Isolating in Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico
April – July 2020
Before leaving San Miguel de Allende, I make a list of cities not too many hours away and compare prices for groceries, eating out and accommodation. I tabulate the differences in internet speed, safety (not yet completely accepting that Mexico is as safe as houses), climate (summer can be sweltering on the Mexican coast) and a couple of other things, just to get an idea of where to go next. In retrospect, I must have been trying to find a stable claw-hold in the shifting sands of reality. It isn’t how we normally operate, so carefully, we are far more devil-may-care in our pursuits. The plan to tour the highlands extensively (and come back later to see the South of Mexico) is stepped on by Covid19 and we skid off the planned path to find somewhere we can hole up and wait out the virus. Querétaro topped the charts – not super popular with tourists, but very popular with expats and lauded by a healthy digital nomad community, hubs and networks and all. So we go.
As a rule it takes us a hop and a few nights to settle into a place, but in Querétaro it proves particularly difficult, we move from house to house for weeks like restless animals unable to find a good lie. At first, we stay on the outskirts on a hill overlooking the city in a very modern, very new neighbourhood with gourmet restaurants and colourful blocks of flats. The owner of our spot had lobbed off a bit of mansion to make a strange little flatlet consisting of the large original kitchen with towering cupboards (and a fridge big enough to house a small Japanese family) and then just one other bed/office room with a minuscule shower/toilet hole under the stairs. It smells funny (I have a pathological aversion to weird smells) and despite the grand look, the kitchen is barely equipped – we end up buying glasses and plates and a few other bits to leave behind. When after days (and despite an indecent amount of incense and essential oils) my nose still twitches, we think, not an ideal burrow for a long stay anyway, and start packing. We leave only a measure of raving restaurant reviews in our wake.
The uncertainty of March 2020 definitely shows in our movements and decision making – if one had to track our activity at the time like a weirdly obsessed behavioural scientist, this period would read in haphazard circles and jagged lines.
Next, we move into the very centre of Querétaro, next to the historical district, thinking that if we are going to be isolated, we should at least be within walking distance of something interesting to look at. We wander the progressively more deserted streets between the high warm-toned walls and heavy wooden doors, looking for a song, letting our hearts beat. We buy white asparagus and eat it with butter and eggs. We discover a delightful goth-rocker shop with handbags shaped like coffins and gingham shorts, and true to Mexico, some beautiful leather boots. In keeping with the new feeling of turning into a bandit every time one masks up upon leaving the house, we buy me a pair of wicked pestilence boots. But ultimately, the cute super-central loft apartment is just way too tiny for both of us.
So, we up and move to a semi-industrial area, where we stay in a massive converted warehouse with more than enough space. We each have a bowling alley sized room to rattle around in and the internet is fast enough to run a gaming centre on the moon, but outside it stays a little abrasive, a little strange and loud and square, and eventually, we are unsettled once again.
Querétaro Industria. An uncomfortable landing. We try to take to the streets but things feel off and dirty. We walk only a tiny block or two – it is hot and my new boots are uncomfortable and we are scratchy. When I notice the world starting to glare back at us I insist that we turn around.
It takes a while to set foot, for the cool morning breezes to start playing along skin noticeably, for the Tweedledee-and-Tweedledum aunties at the closest convenience store to recognise and smile at us, for us to discover the bakery with its extra dark cavern in the back where Mexican delights in super crunchy or super pillowy (or both) forms lie in glistening rows, steaming with freshness. It takes a while to find the cats and the dog walkers so that I can stroke something furry and feel complete-happy.
In the early morning, even on a Monday, we are regularly entertained by loud music blasting from the cars outside. Happy Latin carnival, pop or mariachi. Only last night I told Campbell that it is noticeable how often one can hear loud cackling laughter coming from the street or from passing cars.
When we’re eased in, every day becomes like a gift I want to open slower than I ever have before, to make it last until the last golden bits of sun touch the ends of the earth with long fingers.
At long last we land in a block of flats with a verdant courtyard and an assembly of half-renovated flats (parts are dated, like the kitchen in ours) arranged in a double-storied square. The largest supermarket in town is just a small walk away. It feels a little bizarre at first, like being a student in Yeoville or Sunnyside – even the strange psychedelia of a sci-fi future (fuelled by the – then – first discovery of art flics) doesn’t seem that far away. Every time we clang through the gate I have to swat away the suggestion to smell boiled cabbage.
