I have been thinking a lot recently about the coronavirus outbreak- it’s kind of hard not to considering it is front page news in just about every country on the globe and as of this morning the WHO has officially declared it a pandemic. And if reading all those grim headlines doesn’t make one a little paranoid then waking up with a runny nose last week sure can.
Don’t worry it is not COVID-19.
I can say this with confidence because the handful of times I have been in public places I have had to pass thermal scans to enter public buildings – immigration, malls, even the grocery store. And yet, the hypochondriac in me insists that I be constantly, more than usually, a little bit worried. It also insists that I check headlines daily…ok more like 2 or 3 times a day (I have time differences to account for, right?) I realize that all I am doing is perpetuating the fear feedback loop. I know it is stressing me out, and that stress is linked to your overall health, so really, I might just be keeping my runny nose running.
My logical brain, on the other hand, tells me that if I wash my hands obsessively (ok kind of logical brain), and be mindful of touching my face then, mostly likely, things will be fine. It also reminds me that I am currently living alone on a small sailboat, spending 95% of my days living, working, eating and sleeping alone, so my chances of being exposed to a carrier of COVID-19 are SUPER low at the moment. (There is nothing news-worthy in me being alone, it’s just that Steve has been away working since mid-Feb.)
This isn’t the first global health crisis we have encountered while we have been sailing.
In 2009 we were in Mexico during the N1H1, or Swine Flu, outbreak. I know that was a flu outbreak of a very different scale, COVID-19 is reaching much further and infecting more people. But it was also a global crisis pre-smart phone, and before social media began invading every moment of our waking hours. I can’t help wondering how much this is affecting how we are reacting – to the threat of the virus, to each other, to the global economy, to the big picture and the small picture.
I know I am more worried and stressed out because of all the “important updates” that are posted throughout the day, and I know that my fears are mostly unfounded (for now anyway.) Which is why yesterday I put down my phone and went to town. Which is to say I went about a regular day getting supplies at the hardware store, buying a charcoal-roasted chicken off the street and stocking up on toilet paper (not in the crazy the-world-is-gonna-end way like in Australia recently, just because we were running out.)
Town was quieter than usual.
People were keeping their distance, besides the regular “are you carrying weapons” bag check required at big store entrances they were also handing out hand sanitizer. There were people wearing surgical masks, or maybe I should qualify that and say there were slightly more people than usual wearing masks as it is an everyday habit for many in Asia, global pandemic or not.
I don’t plan to frequent public spaces unnecessarily, but I also don’t intent to hold up onboard like some crazy cat lady. (More on our furry visitor later.) However, yesterday’s excursion reminded me of the story I wrote way back when about our time in Mexico.
Rereading it I realized how different that experience was to our experience so far concerning COVID-19. It also reminded me how important it is not to lose sight of things. I don’t think fear is part of the solution, to this current problem or probably any other.
Keep calm, learn the facts and wash your hands.
How to Survive the Swine Flu and Other Pork Related Advice
It’s not that we didn’t notice the people on the bus wearing masks, it’s just that it didn’t seem that strange to us. We’ve both lived in places where wearing a dust mask in the city is the only defence against the legions of two stroke motorbikes that belch out exhaust so thick it leaves a film on the buildings and a sooty puddle in you Kleenex at night. We weren’t on the Baja anymore, that remote paradise of clean air and friendly faces, that world within a world where locals go to vacation. We were on the mainland now, in the big city.
No one stopped to notice us. No one cared about just another couple of tourists and the suspicion that ringed the eyes behind those masks didn’t bother us. If you’re wearing a surgical mask and gloves on public transport than it doesn’t surprise me that you cast a suspicious glare in your neighbour’s direction.
We couldn’t find a WIFI signal to steal when we arrived at the marina in Puerto Vallarta, but that wasn’t a big deal. We’d been blissfully out of touch for ten days. For us it was the norm, but even in 2009 ten days could seem like a life time for some people. We carry a satellite phone for emergency use, but we’d had no daily connection with the world, outside our physical experience. It was obvious that civilization hadn’t crumbled into chaos while we were out enjoying ourselves. I figured it would survive another few hours without us logging on.
