El Monumento a la Patria, a majestic sculpture in Merida by Colombian sculptor Romulo Rozo, who adopted Mexico as his own. The marvelous work of art is a short walk from where I'm staying these days. It is the last journey of interest I've made here. Ruzo's remains lie buried at the base of the sculpture.
For a senior solo traveler whose mantra is “staying alive by not staying still,” what's happening now seems like a prison sentence.
I’m normally a slow traveler, but I’m used to knowing that I can move on at any time, forever seeking some other place with a fresh landscape and new people to meet.
Now in these days of the coronavirus, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, rarely even leaving the room of my guest house, and it’s beginning to wear on my psyche.
Every sense of reality is evaporating.
I'm now down to making just one masked run per week to the local Superama for groceries. Otherwise, I cook, eat, exercise and sleep at home, that being the house where I rent a room in Mèrida, Mexico, a lovely, warm, sunny, Spanish colonial city in the Yucatan peninsula.
It’s a fine place to spend a sentence of isolation. But even the nicest jail confines you.
I’ve often said I rarely get lonely as a traveler because I can always amuse myself with books, music, writing, and corresponding with friends. But I still feel a need to get up, get out, move, walk, see things, do stuff, meet people and make new friends in whatever locale I land in. That's not happening now.
I never felt more like a prisoner than when I went out around 8 p.m. a couple of nights ago to buy cookies at a little bakery I hoped was still open. I wanted something sweet to eat with a cup of tea before going to bed. I wasn’t more than 100 meters from my house when I was hit with the harsh beam of a spotlight from a police chopper whop-whopping low in the early evening sky.
I instinctively winced and ducked but kept walking, relieved that there were nothing like shots fired or even warnings broadcast from a loudspeaker. But I got the point. I knew then the lockdown was real.
There is so much missing now from my travels now. Borders are closed, flights are grounded, businesses are shuttered, parks are yellow-taped -- there’s nowhere to go. It’s twisting my mantra all around. After moving along on a heady trail through the world for nearly four years, all of a sudden I’m “staying alive by staying still.”
My carefully crafted travel identity has been completely upended.
I fled Southeast Asia in January as the virus was ramping up in the world and got as far as Mexico before it was clear that going any further was not only detrimental to my health and others, but increasingly difficult as airlines started canceling flights and governments started enforcing quarantines and closing borders.
So when I landed in Merida with a 180-day tourist visa, I decided to stay put for a while and see what shakes out.
I’m not unhappy here. I have a comfortable room, the weather is gorgeous, and my host is a lovely, caring and helpful lady with deep family roots in the community.
But every day I face new and more odious restrictions.
One day the city’s historical center was thriving, bustling with people. The next day it was a ghost town inhabited by desperate, hollow-eyed shopkeepers and a few bewildered tourists.
The city’s bars and restaurants were shuttered overnight; beach resorts were closing like clam shells.
I was exercising at the most beautiful outdoor fitness and athletic facility I’d ever encountered. It was huge with Olympic-calibre track and field facilities, multiple exercise and gymnastics stations located all over alongside futbol fields, tennis courts, a fully equipped boxing center, even a jai alai fronton, and more, all well-maintained, lighted, and open free to the public from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week (7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays).
Then one bright Sunday morn the yellow tape crossed the locks on its gates.
I had purchased tickets to the symphony; the concert was canceled.
I extended my room reservation until mid-April, though I don’t expect things to change much by then. Likely I will extend again. The only thing I can say for sure is that I expect to remain in Mexico for a while.
My tourist visa is good through early September. But I can’t say what will happen next month, much less September.
I had long hoped to be in New Jersey for the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class in June. But now that’s been crossed off, too.
Who ever expected travel to grind to a halt like this? But with international borders closing around the world, and flights being canceled everywhere, there are few choices for movement out of Mexico, or anywhere else, at any time soon. There’s just nowhere to go.
Even travel within Mexico via public transportation is a shaky venture. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador, known widely here as AMLO, has been slow to instill an anti-virus culture in the Mexican populace. In fact, he’s done just the opposite, encouraging hugging, handshakes, crowds, demonstrating a haughty indifference to the conventional practices of disease prevention. A few days ago AMLO visited and openly embraced the elderly mother of "El Chapo," the notorious Mexican drug-trafficking crime boss now imprisoned in the United States. Go figure.
Then there’s the U.S. State Department, which announced two weeks ago that if I didn’t return to the U.S. immediately, I should be prepared to stay away for “an indefinite period of time,” whatever that means. It’s always been my understanding that the U.S. can’t deny entry to a lawful, healthy, U.S. passport-carrying citizen, though I suppose they could order me into quarantine.
I can’t imagine why I’d want to go back, exposing myself to airports, planes, trains or buses, and possible quarantine, trying to reach a destination that’s teeming with coronavirus. That would be insanely dangerous for me, not to mention those with whom I come in contact with should I be infected somewhere enroute.
Technically, I’m a high-risk candidate for the virus. I was diagnosed in October with Stage II Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). And somewhere along the way -- not sure how this happened -- I made 68 human years on the planet.
So while I can’t deny my damaged lungs, I have managed so far to avoid the common symptoms of age and COPD with significant lifestyle changes including more exercise, plenty of sleep and a vastly improved diet -- most significantly, the elimination of alcohol. I have traveled extensively in recent months, from Greece to Singapore, to California, Hawaii, Mexico City, Tijuana and finally Merida, in good condition.
I’ve also been traveling far and wide as a nomad for nearly four years without a home or residential address in the United States or anywhere else. So I have nowhere to go “home” to, as the State Department strongly suggested I do.
There’s also the cost. I couldn’t afford to live in the U.S. for any extended length of time. The impossibly complicated and high-cost healthcare system alone was one of the reasons I left Hawaii to travel in the first place almost four years ago. Now I’m quite accustomed to living in countries at a fraction of the cost of living in the U.S.
I thought I might apply for long-term residency as a retiree in Mexico if the first step weren't to make the application at a Mexican consulate in the U.S. I thought I might visit Mexican authorities here though and, under the current circumstances, ask for a waiver of that requirement. But Mexican immigration services have closed here now, and even the U.S. Consulates in Mexico are no longer providing services to U.S. citizens.
For the moment, I am uncertain what will happen when my visa expires. Though I did read an online report that said if I overstay, Mexico would not penalize me with hefty fines as long as I left the country immediately once an all-clear-to-travel-again notice is posted. Yet, so much can happen between now and September and not much of it good, I’m afraid.
So here I stay, doing my travel dance in place now, imprisoned by the uncertainties of life on a diseased planet, realizing a dream that’s rapidly becoming all too surreal.
Quotes For A Good Life On The Road
“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
-- Albert Einstein
See my complete collection of "Quotes For The Road" by clicking "More" in the dropdown menu above.
Who Am I?
I'm a retired journalist from Hawaii who tired quickly of retirement and hit the road as a slow, solo world traveler in August 2016. I've spent time in 20 countries on four continents. Currently I'm in sunny Merida, Mexico, waiting out developments in the coronavirus crisis before moving on. Meanwhile, learn more about me and my travels at Nomadic Matt, and Expat Focus, and in a great story by veteran Borneo newsman and prolific author James Ritchie, about our memorable meeting in Malaysia, A Confluence of Adventure Writers .
Also online ...
GARIFUNA SETTLEMENT DAY
Still the most authentic, lively and colorful local cultural festival I've seen on the road.
I found this Alternative Arts and Music Festival in the Amazon highlands of Peru. What a find!
Solas "Best Travel Writing" Awards
Saysha: What Happened?
13th Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing
(Read it here)