Bob Cowser, Jr.
I was never my plan to become that guy you know who got himself stuck in Mexico during a global pandemic.
I had gone to the Riviera Maya in January to spend a spring sabbatical from my university job, hoping to hasten the end of a depression I had slipped into after my mother’s death last August.
And at first it was working. The words were piling up, and the sea was, as always, a glory. The pure laughter of the casual bathers always struck me. I lost track not only of the day of the week but also, because of the weather, was often even confused about the month of the year.
The explosion of Covid-19 at home in the US was something I watched from Playa del Carmen like a distant, virtual mushroom cloud. Social media coverage meant I was a couple weeks ahead of the average Mexican in my awareness of its spread. Or at least I imagined that was true: that I had advance notice of what was coming.
Numbers of Mexican cases remained low in late March. Still, hotels and grocery shelves emptied. Restaurants closed. Locals remembered life during the swine flu epidemic in the spring of 2009. There were rumors, especially on expatriate message boards, of creeping privation and attendant violence.
Curfew descended in April. I had retreated to an apartment in Tulum by then. Law enforcement presence--Federales, state and municipal police-- is always strong in Mexico, but now I was more aware than ever of patrols in the dusty streets: squads in riot gear standing in truck beds, lights and sirens.
Jaguars roamed through luxury hotel lobbies at night and street dogs seemed hungrier than when I’d arrived. Like the Thai monkeys I’d seen running wild in the streets of Chiang Mai, they depended on tourists for food. I befriended one, whom I named Paz. He had more of a “hide” than a “coat” and he always smelled like he’d recently been on fire.
My first departure flight was to have been in mid-March. But I looked at the case numbers in New York City, where I was to make my first landing, and elected to press my luck, stay put, moving the return flight to early April. That flight, with a discount carrier, was ultimately cancelled. As were the three I booked with major airlines after.
The rumored street violence never came. Grocery stores remained open through April and May. From time to time, I was even able to slip back into Playa del Carmen to check on the scuba diver friends I’d made.
I know the threat of the virus was always real; the infection curve in Quintana Roo now resembles the New York City’s mid-March rate. But I’ll never know if the other rumored dangers were just Gringo projections.
I returned the USA on Sunday, May 24th, 2020, the day before George Floyd was choked to death on that Minnesota curb and America’s streets exploded.
So, how are we?