It’s COVID-19 in Peru Day 15.
The Embassy sends word to let us know they are focusing on remote areas of Peru to get people out. People have been, apparently, placed in quarantine against their will (welcome to March/April 2020, Entire World). You know how I’ve continually stressed how fortunate we are? That hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It’s gotta be terrible outside of a huge city like Lima, one with plenty of food, AirBnBs for rent, running water, internet. We have all those things.
So, Embassy, you go. Get those folks home. We can, and will, wait.
We head to the grocery store, and are stopped by a guy in full camo, mask, wielding a big weapon. I don’t know from firearms; I think it’s a….military issue rifle? Not anything semi-automatic, I don’t think. He asks for Steve’s ID. Know that before we left, I said, I need my passport, and Steve said, no you don’t.
Well, turns out I do.
We head back to the apartment to get it, but then I tell Steve, you know, if they’re checking this on the corner, they may be checking at the grocery that no more than one family member enters. He insists they won’t. I insist on going home. It’s not a fight or anything.
And I’m fine. I’ve gotten a little ground-level fresh air and been able to practice my Spanish with a very nice guard who is doing his job. I head up as Steve goes to the grocery store.
Hey, it’s Wine Night! How bad can it be?
Letters from Home
Prior to that little jaunt, while meditating, out of the corner of my eye—my phone has a meditation timer on it with a little bell that rings when I’m done—I see that my son’s texted. I think I see “but it’s gone.” I insist on finishing my quiet time, just breathing.
As soon as my “meditation up!” bell rings, I look at the text. It does not say what I think it did, but rather something to the effect of, he doesn’t know how he feels today because he hasn’t gotten up yet but he’s pretty sure nothing is worse.
I respond that I’m hugely relieved, I’d thought he’d been writing to tell me had a fever and it was gone.
He writes back, Mom. Stop. You’re stressing me out.
The tone is severe. I apologize. This vocalizing to my kids about how stressed and worried I am is a really bad habit. My mom, may she rest in peace, loved drama. So over the years, I got in a habit of telling Entertaining Stories About My Distress. It was a good way to get attention, and, something I have realized to my peril, hugely narcissistic. Now that my kids are adults, they sharply tell me that they, frankly, don’t want to hear my drama, are not entertained by it, and to basically stop making my fear the big story.
I tell my son as much, as briefly as possible. “I’ll stop,” I write. “But I want to check in every day, ok? No gloom and doom, just a quick hi.”
This we can agree to. And meanwhile, note to self: stressing out is self-indulgence. So knock that off, silly woman.
A Pilot Speaks
My bro Jon the pilot texts to check in. He’s tired of flying empty planes and staying in emptier hotels. He says he’d gladly bring a plane down to Lima to pick me up if he could. This is no idle boast. My sister Julie has described my brother as the ultimate WYSIWYG, and he is beautiful.
He also immediately understands the issue here that’s been so tricky: You have to evacuate the interior first. You have to have planes authorized and outfitted to fly over the Andes and land at high altitudes.
Still, it’s love from home. And it’s awesome.
How to Find Your Mind
In search of new podcast info, I stumble on this link. I almost don’t go when I see that it’s Esquire—the quintessential Lad Mag until Maxim came along to prove it could be even dickier. But it turns out to be British Esquire, and therefore features a modicum of sense.
One of the most sensible things is the recommendation I initially skip, for the COVID-19 daily update from the BBC. The logic is simple: 5 minutes, no more, of news from around the world on the virus. This leaves no time for recorded clips of Certain Voices that Make Me Want to Bang My Head Against the Wall or Worse. And in the 3 podcasts I’ve listened to so far, at least one minute of each offers a glimmer of good news, sometimes more.
In the one for Monday morning, I learn that Belarus’s authoritarian president is not only continuing football (as in soccer, which is the only Football anyone cares about everywhere but the US) games, he has recommended vodka and farmwork as virus preventives.
Having recently read Adam Higgenbotham’s beautiful chronicle Midnight in Chernobyl—in which helicopter pilots were fortifying themselves with vodka before ascending to try to put out plutonium fires from the sky—this news inspires a rueful laugh. But a laugh, nonetheless. I’ll take it.
