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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Coronavirus, Checkpoints, and the Beach of Death

Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from Belén Fernández’s new book Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place, a story about getting stuck during the pandemic and a no-holds-barred critique of the politicians who are largely responsible for the scale of the disaster.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck Mexico in March 2020, Belén Fernández found herself trapped in the Oaxacan coastal village of Zipolite—a strange predicament for a journalist who had spent the past seventeen years dashing from country to country. A coronavirus checkpoint materialized directly in front of her apartment to regulate access and departures from the village, and she was issued an ID authorizing her to travel once a week to a larger town for groceries. This sudden grounding led her to a psychological confrontation with the idea of sedentary existence, and a reckoning with what it means for states to restrict the movement of human beings. 

Excerpt from Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place, published by OR Books.

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 for “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 hotel 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. To be sure, as with many a crisis on Mexican soil over the years, the U.S. bore no small part of the blame for the gravity of the coronavirus fallout. Consider, for example, the toxic effects of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement on the Mexican diet (“free trade” being the euphemism for the United States’ freedom to wreak economic havoc as it pleases and everyone else’s freedom to suck it up). Diabetes and obesity levels soared, ultimately putting Mexico and the U.S. neck-and-neck for the title of world’s most obese population and, now, increasing the risk of COVID mortality. Mexicans consume more soda per capita than any other country on the planet; former Mexican president Vicente Fox was once the CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico. Indeed, Coca-Cola is so ubiquitously present—and effectively pushed down people’s throats by relentless advertising campaigns—that one is liable to conclude it’s the national beverage. In August 2020, the state of Oaxaca would be the first to ban the sale of junk food and sugary drinks to children under the age of eighteen, a law endorsed by Mexico’s Assistant Health Secretary and coronavirus czar Hugo López-Gatell, who had incurred industrial wrath by denouncing soda as “bottled poison.” 

At the time of Marwan’s arrival to Oaxaca on the ides of March, López-Gatell had just announced the impending Jornada Nacional de la Sana Distancia—“National Day of Social Distancing”—which ended up lasting from March 23 until May 30. A coronavirus cumbia that would quickly come to inundate radio waves similarly endowed the pandemic with a semi-festive air, with its upbeat reminders to frequently wash hands and use disinfectant because “es muy efectivo.” Face masks were yet to be seen in Zipolite though, and as Marwan and I were under the impression that we would soon be traveling to Mexico City and then to landlocked Mérida on the Yucatán Peninsula, we took advantage of the time to park ourselves uselessly in the sand with an arsenal of wine. Sometimes, experiences came to us, as when a policeman arrived on an all-terrain vehicle to inquire if Marwan was the person who had just drowned. Given Marwan’s lack of Spanish, I had replied, as one does: “But he’s not even wet,” and the policeman had moved on to interrogate the next person. Writing the encounter off as just your typical magical-realist moment rather than an indication of the perils of this particular stretch of sea, I would certainly recall it months later following my near-fatal collision with the wave and discovery re: playa de la muerte

I had known Marwan since May 25, 2013, the date easily rememberable as it was the thirteenth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon after twenty-two years of military occupation. I was en route from Latin America to the hyper-capitalist dystopia of the United Arab Emirates and had stopped over in Beirut, one of my regular destinations since 2006, when Amelia and I had spent a couple of months hitchhiking through the rubble of the aftermath of that summer’s assault by Israel. Marwan’s mother was from the Gaza Strip, where, thanks to Israeli policies of territorial control and ethnic cleansing, Marwan was barred from setting foot; his uncle, a top intelligence aide to Yasser Arafat, had been assassinated by the Mossad in Paris in 1992. Our 2020 reunion in Zipolite gave us the chance to reminisce about previous joint excursions—such as the time I dragged Marwan hitchhiking in south Lebanon near the Israeli border only to be deported from the area by a pair of men in a shiny car, who had with disproportionate enthusiasm introduced themselves as the Lebanese equivalent of the FBI. Our transgression, allegedly, was having sneaked through an (unmanned) army checkpoint that was in part designed to keep foreigners without the proper permission— i.e., me—out of the immediate border region. In reality, it seemed there were sectarian issues at play involving Marwan’s unmistakably Sunni surname, since the FBI had simply glanced at my passport and then darted across the street with his identity card and their walkie-talkies. I returned to the border the next day without him. 

Checkpoints, as it so happened, would rapidly come to define my existence in Zipolite. Long before that, though, they were a defining feature of the Lebanese landscape, and had notoriously facilitated ID card-based sectarian killings during the civil war of 1975-90. Nowadays in Lebanon, their function is more to provide an illusion of security and competence on the part of the state, which continues to be dominated by civil warlords with massive amounts of blood on their hands and little concern for anything aside from their own stranglehold on power (hence the August 2020 mega-explosion that destroyed much of Beirut for no other reason than gross political negligence). In a country of eighteen recognized religious sects, where power is allocated according to the ostensible size of each group, the divide-and-conquer system helps perpetuate the stranglehold by ensuring the dependence of the masses on their respective confessional elite. Checkpoints can also, then, be instrumental in maintaining sectarian geographies—and the confessionalization of space—by reminding the Other of his or her outsider-ness. Socioeconomic boundaries, too, are enforced by checkpoints, as in the case of Beirut’s postwar downtown. The space is an ode to nauseating wealth, where, if the average poor inhabitant of Lebanon is not already sufficiently repelled by the multimillion-dollar apartments and criminally expensive dining and shopping options, there’s also a fluctuating arrangement of police, soldiers, cement barricades, barbed wire, and other obstacles to drive home the point that this is a militarized border between haves and have-nots. 