Yesterday we moved house. We had no choice but to order a car, having too much luggage to walk with. Super aware that any form of public transport is a dangerous node, we didn’t touch anything except our own things, kept our hands sterilised, the windows open. There are still so few cases in Querétaro it feels excessive, except maybe it is not. I am grateful that we can afford this basic, but cute little flat. The courtyard outside is green and something in it smells like spring, floral and fresh. It is big enough to properly isolate in. Large beds, good working tables, cool interior, finely woven sheets. It is a bit old in places and maybe a bit characterless, but it has good chi. We’ll see. It would be wonderful to settle for a bit and get down. As I write this I hear sirens in the distance, the immediate neighbourhood is much quieter than where we stayed before, but the feeling of a siege or an emergency stands looming and large just a step further away.
The exponential hop from 7 to 14 cases overnight is now also true for Querétaro. It is so bizarre that I still consider writing about something else when this is obviously it. The only thing happening. It is fascinating. I suspect my emotional connection with the disease will change once people I know get ill, but for now I find the whole scenario totally riveting, the numbers, the patterns, the effects, the fake news, the people and their experiences. I have to be very strict with myself to not spend an inappropriate time on this every day. It could be a 24/7 occupation if one lets it.
It has been a strange couple of days, somewhat dark and moody and at times filled with feelings of helplessness. I suppose as much as the new 5D superconsciousness is light and high-vibration, there is a similar breathless pall that might have something to do with our individual darkness and our collective shadow.
The air smells like thunder and sweaty bruised flowers.
It is difficult to estimate how far behind the curve Mexico is, it feels like we’re saying next week every week. Jordi in Spain is urging us to stock up on food and while we did manage to buy a few things extra, the thought of buying things we normally don’t eat seems absurd. Cans and preserved bits and grains?
‘The skylark was born before all beings and before the earth itself. Its father died of illness when the earth did not yet exist. He remained unburied for five days, until the skylark, ingenious of necessity, buried its father in its own head.’
– The Birds by Aristophanes
Our quiet little life goes on without much change. The streets are changed, the police more obvious, the sirens more insistent and safety more strictly enforced in the supermarket. The wider world seems both gripped by more insanity and strangely wisening. There is no shortage of anything at all. The histrionics of the Northern Americas have not sunk this low.
I wonder, does one write about late stage capitalism collapsing or does one colour-in this writ with dreams of tomorrow?
April the first
We are all fools today. Hopefully in the good zen sense and not in the sheep-to-the-slaughter sense the conspiracy theorists will have us believe.
I suppose while all this light and new earth birthing shit is going down, the opposing forces are equally squirming in their pants. I’ve just never been very good at focusing on that, the allure and thrill of ‘knowing’ what is going on behind the scenes have started to leave me a bit cold. Rather tell me about the construction of the heavens, the evolution of consciousness or the magic of chaos. Show me the path of light, the depth of midnight or tell me how you find it to be human.
In my fascination (and probably a bit of both glee and horror) with the pandemic, I find myself bouncing between wanting it to be over and wanting it to take even longer. Like an impatient revolutionary that is almost exhausted by waiting, I desire this epidemic to collapse the system functionally. Completely. The new man is dying to be born.
I am quietly ecstatic to be alive on the planet right now. All my soaring dreams and visions for a fully realised humanity finally look like less of a madness and more like a possibility. The limiters on our vast potential will all disappear and even if my mind can’t detail it yet, my heart wants to burst at the light that is coming.
Monday morning in the time of Corona and the ‘chop wood & carry water’ life continues unchanged. It was Mother’s Day in South Africa yesterday and when I spoke to my Mom, she said the feeling of being stuck and isolated is in my head. Instead, I should pretend we have only just arrived and that everything is new.
We develop a deeper love of mole and hibiscus flowers and tequila. We discover huitlacoche (corn smut), panela, Oaxaca cheese, giant garlic, tiny sweet bread buns (in my mind exactly like the ones from the Heidi books from childhood), great mountains of herbs and dark chocolate (with crunchy blue corn chips in). For many weeks we are sustained by the soft fruity chill of ice-whipped fruit cocktails. We cook and eat and work. I draw. We fall in love with the wild yeast that floats around us unseen and that on some good days land in my flour-slop and ferment into sourdough starters with distinct personalities. Abacus lasts the longest and we eat his slimy issue with relish in pizza and pancakes and nutty flatbreads.
