Checkpoint Zipolite

QUARANTINE IN A SMALL PLACE


BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ


“I doubt there’s another journalist quite like her… Fernández’s prose is so incisive, pithy, powerful, and often funny.” —Counterpunch

“One of the most poignant, searing, and, at times, deadpan critiques of the United States and its mass media that I have ever read… An extraordinary and unorthodox travelogue.” —The Los Angeles Review of Books on Fernández’s Exile

“This is a travel memoir like no other: incredibly funny, observant, humane, anarchic, politically incisive, sophisticated, and raffish. Belén Fernández is a dangerously enchanting siren." —Francisco Goldman, author of Monkey Boy

“A politically astute, world-wise, and occasionally hilarious gem of a book. Fernández's prose is an antidote to quarantine, an aperture to the anti-humanism of apartheid politics." —John Washington, author of The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond

“Written with the author’s trademark wine bottle in hand, between cartwheels on the beach of death, this book skewers politicians and other unworthy foes with a precision inaccessible to more sober writers...” —Adrienne Pine, author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras

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About the Book

“When I first committed to three full months in El Salvador, the feeling that I was signing up for the equivalent of marriage and reproduction was assuaged only by the awareness that, come March 2020, I’d be dashing around Mexico before flying to Istanbul and resuming freneticism in that hemisphere. Little did I know that the scribbled itinerary would never come to fruition, and that I’d only get as far as the coastal village of Zipolite in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where March 13-25 would turn into March 13 until further notice.”

Since leaving her American homeland in 2003 Belén Fernández had been an inveterate traveler. Ceaselessly wandering the world, the only constant in her itinerary was a conviction never to return to the country of her childhood. Then the COVID-19 lockdown happened and Fernandez found herself stranded in a small village on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

This charming, wryly humorous account of nine months stuck in one place nevertheless roams freely: over reflections on previous excursions to the wilder regions of North Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe; over her new-found friendship with Javier, the mezcal-drinking, chain-smoking near-septuagenarian she encounters in his plastic chair on Mexico’s only clothing-optional beach; over her protracted struggle to obtain a life-saving supply of yerba mate; and over, literally, the rope of a COVID-19 checkpoint, set up directly outside her front door and manned by armed guards who require her to don a mask every time she returns home.

140 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-306-8 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-261-0

 

About the Author

Belen Fernandez author photo

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Belén Fernández, is a contributing editor at Jacobin, and has written for The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Eye. She is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work.

 

Read an Excerpt

Zipolite, so it’s said, means la playa de la muerte—the beach of death—although I did not find this out until more than two months into my stay in the village when a wave almost killed me. Zipolite had been selected as a destination based on a quick Google search of “beaches Oaxaca” during the particularly energetic San Salvador hangover that had produced a good part of the back-of-notebook itinerary. These periodic travel planning frenzies, while supplying the requisite sense of chaos and adventure, also allowed me a certain feeling of control over the universe. Granted, things like eighty-five-hour flights to Sri Lanka via absurd combinations of non-U.S. airports always sounded more exciting during the planning phase. Zipolite had also been chosen as a suitable point for international rendezvous with Marwan, a Lebanese-Palestinian friend whose own travels were severely hindered by his Lebanese passport but who was able to obtain a Mexican visa without jumping through dehumanizing hoops.

The bus ride from Oaxaca City entailed seven hours of mountain curves and speedbumps taken at high speed—something I should have known seeing as I had hitchhiked the very same route with my Polish friend and former travel companion Amelia in 2005. That trip had taken place primarily in the back of a pickup truck, which is perhaps why I had blocked the details from memory. This time around, I at least had a seat in which to lurch violently while the Austrian in the next row pathologically opened and closed her window. I dismounted from the bus in Zipolite into a blast of humidity and dust, prompting a resolution to never wear pants again, and headed to a cheap pension in the Roca Blanca neighborhood at the western end of the beach. Perks of the room included a water pump under the floor that was not unlike a jackhammer in its effects on the immediate environment. I settled in to await Marwan’s arrival.

On the surface, Zipolite—Mexico’s only official clothing-optional beach—was not exactly my type of seaside, despite its aesthetic glory: a kilometer and a half of golden sand surrounded by hills that abruptly turn from brown to green with the (now erratic) arrival of the rainy season. But the fierce currents rendered swimming for sport or leisure essentially impossible, and even just wading in to pee often constituted a lengthy struggle. The iconic giant white rock off the coast—hence “Roca Blanca,” rumored to be the result of accumulated bird shit—provided the backdrop for many a nude selfie, as well as many a photograph surreptitiously and not so surreptitiously captured by visitors from Mexico City on nudist safari. The panorama also played host to all manner of naked yoga, meditation, hula-hooping, acrobatics, jogging, and lounging. These activities posed a conundrum for me, because, try as I did to appreciate the participants’ bucking of the silly convention of clothing, white people doing yoga naked was somehow even more irritating than white people doing yoga clothed, and I usually just ended up feeling like a reactionary asshole. Until, that is, the quarantine happened and there was no longer a surplus of people to throw me into ethical dilemmas.

A village of only a few thousand inhabitants, Zipolite’s clientele ranged from the aforementioned demographics to gay vacationers to Mexican families from surrounding towns to surfers, drug enthusiasts, older European couples who conducted morning strolls on the beach in matching straw hats, and ever well-behaved compatriots of mine—like the woman whose life I ruined by taking too long to pay at the convenience store and who entered into an apoplectic fit in the way that only Americans know how. Canadians fleeing their dismal climate were also in abundance, and a Canadian-specific condominium complex called La Monarca—a yellow monstrosity responsible for the devastation of a coastal mangrove—was the predominant eyesore among the otherwise largely unobtrusive architecture (think non-yellow hotels, thatched roof huts, cabins, hammocks).

Marwan joined the water pump and me in Roca Blanca on March 15, the day the Associated Press issued the following report on the Mexican coronavirus front: “AMLO Shakes, Hugs, Cheek-kisses Despite Virus Advice.” Three days later, the headline “AMLO Defies Virus Worry With Hugs and Kisses at Mexico Oil Bash” accompanied a Bloomberg write-up of the celebration at Pemex headquarters in Mexico City marking the anniversary of the 1938 nationalization of the Mexican oil industry. AMLO, of course, was leftist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had assumed office in 2018 and was not racking up any points in terms of heeding current health precautions. (Nor was he racking up points in terms of his promise to refrain from performing the anti-migrant dirty work of the imperial ruler to the north, which naturally became even dirtier in the context of the pandemic. He would, however, stick it to the empire in other ways, as when Walmart de México was forced to pay some $359 million in back taxes for the 2014 sale of its Vips restaurant chain—one of a slew of in-your-face victories against corporate tax dodging that would hit Coca-Cola bottler Femsa, too. As part of his “post-neoliberal” program, AMLO had furthermore rescued Pemex from the unpopular privatization experiment conducted by his right-wing predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto, while also significantly slashing his own salary and flying economy class.) As media reports of his counter-social distancing measures spiked, AMLO took the opportunity at a news conference to display the amulets he said were protecting him from the virus. A studious avoider of face masks, the Mexican leader would eventually commit in late July to donning a mask and ceasing to speak only when corruption had been eradicated in the country, i.e., presumably not prior to the self-destruction of the human race.

This pledge was made just as Mexico overtook the United Kingdom to account for the third-most COVID fatalities globally …

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