Just across Lebanon’s southern border, meanwhile, the Israelis take the cake for checkpoint-based criminalization. The military checkpoint is a pillar of Israel’s repertoire of techniques for Making Life Hell for Palestinians, and, as Elia Zureik notes in an essay for the Jerusalem Quarterly, “[b]ody searches, identity documentation, standing in line for hours awaiting a signal from Israeli soldiers to either proceed or be turned away are emblematic of the checkpoint experience, which is characterized by dehumanization, lack of sovereignty, and overall limitation on free movement.” Over the years, 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). But low-tech brutality is plentiful as well. In Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, Saree Makdisi quotes thirty-one-year-old Abdallah Khamis on an attempt to return home via the Huwwara checkpoint near the West Bank City of Nablus, where he and his family had waited in line for three hours: 

“The soldier pushed my wife with his hand, and I grabbed his hand. He tried to push her again. He and another soldier who was standing there grabbed me. One child was in my arms. The soldier took him from me and put him on the ground. One of them told me, in Arabic, ‘Go to the pen for those who are detained.’ I told him, ‘I am not going anywhere. I am going to my house.’ They tried to bind my hands with plastic cuffs, and I resisted. Suddenly, one of the soldiers grabbed me by the ears while another soldier smashed my head on a concrete partition-wall. Another soldier hit me on the back of my head with his rifle butt.” 

Of course, it was nothing so dramatic when, in late March of 2020, coronavirus checkpoints were spontaneously erected on either side of Zipolite. The local assembly had voted to restrict entry to residents of the immediate vicinity and visitors who had been there for two weeks or more. Similar measures were taken throughout the region, and checkpoints began popping up everywhere. Marwan and I had just made the two-week cut, having skipped our flight to Mexico City on account of uncertainty as to the future of the world and general laziness. We were issued paper “Control COVID-19 Zipolite” IDs—I was number 236—a process that required excessive standing in a non-socially distanced line in the sun sans face masks and supervised by a policeman with hand sanitizer in his holster. With these IDs, we were permitted to travel once a week as far as the city of Pochutla, half an hour to the north, for groceries and banking. We were not permitted to travel to the beach town of Mazunte, fifteen minutes to the west, although intriguing loopholes would subsequently be reported. Some folks, for example, were allowed to leave their motorbikes at the checkpoint and cross on foot, inanimate objects being the obvious transmitters of coronavirus. 

The Zipolite checkpoints were manned by a fluctuating array of civilian volunteers, policemen, and, finally, heavily armed Marines, when it was determined that the first two groups were inordinately focused on eating and not adequately intimidating to aspiring violators of the quarantine. “Quédate en casa” took off as the coronavirus rallying cry, and I was faced with the distinctly terrifying prospect of having to “stay at home” after nearly two decades without a fixed address or even country of residence. A mandatory curfew was not imposed, but the crowd in Zipolite began to disappear, hotels and restaurants closed, and I was overcome with a clichéd physical urge to run (which, mercifully, was now at least within the realm of possibility as I was no longer reduced to hopping). I was also well aware that having a nervous breakdown over being stuck on a pristine Pacific beach was rather less than charming in a world of actual problems. 

For a couple of days I pursued my own version of Quédate en casa, which consisted of dispatching Marwan to the main cobblestone street in the center of Zipolite—one block back from the beach—to assess just how apocalyptically empty the scene was and whether I would be able to handle it. I took back my disparaging thoughts about naked yoga and naked hula-hooping. With each email update from my parents concerning their own genuine lockdown in Barcelona—and the number of times my dad had vacuumed the apartment that day—I accumulated vicarious feelings of incarceration and supplementary clichéd urges. Even the beach itself was transformed from a venue of psychological escape into a reminder of captivity when it was temporarily decided that sand and sea were closed for coronavirus and that soldiers and police would be tasked with chasing everyone off, while simultaneously photographing their chasing-off efforts for publicity purposes. 

Inadept at dealing with authority figures, I endeavored to conceal my terror—and neurotic visions of being banned from the ocean forevermore—by responding to evacuation orders with “ahorita,” which, while technically meaning “right away” or “in a minute,” can also be construed as a commitment to carrying out an act at some point in the future or maybe never. Marwan, having had his fair share of unpleasant run-ins with Lebanese law enforcement, was not a fan of this approach, and preferred to retreat from the beach as instructed; I inevitably followed, but not without plans to return. I was also developing a contingency plan, in the event that shit really hit the fan, which involved hiding in the woods by day and sneaking to the sea at night, where I would conceal myself under a mound of sand, undetectable by the flashing lights of the police patrols. (Fortunately, this strategy would not have to be carried out, as it was soon decided that the beach was not closed after all.) 

As pleasant company as I undoubtedly was, Marwan’s first order of quarantine business was to figure out how to get himself back to Lebanon, his job, his PhD program, and his ailing father. This was accomplished the second week of April, after the Lebanese embassy in Mexico City had informed him via WhatsApp that—while they were very sorry not to be able to invite him for a Lebanese feast during his stay in the country—it was now or maybe not until September if he wanted to get home. Although the taxi drivers of Zipolite were unsure as to whether it was even possible to get through the checkpoints to the airport in nearby Huatulco, the journey was a success, and Marwan embarked on a series of flights broken up by a multiday campout at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Appallingly, no wine whatsoever was available in said airport, which was most troubling to a Japanese traveler who had spent ten days making his way from Angola to France via Algeria and was now scheduled for a weeklong wait in the terminal before his coronavirus repatriation flight. In the end, Marwan reported, appeals to airport staff and security officials were fruitless, and the Japanese made do with meditation. 

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