Strange New World
Our own version of this strange new world, to be absolutely honest, has changed considerably less than most. Living where we do, in a lone treehouse in a Mexican jungle has the concept of social isolation sorta kinda built in. The practice of isolation is, however, clearly a different matter.
We have been fortunate enough to create our lives here by claiming our right to choose and defining ourselves by those choices. We instinctively question any pressures to conform to other’s expectations. The removal of choice, being told what to do and being required to conform to media driven social expectations are not easy things for us to assimilate.
But needs must. No matter what view one takes of the Covid 19 pandemic and its short term and long-term implications on us all, we have to accept that it poses a real threat to life for the old and infirm. There are enough vulnerable people around us that we choose to seriously consider the restrictions the Government here throw our way. In order to stay at least as sane as we were before all this kicked off does, however, require some effort.
Our president, it has to be said, was very late to the game. Only a few weeks ago he was cuddling babies and actively encouraging the Mexican people to go out and meet friends and eat in restaurants. There were well publicized announcements that Covid 19 was a white gringo disease and poor brown people were immune.
A strongly fatalistic attitude is strongly built into the Mexican nation’s psyche. The deep-seated belief that all will be OK because of the overseeing protection of God in daily life that the Catholic church promotes. The practicalities of forcing an average size Mexican family living in very modest accommodation to stay home is virtually impossible. Worryingly there are a frightening number of families here that live day to day. They earn money daily to buy enough food daily to feed the family. Few have bank accounts and fewer have any savings. There is a dangerous mix of ignorance, bravado and fear.
Despite the challenges our little town has practically closed down. Our sizeable part-time community of retirees and “snow birds” have migrated north early. There are no tourists. There is a solid base of full time locals and expats but not enough to keep shops, bars and restaurants open even if they weren’t shut down by government decree.
There is a constant frustration that we should be doing more to help in a crisis. The crisis here is more the effects of the economic shutdown rather than the effects of the virus. There is clearly not enough testing here and under reporting of infection rates. There are, therefore, very few confirmed cases in our area but thankfully no reported deaths. Deaths are harder to hide.
San Pancho is home to the only hospital within a 50 mile radius. It has a Covid 19 ward ready to go but it is empty at the moment. There has been a single case of an older lady who was already unwell who was brought from outside the area. She is so far, the only confirmed person to have died with Covid 19 in San Pancho. In January and February there were surprisingly regular funerals in the town for older people who had pneumonia. These predated the official response so we can only speculate if they were viral.
On the occasions when we venture out to our practically empty and fully stocked supermarkets we buy a bunch of extra food. We are amongst many that are supporting our community centre EntreAmigos by donating food to distribute to local families in real need. There are over 150 food packages delivered weekly and the local community kitchen is serving over 400 meals a day. It’s a mammoth task keeping this all going on donations alone.
Mexico is now in Phase 3 of its reaction to Covid 19. Because of its slow start there is now a period of overcompensation by officials. Here are a few of the very latest (in many cases counter-productive) measures. We are no longer allowed to have more than two people in a vehicle. This effectively pushes people to use the far riskier option of public transport. Anyone over 60 or pregnant, post-surgical or with diabetes cannot for any reason at all leave their houses in the entire state of Jalisco. We may not set foot on any beach. We cannot swim or surf. No more watching sunsets !!
There is also the issue of alcohol sales. There is evidence that the already worrying levels of domestic violence locally are made considerably worse by forcing families to spend time together and then adding alcohol. Fair point. So, in the entire state of Nayarit alcohol sales are suspended indefinitely. Beer, wine and tequila are now the new black-market currencies.
The infamous annual influx of Mexican families and “spring break” Americans to our beaches over Semana Santa has been a real worry for everyone over the past weeks. All our good intentions and actions count for naught if thousands of non-isolating drunk crazies flood our town. It’s a highly anticipated holiday that Mexican city folk and over excited American students plan for all year. It will take some dramatic actions to keep them away.
To help the situation it has been widely published that Nayarit & Jalisco states are closed to visitors entirely. Hotels are closed down. Tens of thousands of hotel rooms are empty. Restaurants & bars closed. Alcohol sales stopped. Army and Police are stationed on beaches to keep even the most motivated surfer out the water. Anti-tourism in action.
Despite all of this there are still a contingent who will not be put off. We have had the odd Spring Breakers arrive in town who amazingly claim they are in Mexico to get away from their friends who are all sick!! We still have families from Guadalajara arriving with granny, six kids, floaties and a tent rammed into a tiny car expecting to camp out for the week. To keep them away San Pancho and Sayulita and Lo De Marcos have all set up road blocks at the entrances to their towns. Only locals with good reason are allowed to enter. No suitcases or strangers or signs of fun allowed. They are manned by local volunteers 24 hours a day. Easter comes and goes and it feels like a less hot week in October. No one around and everything shut. So much better than thousands of sweaty drunk bodies licking things and filling our space for sure.
