I’m sitting in a room on the precipice of the Rio Grande River Gorge in Taos, NM. Today begins a two-week statewide lockdown ordered by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. I am in the vacation home of lifelong friends who have been in my protective bubble for months in North Carolina. We will shelter in place together for the next two weeks before I return east.
The scene in front of me is an expanse of southwest desert landscape dotted with scrub oak and tumbleweed. The gorge cuts through this landscape like a knife, making a deep incision where the river runs deep before it spills out into the flatter plain further south between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In this distance, I see snow-capped mountains rising from the 7,000 foot plateau.
Ever hopeful, this morning, I wrote to my friend Carol with a proposal to meet in Oaxaca. When? Quien sabe?
Then, almost immediately, Scott’s Cheap Flights sends me a promising message: We can be optimistic about 2021 travel plans based on successful preliminary results reported by the New York Times. Pfizer-BioNTech has entered Phase 3 vaccine trial. Moderna is also reporting promising early results. Inovio moved from Phase 1 to Phase 2 clinical trials, and a vaccine from OncoSec Immunotherapies has been approved for Phase 1. There is hope for 90-94% effectiveness!
Here, out in the northern New Mexico wilderness, my activities will be limited to daily hikes and the day-to-day world of living indoors, cooking, eating, drinking, sleeping, staying healthy.
This news gives me pause to think about how and when we will return to Oaxaca in 2021. I’ve recently written that soon I will begin planning for our 2021 Day of the Dead Folk Art Study Tour. It’s important to focus on the future. I’ll announce this program in early December after I return to NC. We will still need to be cautious, wear masks, use sanitizer and wash hands liberally. But this news give us a sense of renewal that life will resume to some degree of normalcy in late spring or early summer 2021.
Sasha Baron Cohen makes good use of the NOT Joke. Example: Time to Go to Oaxaca. NOT.
Mexico is NOT faring much better than the USA. And, Oaxaca is on the cusp of turning RED again on the traffic signal scale of measurement. Cases are rising exponentially there, too.
I was thinking about returning to Oaxaca in January. However, my Zapotec family in Teotitlan del Valle recommends I do NOT come back just yet.
Here is the question I asked: IF I were to return and IF I contracted Covid-19 while there, where is the best place to get treatment. I was told the best treatment in Oaxaca is at the Hospital San Lucas, though it is the most expensive private hospital. All costs are out-of-pocket.
The public health office announced on November 4 that in two weeks Oaxaca will be pretty close to having all hospital beds occupied in both public and private hospitals due to the celebrations and thousands of tourists who came for Day of the Dead.
The only other option to Hospital San Lucas, I’m told, is to go to the IMSS public hospital. They keep reporting lack of beds, lack of equipment for intense therapy, and lack of pain medication. It is not looking good. And, last week, Teotitlan del Valle appeared on the official list of contagion again.
I was hopeful before I received this news, but not now. If anyone is planning to return to Oaxaca, please think again. Go to Oaxaca? NOT.
My Oaxaca family is sequestered, staying home, staying safe. This is the same for most of my USA and Canada friends who live there permanently.
Now, why did I even entertain this thought of return? Because I just completed plane travel from Durham, NC to Santa Fe to have a reunion with my sister. Now, I’m in Albuquerque to see my son Jacob who drove here with his partner Shelley from Los Angeles. Then, I’ll be in Taos staying with friends through Thanksgiving. This is as close as I’m going to get to Mexico for a while, I fear.
On the plane, I wore an N95 mask, a face shield, gloves. I was armed with Clorox wipes, alcohol spray and hand-sanitizer. I took a window seat (I read somewhere this was the safest). No one sat in the middle seat. I ate and drank nothing in-flight. All passengers were REQUIRED to mask-up. Flight attendants were diligent about that. I thought that if I could do this safely (and it appears that I have), I could safely attempt plane travel to Oaxaca. YES, likely. But once I get there, then what?
It seems that Day of the Dead was a super-spreader event for Oaxaca. If you are a vacationer, we recommend that you stay home. The health care system in Oaxaca, should you need it, is not equipped to treat you.
As for 2021, I will begin planning for our Day of the Dead Folk Art Study Tour in October and announce it in January. In early 2022, we will return to the Oaxaca Coast and Chiapas for textile study tours. We are keeping fingers crossed that most of us will be vaccinated for disease prevention and life will go on. Yet, we aren’t sick of this, are we? NOT.
