I have said a few times about Houston that I love the diversity here.
(Side note: I make a real effort to identify the things I like about Houston. So far the running list of things I love:
My aunt who lives here (and bonus: her neighbor friends!)
Great bird watching. (Houston is smack in the middle of the migration path so the bird diversity in fall and spring is spectacular – it is one of the best spots in the US for bird watchers.)
Discovering the parks (like the Arboretum and Brazos Bend)!
The beach is just an hour away. (Even if it’s not the most beautiful beach you’ve ever seen, it is still refreshing to the soul).
From here it is only a 3-hour drive to visit my parents and hometown friends.
The diversity of people that live here
That’s about it. But after a day of 104-degree F heat index, I am extremely impressed with my ability to be so positive about H-town!)
So, back to my point… I do love the diversity of people (and birds) here.
I don’t think racial diversity was something I really noticed as much… until I experienced being the minority in a less diverse place. Standing out all the time, every time, even when you least expect it was new for me when I served in the Peace Corps. Even after 3 years, the assumptions people made about me based on my different appearance sometimes caught me off guard.*
When I traveled from my Peace Corps site and suddenly found myself immersed in greater racial diversity I was surprised to observe that I felt more at ease, more comfortable. (Maybe I felt I could blend in more? Maybe there was an assumption that people used to seeing a lot of people that looked different from them would be more open-minded?)
However, even in “diverse cities”, there is still segregation. (See title photo.) In someone’s daily life they may rarely have meaningful encounters with people of different ethnicities, races, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or different political ideals. As humans we naturally tend to seek people similar to us and so we naturally end up with somewhat segregated neighborhoods, friend circles, cultural events, and even micro economies. It can actually take effort to step out of our “bubble”.
My experience in Houston has been a little of both – I have seen a very segregated diversity (like a restaurant with all white clientele and the only people of color were employees), but I have also experienced deeper diversity in some places – like at the grocery store, when visiting the arboretum and other parks, at Miller Outdoor Theater’s summer concerts, and at some popular, low-key restaurants.
But the “winner-takes-all” diversity experience (so far?) was during my surgery at a major hospital.**
The guy who checked me in was a young, white man, and the cashier woman who took (a large chunk of) my money was a friendly Latina woman who joked around with me. She left me in the hands of a lovely Mexican woman who tested me to see if my Spanish was fluent and taught me to say anesthesiologist in Spanish. (Wow – but she didn’t teach me to spell it – thanks to Word for helping with that.)
I then met my nurse, a young, white American female who somehow managed to be friendly and humorous despite being at the end of her long shift after having been called in last night. She handed me off to the young, black American woman nurse, who then left me to the east African women (one older and one younger than me) who made sure I saw all the right doctors before heading into surgery.
Meanwhile, my surgeon showed up – a young Persian woman who grew up in Iran but has lived in Houston since she was 17. And then finally my anesthesiology team came in – two Asian men: a young, witty and mildly cocky MD and an older the nurse.
When I awoke from the surgery, a kind, no-nonsense, older woman came and helped me use the restroom as I struggled to balance while the anesthesia was still wearing off and I had a surgical shoe on my freshly operated foot. (I was too groggy to notice or remember much else about her, as I was focusing on not toppling over.)
The discharge nurse was a young south Indian man who plays cricket. He feels right at home in Houston’s heat and humidity, which isn’t so different from his hometown.
I never would have guessed that just going into an outpatient surgery I would have the opportunity to travel around the world! Or at least get such a great peek into Houston’s diversity. I really would like to throw a party for my whole hospital medical team. First to thank them for being so great, but really to hear more about their varied experiences and backgrounds…THAT would be a trip around the world.
Until I figure out how to make that happen, I am so glad I had the surprise opportunity to peek into this melting pot and so thankful for the friendly exchanges and mini-conversations we had, not to mention the excellent care they each gave me!
How can/did you step out of your bubble today? (Without going to the hospital, please.)
*Being a racial minority and being white is still a different experience than being a racial minority and being darker skinned. The assumptions people made about me were different than those made about my dark-skinned friends. For example, it was often assumed that I had more money, wealth, or resources or was more knowledgeable about certain things. On the other hand, there were also assumptions that I didn’t speak the language, that I was less knowledgeable, and that I was gullible… all depending on the person’s biases and experiences.
**Don’t worry, it was a minor surgery.
**I couldn’t attend Pride due to my surgery so I missed out on what I’m sure is the real “winner-takes-all” diversity experience in Houston. Next year.
***Photo is from https://bestneighborhood.org/race-in-houston-tx/
I LOVE the snow. But I grew up in south Texas where snow is something from the movies but not something that actually happens in real life. Except that ONE TIME when I was two years old. But I wouldn’t see snow again until I moved to Nashville, TN for college. (I did not make it to classes that day it snowed because I was busy studying the physics of sledding.) Then I got to know REAL snow in DC where I was lucky enough to live through two snowmageddons of more than a foot of snow!
But never in my life would I have dreamed that I would live through a snowmageddon (also known as “snowpocalypse”) in my childhood home in south Texas. As fate would have it, I was visiting my parents when the 2021 Texas snowpocalypse hit.
To wake up and see those snowflakes falling…and falling…and continue falling throughout the day, accumulating multiple inches of white fluff across the landscape of my childhood home (where we often wore shorts at Christmas and New Years celebrations), was surreal to say the least. As if fulfilling a childhood dream, I played in the snow, made a snow angel, a snow person, and a snow caterpillar.