Crazy former Soviets.
Our latest Embassy communication: Curfew is now two hours ealier, from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., except in some cities, which we initially think may actually be Lima neighborhoods but turn out to be in the north, on the border with Ecuador. There, curfew will begin at 4 p.m.
Which explains our friend in camo.
The Embassy reminds us to stay where we are until they call with flight information.
Steve has decided to go buy more water. Ours tastes, even after boiling, more heavily chlorinated.
There’s a great Steely Dan lyric in a record, “Everything Must Go”:
“Things may get a whole lot worse
Before suddenly falling apart…”
I hear from our German friend, the grocery store hero. She says she’s often too exhausted to cook. She loves the idea of having healthy food prepared for her.
In my daily correspondence with my sister Becky, she mentions her admiration for the folks who pick up her garbage. More unsung giants emerge. We just have to pay attention.
I also hear from my fitness center, which runs out of the local high school in Brooklyn (MI, not NY; it’s tiny). The newsletter writer tells us how and when the kids who depend on school meals can pick them up, despite the school being closed. I write back to tell her how much her updates mean to me, help me continue to feel connected to home, and how Steve and I look forward to getting back. We have a nice back and forth.
Our neighbors across the way check in. John, I, and Steve speak Spanglish. John’s wife, Gisela, speaks no English. But by damn, my español is improving. It’s such a beautiful language, musical, light. Years ago, I had to learn it for a play, and the coach told us that Spanish is lateral, moving sideways in the mouth.
When you speak it, you naturally smile.
The Grand Old Man of Travel Literature
The NYT briefing—the only bit of news I allow myself, via email—recommends an essay by Paul Theroux. In one of those serendipitous moments of coincidence—life has many—I have been looking up Mr. Theroux on my Scribd account.
(Allow me a brief, unsolicited and uncompensated Scribd plug. This service, for a mere 15 bucks a month, gives me unlimited sheet music, books, audio books, articles, a few magazines, and a free MUBI subscription. Since joining it, I have shifted my clutter to digital. For while I have over 100 saved items, my library checkouts are extremely manageable. More importantly, on the road, I have been able to get a dozen books that distract and entertain A Wedged Bear in a Great Tightness, pictured below. The x and arrows won’t work by the way, they’re part of the screen grab. End of plug.)
Prior to this trip, I wrote about virtual visits and armchair travel. I thought of those as things for other people, while I, on the other hand, still planned to visit as many places as possible.
Things change, don’t they?
Armchair Travel: Huzzah
Anyway, I have already, with surprising realism, recognized the tremendous number of countries I will never get to. Now, stuck for who knows how long, I think, hey! I can virtually travel. I’m supposed to be in Argentina right now. So I’ll continue with the A countries. I actually know quite a lot about Afghanistan. Not in the mood for Algeria. Angola! Cool.
I noticed that Mr. Theroux had written a book that includes a journey to Angola; my library has it, but Scribd doesn’t. Still, Scribd has a bunch of Theroux books, so I pick a different one about Africa.
Lo and behold, here he is, big as life and twice as natural in his lovely editorial in the NYT, talking about the life-changing experience of being in Africa (specifically Uganda) during a shutdown.
He talks about witnessing. I realize it’s why I keep writing, why day after day, when I think, I got nothin’, I prove myself wrong.
Like him, I feel insanely fortunate to be watching this from exactly where I am, a completely different perspective than, without my supreme luck, I wouldn’t have. It helps me get through the times when, more than anything, I want to be home.
And I’m not. I’m here, and I have a computer. I am a lucky duck.
Up on the Roof, March 30 edition
Around 3:30, I head up to walk and listen to a podcast. I allow myself an NYT Daily episode about the first CVD case in New Jersey, a 32-year-old man who believed he wouldn’t survive. On the surface, this is exactly what I don’t need to hear; I have a 29- and 23-year-old. I’ve lived worst-case scenario before. When my first husband began to experience AIDS symptoms, we were told repeatedly, he’s not gay, he’s not an IV drug user, he hasn’t had a transfusion.
