Pandemic reflections on a year of being still

Last year, the pandemic put a stop to my itinerant life, perhaps for the better.

The author has spent a year in the Mexican coastal village of Zipolite [Courtesy of Belen Fernandez]
The author has spent a year in the Mexican coastal village of Zipolite [Courtesy of Belen Fernandez]

On March 10, 2020, I arrived in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for what was meant to be a two-week stay. I had just spent three months in San Salvador, which was the longest I had remained in one place over a decade after abandoning the United States in 2003 in favour of a life of manic itinerancy.

In the months preceding El Salvador, for example, I had gone from Turkey to Italy to Croatia-Bosnia-Croatia-Bosnia-Croatia-Bosnia to Turkey-Albania-Greece-Spain-Georgia-Armenia-Spain.

When the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to the mad dash, I was in the Oaxacan coastal village of Zipolite. My world promptly shrank to a matter of kilometres. Checkpoints were installed around the village and I was issued an ID that enabled me to travel once a week to a nearby larger town to get groceries.

One of the checkpoints was placed directly in front of the apartment I had rented, and entailed an ever-present assortment of volunteers, policemen, and soldiers. The sense of claustrophobia was only enhanced by the fact that I had to step over a rope every time I went outside – and that I was not permitted to enter my house without a facemask, despite my desperate appeals to logic.

Of course, it was rather horrifyingly insensitive to whine about being stuck at the beach while the rest of humanity confronted the apocalypse.

Nor, to be sure, is being stuck a novel sensation for much of the world’s population. While I had been darting around the planet thanks in large part to a passport provided by the United States, a homeland I despised, the less privileged had to contend with fanatically militarised borders – especially the US ones.

Here in Mexico, brutal US border policies have rendered northward migration a lethal business, even as the US economy depends on migrant labour and even as Americans, American products, and American corporations are permitted to invade Mexico at will.

Salvadorans, too, are in a similar position. But in addition to hostile international borders, they must navigate ubiquitous invisible boundaries within their own country. These delineate territory controlled by rival gangs – yet another byproduct of American empire – and mean that an act as mundane as crossing the street can amount to a death sentence.

The point being that, on the surface, I literally had nothing to complain about, pandemic or not.

And yet the sudden physical inertia produced a psychological quagmire, trapping me as it did in a single existence and preventing me from dashing around, pursuing parallel lives in different landscapes and essentially running away from myself.

My mind, no longer distracted by continuous motion and unable to use travel as a palliative for my particular brand of existential attention deficit disorder, was forced to look inward.

With the future indefinitely on hold, I was sucked into a schizophrenic trip down memory lane – bombarded with images of all the places I had been once upon a time and now could not go.

As I write in my forthcoming book Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place, attempts to conduct tranquil strolls on the beach were interrupted by rapid-succession flashbacks to Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Vietnam, Oman, my mind “lurching in deranged fashion between countries, people, trajectories, selves”.

It was like a “high-speed word association game in which none of the memories were associated beyond the fact that they all belonged to me, and I fretted over what sort of catastrophic miswiring neurologists would find were they to inspect the interior of my head”.

In the middle of the night, I would wake up sobbing over the most ludicrously trivial recollections: an escalator in one city, a stairwell in another.

Psychological matters were not helped when I entered into a sort of coronavirus-codependency, if you will, with an older gentleman who increasingly specialised in verbal and emotional abuse, to the extent that I went from feeling that I was merely trapped in a soap opera to the feeling that I was trapped in a mental asylum.

In the end, I was able to wrest control of my mind with the help of a few female friends – friendships I had only been able to cultivate on account of being immobile for an extended period rather than obsessively on the move.

Meanwhile, I gradually came to accept the fact that I could no longer continue my quest to be everyone, everything, and everywhere at once – an unsustainable pursuit that was ultimately very American in its presumption that I really could have it all.

A year later, the checkpoints have long been dismantled, but I am somehow still in Zipolite, in a state of acutely privileged limbo. And while I have not embraced the idea of a permanently sedentary life, it seems that I can, at least for the moment, deal with myself – and that there is plenty of inward movement that can come from standing still.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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