Yesterday afternoon we went for a walk. It isn’t outlawed and we’ve been cooped up for so long, I thought we could risk it. I thought I’d be able to come back and write in great heart-wrenching detail about the deserted streets and the feeling of melancholy and the eerie quiet, but the truth is there is still enough life and movement outside to make it feel a bit like a very ordinary Sunday. We saw one or two open shops and restaurants in the neighbourhood, but the historical zone was deserted. The public spaces are taped up and there are warnings up everywhere to tell people to stay apart, stay home and wear masks. All the benches on the streets are also taped, some showing signs of consequently having housed an opportunistic backside. Somewhere around the cathedral we saw a line of three older people comfortably chatting, nestled among the tape, on benches nicely spaced apart.
‘Your insight has become the insight of the whole existence. You are no longer separate, you have found your roots.’ – Osho
I took one photo of a building with a temporary Red Cross banner that looked like it could be a makeshift hospital. We saw one ambulance and a hearse, but I had to use my imagination to feel the pall of death on the streets. The bustling, joyous vibrancy of Mexican street life is absent, yes, but this was always a bit of a quieter city…
Waiting for this large amorphous potential to burst forth and connect us to the stars and connect us to the gods. How exactly this bursting forth works is difficult to understand.
I’d lie if I said we don’t feel it. Our essential contact with the people who would normally give us opportunities to chat and learn about the country and generally be social is completely gone, and it hurts our emotional well-being. We’re good at isolating, much happier than many, but I’m starting to find it difficult. The plight of world travellers without travel must be hitting hard everywhere.
Just a day or two ago we decided that we’ll risk travelling to a new town just for a change of air and a new sight. I suppose we were heartened by the news of lifting restrictions in other places. I posted a few photos of the centre of Querétaro and its deserted streets that very day on Instagram and received a message form the city (hooked by my hashtag) to say please stay home, it is sad to see our streets so quiet, but it is sadder to see our people die. That made me check our plans right quick.
More than putting ourselves in danger, we don’t want to overstep the rules of our host country. We are too obviously foreign to blend in or take chances. Anyway, once I started looking at the maps and graphs and numbers it became obvious that our optimism is misplaced. Mexico is still very much red with Covid19, numbers rising almost everywhere. Making plans to get on a public bus suddenly seems insane.
We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.
Somewhere in us a dignity presides
That is more gracious than the smallness
That fuels us with fear and force,
A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.
So at the end of this day, we give thanks
For being betrothed to the unknown
And for the secret work
Through which the mind of the day
And wisdom of the soul become one.
– John O’Donohue
We went for a long walk on Saturday, late in the afternoon when a lot of shops would normally be closing. It was surprisingly difficult to judge the state of affairs outside. It seemed both quiet and very busy, people were wearing masks and many were not, a lot of shops and restaurants were closed and yet, many more were open. I keep on looking at the numbers online, hoping for some clarity, but there is none to be had. No conclusions can be drawn, no plans can be made, no movements can be planned, no tickets booked. In some countries, there is a hopeful amount of opening and movement commencing and in others, their optimism is quickly shattered by a spike in numbers or an unruly public unwilling to follow the rules causing renewed shut-downs. Pfft. My pet god-complex often wonders if this is all my doing. Did I want to stay in Mexico extra long without having to make too many excuses?
The people are very friendly and if we look up and make eye contact, the eyes above the masks are almost always smiling.
I was awake for quite a few hours in the night to listen to the rain and the rumbling of the sky. I’m wise now to the fact that the midnight hours are not a good time for contemplation or making decisions. I have no idea why, but anxiety and negativity walk around naked in the dark hours.
It is July, and half of this very strange year is gone. When I posted my NY message at the beginning of the year (hinting at the chaos to come) I had no idea what we were really in for. Just north of us, the land of the free and brave is about to hit 100 000 new infections a day. Mexico feels different – knowing, more sensible, ancient. Whereas the US seems like a puppy – well-intentioned, cute, boisterous, but ultimately still chewing on your new headphones, Mexico feels older than dust – wise and creaky and furrowed with lives, softly singing of things so profound, you have to train your ears and split open your heart to hear it properly.
Middle of July
We’ve bought bus tickets to Cuernavaca and will leave on Tuesday, next, if all goes well. After almost four months in complete isolation, we are finally ready and will move on.