How We’re Coping in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Woman Around Town has writers and readers all over the U.S. and the world. We’ve asked them to check in on how they are coping now. Beth Karlin, a former reporter for Wall Street Journal Europe and Bloomberg News, writes from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Living as an expat in a foreign country is challenging, even in the best of times. Living abroad during tumultuous times, such as this global pandemic, is extremely difficult. Differences in language, culture, economy, technology, and, even, availability of favorite foods can cause confusion and discomfort. 

Two years ago, I retired to San Miguel de Allende, a colonial Mexican town in the central highlands, about 170 miles by road (a 3 ½ hour drive) northwest of Mexico City. In the past, I was a reporter in Brussels, Belgium, and in London. My nomadic life has helped me learn to navigate the complexities of alien cultural topographies, while still enjoying the adventure of being a stranger in a strange land. But these skills are being put to the test now.

Information on the scope of the tragedy is erratic and likely inaccurate. Leftist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as Amlo, was slow to respond to the crisis. He finally issued a stay-at-home recommendation for non-essential workers on March 27, more than one week after 49 University of Texas at Austin spring breakers returned home from vacation hotspot Cabo San Lucas with COVID-19. We only know the virus reached Mexico as early as March 14 (when the students flew in) because they were screened in the U.S. on return. 

At that time, Amlo was insisting the virus wouldn’t hit here, because Mexico is ”progressive,” a meaningless and false statement. He was boasting of Mexico’s inviolability even as he held massive rallies. He kissed babies as the silent killer spread. 

Amlo acted as if asymptomatic cases couldn’t proliferate locally. He blamed foreigners. With limited testing and a byzantine bureaucracy, reports of death and illness are ambiguous and believed to be vastly underreported. As of April 8, the government registered only 3,500 cases, with 194 deaths, in a population of 130 million. But the true horror of the  pandemic here may be buried with the countless dead.

Beth Karlin

Still, I consider myself fortunate to be confined in picturesque surroundings. From my terrace, I marvel at the “wedding-cake” spires of the La Parrocchia, the biggest Catholic Church here, as well as numerous other steeples, domes and bell towers. The baroque architecture, in the mountainous high-desert setting, is stunning. 

The weather is mostly temperate and the cultural offerings, vast. Art, music and literary events draw creative souls from around the world to teach. These are among the factors that draw seniors from North America and other areas, who seek an economic alternative to a more-expensive retirement elsewhere. During the winter months, expats reportedly comprise about 10 percent of the about 140,000 residents. 

Now, though, most snowbirds, and even some who normally spend 12 months here, have fled back to Canada and the U.S., for better insurance and superior health care. One benefit of this diaspora to me is that there’s little hoarding at the two supermarkets. Many local residents live below the poverty line and can’t afford to fill their larders for weeks or months, so rows of toilet paper line the shelves. Strangely, the only shortage I encountered was kitty litter for my adored cat, Zeke.

I began isolating myself even before stay-at-home orders were issued in the U.S. Suffering from chronic bronchitis, I am at risk for serious pulmonary problems should I contract the virus. I try to limit food shopping to every 10 days, and then I fashion a scarf into a mask and take anti-bacterial wipes to regularly cleanse my hands.

Friends worry that I’m all alone in quarantine, but I’m untroubled by my solitude. I read and enjoy streaming services with an emphasis on documentaries so I can come out of this smarter. I’m even relearning to cook after a long hiatus. Some successful experiments: Blue cheese, asparagus quiche as well as creamy linguine with peas, parmesan and prosciutto. Failures are too numerous to mention. 

My wi-fi has been intermittent, necessitating a visit from a technician who I greeted with anti-bacterial wipes and a mask. I went three days without Internet or streaming services, which was annoying. But it’s little sacrifice compared to what most people are suffering.

The good news is I don’t have to serve anyone else’s needs. The bad news, the total lack of one-to-one contact. On the flip side, friends around the world are checking in, giving us a chance to catch up on the paths we’ve traveled.

It’s comforting to know there are many people who care. A few invited me to shelter with them in the U.S., but I didn’t want to leave Zeke for an indefinite period, and it wasn’t fair to hosts to bring him with me. 

Make no mistake, I do worry. As death tolls climb, I fear for friends and family. My main personal concern is that my Medicare and AARP secondary insurance aren’t valid south of the border. While private medical care is available and much less expensive than in the U.S., the total can eat into savings. Moreover, hospital space and equipment are scarce, even in the best of times.

I have a type of medivac insurance policy, called SkyMed, that ordinarily would airlift me back to a U.S. hospital if I needed hospital care. But it’s unlikely any stateside facility would admit me. They wouldn’t want patients transported from a developing country with limited safety measures in place, and because they already are overwhelmed with local patients.

I also fret for San Miguel natives, who, for the most part, have little or no savings and won’t be able to afford basics for their families. The government is doing even less for them than in the U.S. and the consequences likely will be far-reaching and tragic. I wonder how many small mom-and-pop tiendas, or stores, and restaurants will survive. It’s even more dire than in the U.S.

While it’s foolish to wish away time, especially as I now count myself among the high-risk “elderly,” I can’t help but look to some future date when this global nightmare is but a memory. 

Top photo of San Miguel de Allende, Bigstock