It was all fun and games until the electricity went out. And stayed out. Who am I kidding – for me it was still fun and games because I love a good primitive living challenge. We didn’t have hot water at first, so I heated water over the stove and took a bucket bath. (Later, when we got spurts of 5-minutes of electricity, we used a blow dryer to warm the frozen pipes coming from the hot water heater until we had hot water again.)
We were lucky; we still had running water AND we had a gas stove that kept the house from getting too cold. Our neighbor’s house got down to 50°F for multiple days.
Running in the snow on a city trail I saw three different groups of people gathering wood to start a fire outside their house or apartment to stay warm.
An elderly neighbor that had no water or electricity tried to book a hotel, but hotels (that had been struggling because of the pandemic’s hit on tourism) were suddenly booked full, as locals searched for shelter for a few days.
My friend and her family collected snow and icicles to boil for water because she didn’t have running water for multiple days, like many of my friends (and millions of people across Texas).
A few days later we got our power back. But another friend who had had power the whole time, suddenly lost power. Her sister and niece and nephew had been crowded into her small apartment after they had lost power, but suddenly my friend was migrating to their house.
After three days without consistent power and nearly a week of icy roads, the temperatures rose back up above freezing, and with the sun shining brightly, I found myself wearing a t-shirt. The roads cleared up, and exactly one week after the first snowflake had fallen, my snow friend was long gone, and there was no sign on the ground that the Texas snowmageddon-snowpocalypse had ever happened. It was just another warm, sunny, “winter” day in south Texas.
Except for the people like my aunt, whose pipes had frozen, then cracked, and who now had water damage in their ceilings and walls. For a while she was collecting water from her neighbors. After an emergency fix, she was able to collect water from her outdoor water hose to wash dishes and flush the toilet. Two weeks later, she is still waiting in line for the contractors to fix the damage to her house – which is not so surprising, considering that billions of dollars of property damage resulted from frozen pipes and lost power across Texas.
And then there are the loved ones of the more than 50 people who died.1
But there is a silver lining. A few people have profited greatly because of the skyrocketing gas and power prices during the snowpocalypse. While some energy and utility companies and traders lost millions of dollars due to excessive energy prices, others made millions.2
Those profits are now going to help those who suffered, and to prevent something like this from happening again.
That’s what SHOULD happen. That’s even what COULD happen. But that is not what IS happening
Instead, we are witnessing a grand market failure and an even bigger failure in governance.
The market failure
In an ideal market, you can pay to receive a high quality and affordable product or service and the service provider makes a profit. If the provider fails to provide what was agreed upon, you receive a discount or some kind of compensation.
My mom pays her utility bills on time every month, and she is promised reliable power and water. In February, she did not have power for more than 50 hours, and yet, she will not be receiving any kind of discount or compensation for the lack of service. Instead, her utility bills will COST MORE over the next decade, and she, (along with millions of other Texan customers) will be paying off a debt accumulated by many utilities during the storm, due to the excessive surge in gas and electricity prices.
Let that sink in for a minute. The customers who suffered the consequences of the power failure will be paying for it, rather than receiving compensation for the lack of service.
In an ideal market situation, you could require the provider to compensate you for not holding up their end of the bargain. And, you could also change to a more reliable provider. But my mom (and the millions of Texan power consumers) do not have that option here – a clear indication that the market is not working as intended.
Fun Fact: Texas law actually prohibits charging excessive prices during an emergency, (and the governor had called a state of emergency before the storm.) But that did not stop Texas regulators from allowing electricity prices to rise nearly 3,500% their normal, while gas prices rose 6,000% to 16,000%! (I can’t even wrap my head around that number.)2b
And yet, the most powerful regulators and politicians in Texas are defending the market as is, resisting making any corrections or changes so that it could work better for customers.
The now-resigned Public Utilities Commission (PUC) chairman vowed to protect the billions of dollars made by investors on the energy market during the artificially high price hikes, rather than defending plans to protect customers.2c Most of the leading politicians seem to have forgotten the original purpose of the market – to provide reliable and affordable energy to millions of end users.
This is a serious…
Some politicians are actually saying that there was not a market failure and that there is no reason to correct the market with appropriate regulations. They argue that the high prices during an emergency are an incentive for utilities to prepare for extreme weather.
Fact Check: Texas had a similar power crisis caused by extreme weather in 2011, and regulators spent the next 3 years doing analyses and drafting reports on how to prevent it in the future. However, utilities still were not prepared, ten years later. Those charged with ensuring the grid was reliable never did REQUIRE utilities to comply,3 and we have now seen the outcome of recommending but not requiring measures crucial for energy reliability.
More than 50 people died because of the February outages this year.1
Billions of dollars in property damage in Texas (as costly as some of the worst hurricanes in recent history)1b
Millions of customers suffered countless financial and emotional burdens – most that will never be known or even considered by regulators, much less compensated. (As mentioned above, customers will not only NOT be compensated, they will actually pay MORE over the next few years.)
Many energy and utility companies will likely file for bankruptcy or go out of business because of the debts accumulated during the storm.2
Yet, instead of defending Texan customers, those responsible for governing stand committed to defending the market that failed those customers.
I have NOT heard any regulators or lawmakers say, “We will make sure customers are compensated for their losses and for the lack of reliability that we were responsible for ensuring.”
Instead, when presented an opportunity the help customers they have said, “government intervention into the free market… would have major consequences for consumers…” (Texas Speaker of the House). He seems blind to the “major consequences” that Texas consumers just experienced. Not to mention the consequences that they will continue to experience, as they pay off this debt that they never signed up for. (Not only did we not sign up for it, out taxpayer dollars go to funding lawmakers and regulators who are responsible for ensuring reliability of the grid – ensuring this does not happen. They failed and they are passing the buck onto us.)
