We are living a scene from Jaws.
You remember it. The town leaders have discovered a shark is plying the waters off of Amity Island (a thinly-disguised version of Martha's Vineyard), but they hide that inconvenient fact because the island lives off of its tourist trade.
The next scene is of hordes of tourists rushing off of the ferries to spend a portion of their vacation enjoying the sybaritic combined pleasures of sea and sand. To the audience, they look more like fried chicken in buffet bins.
When I returned to Mexico last Wednesday, I knew the feast of San Patricio, in the eponymous village, would be under way. It is one of the most-loved and most-attended local events of the holiday calendar. Probably second only to semana santa.
And I was correct. When I drove over to San Patricio for dinner that night, the streets were packed with cars and Mexican revelers. The feast was in full swing. and would continue until the saint's day on 17 March, capping off a ten-day celebration of skimboard contests, beer consumption, and a nightly towering firework display, called a castillo, that puts life and limb in danger.
What I had not anticipated was the perfect storm effect of crowd creation. When I drove back to Barra de Navidad on Friday night, there was a solid line of headlights on the highway coming down from the highlands. It stretched as far as I could see. It was repeated on Saturday night. And Sunday night.
It looked as if people who live in large population centers were fleeing a zombie war -- or some other bad Allenesque disaster film starring Brad Pitt. But that was not it.
A quick look at my calendar explained the exodus. If the Mexican president has his way, this is the last three-day holiday in Mexico (strike three). Ostensibly, Mexicans are celebrating the birthday of Benito Juarez this three-day weekend rather than on its actual date of 21 March.
The result is that the small villages-by-the-sea where I live and play are as full as they will be for semana santa in a mere three weeks. That is, unless behavior is altered by our own great white shark -- the coronavirus.
As you know, I had contemplated a trip to either Los Angeles or Cozumel this weekend. The ink was not yet dried on my essay when I decided the former would be logistically insane (especially now that health screenings are clogging northern airports) and the latter would interfere with some parental duties that I was not aware of when I wrote the piece. So, I am staying put.
Because I had not attended a castillo-lighting in years, I decided to have dinner in San Patricio and then to stay on for the events in the jardin -- being careful to keep my distance from the great white that was undoubtedly circulating amongst us.
Julio had recently told me of a newish ramen and sushi restaurant in San Patricio -- Sweet Monster. I decided to eat there.
The restaurant is a small, but adequate affair. You could easily miss it. There is no sign, but there are Japanese lanterns hanging in the tree on the street.
It is open only on Saturdays and Sundays. That is because the brains behind the operation -- a young man named Everling Alejandro Velazquez Galvez -- is in medical school. He learned sushi-making at a course in Guadalajara. And he learned it well.
The sushi is mainly California rolls in the western, not Japanese style. Lots of flavor and color. And because this is Mexico, cream cheese is slathered on with abandon. Because each serving is custom-made with the precision of a surgeon, fortunate for me, the cream cheese can be excluded.
|Sushi order to go. Not mine.|
I would recommend the place. The menu includes a variety of Japanese-inspired dishes. Or as Stefon would say: "This club has everything!" Gyozas. Nigiri. Yakimeshi. Udon. Ramen.
Having finished off my plate of gladiator sushi, I wandered over to the jardin. Because it was only 7, the crowds had not yet begun to gather. The castillo is not lit until 10. Or sometimes 11. Or midnight.
But it was under construction when I arrived.
Watching it lit is a thrill. But I get almost as much pleasure out of watching its construction.
If you have not seen one. A castillo is a set of fireworks mounted on circular devices that spin when lit. While the apparatus is spinning, it shoots out fireworks into the crowd. Seeing it in its raw form, though is just as rewarding.
The castillo has everything that should be part of a good fiesta. Fire. Noise. And the very real possibility that you will get to re-enact that scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown is shot in the chest. It is a local rite of passage for small boys to run through the fire cascades from the castillo using only flammable cardboard as a shield. The braver boys do it bareback.
If a Mexican man or boy has grown up here, he will show you his scars that commemorate his passage through fire with as much pride as a Prussian will show off his facial dueling scars.
It is difficult to be any place where other people are gathered without thinking of the coronavirus. It is a sieve through which we now filter reality,
The northern tourists who are still in town appear to be divided into two almost-warring camps about how they should deal with the fact that the Mexican health minister has predicted that Mexico will be in epidemic status before the end of this month.
Some have gone to ground; some were already sitting in the jardin waiting for the night's crowd.
That division was apparent in the extreme during my dinner. The tables at Sweet Monster are set up perfectly to create a cordon sanitaire during times like this without interfering with a writer's favorite research tool: eavesdropping.
There were two other occupied tables while I was there -- with two northern couples at each.
The first table was rehearsing the populist chorus. The whole coronavirus was a hoax for governments and big corporations to control our lives. Trump had released it to kill "colored people" (their words, not mine). Somewhere along the line, Trudeau was pulled in as a fascist. All of this delivered with that three-chardonnays-deep-into-a-loud-party voice that seems to be a trademark of some people.
The other table was of the "Hunker-Down" party. They wanted to eat their dinner quickly and get back to their bungalows before they encountered any more people on the street. Their primary topic was how to move up their airline flights to get back to Canada before being stuck in Mexico. "I cannot even imagine what would happen to us." They had the same desperate look at the cafe crowd at Rick's in Casablanca -- waiting for the last plane to Lisbon.
Last night I saw a meme on Facebook that made me laugh. I cannot remember it exactly, but it went something like this: "Isn't it a miracle that people who thought they were constitutional law experts during the impeachment have now morphed into microbiologists?" I thought that was funny because I realized I had been doing that very thing.
By reading a few articles, I have been posting comments as if my PhD in virology had got lost in the mail. All of us seem to be far more interested in being right (when no one on Facebook is qualified for that role). Kindness should be our goal. Instead, most of us seem to take great pleasure in posting information that will discomfort someone who does not see life as we do.
For that reason, having had a good meal and a short stroll, I decided to drive home to catch up on my reading. Of course, I ended up wasting most of my time rehearsing my microbiologist credentials on Facebook.
That is coming to an end. I am going to be spending most of my time at the house. I have asked Dora and Antonio if they wanted any time off with pay. They declined the offer. But I will ask them the same question on each visit. My concern is that I might infect them.
I will go out for dinner now and then, and I may look in on the festivities in the San Patricio jardin tomorrow -- the climax of the festivities. Otherwise, I am staying in the house with no name washing my hands more frequently than a rabid raccoon.
I am also going to watch if any of my elderly neighbors (you know, people like me) do not have anyone to look in on them. I can think of only one house where an older woman lives and does not have family locally.
Whatever this virus brings, we will survive it if we are kind and are willing to share with one another. It is at times like this that the better nature of humanity shines through.
Nine years from now, we will be telling tales of the 2020 epidemic just as we do now about the 2009 epidemic.
I should be selling t-shirts. "I survived the great white shark of 2020."