This is a rhetorical question. One I ask myself daily these days. All recent reports point to NO. The city (and state) ebb and flow between Orange (caution) and Red (STOP). Right now, the governor has declared Code Red. The Covid-19 euphemism for DANGER.
“Thinking of or have plans to visit Oaxaca this Muertos [Dia de los Muertos], or have friends in that category? If you haven’t figured it out by now, know that this morning’s paper confirmed that for the city, no cemetery visits, no parades or comparsas, no cultural events like tapete [sand paintings] or altar displays, no culinary events, no costume contests, etc, etc, etc. The city includes San Felipe del Agua. Other cemeteries include San Miguel, Ex Marquesada, and all the rest. This morning my San Marcos Tlapazola comadres (women friends) told me the same holds true for Tlacolula. I suspect XOXO (Xoxocotlan) will follow suit (let’s hope so), and I think I have already posted about Santa Maria Atzompa. Stay home and come next year (assuming it’s more or less behind us by then).”
All my friends, extranjeros and locals, are hyper-vigilant. They are guarded, distanced, masked when they go out, and mostly stay home except for careful food-shopping forages. But, they report many mask-less tourists and locals.
Most tell me they believe this situation will continue for quite some time.
I’ve been floating the idea of returning to Oaxaca in January. As each month passes, I push the time farther out. Many of us who live in Oaxaca either for most of the year or during the winter months, are struggling with making a decision.
Kalisa, ever mindful of health safety, reminds me there won’t be a vaccine by January. Yep. I realize that. We are all dealing with: How much risk is acceptable? We know the consequences.
Kalisa reports that “The numbers will continue to rise or stay at this already alarming rate. Tourists are roaming the streets and the villages, restaurants are open, Oaxaca is back to Orange, but it has no meaning.Tourists and many locals simply are tired of masks and rules.”
Yes, we have Covid Fatigue. We want this to be over. Now the news reports include promises of several vaccines that may be available in the spring. There is no reporting yet of their effectiveness.
Someone claimed yesterday that this Covid-generated tourism decline now is more severe than what occurred during the 2006 APPO strikes in Oaxaca. I disagreed. So did Alvin, who says:
“It is actually less significant now than 2006 in terms of numbers of tourists. For Muertos week in 2006 hotel occupancy was 3%. I forget the numbers I heard a couple of days ago, but it’s somewhere around 20% right now, so will increase as the month progresses. I suspect it will climb to about 70% because people just don’t get it.”
I recall that the APPO strikes had a negative economic impact for at least five years. It took my artisan friends many years to recover. Visitors didn’t come because they were afraid.
Many of us are still afraid. But the fear is associated with a deadly virus we cannot see. Too bad those who are transmitters don’t light up like a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern.
As I think about ways to return safely — from flying to quarantining, I also think about access to excellent health care should I get sick. I’m told by a close Zapotec friend that there is a short supply of oxygen and many hospitals just can’t get their hands on it. Have difficulty breathing? Then the answer might be, Too bad or I’m sorry.
Are we better off staying put and deferring our return to Oaxaca for a while? What do you think?
As for celebrating Dia de los Muertos, let’s make our home altars to honor our own loved ones. Let’s also remember and honor the over 212,000 individuals in the USA who have died from this disease, as well as those in Mexico and around the world.
This won’t mitigate the loss but it will give us pause to think about the meaning and value of life, and what we can do to protect ourselves and others.
This is a big question as we try to live in the present and get through each day. One reason I turned my focus to creating The Oaxaca Mask Project, I have come to realize, is that it is a perfect distraction to keep me busy and helpful. I can think about NOW, not what will be.
Note: We will likely start the project up again in the next few weeks. Janet Blaser, a journalist who lives in Mazatlan, interviewed me yesterday for Mexico News Daily. The mask project story will likely appear in the next 10 days. We will begin accepting donations again then, ordering masks to be made, and giving them to people in need.
I started the project soon after I arrived in Huntington Beach, California, for what was to be a one-week visit with my son on my way to Durham, North Carolina. I was there for two months. Now, I’m in NC, just out of quarantine. My plan was to be here until the end of May and then return to Oaxaca for the summer. Now, who makes plans?
Meanwhile, the news came yesterday that Traditions Mexico is closing after 20+ years of operation. They set the bar for many of us who lead cultural journeys and tours in Oaxaca and Mexico. I want to acknowledge Eric Mindling’s passion, heart and generosity for opening doors to indigenous artists and communities over the years and send well wishes to all who have been part of his adventure.