There is a worrying attitude to health workers here that has raised its ugly head. Nurses in Mexico are generally under appreciated and very poorly paid. The fact that they may have be exposed to the Covid Virus is not helping. One of the road blocks turned away a nurse trying to get home after a 12-hour shift because they considered her a risk to the town. This incident attracted National press attention and the threat of 20 years in prison to the organisers of the road block for abusing an essential worker. Despite this, nurses are still getting harassed. It’s as different as can be from the appreciation given to the front-line staff in the UK. No clapping on doorsteps here.
My daughter has just re-registered as a front-line nurse for the NHS and starts her shifts very soon. Couldn’t be prouder.
It is becoming obvious that alcohol has been replaced as a social crutch by sugar. Everyone is baking. There are coconut macaroons exchanged for brownies, cinnamon rolls and pecan pie. So much banana bread! There is even millionaire’s shortbread doing the rounds. I’m grateful that I do not possess a sweet tooth. I would be a very much larger gentleman without my inability to handle sweetness. My svelte like ballerina body is challenged enough by my love of Guinness, cheese and steak pies.
My birthday comes and goes with our first on-screen zoom party hosted from the treehouse. It’s a strange affair but certainly a bit of different. Jayne is happily working her way through the mass of sugar based birthday treats that continue to arrive for me for some days afterwards. I’m happy for her as I concentrate my efforts depleting our stocks of tequila.
The current road to Guadalajara has a famous stretch through the mountains that is single lane with endless switchbacks and hairpin bends. It is common for large trucks to overturn and block the road both ways for hours. The last one we passed after many hours of waiting in line was an apple truck. A small crew was there to pull the truck off the road and a larger crowd had appeared to kindly remove all the apples. We get a call from town. Another truck has overturned. This time there is a more interesting cargo than apples. It’s the Costco truck carrying wine to the Puerto Vallarta store. We offer to help. Our wine stocks are now filled with a number of decent bottles of Chardonnay that have literally fallen off the back of a lorry.
Time on our hands has proved good for the gardens. The streams are still running so there is water to spare for plants and time in our lives to apply it. Plants do rather well with sun and water. Who knew! We have eaten beans from our stalks and are watching our Zucchini take over! The flowers are being replaced with huge green edibles. It’s all rather splendid. We have lost one rather flakey lime tree that did not like to be moved and gained dozens of flowers and baby trees that appear to be doing well. Apart from Zucchini our gardens seem to suit beans, cilantro, chilies, sweet potatoes, pineapples, corn and ants. We are currently managing to grow things at a slightly faster rate than the ants can prune them. This may not continue so anti-ant strategies are in place.
We are absolutely blessed that after all these months the highway boys have moved on. They left with a few additional bangs of close by explosions that we watched with pans on our heads, just in case. It’s silent again. That is actually not true. The birds have returned and the insects are gearing up for their nightly Summer crescendos. It’s a mixed blessing. Although there is the sweet chorus of tropical bird song all day long our mornings are somewhat less peaceful. The Chacaluccas are mating and telling us all about it. Every morning for the past few days, just before sunrise, we are awoken to the shrill screeches of large black flirting gobshites right outside the treehouse window, above high in the copomos and way over the valley and beyond. The noise is extraordinary. The locals call them the turkey of the jungle. Apparently, they are delicious. I’m willing to find out.
Our version of isolation does allow us a considerable freedom of movement that we do not take for granted. We have ventured out a few times now and came across a previously undiscovered waterfall close by. It’s modest right now but in the rainy season it will be spectacular. We have also spent time around the new highway to be. By following the river, we find a drainage valley heading up the mountain and climb the ravine to have a nose about. In front of us looms the new highway. It’s invisible from where we are in the valley. It’s perched on top of a ginormous toweringly steep wall of earth. At its base is a corrugated metal tunnel that appears to allow water from one side to the other. It’s a water free zone right now and we are both curious enough to decide to climb through it.
The tunnel is big enough to move through but small enough to feel highly uncomfortable. At no time do you forget there are thousands of tons of earth above your head. We bash the sides with a machete to scare off any snakes or other beast that may be lurking in the dark. A few awkward minutes later and we pop out the other side. Apart from the jungle mountain continuing upwards there is nothing much to see. Behind us the other side of the steep earth mound and the highway sitting about 40 feet above us.
We return home more curious than before. I decide to make the trip to the top of the earth stack and find out what we are in for when the tarmac crews eventually arrive to finish the job. Along the river there are a number of points where some months ago water has found its way from above and left behind rock falls that are reasonably jungle free. I make my way slowly upwards trying to avoid the long tendrils of thorn covered jungle that have the knack of sneakily wrapping around your leg or neck and pulling you over when you least expect it. Not ideal when balanced on an unsecured rock. It takes some time but I manage to make my way out of the canopy and reach the wall of earth leading very steeply upwards. By kicking into the softer parts and using the machete to create hand holds I make slow progress. There are some moments of sliding backwards but nothing too dramatic. I reach the top both dirty and sweaty. It’s midday and there is no shade.