After we arrived home from our excursion into town with our masked cohorts I thought it best to find an internet café, send out a “we are here” message to family, and check email. There were several messages from my brother Thomas, our communications officer when we are at sea. He usually doesn’t have much to say. He never sends me five messages in two days.
It was a little worrisome. Was someone sick? Had there been an accident?
I opened them one by one to find that everyone was ok, but each had a variation on the same frantic message, “Swine flu epidemic in Mexico!! Get out as soon as possible!!!”
The succinct drama of the emails made me giggle.
Even if we wanted to leave we had a day or two of engine repairs to complete. The channel coming into the marina was too narrow, and too busy, and too sheltered to try sailing out it. Our engine struggled on the way in, the fact that managed to get tied up in a pen without damage was a small miracle. I was not willing to risk escape.
And where would go?
We were in the middle of the Mexican coastline. To leave would be to put to sea for Costa Rica, 1000NM away and across the Gulf of Tehuantepec, a turbulent and stormy bay known for quick weather changes and violent storms. One doesn’t just put a few dishes away, throw the bow lines and motor off into the sunset for that kind of passage.
We’d have to provision and that would take most of one whole day. More importantly, we’d have to check out of Mexico. A bureaucratic parade that would involve a stack of documents, several offices and Officials making carbon copies – the kind made with old school carbon paper that said officials often put in upside down, rendering them ineffective so the whole process must be duplicated, literally. Then there is the stamping, the vigorous ink pad stamping of all these documents. Without all this the officials in the next country will not allow you go through the whole process again and gain entry into their country. So, that’s a whole other day required.
No, we couldn’t just drive to the airport and exit the danger zone. Sailing is never that simple.
While online I checked a few headlines. Sensational? Yes, but there were no reported cases of Swine Flu in Puerto Vallarta, or the surrounding areas. There were no reported cases on the west coast at all. Flights were not being cancelled, there was no State of Emergency called. And, as I looked around, besides the occasional dust mask and the worry rimmed eye, everyday life did not seem effected.
I sent Thomas an email telling him everything was fine. I told him we would be staying in PV for a week to ten days, unless the situation changed. I promised to keep an eye on things and to stay away from eating pork products. I shake my head at the situation, perhaps the world was spiralling into chaos. Then I pack up and went back to the boat.
“How’s my little Grease Monkey? Any luck?” I call from the cockpit as I stepped on board.
“Yep, I think we’ll be alright, the heat exchanger is clogged and we need some new hot water hose. Other that, we’re good. Get any emails?” asks Steve as I stick my head down below.
“Only a couple from Thom. You know those masks on the bus yesterday, turns out pollution isn’t the problem, Swine Flu is.”
“Yep, like Avian Flu but from pigs, apparently. There have been cases reported in some little village up north, nothing around here. I told him we’d keep an eye on it. What are we gonna do? It is not as if we can leave.” I nod towards the partially dissembled engine.
“Nope, not right now.” He says wiping his hands on a dirty rag and smearing oil across his forehead as he mopped his brow.
“Stay away from the pork tacos!” we chime in unison and then laugh together.
“Yep, that’s what I told him.”
For the next couple days we play it safe, finish the engine work and don’t stray too far from the marina. The headlines were getting more dramatic, but the evidence for it becoming a serious situation in our area still seemed marginal. We are starting to feel a little imprisoned tied up in our berth.
“Come on, we’re going to town, enough of this hiding in the marina. Let’s get out and have some fun.” announced Steve on Saturday afternoon.
We went to the malecon.
The beach front, and walked along the sandy strip of town that is inhabited by hawkers and tourist and expensive restaurants that sell anything but local food. We walked all day, watching the crowds, trying to find our space, the little niche between tourist and local that we inhabit. That spot that is neither here nor there, neither home or visiting. That grey area that is for travellers.
We finally find it on a patch of sand at the end of the beach, past the bright pink sunbathers and the high heeled shoppers.
