Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, has isssued one environmentally-friendly edict after another: indulge in only five-minute showers, take up urban gardening, recycle despite the fact that no legitimate recycling plant existed yet in the capital. So I wasn’t paying much attention when he told us on a Friday last month not to hug or kiss each other. It was Mexico, where a kiss on the cheek is standard for every type of greeting imaginable. I wasn’t going to commit blasphemy without a good reason.
The good reason arrived quickly, as ‘SWINE FLU!’ appeared as the headlines in the local newspapers. Seemingly overnight, the government had decided to shut down public events, schools and theatres across Mexico City and warned of worse to come. I didn’t want to believe it. Pig flu? It felt like a practical joke that had gone wrong.
Very suddenly, the fear of contracting the flu transformed Mexico City into a much colder place than it actually was, and turned its residents into masked strangers afraid to be near each other. But despite a rising flu-related death toll and stories of friends of friends getting sick, I told myself I wouldn’t let it take over my daily routine. I called some friends and we met the next evening, a Saturday night, at a ritzy hotel. Most of the bars and restaurants we usually went to were closed.
We ordered cocktails and steaks. Across the room, a party of young Mexican socialites clapped their hands with glee when an acquaintance showed up wearing a mask in jest. We loudly expounded on the different aspects of this swine flu question, the hour growing later as our opinions became more fervent. The restaurant was filled, and the scene reminded me of a decadent royal palace before the revolution arrives at its door. We didn’t care. Each time one of us coughed or sneezed, the group burst into laughter. Our clothes and jewelry glowed in the candlelight and reflected on our open faces.
I felt as if I was also glowing, from the warmth of my friends’ bodies so comfortably close to me, from their casual touches on my skin.
‘I’m going to wait and see before I get worried about all this,’ my friend Paul announced to all of us, digging into his salad. We all nodded our heads in agreement, lost in thought. Who knew if this mysterious virus would turn into a disaster. Or if it was just our own selfish reason to bring ourselves together after busy weeks of missed calls and postponed dates. Either way, we huddled in close.
On Sunday, a surreal mood had descended upon the deserted streets. Being mask-less in the constant sea of blue surgical face masks made me feel like I was an extra on a movie set they forgot to put in costume. While out with a friend hunting for food, two men driving by in a car stopped to try to pick us up, but they didn’t even try to remove their face masks first.
I finally bought a mask a few days later and strapped it on to take the subway, still the most convenient mode of transportation in town, to the city’s historic centre. Normally riding the subway as a woman is a tricky balance of finding enough personal space to not rub against the overly friendly man standing next to you and not falling out of the car when the doors open at the next stop. But on that afternoon, I had all the room I wanted.
The guys who worked at the taco restaurant on my block, which was not allowed to have sit-down customers anymore, stood awkwardly outside in the heat adjusting and re-adjusting their blue-and-orange hats and saying hello every time I passed. While there were only so many different ways I could say that I was doing fine in Spanish, I appreciated the contact. Living in any metropolis can be lonely, but under an unknown crisis, it can be isolating.
On the way back, I listened sympathetically to the enraged taxi driver who complained the whole journey, from the historic centre to my apartment, about how the government was manufacturing the flu craze and depriving him of business. After leaving his cab, I stopped to talk with the manager of a dry-cleaning service also on my street who wondered, as I did, when this whole mess would be over. Swine flu had turned most of us into hermits, but it had also brought some of us together.
Mexico is a deeply Catholic country, so when the government announced on Sunday it would be canceling Mass to control the spread of the virus, I expected a public uproar. Instead something else happened. Just in front of the church, parishioners and clergy gathered without fear to worship outdoors. It was soothing to sit outside, amid the prayer and songs, bowing my head in the breeze. The priest leaned away from his podium to cough once, then the service continued.
Photograph by Esparta Palma