Granted, the statement above comes from the representative from Beaumont, an area not affected by the outages. Yet he is in control of the Texas House, and he prevented lawmakers from passing a bill that would recoup $4.1 billion in excessive charges for customers.4
I have yet to see any argument of merit that justifies Texas leaders’ actions (or inactions, as the case may be). The loudest arguments I’ve heard so far indicate a lack of understanding in economic theory compared to economic reality, as well as an outright bias towards investors and the stock market over customers who suffered the consequences of the market failure.
This disaster is a clear example of why “protecting the free market from government intervention” is simply an excuse for keeping rules that protect investors instead of customers.6 Yet those in power seem blind to customer interests, which indicates a clear failure in democratic governance – the interests of the people are not being well-represented in the important decisions being made.
Paying for the Storm
Since legislators did not help protect customers’ financial stake, one last chance for hope might be in the judicial system. Many utilities will likely be filing for bankruptcy, and some are suing ERCOT and the gas companies that price gouged during an emergency.2b The lawyers and the judges hearing those cases could (and should) enforce the Texas law and settle on a reasonable price during the emergency. Lowering the utilities’ debt would protect Texas customers from bearing such a high cost of this storm (as well as demonstrating that rule of law still functions in Texas).
Preventing Future Catastrophes – it’s up to Texans
As for Texas legislators and regulators – they have missed their first chance to reduce the financial impact on customers, but they still have a chance to prevent (or minimize) future catastrophes by putting appropriate regulations in place, and making sure that customer interests are better represented in the market. Unfortunately, the bills they have proposed so far are not any stronger than their ineffective response to the 2011 outages.4b
If you want to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and you are a Texas resident, your only hope at this point is to contact (or bombard, if you prefer) your state representatives and senators and let them know this is important to you. I would recommend the following key points:5
Customers lost power and need to be compensated for the outages. It is not fair that we bear the cost of this mistake.
The current bills in the house aren’t sufficient to protect customers from future outages.4b
Utilities and energy suppliers should be required to meet national engineering standards for reliability – and there should be a penalty for not meeting them.4b
Regulations aren’t always bad. As a customer, I’d rather pay a little more upfront to make sure utilities are required to meet reliability standards, rather than be forced to live through an outage and also pay more later to recoup costs.
If this ever happens again, customers should be compensated for the outage, not forced to carry the financial burden. I want to see legislation that will protect customers in the future.
The ERCOT and PUC board should NOT be political appointees. Customers’ interests must be well-represented. The boards should be made up of Texans from diverse professions, including customers not invested in the energy industry. Require that members be Texans from multiple political parties, multiple sectors, various professional backgrounds, and include individuals not invested in natural gas and financial institutions.
Update the Texas energy market by:
Setting a lower cap on wholesale electricity prices
Including capacity payments to improve reliability
Updating standards to have the option to join one of the larger US interconnects for added reliability.
If all else fails, Texans can always vote for new state senators and representatives that recognize the value of certain regulations to protect consumers, especially in markets providing essential services, like water, energy, and health care.
For more on the Texas grid, market failure, and my musings about it all, see the footnotes below.
Day after day, front porch after front porch, I’m still exploring the world. But these landscapes are a little different from my previous travels.
I find myself on a journey that I never imagined being on in a million years.
But here I am, first in Arizona, and now in Georgia, knocking on strangers’ doors, talking to them about issues that are impacting their lives and our collective experience as US citizens.
For 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, house after house, I approach front porch after front porch, and I raise my hand to knock on front door after front door.
And I wait.
I wait on a strangers’ front porch to see who and what will present itself.
I bring all of my hope for a better future and faith in our collective power to create the world we want to live it. I bring encouragement and information to make it easier for people to make their voices heard.
But will someone answer the door, or will I just be greeted by their barking dogs? (Some days I talk to more dogs than I do voters.)
Will I hear movements and voices quiet down as the people inside pretend they aren’t home?
Will they answer the door, puffing up their chest as if to defend their territory against enemy attack, and yell at me to go away, as if my approach to their personal space bubble was a threat to their very existence?
Or will the welcome me, ask me questions, and even thank me for what I’m doing?
Will they cuss at me angrily from inside as if I had personally offended them by knocking on their door? Or run outside yelling and call the cops on me?
Or will they be interested to engage in dialogue about our diverse collective experience in this country, and how we might make it better (whether we agree or not).
Maybe they will be the person who wasn’t going to vote, didn’t feel like their voice mattered, and needed a nudge to feel empowered.
Maybe they are the person who accidentally threw away their absentee ballot and needed to know where and when they could go vote in person.
Maybe they are the overwhelmed parent who just wouldn’t have made time to vote if I hadn’t been there to help them make a plan and send them a reminder text.
Maybe they are the first-time voter that didn’t know how or when to vote, and will thank me profusely for helping them to participate in American democracy for the first time.
It is for these last few people that I keep walking and keep knocking. I take those blows from the unwelcoming doors, so that I can find those people that benefit from my work – thankful for the reminder to vote, thankful for the information about where and when they can vote, thankful to talk about how policies are affecting their lives and to hear about alternative policies that could improve our collective American experience.
I keep knocking, sometimes annoying the #*@ out of people, getting yelled at, trying to extract people from their routines to make time to vote – not just for them, certainly not just for me, but for all of us, including the people who can’t vote – future generations that will be impacted by today’s policies, the disenfranchised, those who have passed away due to irresponsible response to the pandemic.
I do it to stand up against the racism and classism that wears on in our society, changing shape but persisting. I do it to fight against the voter suppression that our history books led us to believe no longer exists, and that some call “protection against voter fraud” despite studies showing that voter suppression is much more prevalent than voter fraud.