The locals, the people of the city who are out also out to enjoy the Saturday afternoon at the beach, are perhaps at first a little weary of us. A little unsure if we are in the right spot. But after we flag down a few vendors and toss out a few lines in Spanish they know we are not here to disturb their afternoons as overbearing and loud outsiders. They see that we too are just looking for a soft spot to rest our weary bones and watch the world go by. Eventually the hawkers of trinkets stop asking us to buy their “Made in China” Mexican knickknacks, and the locals give us a knowing nod and smile at our makeshift cooler of beer.
We sit and we eat; anything and everything that walks by.
Instead of cowering in fear of this mystery virus that everyone seems convinced is going to kill us, we rebel against it. Shrimp cooked over a coal fire on a stick served with sticky spicy sauce, I’ll have some. Bags of repackaged popcorn and potato chips drizzled in hot sauce and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, yes please. Chicken thighs smothered in a rich dark silky mole sauce and served with rice, sounds delicious. Mangos and pineapple elegantly carved and dusted with chili sugar, a perfect desert. We wash it all down with bottles of cold cervezca that we take turns buying from the corner shop, bringing them back to the beach in twos and fours in small plastic bags filled with ice.
We sit on the sand, watching the world go by, until it is almost too dark to see.
On the way home, impossibly still hungry after a full afternoon of eating and drinking, we pass a busy taco truck tucked underneath a street light and surrounded by jovial locals. The sign on the truck advertises tacos al pastor, which means cooked on a spit like “a shepherd.” The meat in tacos al pastor is always pork. The hot and pungent smells lasso our taste buds and pull us in, we have no choice but to try one.
The air is filled with the sweet aroma of toasting corn as the lady behind the counter handmakes tortilla after tortilla. She weighs and measures the dough as she rolls it around in her palms, pinching off bits until, in a few quick movements she has a perfect piece of masa. Then it’s one swift hard crunch in the tortilla press to flatten her dough ball. Next, she peals it off the press and tosses it gently onto the comal, a traditional shallow pan, that is waiting over the flame of a portable propane burner. While rolling and pressing she flips each tortilla three times, moving it around the heat of the pan, until it is transformed from a pale piece of dough into a golden puff dotted with deep brown burnt spots.
I stand mesmerized.
As I do every time I see a woman making tortillas on the roadside; the rhythm, the motion, the squeak of the press, the ease at which time after time she presses perfectly round, uniform discs. I am in awe of how she knows by just the smell and the feel of the pan when to turn the tortilla. I am in awe that she does this beautiful and complex dance at the stove while holding a conversation with the women nearby, taking orders from customers and shouting directions to the guy on the grill.
I could stand and watch her all night, but Steve grabs my shirt sleeve and pulls me into the queue. We each order a couple of tacos, dressing each one in a different colour salsas and toppings. We take our place on a rickety wooden bench with the locals, jostling and balancing our tacos, trying to get a bite without dropping something on our laps. We devour one taco after another, grunting sounds of pleasure laced with pain. The soft floury tortillas give way to shards of moist, flavour packed pork and hits of piquant salsa. We wash it down with icy glasses of horchata, thick and rich, to dull our seared tongues.
When we roll out of the taco stand and into the darkness of the streets we both wear a look of stunned satisfaction. Steve catches my hand, “Well I guess we survived another one, we can tick Swine Flu off the list.”
“Yeah, wait until I tell them at home.” I giggle softly.
‘Wait ‘till I get you home.” He pulls me closer beside him and wraps his arm tight around my waist. Through the darkness I can feel his mischievous grin.
“What ya gonna do, drool on me?” I teasingly pat his belly. “We’re both gonna slip into a food coma as soon as we hit the pillow.”
“Yeah, maybe we should leave Mexico. If we stay here too much longer neither of us will fit through the companionway!”
“At least we’ll be fat and happy. I had a great day. Thanks for taking me to the beach during Swine Flu.”
“My pleasure, my Dear.”
When he leans to a give me a kiss I taste traces of tacos on his tongue and I am suddenly hungry for more.