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Covid-19: From a beach in Mexico, nomadic dreams of return

It's uncharming to whine about being trapped on a stretch of pristine Pacific coast while the rest of humanity dealt with the apocalypse
A woman walks on the beach as the sun sets in Zipolite, Mexico, in 2017 (AFP)

Many years ago at a Chinese restaurant in some city or another, I acquired a fortune cookie containing a fortune inscribed with the verb "to return". At the time, I was in the midst of a 17-year bout of mad itinerancy that had commenced in 2003, when I had abandoned the United States in favour of darting between countries and fleeing like the plague the notion that I might ever subscribe to a sedentary existence.

The fortune would eventually end up among the heap of belongings I deposited at a friend’s house in the southwestern Turkish city of Fethiye, which, appropriately, would become one of my regular stops as I transited the globe. Sorting through my possessions on each return trip, I’d come across the slip of paper, which provided the requisite amount of consistency to offset my continuous motion.

In 2020, the coronavirus plague put a stop to my returns - and to movement in general. I had travelled in March to the coastal village of Zipolite in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where I was meant to spend 12 days before dashing off again. Nearly a year later, I’m still here.

Checkpoints installed

An actual lockdown was never implemented in Zipolite, but checkpoints were installed on either side of the village, and I was issued an ID that allowed me to visit the nearby town of Pochutla once a week for groceries and banking.

As luck would have it, one of the checkpoints was placed directly in front of the apartment I had rented and was overseen by a rotating agglomeration of civilian volunteers, police and marines - whose predilection for stationing themselves and their armaments next to my front door resulted in a near-heart attack every time I opened it.

A smattering of incidents aside - such as when I was not permitted to enter my house without a face mask, impassioned appeals to logic notwithstanding - the checkpoint was, relatively speaking, hardly oppressive. I also had an ever-present crowd of people on hand to assist in the performance of domestic tasks, such as hot sauce jar-opening and wasp-slaying.

I could no longer run away from whatever it was I had spent the past two decades running away from - the idea of mortality itself, perhaps

And yet, claustrophobia quickly set in, the thick rope stretched across the road offering a constant reminder that I was more or less stuck. I could no longer run away from whatever it was I had spent the past two decades running away from - the idea of mortality itself, perhaps. Instead, I was suddenly confined to a place whose very name, Zipolite, is rumoured to mean playa de la muerte, or “beach of death”.

In an effort to create an illusion of movement - and to expel the djinn that had apparently taken up residence in my idle self - I ran in frantic circles around the football field, and paced up and down the beach. Attempts to focus on the physical beauty of my surroundings were futile, and my mind manically ricocheted between Beirut, Sarajevo, Addis Ababa, Dushanbe and all of my other destinations once upon a time.

I would wake up sobbing in the middle of the night about the most bizarrely trivial of memories: a staircase in Turkey, a room key in Isfahan, the highway sign for the Lebanese town of Barja that someone had amended to Barjalona.

Capitalism-ravaged planet

Of course, it was decidedly uncharming to whine about being trapped on a stretch of pristine Pacific coast while the rest of humanity dealt with the apocalypse. Crying over Lebanese road signs became an even more questionable pastime on 4 August, when the Beirut port explosion devastated Lebanon’s capital city - as though the pandemic and economic self-combustion hadn’t already been devastating enough.

Lebanon, incidentally, also has a history of checkpoints, albeit of a far less benign nature than the one erected in front of my house in Zipolite. A defining feature of the national landscape, checkpoints notoriously played host to ID card-based sectarian killings during the civil war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990.

 I was suddenly confined to a place whose very name, Zipolite, is rumoured to mean playa de la muerte, or “beach of death” (Courtesy of Belen Fernandez)
I was suddenly confined to a place whose very name, Zipolite, is rumoured to mean playa de la muerte, or “beach of death” (Courtesy of Belen Fernandez)

Nowadays, they function more as a veneer of security, competence and control on the part of the state, which continues to be dominated by parasitic sectarian civil warlords concerned only with the perpetuation of their stranglehold on power - and not, say, with preventing massive port explosions or allowing the Lebanese masses a chance to emerge from the socioeconomic misery in which they are trapped.

Indeed, a brutal boundary - a metaphorical checkpoint, if you will - separates the haves from the have-nots, as it does throughout the rest of this capitalism-ravaged planet. The pandemic has simply confirmed the sickness of the whole arrangement.

Just across Lebanon’s southern border, meanwhile, ubiquitous Israeli military checkpoints have long made life hell for Palestinians, whose rights and dignity they violate in every possible way, sometimes lethally - and all with the blessing of Israel’s partner in crime, the United States of America.

Trips down memory lane

As I note in my forthcoming book Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place, Israel has “strived to perfect its repressive technologies and conquer global security industry and surveillance markets accordingly, and checkpoints have proven handy testing grounds (as has Gaza, where the ability to periodically slaughter thousands of Palestinians while suffering negligible casualties in return surely speaks to the efficacy of one’s armaments)”.

To be sure, if anyone knows about being trapped, it’s the residents of the Gaza Strip, otherwise known as the world’s “largest open-air prison”. And Covid-19 has only made things more asphyxiating for Palestinians in Gaza, whom Israel forcibly confines to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions while also denying them necessary medical supplies.

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Palestinian refugees abroad, too, are well acquainted with the feeling of being stuck, many of them in squalid camps. Denied the right of return and condemned to seemingly perpetual limbo, they can only mentally inhabit villages and homes obliterated or stolen decades ago - passing along detailed memories of olive and citrus trees to ensuing generations, and, oftentimes, even their former housekeys.

From my obscenely privileged position of semi-limbo in Zipolite, I myself continue to conduct schizophrenic trips down my own memory lane, and to wonder if and when I’ll be returning anywhere. But as the coronavirus pandemic relentlessly exposes the ills of a global system predicated on inequality, war and ecological destruction, one thing is clear: a post-pandemic return to business as usual should be avoided like the plague.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Belen Fernandez
Belen Fernandez is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.