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Opinion | My Futile Struggle for Stillness

ZIPOLITE, Mexico — When in mid-March “Quedate En Casa,” or “stay at home,” became the coronavirus rallying cry for the Spanish-speaking world, I had just arrived from El Salvador to the village of Zipolite on the coast of southeastern Oaxaca State in Mexico.

My plan was to continue on to Mexico City and then, over the course of the next couple of months, to Turkey, Spain, Greece, Lebanon and Madagascar.

I left the United States upon graduating college in 2003, after the giddy launch of the war on Iraq had convinced me that America was not any place I needed to be. I began hitchhiking, inaugurating a habit of haphazard and frenetic international movement that would characterize the next 17 years.

The itinerancy was, it seemed, because of a mix of acute commitment-phobia, an aspiration to omnipresence and a deep envy of people who possess more of a culture than our soul-crushing consumerism and military slaughter-fests.

For someone with no fixed address, much less country of residence, “staying at home” was a novel and initially terrifying concept. A mandatory curfew was not imposed in Zipolite, but the local assembly voted to erect checkpoints around the village to restrict access and departures. With only a few thousand inhabitants, there were no reported coronavirus cases, but the nearby town of Pochutla was said to have between zero and three, while the number of conspiracy theories was infinite.

I was issued an identity card permitting me to travel once a week to Pochutla for groceries. The Mexican police and Marines were deployed on the beach and ordered people indoors — a strategy that, mercifully, was never enormously effective.

I rented an apartment for an unspecified period and assumed I would careen straightaway into a claustrophobia-induced nervous breakdown. A coronavirus checkpoint materialized in front of my apartment, manned by cops and volunteers who would not let me step out of or, more curiously, into the house without a face mask. A thick rope was stretched across the road.

Having been in constant motion for so long, being trapped indefinitely was quite the conundrum. I braced myself and lived in fear of whatever my mind was preparing to pull. I ran in circles around a soccer field and plotted what to do in the event of a real lockdown, which involved hiding in the woods by day and sneaking to the sea at night. In a recurring nightmare, I was deported to the United States — where I had vowed to never again set foot, partly in the interest of my own mental health.

While my travels brought me into regular contact with the fallout of American atrocities from Honduras to Vietnam, a smattering of visits to the homeland confirmed that the United States was a monument to inequality and corporate excess.

The pandemic has provided the United States another opportunity to shore up elite tyranny, persecute black people, deport migrants, eradicate the notion of health care as a right and carry on with other national pastimes that predated the plague of Donald Trump.

Suddenly, then, “Quedate En Casa” sounded like a marvelous idea. Here in quarantined Zipolite, requisite human interaction has come in the form of Javier, a diminutive septuagenarian from the central Mexican city of Cuernavaca, who is also stuck in the village. He spends every evening in a plastic chair by the sea, smoking cigarettes, drinking mezcal, writing meticulously in a notebook, and — having recently discovered the internet — listening to Bach on his cellphone.

On most nights I join him, and he recounts his activities of the day: Watering the plants on a small plot of land he owns and distributing mangoes to whomever he thinks might give him a smile in return. We commit to creating a better world after coronavirus and work diligently toward that goal by, you know, staring at the sea. I alternate between being impressed by my newfound capacity for stillness and simplicity and wanting to strangle myself for descending into triteness of Eat, Pray, Love proportions.

I purchase two candles for my new home, some cleaning rags and a bucket for washing clothes, and feel like the most domesticated, settled person ever. I set about canceling all of my pending travel tickets. I watch Turkish telenovelas because when else will I have the time? I stumble across a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Be still. Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity,” and auto-strangulation appears imminent.

Previously, I had preferred to view my peripatetic habits with the help of a quote from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, in which ethnographer Father Martin Gusinde describes the Indigenous Yaghans of Tierra del Fuego: “They resemble fidgety birds of passage, who feel happy and inwardly calm only when they are on the move.” Inner calm was never exactly my forte, but it was certainly a useful excuse for not sitting still and sorting my life out.

The “birds of passage” approach also produced a scattered sense of self, as I scattered belongings across various geographical locations and endeavored to conduct parallel lives in different landscapes. Ostensibly, then, sweating in place in Zipolite and watching ants crawl across my stomach is the time to focus on being one person for a change.

But the newness of sedentary existence gradually wears off, and my mind begins to fidget. I start missing countries, cities, and streets like they are people. By the time I complete my 20-minute morning trek down the beach, I’ve already transported myself back to Samarkand, Sarajevo, Tunis. I wonder what kind of person complains about riding out the apocalypse in paradise.

At home I sob and convulse for no reason, or maybe for the world, or maybe for everything I have spent the past 17 years not dealing with. And while I still want to be simultaneously everywhere else, I also want to be still, in Zipolite, forever.

I sit by the sea with Javier. He assures me that the world will change for the better after the pandemic, although he hasn’t yet devised a precise solution for climate change, capitalism or the disruptive machinations of my homeland.

Of course, my current privilege of stillness — just like my privilege of relentless roaming — is thanks to a passport bestowed by the United States. And as the secrets of eternity remain elusive, it seems there are plenty of things to stop and think about.

Belen Fernandez is the author of “Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World,” and a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

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