I do it for those that fled their country of origin to seek refuge only to have their basic human rights violated here in my country too.
I do it to fight against corruption and lies in their most blatant form, because I have seen how it breaks apart communities and cripples democracy. And as a kind of personal project, I knock to try to provide an alternative perspective for those who are only taking in the propaganda saturating our politics worse than ever before in my lifetime, and I recommend reliable information sources.
And I do it for my fellow teammates, who are far from family and friends for the holidays. Each one also pounding the streets for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pouring out their hearts to strangers, working to make this country better for their families, friends, and fellow citizens.
As I approach a front porch, I take in my surroundings, and often a personal touch made to the yard or front porch makes me smile. Ironically, sometimes the most unwelcoming responses come from the front porches with the extremely sunny “Welcome!” mats. And some of the most pleasant interactions have come from people with front porches adorned with, “Go Away”.
So as I come to the close of this great adventure, as always, I will share some of the great landscapes from this journey.
I’ve always loved to travel, but over the past year, I did something I’d never done before – I lived my life traveling, backpacking through South America. I stayed in countless places, trying to stay long enough to get to know people and get a taste of the culture, but usually not staying in one place for more than a week. While that rhythm allowed me to see many different places, it meant that just as I was getting settled in and feeling at home in one place, I was packing up and moving on, which meant constantly adjusting to a new place, constantly trying to feel at home in a new place.
Having to start a home from scratch over and over again, one learns to find home within, so that you always feel at home, wherever you are. (That’s a topic for a whole book, but here’s a peek into one way I carried home with me wherever I went).
Early on, I found I could feel at home wherever I was when I would do yoga. Despite having just left all stability and familiarity, when I did those familiar yoga poses,* watching the sun rise over Lake Titicaca, I felt perfectly at home, and right where I wanted to be in that moment.
From then on, I tried to do yoga in every place I visited, and it never failed to make me feel centered and right at home, even if I had recently been feeling that strange, subtle sensation of being a wanderer, far from home. It wasn’t always easy to do yoga everywhere, but I always found a way.
Sometimes it elicited strange looks, but it was always worth it. It was a great way to connect with a new place – physically and socially. I have fond memories of yoga-ing in the cold of the Bolivian Andes, in the hot, humid Peruvian and Colombian jungles, the hot, dry desert in northern Chile, and the cool autumn air in Argentina.
It was also something I could share with people who had shared something with me, like the Argentine rugby player, or the kind, Quechua-speaking woman who did some yoga poses with me in her traditional clothing trying not to be too embarrassed when her neighbors passed by.
I am now back in the US, but in a way, I am still traveling. And my journey has taken me unexpectedly back to my childhood home, visiting my parents. I haven’t lived here during my adult life, and I have only been back for short visits as an adult. It is in the same physical location where I grew up, but it has changed, the city has changed, my parents have changed, and I have changed.
And so, despite the undertones of familiarity, I feel like I have arrived to yet another new place to adapt to and to explore.
Within a few days of arriving, my mom told me that her chair yoga class was starting up again and she invited me to go with her. My first reaction was one million questions about the preventative measures being taken due to the coronavirus. (Yes it’s outdoors, yes everyone has to wear masks, yes there’s extra spacing between people, and yes, you have to bring your own chair.) We agreed that if it didn’t seem safe we’d leave. She pointed out that the instructor is an 84-year-old woman, so she probably wouldn’t have started the class back up if she didn’t think she could do it safely.
My second reaction was: “chair yoga?” Having recently hiked through the Andes and traveled around South America with a 40-lb backpack, you can imagine my expectations for a chair yoga class taught by an 84-year-old woman. First of all, I didn’t know that “chair” and “yoga” could go together to be one thing. (I typically do yoga to get out of the chair.) And even though my mom had told me it was a cool class, I admittedly imagined a few neck stretches and thought it might be kind of boring. But then I hadn’t met Gloria Simmons.
Ms. Simmons is a gem of a person. This 84-year-old woman is way more flexible than I could ever hope to be. She is one of those fierce, gentle spirits that is a natural leader, but in a subtle way that inspires you by making you feel comfortable and appreciated.
Walking into one of her classes, the atmosphere is casual, comfortable, and respectful. One of the first things one notes is the diversity of the class. There are participants of different ages, body types, flexibilities, abilities, and different races – about half black women and half white women, and sometimes a few Latinas. A woman in a wheel chair often attends and another with a walking cane.
The magic of Gloria is that she skillfully leads this diverse group of abilities so that everyone gets a good stretch and no one feels left out. And she teaches yoga with a chair! (Even though I’ve been to many classes now, I’m still impressed by the concept of chair yoga.) She didn’t invent chair yoga, but she did modify what she learned from videos and a PBS program to make it something interesting and versatile.
Surprisingly, Gloria came to yoga by accident, wandering into a class about 20 years ago when she was teaching an aerobics class at a rec center. She had never heard of yoga and expected it to be boring, but she realized that she had already been doing some of the stretches in her aerobics class, and she found that she actually liked it!
After about a month, the instructor encouraged her to become certified, so she signed up for what would become “the hardest week of her life”. She almost didn’t make it past the second day of the certification class because her body was so sore and tired. But she recounts that her daughter made her dinner, told her to rest, and encouraged her to get through the week, so she stuck with it…and the rest is history!
Now she says she does yoga when she wakes up in the middle of the night, and later is able to go back to sleep. It’s her go-to way to relax and get centered, kind of like it has been for me during my travels.
