Saturday, May 09, 2020

Life and Work in a Time of COVID-19: An Uninterrupted Horizon

As suddenly as the dry season began back in November, the wet season has stepped out from behind the curtain to take center stage. By early April, the humidity quietly began to rise and the plants, feeling the barometric changes, rubbed their eyes and got to work bringing the neighborhood back to full HD color.  Towards the end of the month, stray evening showers began refreshing the landscape, sinking deep to revive the neglected soil, roots and grasses. The rain released a cloud of earthiness that unlike the smell of a sudden shower on dry pavement, instead was like inhaling a bag of moist sphagnum moss: healthy, right, and necessary.

By the time I'd turned the calendar page to May, the showers and electrical storms had settled into a nightly routine. 8:00 pm, cue first drops. And man, can this place rain! While waiting in the wings for her turn on stage, it seems the rainy season had also been drinking a LOT of tea. Like six months worth, which she released on those first few nights. 

As with any Spring, as with any good, strong rain, I'd hoped this would give us a fresh start, and what ailed us yesterday would be washed away. The seasons were changing! Good things were coming!  

The abundance of growth has been ill-timed with the absence of gardeners.

But no.

Yes, the seasons are technically changing, but that's about it. 

When this all started (seems like three years ago) in mid-March, our work life became an adrenaline-fueled rush of actions, decisions, changing directions, adapting, and breaking new ground daily. If I had to color each day, they would've been a brilliant orangey-red. Propelled by success and the gratification of the people we were helping, each day was full to the brim and so different from the previous day.

But in our personal lives, although we were living and reacting as if we were in the eye of the storm along with everyone else in the world, we really weren't yet. The perspective from El Salvador was that of hearing the neighbors arguing, dishes breaking, the clamor getting louder and closer, but still going to sleep each night in our own calm, safe house. Then the argument came through the front door and now the parents are screaming at each other, and all the kids can do is look up at them and watch, unable to calm the racket. 

See, even though we've officially been living under the constraints of this pandemic for months, it only recently really came home. When I last wrote, the country had reported 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with two cases traced to local transmission. Today the number is 784 with 667 reported through local transmission and 15 deaths. That sounds like Monday and Tuesday in Manhattan, but remember that this is a country barely the size of New Jersey with a large percentage of folks living in serious poverty.  And it's not that we've been footloose all this time, either. As soon as the neighbors were heard arguing (China and Europe) the Salvadoran President locked us down. We have been living under tight restrictions for two months already, starting a few weeks before the first COVID-related death was reported here. 

But last week videos emerged of traffic on the roads, of people getting their cars washed, and folks standing on street corners for no apparent reason, face masks drooping around their necks. This angered the president greatly, as evidenced in his national broadcast a few days ago.  For all the sacrifices the country was making, THESE PEOPLE were not taking it seriously, and now things were going to get real. The government banned all public transportation, including taxis and Uber. The lack of public transportation means that many of our embassy local staff can't get to work, particularly the cleaning staff, groundskeepers, guards. We can no longer move from one municipality to the next. Except for essential employees in specific sectors, and carrying letters from their employers to pass through police and military check-points, we're only allowed out of the house two days per week for food/pharmacy shopping. This is regulated by the last digits of our IDs, or for foreigners, our passports:  

This is on the fridge now. 

Take away options from restaurants are now restricted to delivery only. Oh to be a motorcycle delivery man these days! King of the road, zipping across four lanes of the Panamerican Highway without so much as a glance over your shoulder, cruising around empty roundabouts twice if they want, just because they can. Drop the bags of food at the door, jot off a text to the requester, and you're back on the bike without so much as a "buenos dias."

Lunch delivery - not just for the lazy anymore.

Welcome to life on an uninterrupted horizon, also known as Day 56 of El Salvador's national quarantine with, for now, 12 days remaining. Our kitchen calendar chronicles the decrees, states of emergency and national quarantines that have been announced, extended and extended again, as I jot down "End of School Closure," "Last Day of Quarantine," and "Airport Open" on the calendar, only to scratch out these milestones after each extension.  

Why do I bother?
At work, the flurry of activity that occupied our first three weeks has settled into a steady hum. We're not inventing things from scratch anymore, but rather stamping out permission for flights to land and taking phone calls from folks wanting to leave with assembly line regularity. The days now no longer feel orangey-red, but dull gray. Some days light gray, sometimes dark gray, but for the past three weeks (or 33? Who can keep track?) we've simply woken up, worked, come home, ate dinner, gone to bed. Lather rinse repeat, just like our hands.

Geez, that sounds like any life, right? Where's the complaint? What's changed? 

The horizon has changed. We have no idea of what's next. Nothing to look forward to because nothing can be counted on.  Which of these is our horizon?

Are we about to get soaked?

Or are sunny skies in the forecast?
We're told the next few weeks, with restrictions turned up to eleven, will be critical in stopping this greedy virus... or not. In China, parts of Europe and even parts of the United States, this kind of thinking is so last week.  You guys are movin' on! As I type this, ill-advised tattoos are being applied to shoulders in Texas, bangs are being trimmed in Georgia, and pews filled in Indiana. 

Despite the plants blooming, birds nesting, and seasons progressing, here there is nothing to look forward to yet. Our private lives have become a considerably less perky version of the Truman Show. Living in a gated neighborhood has a speakeasy feel to it where once the gate closes behind us, we can slide down our masks and pace the streets up and down, back and forth, just across the street from our neighbors doing the same thing. It's life in a large cage with all of us making the best of it. Pulling through the gate, I can precisely predict what I'll see, and have begun to direct it aloud: 

Pass jogger in blue shorts and team shirt, headphones on;

Wave at friendly neighbor with thick, wavy gray hair, still don't know his name;

Turn corner and prepare to stop for teenager just learning to ride her bike. While she has improved these past few weeks, she still has poor traffic sense;

Keep an eye for the boy on his skateboard, always in the middle of the intersection;

Cue the elderly lady with the walker and her nurse, slowly strolling in front of my garage door. We gesture politely at each other - you first, no you. 

Regardless of when I return home, how is it that they're always there?

Every day it's the same. 
Every day we still don't know what's coming. 
Every day we crouch a little bit lower under the ceiling and just keep trudging along.

When will one of us sail to the edge, poke through the painted backdrop, and break free to the world like it was before?

In case I don't see ya' later, good afternoon, good evening and good night!