But. Anyway. He had AIDS.
So whenever people say, oh, the odds are in your favor, in the 30 years since he died, I say, yep. But in the back of my head, I know that if you’re that one in a thousand or ten thousand or a hundred thousand, your odds are suddenly 100%, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
And yet, the man in the story survives. I want to cheer. And even though the podcast ends with Fauci’s ominous prediction of 100-200K deaths in the US, I realize that at least people stateside finally seem to be listening.
We’ll come home to whatever we come home to. When. Ever.
The roof is not empty today.
Just to give you the visual, it’s not possible to make a complete lap of the roof, which covers the two towers of the complex we currently call home. I leave from the Plexiglass-enclosed open-air space to the outside loop, which has a concrete wall about 4 feet tall, through one door, walk about 30 feet, turn left, walk another 30 feet. Then there’s a very long leg, probably about 100 feet, that runs the length of the two towers. At the other end, I turn left twice, getting back to the flip side of where I started. When I get to the end, I can see where I began, but I’m separated by walls—and I’m sure as hell not attempting that parcour thing. So I turn and go back.
I make my first two turns. And then, along the long wall, I see a young girl, maybe 10? 12?, with a little girl of about 2 or 3, probably her sister. They’re walking in my direction. Nearby, their mom is watering the rooftop plants.
We smile, but then I decide to turn back to my half; they may want to maintain distance. I go back and decide to do half laps, leaving them to their half of the building. I want to respect their turf.
Well, naturally, we keep running into each other. After another pass, I see that the grandmother is there as well. It becomes awkward to the point where, in a movie before all of this happened, it would have been very funny to watch from high up above, the jolts and starts and stops, the kind that happen in grocery store aisles when you have a cart with a funky wheel.
But now, it’s just kind of depressing.
I have an overwhelming urge to crouch down, hold my arms open, and invite the little girl to run into them. I remember my kids at the same age, and now my nieces’ and nephews’ kids, who run at you, their 25 pounds of pure love knocking you over with wrecking ball force. People often say how much they miss those years in their own kids’ lives. I knew they wouldn’t last. I cherished every last hug fiercely, perhaps the thing I did most right in a spotty record of parenting.
But, man. I really want that little girl to run up, give me a hug, and whisper, “Todo vaya bien, vieja. No necesita estar tan triste.” Everything’s ok, old one. You don’t need to be so sad.
El Condor Pasa, en verdad
The family continues to water, and we manage to work around each other. As I stand at the long side of the wall, I suddenly see a massive bird sailing, circling, then making a dizzying swoop down toward the ground, so fast I feel my own stomach lurch as I watch.
The bird is huge, and there are more. They sail through the air. The family has stopped to watch them as well. If they’re not condors, they’re really freaking big birds. I mean, my iphone cannot capture this, but it’s the big black dot. And then another one below it, to the right.
They float, wings wide.
I remember snorkeling with Steve in Roatan, a place we visited many times. We had a semi-secret entry point on a small beach near our home there. We had to swim in extremely shallow water, sometimes uncomfortably hot from the sun—you seriously could have done sous vide in this water—then along a decaying rope past healthy coral that viciously scratched if we weren’t careful.
Then we’d emerge in a huge ocean clearing, about 20 feet deep. The bright sun pierced the sea water, made it aqua-colored liquid crystal. We’d see angel fish, parrot fish, those funny little orange fish like Nemo, the occasional terrifying lionfish; one brush with its spines and you’re in agony.
But the real prize would be that rare sighting of a manta ray. They would glide under us, sometimes 15 feet long from nose to tip of the tail. I told my sister Julie about seeing them. She said that her first manta sighting was like being in church.
These birds are manta rays. Only in the sky.
Steve and I have seen so many places over the years. I fully expect our travel habits to radically change. As with my kids, I knew at the time that our good travel fortune might not last. So I’ve enjoyed every minute.
Here I am in Lima, Peru, watching condors or some sort of giant graceful birds soar past my rooftop. They dive, they glide. They are so beautiful.
I am a witness.