She always reminds us to do the best we can and not to force anything since our bodies are all different. And at the end, she turns up the music and gets us out on the dance floor,** leading us in an aerobics-type dance at first, and then encouraging free style, making sure each person takes a few turns in the center of the dance circle. Even the woman in the wheelchair gets out there and shakes it!
She also does mat yoga classes each week, where she really blows us away with how flexible she is! (I definitely realized how ageist I had been with my preconceived notions of what an 84-year-old instructor would be like; she showed me!)
All of this, she does as a volunteer, sharing something that has helped her, something that she enjoys, with others.
Here in Texas, we are all dealing with the stress of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, and we have leaders that openly stated their concern for the economy over people’s lives. Then the death of George Floyd. And the subsequent protests and racism – anti-racism clashes. We are all living in challenging times, and Ms. Simmons creates this safe and healthy space, where we can escape from all of that for an hour, do something good for our bodies, and feel at peace for an hour or so, two times a week.
And that safe space, where everyone is welcome and accepted – all body types, all ages, all abilities, all races – is just what we all need right now during these turbulent and strange times.
Once again, thanks to yoga, (and to Ms. Simmons) I have been able to feel a little more at home along my journey.
* Around 10 years ago I started doing yoga-like stretches every day as part of my routine to help manage back problems, and I’ve kept it up ever since. During my Peace Corps service, I held yoga classes for the over-worked elementary school teachers, and we all enjoyed a few moments of de-stressing at the end of the day. So, when I really think about it, it’s not surprising that doing something that has been part of my daily routine for 10 years would help me feel at home in a new place.
**We dance in a huge circle, all with the appropriate physical distancing, especially since most people are in a high-risk group for complications from COVID-19.
Most of the photos are credited to Majic, Gloria’s god-son.
Remember that big question raised at the beginning of the pandemic – How bad is COVID-19 anyway?
This question is really fun because it’s like an optical illusion. The answer greatly depends on perspective, and the final outcome greatly depends on what we believed at the beginning. This time it’s not one of those inspirational “if you believe it, it will be!”, but rather the opposite.
Ironically, if we had believed it was bad when we saw the first cases in the US, we would have done everything possible to contain it and it wouldn’t have “been so bad”.
But because of the outbreak and the tragically lost lives in the northeast, the rest of the nation decided that it was something to take seriously and took preventative measures…which then kept it from being tragic in other parts of the country…(leading to protests to open things back up because “it wasn’t so bad after all).”
What a clever trick. By believing it isn’t such a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Believing it is a big deal, we keep it from being a big deal.
While we’re talking about the importance of perspective, let’s look at the question of the magnitude of COVID-19, first from a birds-eye view and then a more personal perspective, using hard data. (What did you expect from an engineer?)
During its first five months,1 the coronavirus has already killed more people in the US than the flu AND pneumonia did over the course of the entire year in previous years, having killed 34.52 people for every 100,000 people. That means it is already more deadly than the flu, diabetes, and Alzheimer disease, and it continues to climb. If you calculate the rate of deaths per month, COVID-19 is the third deadliest threat in the US this year, after heart disease and cancers.
Here is the trend worldwide instead of just in the US, and a much cooler infographic than I can do in Excel. (Here’s the link in case it doesn’t show up for you.)
So there you have a bird’s-eye-view perspective. Now let’s look at the perspective of personal experience – how individuals might be experiencing the mortality rate of COVID-19.
First, there are those that have lost their lives or lost loved ones due to the disease, like my friend who lost her grandmother. My heart goes out to you. These numbers that I’m analyzing will seem really cold and useless to you. But they might help explain why there are many people out there that are apathetic and ignoring or even denying the pandemic.
In the US, people are currently (as of June 11) dying from COVID-19 at approximately the same rate (actually a bit higher) as people died from accidents in previous years, making it the third most prominent cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Did you know someone who died in an accident last year? Odds are that if 1,200 people read this, only one person will answer “yes”.
Another way to look at it: How many people do you know (think Facebook friends and real friends.) If you know 1,200 people, the odds are good that you will know one person who died from COVID-19. But actually, even that’s not completely accurate because nearly 42% of deaths have been in New York state, New Jersey, and Connecticut.1 So if you don’t live there or don’t know many of people there, the odds of knowing someone who has died from COVID-19 go down to one in about 1,700 people. If you don’t know 1,700 people and you don’t know someone in an outbreak area, odds are good that you don’t know someone who died from COVID-19.
So to summarize:
Is COVID-19 killing more people than the flu?
Yes – at more than five times the rate of flu deaths.
Is COVID-19 is a major cause of death for people in the US this year?
Yes – it’s the third leading cause of death this year so far.
Are you likely to know someone who has died from COVID-19?
Depends on where you live and who you know, but the majority of Americans likely won’t personally know someone who died from it.
From a birds-eye-view and for those who have lost loved ones, it is obvious that COVID-19 is a deadly disease. That said, the majority of the US population has not been directly affected by a COVID-19 death, and that might help explain why some people are more upset about the shut-downs than the sickness itself.
Speaking of those shut-downs, let’s not forget that they are the reason that the death rate isn’t higher than it is. Closing things slowed the spread, buying us time for at least three important preparations:
Public health education. Closing things drew attention to the problem – it forced people to pay attention, creating an environment and time to disseminate information so that people could protect themselves and others. Even after opening, the virus will not spread as quickly as if we hadn’t shut down, simply because many people are now taking precautions.2
Hospital preparation. The closures slowed the spread, gaining the majority of the US time to reinforce hospitals, acquire supplies, and train staff.
