A Wandering Gringa in the Time of Plague

“I am moved by these swaggering bodies, dressed in their Checkpoint Zipolite finest, walking to houses that look only seven feet high. I envy the ardor in their gait, a lack of hurry, as if by walking they possess a piece of the earth… I want to be these men.”

– Emmanuel Iduma, A Stranger’s Pose (2018)

Last year I reviewed Belén Fernández’s Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, a travelogue that details her one-way flight from America in 2003 after being unable to cope with patriotic fervor and embracing of the national security state that overtook a traumatized America in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. She was sure Americans had been hoodwinked by neo-fascists. In Exile, she wrote,

Lest folks start to view the state itself as public enemy number one, however, more convenient menaces are regularly trotted out. In addition to the usual domestic suspects—blacks, poor people, immigrants, and so on—the wider world has proved fertile terrain for the manufacture of any number of freedom-imperiling demons.

After eight years of self-exile, the contributing editor for Jacobin still feels the same way.

Now moving toward the 20th anniversary of the near-freefall tumbling of Twin Towers and the nanny state well-and-truly keeping us “safe” with algorithms and keywords typed, Fernández (born in the USA) still feels the same way. From 2003 to the present her travels have included Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, Southeast Asia, and Central America. She’s a blogger, an editor and a journalist; and she has a finely tuned ironic sensitivity that picks up on the many quirks and foibles of humans at work or play wherever she goes. In Beirut, she’s acerbically noted government incompetence and the simultaneous rise of the nouveau riche; in Turkey, she and Amelia, a friend from Poland, are chased around near the Black Sea by a drunken, frisky Turk looking for some ‘tang; from a seaside cafe in Italy, she’s seen refugees “allowed to drown” in the sea over her cafe au lait.

In her new book Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place, Fernández’s ongoing quest to “find the world” brings her to Oaxaca and Playa Zipolite, Mexico’s only legal nudist community. It’s March 2020, things are looking up for her, when — WHAM — Covid-19 forces the community to go into a kind of quarantine and she can’t leave for six months. Worse, the local police are chasing bathers off the beach and setting checkpoints. When you come to a place where you’re supposed to let it all hang out, and you’re forced to practice sana distancia and retreat indoors to introvert against your will, you soon become stir crazy and full of anxiety. Although it doesn’t stop Belén from “traipsing” around her apartment nude, not that the reader found a reason to complain, reading is a performance after all.

Fernández had been in El Salvador prior to arriving in Mexico and early on she takes the time to remind the reader of “the Salvadoran civil war of 1980-92 killed upwards of seventy-five thousand people, with the vast majority of lethal violence committed by the U.S.-backed rightwing military and allied paramilitary outfits and death squads,” summing it up with the macabre naming of the airport after the Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, whose “critiques of right-wing atrocities and the injustices of capitalism had gotten him assassinated.” So they named an airport after him? Why not something more appropriate — like, say, a soccer stadium? Imagine if they renamed every airport after someone done by a death squad. Flying from martyr to martyr. Better than a Che Tee.

Fernández is a jogger, having noteworthily jogged around “mortar shell scars” in Sarajevo in festive bunchy clothing in her previous book, but tells of hobbling around at the beginning of this journey, as the result of having been bitten by a dog. Ouch. In Zipolite she lives in a small flat not far from the famous beach. She hooks up there with Marwan, a Palestinian-Lebanese friend, who recalls her itinerant jack-of-all-trades lover, Hassan, from Exile. Marwan arrives on “the ides of March” just as the announcement of “an impending Jornada Nacional de la Sana Distancia” is coming out on the radio:

A coronavirus cumbia that would quickly come to inundate radio waves similarly endowed the pandemic with a semi-festive air, with its upbeat reminders to frequently wash hands and use disinfectant because “es muy efectivo.”

Festive, no masks, but not much nudity either. The two set up, fully clothed, on the beach with wine. Fernández is up to her old tricks — getting shitfaced by the sea.

The first quirky encounter of what will prove to be an endless string of poco loco ways occurs when a police officer

arrived on an all-terrain vehicle to inquire if Marwan was the person who had just drowned. Given Marwan’s lack of Spanish, I had replied, as one does: ‘But he’s not even wet,’ and the policeman … moved on to interrogate the next person.

Fernández recalls that she’s known Marwan “since May 25, 2013, the date easily rememberable as it was the thirteenth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon after twenty-two years of military occupation.” Marwan was barred from going to the Gaza Strip, where his mother lived; “his uncle, a top intelligence aide to Yasser

Arafat, had been assassinated by the Mossad in Paris in 1992.” Soon, before a quarantine can lock him in, Marwan is on his way back to his studies in Lebanon, leaving our leisurely lush alone to make do with the locals.

This allows Fernández to reflect on the name of the beach — la playa de a muerte (the beach of death) — in itself an interesting name for a strip of sand covered, ordinarily, by buttered buttocks and backsides, face-down folks on blankets listening to cumbia. She decides to go for a swim:

I was thus mercifully without spectators as I marched into the ocean and looked up to find what was not so much a wave as a supernatural wall of water bearing down on me. In the manner of a cartoon character that remains suspended in midair before realizing they’ve run off a cliff and plunging accordingly, I felt time stop just long enough for me to contemplate the magnitude of my imbecility before being hurtled backward with a force heretofore never imagined.

She gets smashed onto the beach, crawls to her comfort blanket and vat of wine, Funny stuff.

But that’s not all. She begins reading a book (she’s always got a book). Now she’s reading Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman. Goldman tells her,

“Zipolite is called la Playa de la Muerte because every year there are so many fatalities there.” I downed the rest of my vat and wondered if I was really still alive.

This is typical Fernández. and you want to be with her in this moment of need.

Her writing is energetic, engaging, loquacious. Probably she’s a Yerba mate junkie, having traveled the world with kilos of it ‘crammed in” her suitcases; and from Zipolite she will make checkpoint defying excursions out there to find more; “a beverage critical to my existence.” Mate (pronounced like the Aussie all-purpose equalizer) or cimarrón (“barbarian”) is a hot beverage derived from the leaves of a Holly species. Usually served in gourd and sipped with a specialized straw. One must be careful not to pronounce it with an accent, as maté means “I killed.” But, as she says, she can’t live without it.

Fernández discovered that she’s a collector. Maybe an eccentric. A water tap problem sees her buying plastic buckets at a local store, and it goes from there:

I purchased two plastic buckets, one green and one pink, for a total of three dollars, an act that unforeseeably unleashed an obsessive-compulsive bucket-buying habit. I bought a bucket to wash clothes; I bought another to wash the Turkish Airlines blanket. I bought yet another to wash cleaning rags. I bought a blue bucket and a purple bucket to give to a neighbor, but then kept them because they were pretty. I bought buckets to carry fruit and vegetables, and buckets to store water for whenever there was none or I didn’t feel like spending half my life washing a fork under the tap.

If this weren’t odd enough, she travels the world with a collection of plastic bags she’s gathered as she goes.

Zipolite was a legendary getaway destination for “hippies” in the 70s. And it continues to draw the backpacker crowd into its “thatched roof huts, cabins, hammocks” and Fernández points out the many nationalities, including Americans and Canadians who come there to forget that they are gringos. Fernández herself recognizes the daft irony of coming to a place like Zipolite as a privileged foreigner looking to culturally slum it with Mexicans. Her self-consciousness allows her to feel like a “super gringa” and realize that “I was also well aware that having a nervous breakdown over being stuck on a pristine Pacific beach was rather less than charming in a world of actual problems.” She’s American, but not “like the woman whose life I ruined by taking too long to pay at the convenience store and who entered into an apoplectic fit in the way that only Americans know how.” She’s definitely not ugly.

She takes the time to indirectly compare Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to Donald Trump, noting his inconsistency regarding the wearing of masks against Covid-19. His hugging and kissing and general shirking of social distancing alarms some and makes others feel that the whole pandemic thing is a hoax. He leads the news:

As media reports of his counter-social distancing measures spiked, AMLO took the opportunity at a news conference to display the amulets he said were protecting him from the virus. A studious avoider of face masks, the Mexican leader would eventually commit in late July to donning a mask and ceasing to speak only when corruption had been eradicated in the country, i.e., presumably not prior to the self-destruction of the human race.

And some believe AMLO was all too willing to go to Washington to seal the NAFTA 2 deal.

NAFTA was bad enough for Mexicans, Fernández muses, despite what Trump says to the contrary. She tells us that “Diabetes and obesity levels soared, ultimately putting Mexico and the U.S. neck-and-neck for the title of world’s most obese population and, now, increasing the risk of COVID mortality.” For a moment, this factoid presents a different image to the mind of the naked bodies lolling on the nudie beach — pods of beached whales that the voracious sea gods have rejected. She ponders Coca-Cola: “Coca-Cola is so ubiquitously present—and effectively pushed down people’s throats by relentless advertising campaigns—that one is liable to conclude it’s the national beverage.” Evidently, when that TV ad featuring hillside children singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” came on, locals bought, maybe thinking the beverage still contained cocaine, like in its early days (Coca — get it?). Probably that hillside lot is all dead now from diabetes brought on by too much Real Thing.

Not long after Marwan leaves, “checkpoints began popping up everywhere.” This proves triggering for Fernández, as she recalls their blighty effect in Beirut and the “fluctuating arrangement of police, soldiers, cement barricades, barbed wire, and other obstacles to drive home the point that this is a militarized border between haves and have-nots.” But, she adds that “the Israelis take the cake for checkpoint-based criminalization. The military checkpoint is a pillar of Israel’s repertoire of techniques for Making Life Hell for Palestinians.” But, except for at the US-Mexico border, checkpoints are not really a cozy fit for the culture, especially in Oaxaca, home of the nude beach.

Her lifestyle changes abruptly when soldiers decide to erect a checkpoint right outside her door, so that she literally has to pass through them on the way to chores or heading for the beach. She begins to feel somewhat uncomfortable going around the flat naked. On the other hand, she notes, “Granted, there were various perks to the checkpoint arrangement, like

the time I needed a jar of hot sauce opened, or a wasp slain—a feat requiring two policemen, one civilian, and a frisbee—or a coconut whacked with a machete.

Plenty of Johnnies on the spot, if she needed them.

Fernández is bummed when Zipolite implements its Quédate en casa policy. Although, along with mask-wearing, staying at home is only casually observed. It’s a loose community, and doesn’t intend on allowing the virus to shake its laid-back. But the cops, being cops, do try to inject a sense of gravity to the situations. She writes,

Even the beach itself was transformed from a venue of psychological escape into a reminder of captivity when it was temporarily decided that sand and sea were closed for coronavirus and that soldiers and police would be tasked with chasing everyone off, while simultaneously photographing their chasing-off efforts for publicity purposes.

Ay caramba! Reminds one that the only one, other than Peeping Tom (who paid for it), who saw the fleshy Lady Godiva on her steaming steed were the security guards leading her through town. Ay caramba! what a world.

What might have been a tale about a blogger quarantined in paradise against her will, because she starts to get antsy about being stuck there (indeed, as her 6-month visa draws closer to expiry her fear grows that she may be “deported” from Mexico to the US, in a kind of reverse-migration process), becomes a tale of characters. Fernández likes people and, even in our jaded age of relativism, it acts as a pick-me-up tonic to know that there are people out there like Belén are tickled by the characters they meet up with. I could picture her on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row brown-bagging with the winos one minute, hearing their tales of woe and what-might-have been, and the next highbrowing it with Doc and teasing out his natural socialism. Maybe sleeping with him, if I felt like performing the scene that way as a reader.

The tone and energy of Checkpoint Zipolite picks considerably up when she comes across Javier, “a diminutive near-septuagenarian sporting a modified mullet and old red undershirt, who, installed in a plastic chair by the water, remained unmoved by the exhortations of the forces of law and order.” It doesn’t take her long to discover that he’s grateful for everything, as if he, too, like some latter day Candide, lived in the best of all possible worlds. As their days together take on a pattern, she notes,

Javier’s gratitude became ever more immense in accordance with mezcal and marijuana consumption, and he would spend much of the night saluting the stars, moon, and sea—to which he committedly referred in its feminine form, la mar.

But unlike Candide, Javier won’t put up with any shit from anyone: “Javier explained good-naturedly that, while he understood that the cops were simply doing their job, both they and the coronavirus could chingar a su madre.” This is a man you can spend many hours getting faced with.

They became good pals quickly, he almost teary at times: “Javier would dispense gracias upon gracias for bringing to mind memories he hadn’t thought of in decades.” He tells her of a soccer career he put aside for mushrooms; he tells of a time his car flipped on the highway and he was rescued by a woman (“an angel”) waiting at a bus stop. She writes,

The same buoyant optimism applied to his recounting of other episodes, such as the one in which he had sustained a severe head injury falling off a Zipolite rooftop while urinating in the middle of the night.

Suddenly, and welcomely, we’re at the edge of a lapping magical realism, sticking in our toe.

Their conversations run the gamut from anecdotes and pedestrian chit chat to more feisty exchanges on politics and economics. In a world of limited fight-or-flight, Fernández has shown her mettle by running (what are you gonna do, she’s a jogger and blogger), but the cadgy old Javier thinks he’s fucking Santa Ana. She writes,

Now, the coronavirus constituted another opportunity for human improvement, and Javier foresaw the cultivation of a better, more just and equitable post-pandemic world that was not managed by hijos de la chingada, although it annoyed him when I asked for the details of how maladies like capitalism and climate change were to be suddenly rectified when capitalism thrived on mass suffering in the first place. Sometimes, his annoyance would abate, and he would admit that our sitting and staring at the sea was perhaps not the most hands-on approach to revolution.

It’s another sobering reality they face together, and it’s endearing. Javier is the star of her show.

Later, she meets up with other characters of delight and her observations; shtick continues. After Javier finally leaves the scene, returning home, hundreds of kilometers a way to his sociologist wife, the dramatic tension rescues the narrative in the form of an earthquake. Fernández commences the day: “At 10:29, I had been settling into my chair in the corner for some article-writing, congratulating myself on having resisted the temptation to have wine for breakfast—a clear sign I was getting my life in order.” Her flat rumbles, she runs to the door, sees the power lines sparking, police mobilizing, and she stands there playing “the role of Gringa in Doorway Having Flashbacks to TV Coverage of Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.” Suddenly, a quiet morning becomes Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.” Good stuff. Then she’s off to higher ground and reminiscing about tsunamis she has seen, earthquakes that almost swallowed her, hurricanes to die for.

One of the really wonderful things about Fernández’s writing, aside from its mirth and ironic observation, is its humanity. Early on she considers the Emmanuel Iduma (quote above) about the mosque men, but adds to it, touchingly, “This is pretty much the story of my life—except that, not only do I want to be the Mauritanian mosque men, I want to be everyone everywhere at all times.”

While Checkpoint Zipolite is a travelogue, not a memoir, so more radiant with character and place than heavy with rumination on the human condition, Fernández brings a vibrancy to her gringa-hood that lacks the despondency you’d expect from one who has “rejected” American Exceptionalism and been on the road for almost 20 years. She doesn’t rue it; in fact, she brings what’s best about liberated Americans — freedom of thought and an ease dealing with the Other. She is the Other, who, as she says, wants to be “everyone everywhere at all times.” Special stuff.

Her travel writings can be further accessed at her blog: BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.