I’m not there yet. The road that I have found is small and uneven and clearly an access road to the main highway which is still 20 feet above. I follow the road for a few hundred yards and find it blocked by a very large rock fall. Probably the result of one of the explosions. The no-access road in the other direction soon runs out. Nothing ahead at all just a further earth bank descending to the valley floor that is too steep to tackle. Only one way to go. The final twenty feet upwards is harder earth with rocks to hang onto so easier to handle. Finally, I’m standing on where the new highway will be.
It’s flat and wide and stretches as far ahead and as far behind as it’s possible to see. It’s high up on the mountain and the top of the jungle canopy fills the horizon in all directions. Noise goes up not down so that’s a good thing for us. The surprise is that despite the size of the operation to construct it the road itself does not appear to be wide enough for the six-lane monster highway that was advertised. It’s possible to squeeze four lanes in at a push. Maybe two larger lanes with room either side maybe. This is a very good thing. I’m most relived to discover it’s flat. Very flat with no incline at all. This means no braking noise and particularly no air brakes. This was our worst fear. So, this underused over expensive highway shouldn’t cause us any issues when it opens. I happily get out of the sun, work my way downwards through the jungle and follow the river home to share the good news.
For the past month, we have kept the boys employed and busy building our outside kitchen. There has been considerable progress. The walls are built and rendered. There are concrete shelves and work tops appearing. Plumbing and drainage are laid for a double sink indoors and another one outside. We have “borrowed” a window and had another made to our design. There is still a floor to lay, doors to make, a serving counter to install and a secure shutter to build. We need to buy a large oven to install but the oven shop is not considered an essential service so is currently very closed.
I have been keeping myself busy by working with large lumps of parota wood for days shaping and polishing to make the serving counter. There are dozens of planks stacked against the bodega that I’ve slowly soaked in diesel fuel to repel termites and stained to look pretty. They will eventually become the doors and shutters. By the time we are allowed out on our own again we should have a fully functional and quite beautiful Corona-kitchen.
Our immediate outside world here is again changing before our eyes as the temperature rises slowly. Bats in our Bodega are numerous. We have literally dozens of the little hairy buggers hanging by one leg from the roof until disturbed. It is now normal to have a cloud of bats above my head whenever I’m trying to find a spanner or sharpen a machete.
Apart from the obvious, life has changed in a number of more unexpected ways. Bi-weekly laundry runs have slowed down considerably. Clothes have always been optional in the jungle but as we really don’t go anywhere else we are getting a good couple of extra days out of our shirts and pants. We would hardly need laundry at all if we didn’t change the sheets and towels when they get properly grotty.
Our diet has also improved dramatically in entirely unforeseen ways. We are blessed to have at hand a contingent of professional chefs who are entirely under employed. Our Montreal French chef friend is offering one beautiful single well balanced nutritious dish every two days to be collected from her house. They are all fabulous. Some of her profits go to the food bank and she also feeds the volunteers at the road block so it’s totally healthy guilty free grub. Our happy food faces are further supplemented by Sunday morning Birria collected in our own bucket from the delightful old ladies in town. Our favorite restaurant is closed but they offer a basket of locally sourced produce that we collect every week. It’s full of all the green things we would usually skip over. So apart from the over stock of sugary stuff and alcohol we are eating rather well.
Earlier this week I took a machete to an area of over growth that has not been touched since we arrived here. I recovered a small rock wall from the bush that runs from behind the new kitchen next to the bar all the way up the hill ending next to our rock stairs. There was a large quantity of overhanging branches and vines that needed to be tamed. The process was satisfying. Our newly discovered wall now hides both the water pipes (hot and cold) leading to the kitchen , that after at least a week of prevarication, I eventually installed.
Unfortunately, sometime during the process of clearing the jungle some beast took exception to me disturbing their peaceful existence with a sharp blade and overreacted somewhat. It took a chuck out of my shoulder. Whatever this thing was left a number of holes in me and gifted me a good dose of toxin. The skin around my neck, shoulder and arm feels like it is sunburnt and my muscles ache. The wound itself is ugly and sore. Apart from the irritation of the discomfort I am feeling decidedly weak and apathetic. The consequence is that I’m now staying at home, not working and taking the time to rest. The Mexican government and a global pandemic has failed to slow me down but some poisonous tree dwelling caterpillar or spider has done a splendid job.
So as much as there is the ever-present nagging guilt to get super fit, read books, learn a language and stay productive I am focusing my now considerably reduced motivation into just being. Being here now. Wish me luck.