Improved treatment. The closures bought us time to learn how to more effectively treat patients. Every day we learn something new about treating the virus (like patient positioning, monitoring blood oxygen levels, and the use of oxygen and ventilators). Additionally, every day researchers are working towards a vaccine.
So closing down and slowing the spread means that thousands of people didn’t get sick in April. Now that they know how to protect themselves, thousands might not even contract the virus. As things are opening up in many places, many people will get sick in June and July, but by then, doctors and hospitals will be better prepared to treat them, which will mean the difference between life and death for many.
But we are not through this yet. We still control our destiny. Remember the paradox: COVID-19 was deadly at first because we didn’t believe it was so deadly. Once we believed it to be deadly, it became less deadly because precautions were taken.
So as things begin to open up, and we continue with our daily lives, remember that while we bought ourselves time and our hospitals and doctors are now more prepared, if we take it too lightly, that tricky paradox could get the best of us.
What a clever trick. By believing it isn’t such a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Believing it is a big deal, we keep it from being a big deal.
This article was an interesting survey of how epidemiologists are managing risk in their personal lives to find that right balance between taking care of their mental and physical health while protecting themselves and others from the virus. It reinforced my decision to engage in outdoor activities, maintaining 6-9 feet from people outside my safe circle, to wear a mask in public, and to avoid indoor spaces with people outside of my safe circle altogether.
I calculated the current monthly death rate in the US to be 7.3/100,000 people, and 5.0/100,000 excluding NY, NJ, and CN, compared to accidents at 4.1/100,000 people.
There is still a great deal of misinformation out there and some people not taking the necessary precautions, but the fact that many are really help control the spread. We will see in the following months if it is enough to keep things under control.
The tension in the air in the US right now is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fear is rampant, but not everyone is afraid of the same thing. We are afraid of each other.
The phrase “divide and conquer” comes to my mind as I feel Americans become more and more divided, and I fear how we might be conquered.
But I also see so many uniting, which gives me incredible hope. I have been a part of some conversations where people are really listening to each other’s differing perspectives and experiences and trying to learn from each other. I see people struggling through the discomfort of hearing a different opinion that scares them and being patient and trying to understand it.
But I also have been in many spaces where different opinions and perspectives are not something that people can discuss civilly. Where conversations aren’t seen as a way to better understand each other and the world; rather they lead to defensiveness and cause people to shut down and/or to start slinging insults. And I see a lot of people only having conversations within groups with similar opinions and not branching out to try to understand the opinions of people outside their comfort zone.
It’s as if we never learned those basic lessons of dialogue. We are all Americans, we are all humans that want to live in a safer America, and yet somehow we lost the ability to listen to each other about what a safer world for everyone would look like.
I’m hoping this can be a bridging tool to help us take a step closer to having some productive difficult conversations.
Simplifying the complex issues brought up by the recent protests, I see two predominate perspectives – contradictory, though equally valid and true to those who hold them.
Perspective 1: The police keep our communities safe. If we feel threatened, we can call the police. Only guilty people have reason to be afraid of the police. Defunding the police would be a disaster in public safety.
For people whose experience with the police has mostly been positive, (other than traffic tickets or mild offenses,) this perspective will probably resonate. The recent protests often make these people feel threatened because it seems like the institution that keeps them safe – the police and the criminal justice system – is being threatened, by the protests and by calls for defunding the police.
Perspective 2: Many police officers abuse their power, and the string of police brutality incidents against black people are blatant indicators that racism is still very alive in America, especially in the criminal justice system. Police officers and the entire criminal justice system need to be held accountable, reformed, even defunded, and structural racism must be addressed.
For people of color who have experienced racism by police officers or in other areas of their life, this statement will ring true, and the sight of a police officer will often incite fear rather than a sense of security. For them, the George Floyd-inspired protests give them hope for a safer, more just America, despite the fear they feel as unarmed citizens when they see the armed officers policing the protests and the white men with guns, counter-protesting.
Both of these perspectives are real and valid and varied (as I said, I simplified a complex issue into a binary issue to be able to take a first step in talking about it.) Though they seem contradictory, many people are starting to be able to hold both perspectives in their mind at one time. And this, to me is the first step forward.
To be clear, I’m not saying that each perspective deserves equal weight.
The majority of people who identify with Perspective 1 are white, and the majority of black people identify Perspective 2. Yes, there are exceptions, but speaking in terms of majorities, there is a clear race line between these perspectives.
Yep, I brought up race and made a generalization about different experiences based on the color of our skin. I’m such a racist, some will say.
“Equality means we’re all equal and so we shouldn’t even see black and white, and we should have equal standards for everyone; the best way to achieve equality is to be colorblind.” I used to believe that.
And then I spoke to people of color and learned about their personal experiences of racism that I had never in my life experienced or witnessed outside of books and movies; I wasn’t aware of how prevalent the experience of discrimination still is today for many people of color.
If racism didn’t exist, sure we could all be colorblind. But since racism DOES still exist, saying we are colorblind is turning a blind eye to an injustice that we are living with, here in the nation where we strive for Justice and Liberty For All. Turning a blind eye to racism is turning a blind eye to our American principles.
So if people actually have different experiences based on the color of their skin, we need to talk about these differences to understand each other. And one important question would be why does race have anything to do with whether someone feels threatened or hopeful by the current protests? Why does race have anything to do with whether cops make us feel safe or not?
Understanding the difference between these two perspectives is crucial to finding a solution that will help people of the both perspectives feel safe and secure.
As we have known for decades (but it seems to only recently be getting a lot of attention and hasn’t made it into basic education), there is plenty of proof 1 that racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, keeping alive the Jim Crow laws, but in a more subtle way. It’s often not that blacks are more likely to commit crimes, it’s that they are more likely to get caught and punished, indicating an underlying racism in both law enforcement personnel and the criminal justice system.
