Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Mexico

 San Agustinillo Mexico in Oaxaca is beautiful in March with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 80s, but our holiday was quieted and finally cut short by the pandemic. We loved the area in which we stayed. While geared to tourism, it had no big hotels and a visible Mexican culture coexisting with the visitors.

A view from our porch. Me above--I don't know where exactly but enjoying the mellowness of Mexico. 

We arrived on March 7th to our "earth house," which was bigger than we expected, with many views of the ocean. We could hear the waves crashing on the shore. For anyone who ever fantasized about windows without glass, our wooden-shuttered windows opened to the outdoors without a barrier.

Our soaring straw ceiling above a loft bedroom. The Huatulco airport nearby has the same architecture

People drink bottled waters and ours was kept in this lovely urn.

Our kitchen, with view of the ocean.

Remarkably, even with lights on, insects did not swarm the house at night--or even seem to enter--though we would sometimes see the shadows of small geckos inside  the paper shades of the hanging lamps overhead in our straw ceilinged bedroom. Our birds were chacalacas, large and noisy. At least one seemed to nest in the straw roof at the top of the house.

The chacalacas owned the place and made sure we knew it.

We enjoyed sitting in the window seat upstairs in our loft--or tree house-like--bedroom and watching  the waves and the red sun setting over the ocean.

Stunning sunsets from upstairs windows

The walk to the beach was down many flights of stone steps with some rocky dirt paths in between. To the right of the rocks, we could stroll up the beach and have breakfast at one of the many restaurants with large decks open to the ocean. The food was good, fresh, cheap. The first day we drank fresh orange juice and coffee and ate omelets.

I can't find a photo of our stone steps to the beach but here is Roger walking up stone steps in San Agustinillo

Covid was in the background from the start. The airports were crowded (different from news reports of emptiness) and we saw many workers spraying and cleaning surfaces. On the plane, the young people behind us talked loudly and nervously about not worrying about CoV--they were healthy, so they decided they might as well get it and get it over with. They were not thinking of who they might spread it to who might not be robust.

I attended a long "slow yoga" class at the Hridaya yoga compound. It was a meditative class, where we held the poses for long times. I found it calming. But at this point, with the news  growing more dire in Europe and the US, I was not unhappy that the yoga center was closing for a 17-day retreat as I was wondering about the safety of doing yoga in close quarters.  I wondered if the very low number of cases of CoV in Mexico would begin to suddenly spike.

One morning we went to the beach and watched as men in a motorboat returned from fishing. They unloaded shark after shark and cleaned them quickly and effortlessly with large, sharp knives, making it look simple. Pelicans and seagulls circled overhead, around and around, waiting, until finally, they were rewarded by being thrown some shark.

We stood with a couple from California and watched the shark operation. The simple insides of the sharks were a lovely shade of lavender. By the time the men were done and the birds had feasted on their last food, it was if none of it had ever happened. The men bagged up the intestines for bait and carted off the cleaned shark in big wooden wheelbarrows. There was no waste. Except for the motor on the boat, it could have been a scene from a fishing village in Italy in the Roman era.  Of this enterprise we have no photos as we had left out cellphone behind from the beach.

An elementary school stood by the beach, some steps down and set back from the main road. It was a two room, open air school. What is it like to go to school on the beach? We watched one day as the children in navy blue and white uniforms poured out to the concrete area to play. Two boys took off their black belts and held them high and beat the air. Girls smiled but pressed nervously back against the wall of the school, squeezing thin. Teachers watched, unconcerned, though certainly, one presumes, ready to intervene. The boys beat at each other with the belts, using them like swords. Patriarchy begins early and is still, today, tied to clothing. The girls, in their blue jumpers, had no items of dominance. We are not so far from the Roman era.

When we went to the remote beach near our house, we watched the big pelicans dive bomb straight down into the water to catch prey. They congregated on the rock formations that came up from the water, where we found warm crevices to sit in pools of water, protected (somewhat) from the high waves.

It was a chore climbing all the stone staircases in the heat back to our house.

View down to the beach. We were up a steep hill. 

One day we took the "shortcut" to the other side of the rocks and settled near a small cave in the shade on a beach with no people but us. Roger, despite using copious amounts of sunblock, got a bad burn on his chest. But it was lovely there. I finished a book on character and began Peyton Place, a novel I was supposed to have read in a reading group years ago--it bothered me as the rare book club book I hadn't read.

Our cave on the unpeopled beach

The main beach clearing of people as tourists headed home

But amid this all, and continuing to go out, if sparingly--for a margarita, to meet for lunch with people living an hour up the coast, to have a coffee and pastry at the Frida Kahlo coffee shop or a brunch, worries about the coronavirus and the news from home hovered in the background.

Frida Kahlo coffeeshop. Very nice. 

 I lost my will to to take the fishing boat to see the whales and dolphins, to scuba dive, to find more yoga classes, to do more touring. Was it worth the risk? We lived more to ourselves. We ate dinners in.

Dining in

 We ventured out to shop at the little grocery store in Zipolote--and were glad for our lovely, open-air house. It was quite different from the year before when we had braved the crowds unconcernedly in Malta, Sicily, and Bath.

Casa du Pan (bakery) sign on top, down a narrow side street

the bakery

But there were similarities: last year we were in England as Theresa May was putting forth her Brexit proposals for a vote, three days in a row, and we overheard nervous conversations similar to those about the virus in restaurants as people worried Brexit really would happen .... always something.

By the 19th we had booked tickets to leave early--on the 21st. We left, as it happened on the 22nd due to a flight cancellation. The towns we knew, San Agustinillo, Zipolite, and Mazunte, were emptying of tourists. Water was put on the street in plastic barrels, with soap dispensers nearby, so people could wash hands frequently. Banners about Cov appeared.

In our last days, water tanks and liquid soap appeared on the streets

The last night I was nervous about whether our second flight would be cancelled and whether we would be stranded in Mexico, We we read reports of U.S. citizens stuck in Morocco, so I wondered  if a simple trip home would turn in a Balkan Trilogy type melodrama. We went out for a final margarita to the restaurant we had eaten our first tired night in meal. It was virtually empty, but I saw a young couple I took as American and bee-lined over to them to find out their story. They were German and Belgian and had also had a flight cancelled. They gave us information on where to buy hand sanitizer. And then, the next morning, we were on the way home.

We returned to rain and the rain and overcast gray skies have not stopped--but they will. In the meantime, ala Wordsworth, we happily remember scenes from the recent past.


  1. It sounds like a lovely quiet holiday despite the larger context. I read Peyton Place in my early teens: it was one of my mother's book-of-the-month club books. I remember a movie with two teenage type stars. I would have loved living in this older ambience -- for a time away.

  2. It was a good time away. Now that we are home, I feel it is very difficult to escape ceaseless CoV --and the stress level rises.