Coronavirus South of the Border
In 2015-2016 I drove with my wife, Rebecca, our 13-year old daughter, and 10-year old son in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van from Alexandria, VA to Panama City, Panama. The drive took us through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It was a life-changing adventure, and it wasn’t long after our return to Alexandria, VA, that we decided to move to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You can read about our trip and subsequent move on my blog at www.vanamos.net.
Before we left on our year-long drive, we enrolled in the Safe Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) with the US State Department. STEP members periodically receive notifications by email from the US Embassy in each country. These emails aren’t helpful tidbits about where to enjoy a traditional, inexpensive dinner in Guatemala City and don’t provide discount tickets for boat rides on Lake Nicaragua.
Instead, the STEP emails we received contained health and safety information alerting us to perceived dangers in the different countries we would be driving through. Stuff like road closures, suspected gang activity, and travel restrictions. In fact, at the time that I spent a month driving around the Mexican states of Michoacan and Guerrero in September 2015, there was a prohibition on US government employees driving around the Mexican states of Michoacan and Guerrero. Even though I was on a temporary leave of absence from my job as a US government employee, I could have been fired.
Since we moved to Mexico in January 2018, we’ve had our VW van parked in our garage. I never unenrolled from STEP, however, because I like the trip down memory lane that I get every time I receive an email from the US Consul in San Salvador warning me about increased criminal activity on the road to Santa Ana. And I feel like part of the club when I get an invitation from the Embassy in Costa Rica to an upcoming town hall meeting in San Jose where the Consul is going to talk about passport renewals and his favorite brownie recipe (Costa Rica doesn’t have a lot of the developing world problems common to its neighbors.)
A few months ago I was being advised by the Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua, to avoid being present at protests against policies of president-for-life Daniel Ortega. There was a high potential for violence, the Consul said because Ortega was enlisting paramilitary groups to help quash these otherwise peaceful demonstrations. The US wasn’t doing anything about the violence and oppression, just letting us know it was happening.
Ah, memories. Hearing about a three-day tire burning binge on the jungle roads in Chiapas, Mexico, reminds me of when we were driving there and needed to have small bills handy in case we encountered something similar and needed to bribe our way past. You might think that it’s perverse of me to enjoy messages describing these truly troubling conditions in places that I will always hold very dear. But it’s not the content of the messages I enjoy. Rather, it’s that they remind me of the time we spent in the countries and describe conditions that seem less threatening than the daily STEP updates I am currently getting. Now, all the emails have to do with Covid-19. It’s like the virus has taken over the world and all of the world’s other problems have disappeared.
The latest update from the US Consul to Costa Rica is that beaches and parks are closed and restrictions prohibiting foreigners from entering the country have been extended to May 15. There is no mention of whether this applies to South American drug runners who, on their way to supply US demand, put their boats in at isolated coastal villages to re-fuel, get drunk, and buy a grilled chicken to eat now and one to go.
The US Embassy in Guatemala City had this to say: “[We] urge US citizens to comply with all laws, regulations and health guidelines put in place by the Guatemalan government, including the mandatory curfew, mandatory use of masks in public, and other restrictions on travel and other activities currently in effect. Failure to comply with these regulations could result in fines of up to 150,000 Quetzales (about $20,000) or up to six years in prison.” The Consul is silent on the legality of the “Asylum Cooperative Agreement” in which the US puts asylum seekers who are at the US-Mexico border on planes to Guatemala so they can apply to that country for protection.
The Nicaraguan government has not officially announced border restrictions, or when the next democratic presidential election will be, but in true “I’m the boss of everything” panache, warns that people should be prepared for closures of land borders and airports with little or no advance notice, and with an indefinite duration. Fortunately, all commercial air service between the US and Nicaragua is suspended until at least mid-May so you can’t accidentally board a plane to Managua. The bad news is that US citizens still in Nicaragua may not be able to get out.
El Salvador tried to get ahead of the COVID curve. As early as March 21 it implemented a home quarantine that is still in effect. Only one person from each household is allowed to venture into public places to purchase essential goods no family can live without such as pupusas and Fabuloso. This early quarantine has allowed the country to keep its numbers of infected low, reporting only 218 confirmed cases in the country and 9 deaths as of April 30. Evidence that the quarantine is working. Though, the gangs that are generally more effective than the government at controlling public behavior have produced videos showing masked members hitting people with baseball bats for not adhering to the quarantine. Apparently, they are not beating them to death; gang-related homicides in the country were down to 65 in March from 114 In February. Progress.