People of color are disproportionately stopped without cause by police officers, and they are also searched at a much higher rate than whites. Despite the fact that blacks were searched more often than whites, contraband was more often found on whites.2
Studies also showed blacks being spoken to in a more degrading manner than whites by the same officers.1
And despite the fact that rates of drug use are equal among races, blacks are charged for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites.3
While more whites are killed by police officers annually, blacks are killed at a disproportionate rate – nearly 3 times as often, compared to their share of the population – and those blacks killed were more likely to be unarmed than the whites killed.4
I have been afraid of getting a ticket or getting a fine when I’m pulled over by a cop, but I have never feared for my life, like my black friend, who is an upstanding citizen and serves in the military. I also have never been pulled over for no reason, whereas it has happened to him twice.
These experiences of discrimination are not only different from the majority of white experiences, they are negative, frustrating, dehumanizing, even life-threatening, and unfair.
The history of this country has been dominated by white people talking and a vast majority of black people having to be submissive, deferring to the white voice, having to be more patient and humble because they could be killed or jailed or lose their job if they didn’t.
And it still happens today. I have had multiple black friends tell me stories of how they are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts in their jobs; they have witnessed harsh repercussions for black people who lose their cool, compared to white people that don’t even get reprimanded for the same or worse responses to stress or unjust personal attacks.
So, it’s time for whites to switch the centuries-old race role and defer to black voices. It’s white people’s turns to be held to the higher standard of being more patient, empathetic, and understanding, as our fellow Americans tell us about their experiences being people of color.4
White people (including me!) are not the experts on racism because we haven’t had the same experiences due to the color of our skin. (Maybe we’ve had similar experiences for other reasons – for our gender or sexual orientation, etc, and that can help us be more empathetic, but it is still a different experience with a different history.)
So I would argue that even if you identify with Perspective 1, we as a nation and as individuals need to invest more of our time listening to and trying to understand Perspective 2.
For example, someone with Perspective 1 will be incredibly scared of the idea “defund the police force” because it will be seen as taking critical resources away from a fundamental part of one’s safety. But if we can actually converse on a deeper level about this hot-button topic, the validity of both sides can be seen. For example, imagine 911 calls related to a person experiencing homeless being routed to professionals in organizations that are funded and prepared to work specifically with the homeless community instead of being routed to the police. It could be a burden taken off of police and instead given to experts in that area.
As we are having important conversations about the protests, about police, and about racism in the US, let’s remember that we all want to feel safe and secure in our communities, and we want all our children to grow up in an America that is safe for them. To do that, we need to listen especially hard to those that currently don’t feel safe and have a history of not having their voices heard.
There are obviously many issues underlying the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, but let’s take them one at a time and give them the response they deserve. When the reality of racism that still exists is highlighted by those affected by it, don’t change the subject to the other issues faced by our nation. Listen. Empathize. Learn. Recognize the problem and think of ways that we can make real changes.
It is a long and difficult road, but we need to have those hard conversations with those with differing perspectives. This is how we create a more perfect union, a free world, where there is truly liberty and justice for all.
(5) If the majority of your conversations about race are with other white people or the handful of black people that are against the protests, are you really getting enough information to really be able to understand both sides of the issue? Are you truly trying to understand racism on a deeper level?
In the ideal world, a white person that truly wants to understand racism would be listening to many voices of the black protesters and trying to understand their perspective. They would seek out multiple perspectives and read as much as possible about black history – how Reconstruction after the Civil War was interrupted by a political deal over an election contest, sending millions of recently freed slaves to be subjected to a century more of injustice. How the civil rights movement of the 1960’s stalled out when it tried to address the problems of systemic racism that still persist today.
That is not to say that white people conversing with white people is not also a valuable conversation. In fact, many of my black friends have expressed how incredibly tired they are trying to explain their experiences, only to have their experiences invalidated, to have them fall on deaf ears, to hear unfounded excuses for the racism they have experienced, or tell them that they are playing the victim and that white people experience those things too. That is why it is also time to step out of our comfort zones and be advocates (without pretending to be experts) in white-white conversations.
I hope to be back soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of the Argentina-esque experiences that I found to be unique compared to other countries I’ve visited.1
First, Argentina is huge. It’s nearly as long (north-to-south) as the US is wide (east-to-west).
As such, it has an incredible diversity of landscapes – a variety of deserts, salt flats, forests, lakes, mountains, coast, and more that I have yet to discover.
Quiz: Where can you find the tallest mountain in the Americas?
You guessed it; it's in Argentina!
Nope, it's NOT in the Patagonia.
It's called Aconcagua, and rises to 22,841 ft (6,962 meters), located in the province of Mendoza near the Chilean border.
Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are opposite to those in the US – and most places throughout the country experience all four seasons pronounced, (unlike many of the other South American countries I’ve visited that are located closer to the equator and often experience two seasons – rainy and dry season). In some places in the north it can reach more than 120°F heat index in the summer. Meanwhile, the southern-most part of the country has 19 hours of sunlight during peak summer (December 21), and only about five hours of daylight in peak winter, similar to Alaska.
I had the pleasure of spending a month traveling through the northern half of the country, following the western border with Chile, along “La Ruta 40”. (My travel path is drawn in purple on the map.)
When I first entered Argentina in the north, I stayed a few days in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy. My first impression was that it reminded me more of a small city in the US than of a comparable-sized city in the other South American countries I have visited.
