everyone the news, all while shaking hands and posing for pictures with their assault rifles.
It was just one more sign that Mexico didn’t understand what was about to come.
Though relieved that Mexico had taken the initiative to close the beaches and that I myself was scheduled for a flight out in two days, I couldn’t help but worry about those I’d come to know in Mexico and what would happen to my beloved Puerto in the coming months.
After a few hiccups with my flight to Mexico City, it was smooth sailing all the way back to Vermont through empty airports and even emptier airplanes. I’m writing this now in precautionary self-quarantine as I wait to see how the cataclysm in Mexico unfolds.
Fingers crossed it doesn’t get as bad as here, because they’re otherwise unprepared for the mounting wave about to come crashing down.