A limited number of humanitarian and/or commercial flights depart from most of these countries weekly to bring US citizens back to the US. Meanwhile, in Mexico, commercial flight options continue to exist and reports are that you can still cross the land borders for “essential” business. As long as you aren’t running a fever, you can come and get tacos.
That may be starting to change. On April 21, the Mexican government announced the start of Phase 3 of the pandemic, meaning rapid transmission in the number of infections and increased numbers of patients requiring hospitalization. As of Wednesday, April 29, Mexico had more than 17,000 confirmed cases and 1,500 deaths. The health minister suggests those numbers are lower than the reality because there is limited testing available. One estimate is that these numbers reflect only 10% of the truth. There may be as many as 170,000 infected persons and more than 15,000 dead.
A friend who is plugged into the local political scene says that the government estimates that 2 million Mexicans will die from the virus. With only 15,000 dead so far, we’ve got a long way to go.
In San Miguel de Allende, where we live, there are 5 confirmed cases and no deaths. The local government closed non-essential services about a month ago, but a few restaurants and bars remain open. The city’s major parks and squares are closed, but neighborhood parks remain open. Masks are required to be worn in public places, but plenty of people go without. There are fewer people on the street on a daily basis, but when I go out, I see people sitting shoulder to shoulder on benches that aren’t crossed with yellow police tape and lined up for paletas (ice pops) so closely that it looks like they are in a conga line.
My wife, kids, and I have been self-quarantined for 6 weeks. We see only ourselves, our dog-park friends, the guy who knocks on our door each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to deliver water, the guy who knocks on our door once a week to sell us pineapples. That’s the extent of the social calls we receive.
I see the guy at the tienda (small store) where I go to buy beer, the guy at the other tienda where I go to buy beer, and the woman at the other, other tienda where I go to buy beer.
And I also see the garbage man three times a week when the pieces of steel pipe that he bangs together as he walks up the street wake me and I rush outside to hand him our bag of trash (we aren’t currently allowed to just leave our garbage bags outside our door for him to collect like we were able to do in the old days.)
With the expectation that things are going to get worse here before they get better, Rebecca and I have been planning for our escape. We think we will drive back to the US rather than fly, and although we haven’t actually done it yet, we’ve been thinking about getting the van tuned up, gassed up, and putting its papers in order so we are ready.
We’ve asked the kids to think about what they might want to bring if we had to leave in a hurry and we let the dog know she’s on her own.
The only question we have is when to leave? The kids’ school has moved online until May 30. There’s a chance school may open again at that point, and we’d like to be here if it does.
Even if the school doesn’t reopen, we like being here. The house we rent has outdoor patios and a rooftop terrace. We like the feeling that it gives us that we are outside even when we are inside. We like having a local grocery around the corner so we don’t have to go to the large grocery in town and rub elbows (literally, that is how we say hello to people instead of a hug or handshake) with the masses. We especially like the lower cost of living in Mexico.
But we know that in Mexico, people don’t always follow the advice that will minimize the risk of transmission and infection. Mexicans tend to be even more distrustful of their government than Americans. Rather than protesting certain restrictions, they just ignore them.
We know that more people in Mexico live hand to mouth because wages are much lower. We’ve already had people who used to work as domestic help, in the restaurant industry, or selling trinkets in the street, knock on our door looking for work. We have no work to give them, but they are happy to take a can of refried beans and a package of ramen noodles. If the economic situation gets more desperate, there may be more aggressive crimes against property. We know the medical system is more likely to be overwhelmed – like a band-aid on an amputated limb.
Fortunately, nothing dire has happened yet. And that has made our decision to stay put easier because we don’t know what we would be driving into. Circumstances are not as clear cut as when Rebecca had to evacuate Cambodia in the 1990s during a violent military coup. She wasn’t flying from one war zone into another. If we left Mexico now, before the coming storm, we would be driving into the storm that is raging in the US. So, like the rest of the world, we wait.
We continue to take the dog to the dog park without standing too close to anybody. We continue to accidentally make bleach spots on our clothes while decontaminating our groceries. I continue to bounce between the local tiendas to see which one has beer in the cooler. And I continue to monitor email looking for some good news. Nothing would make my heart smile more than reading that Daniel Ortega has named himself president in the after-life. A protest and raging tire fire in Chiapas would be good news about now.
Paul Carlino is a tax attorney and writer. He has lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with his wife and two teenage children since January 2018. Follow his blog at www.vanamos.net
A version of this article was previously published on www.vanamos.net.
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