Yes, COVID19 will take its toll in many ways.
What we have come to rely on will be no more. The familiar and the dependable will be no more. Life has changed and will continue to do so. We grieve the losses and must take comfort in making positive next steps.
We want to do more than survive! We want to thrive. We want to be with family and friends. We want to explore. For most of us, this is impossible now. I suspect that this will be the case over the next two years.
This got me to thinking about our own Oaxaca Cultural Navigator situation amid this virus and attendant path of destruction. We are a small operation. Tiny, actually. It’s mostly just me. I dream up the programs, organize them, contact the artisans I know and love, handle the bookkeeping, and make arrangements to ensure quality. Now, there is nothing to do but wait.
This is also about others. It impacts the artisans I work with in the villages. It impacts the local experts who provide the cultural guidance I rely on at the Oaxaca coast, in Chiapas and Michoacan, and yes, in Kyoto and Tokyo, to create a rich experience for our travelers. What will it be like for them who depend on people like us to appreciate their work and support them?
We have canceled the Japan textile study tour. We have canceled the Oaxaca Day of the Dead study tour. We are waiting to see about the December writing workshop and the programs set for early 2021. We read that there will probably be a surge in virus infections this fall.
When will we be be able to resume?
If you don’t travel for a year or two or even more, what will that mean for you? How will you make your future travel choices? Where will you go first and next? Will Oaxaca Cultural Navigator be starting over then? What will our collective future hold? Will we ever regain the confidence to travel on a plane or in a van with ten strangers?
Friends here and there are asking me: When will you return to Oaxaca? How long will you be in North Carolina? When will we see you next? My best answer is: I don’t know. Maybe September. Maybe October. Vamos a ver.
Right now, we must be focused on staying healthy and safe. It is difficult to know what the future will bring. Let’s take a deep breath and carry on.
On early Thursday morning, March 12, I climb on an airplane to travel to visit my son and siblings in California. There are risks. I’m of that certain age of vulnerability, but with no underlying health issues. I’ve struggled with this decision and decided to move ahead despite all the cautionary (and near-panic) media attention. I’ve even watched CDC and Johns Hopkins Medical Center briefings to Congress to better understand the science of this virus. Will it ease my anxiety?
Alas, all the hand-sanitizer bottles were sold-out from the Ahorro Farmacia in Oaxaca’s historic center. No disinfectant wipes to be found, either. The snowbird season is over. All the Gueros returning to the USA must have cleaned them out. The little convenience store in Teotitlan del Valle had plenty, so I stocked up and left a few on the shelf for the next person.
This message came to my inbox from Sarah Resnick, owner of Gist Yarn and Fiber. A well-crafted, thoughtful essay about fear, anxiety and lack of control for what presents itself in our lives. She mirrors my feelings, exactly.
I want to share it with you.
Sarah here, the owner of Gist (Yarn and Fiber). I want to take a pause in our regularly scheduled yarn emails to acknowledge this moment we are living in. Fears about a public health crisis and an unsteady economy can bring on strong feelings of anxiety that can be hard to shake, and I’m sure that some people on this email list have already been touched personally by these issues. We are lucky to have a craft and art that is so soothing – many of us can relate to the calming feeling of running a shuttle back and forth across a warp, steadying our minds.
This morning as I was snuggling in bed with my baby and trying to calm the pit of anxiety in my stomach, I took a deep breath and thought about all of the ways that I am relating to these issues – as a mother, as a daughter, as a granddaughter, and as a small business owner. All of those fears really centered around one thing – acknowledging a lack of control. I can’t control how this plays out, who it will impact, when it will feel less scary, and how our business and the livelihoods of our small team will weather a challenging economy. But of course, the feeling of control is always false, and we have all had experiences in our lives where everything changed in a moment.
So I’m choosing to lean into gratitude and trust – gratitude for the health care workers who are risking their own well-being to work to keep the most vulnerable people safe and protected, trust that our communities will come together instead of panic driving us apart. And trust also in this beautiful little business and community that we are building here at Gist – that we will weather this storm right along with the rest of our weaving community, that you will be here for us, and that we will be here for you.
Here are a few things I’m working with: deep breaths, long walks, quiet time with family, and of course, the steadiness of weaving. If you’re looking for some new yarn or weaving projects to dive into, we have you covered. But this wasn’t an email trying to sell you something. If, like me, you’re struggling with some anxiety, here’s a gentle reminder to take a breath and remember we are all in this together.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle