Even though most of the world has closed down in response to the coronavirus, flights are still leaving to a few destinations. Last week I went to Mexico City leaving from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. What’s it like to fly when the whole world is in fear? And how do they deal with the coronavirus in one of the biggest cities in the world?
It feels unnatural to see Schiphol deserted, as if some real disaster struck humanity, rather than a political decision to close down. Yet maintenance crews make good use of the opportunity. Damaged floor-tiles are marked and numbered, ready to be replaced. The ladies at the only occupied desk in the entire departure hall are happy to see any traveler. Super clean toilets, no waiting lines for security. Apart from thousands of people losing their jobs it’s wonderful!
The illusion of safety
Traveling by train to the airport I noticed very few Dutch wearing masks, perhaps five out of a 100. By contrast, three-quarters of Mexicans waiting at the gate wear masks. So much for macho Latin culture. However, they have good reasons to do so. Chances of catching corona are greater when you board a plane, therefore you keep your ‘social’ distance in extra long lines. Once you are on a plane it’s impossible to maintain any distance, but fortunately, corona is not allowed to board. As a precaution, most people continue to wear masks, the most fearful even harness gloves, until it is dinnertime. Corona is a polite virus and never infects people while eating or sleeping, and towards the end of the flight only a handful of Mexicans still looked like Zorro.
When it is time to land and we all prepare for an extensive medical examination, consisting of a form asking me if I have corona (would I board a plane if I was sick?) and someone in a lab coat with a dust-mask checking for temperature. Reassured by the lab coat that we’re safe, we all continue our journey.
The first thing you notice upon arrival in Latin America is badly laid & damaged tiles and painted-over electrical outlet covers. Ah, it feels like my adopted home! (Panama). Mexico City is the largest city of the Americas, with 22 million people living within its metropolitan area, many poor and in close proximity of each other. A real killer virus would have a field day here, but everything appears to be surprisingly calm.
A good way of getting to know a city quickly is walking large distances without any care of where it takes you. That way I got to see not just the highlights of Berlin, Paris and Sao Paulo, but also Kreuzberg, Saint Denis, and some rather unpleasant areas in Sao Paulo. Doing so however in a city like Mexico would equal suicide especially after mid-day (gangsters generally don’t get up in the morning). Nevertheless, I explored within reasonable limits and what I found was extremely sad and at times, disgusting.
Since I’m not a merchant of misery working for some NGO, I refrained from making pictures of human suffering. The look in people’s eyes should tell you enough.
The strangest thing about the coronavirus is that it tends to follow different rules in different countries. It even depends on location: for example, I was able to dine at a table in an airport restaurant, for the first time in six weeks, but unable to do so anywhere else, with the exception of poor neighborhoods where the risk of catching another illness or an untimely death are far more scary than what any Chinese flu could throw at you.
Mexico went in lockdown on March 27. A month without income is starting to take its toll. Desperation has set in. It seems to amplify the typical big city meanness: the street vendors lacking customers do not even pretend for a second they are interested in my wishes, everyone is my friend but no one can tune their voice to make it sound sincere.
Some vendors have improvised by selling custom face masks for 40 cents each (10 pesos – two metro tickets) and two guys try to make a buck in the metro cleaning all the handlebars in exchange for a tip.
Question: are you allowed to call a place a shithole when people are literally shitting on the streets? Take a wrong turn and suddenly you are in an open air dormitory where people sleep, eat and take a dump pretty much in the same spot. Walk to the far end of the market to buy used brand store paper bags, crack pipes and get the best offers on meth, coke and blowjobs. Open a newspaper to see ten pages of dead bodies, followed by ten pages of naked living bodies, and on some pages they even mix it.
Qué culo = What an ass! Qué cuneta = What a gutter!
Stopping by for a picture in the normally touristy areas, multiple hobos searched the trash-bin next to me. And no, these were not the usual addicts or mental cases – it included decently dressed but smelly men who had run out of luck.
Corruption and decay have eaten this city. People don’t even bother anymore to give their property a fresh coat of paint. Even in the best areas a sudden gust of wind can carry the smell of piss and shit. Everything is worn, nothing gets replaced. If fixed it is done purely utilitarian, without regard for aesthetics. The decay is offensive and the amount of people living on the street indicative of a morally bankrupt society.
I’m a person who likes to think the glass is half full even if it’s only with cheap tequila. Determined to make the best of it, I set out to find the sunny side of Mexico City: the little singing birds at the airport, loved ones saying goodbye, architectural highlights, and great food.
Without doubt my sweetest experience was buying mango from this little girl, maybe six or seven years old. With no mother in sight, she sold me a bag of mangos, asked and then added salt, chile & lime juice, took my money and gave me change.
What is to come of her and thousands like her now that economies are being destroyed with lockdowns? In a country where every year 35.000 people are murdered, does it really make sense to lock down for a virus that at present count has taken only 1.600 lives? Should they try to break last years’ murder rate record with another 5000 more perhaps? Drive thousands to poverty, despair, addiction and suicide? Increase domestic violence, abortions, rape and child abuse? What the hell are we doing this for?
Meanwhile we continue this ludicrous lockdown at our own peril. Yes, the Netherlands is a far cry from Mexico, but we can always try to hit rock bottom too.