I tried to figure out why, and I decided it was mainly because of the number of people driving around in personal vehicles. Also, there was a network of wide roads and bridges with clean sidewalks and well-maintained buildings. And the water from the tap was potable!
When I was told that this province was one of the poorer provinces of Argentina, I realized there was more wealth in Argentina than in other countries I had visited in South America. (Argentina does in fact have the second highest GNI per capita in South America, (after Chile) – twice that of Colombia, which has the next highest.)2
Having been a rural water systems engineer in Peru, trying to improve drinking water quality there, I was really happy to find that I could drink from the tap in all the places I visited throughout my time in Argentina, not just in Jujuy. (Though I was told that it might be questionable to drink from the tap in some of the smaller, more remote towns in the country.)
Quiz 2: Where was the biggest dinosaur in the world found?
Yep, also Argentina! Argentinosaurus is the biggest dinosaur skeleton found in the world so far, and Giganotosaurus is the biggest carnivore discovered so far - both found in the Patagonia of Argentina.
Bear with me, while I geek out a little bit more.
I love walkable cities, and many of the cities I visited in Argentina were, well, somewhat walkable. That is to say that in most neighborhoods you could always find a store with the necessities within walking distance if you don’t mind walking a bit.
The cities tended to sprawl, (probably due to the extensive space available,) so they were designed to accommodate vehicle traffic necessary to carry you those longer distances across the city, which often takes away from the walkability of a place. (On the other hand, all the small towns were very walkable – possibly one of the reasons I love small towns so much.)
Most cities had good (but not exceptional) public transportation. What was exceptional was the universal fare card for public transportation that works in multiple cities throughout the country!3
The only down side is that you are obligated to use the fare card to pay the bus fare and you aren’t allowed to pay cash on the bus (like many other countries). Since I didn’t have a card, I had to find someone who would pay my fare and I would pay them cash. More correctly, I would TRY to pay them my fare in cash, but 99% of the people who paid my fare with their card refused to let me pay them back, looking at me like I was crazy and saying, “Por favoooor!”
If you have read my previous blogs, you are familiar with the surprising levels of generosity I came across during my travels in Argentina, and this is just one example. It was very rare that someone would let me pay them back for them something they offered me or helped me with, and I was often met with a “Por favor!” (“Please! You will NOT be paying me back for that!”), as if they were offended that I didn’t realize it was a gift, and I was insulting them for even thinking that I should offer them something monetary in return.
Even thanking someone was often met with a “Por favor!”, bringing Argentina in competition with Colombia for the kindest response to “Thank you”. (The most common response to “Thank you” in Colombia was, “Con gusto!” or “with pleasure!”)
Maybe you remember mate (“mah-tay”)? This is such a unique characteristic and defining feature of the country that I have to mention it here.
Mate (“mah-tay”) is a ritual, a tradition, a social activity, a part of daily life, and/or an event. It’s like drinking coffee in the mornings (and/or throughout the day). It’s like having a smoke break. It’s like having a drink with friends or co-workers. It’s like offering a beer to a stranger or an acquaintance. It’s like inviting people over for brunch.
Mate is an herb from northeast Argentina (also grown in the bordering regions of Paraguy and southern Brazil) that is drunk as a loose-leaf tea in a special recipient (also called a “mate”), with a special metal straw called a “bombilla”. There is a universal procedure for preparing the mate and etiquette for drinking it – it’s serious business.
Everyone drinks mate,4 and most people drink it all throughout the day. If you are with someone else, you drink mate together, and if you want to be cordial with someone who passes by, you offer them a mate.
Another thing that stood out about Argentina is that everyone was white.4 Hyperbole again. But, the percentage of white people was astounding compared to what I had seen in other South American countries. It turns out that in addition to the Spaniard colonists, Argentina had a huge migration of Italians starting in about 1860 and lasting for around a century.
I’m not sure if it’s related, but Argentina has a unique way of speaking Castellano (Spanish)…so much so, that in Argentina I felt like I had regressed a couple years in my understanding of Spanish, and I often had to listen extra carefully and ask people to repeat things.
Every country has its own slang and unique terms, but in Argentina verbs are actually pronounced differently and the “y” and “ll” are pronounced like “jsh” instead of “y”… in addition to all the slang and Argentina-specific words.
Besides getting used to the accent, one of the first language differences I had to learn was the Argentina use of “Viste?”
“Viste?” doesn’t only mean “did you see?” like everywhere else I had been. In Argentina, it’s a way to say “you know?”, just like “Cacha’i?” in Chile.
For example, someone would be explaining to me, “I work 8 hours in the office, and then I work three more hours in the night at the restaurant down the street, “viste?”, and I replied “no, no lo he visto” (“No, I haven’t seen that restaurant.”), thinking they were asking if I’d seen the restaurant where they worked.
But they were really saying “You know what I mean?” So I should have nodded in understanding, saying, “Si,” (“Yeah, I get you; that’s a long day of work!”) Oops.
Thankfully, my first couchsurfing host realized my misunderstanding after he received a few unexpected responses, and he was nice enough to explain the Argentina “viste” to me.
My favorite Argentin-ism is probably “che”, which is how you can refer to someone to get their attention – a friend, a partner, or even someone you don’t know. The closest thing in English would be saying “hey”, (though to me, che seemed to be a little warmer than “hey” and a little closer to a universal nickname for everyone).
“Che, can you pass me the salt?” “What do you think about this, Che?” “Che, look at this!” “Let’s go to the city, Che.”5
Also, “Re” (pronounced “ray”) added to the beginning of a word doesn’t mean it’s been done again like in English; it adds emphasis, like saying “really”, “super”, or “extra”.
This is not nearly a summary of Argentina, but simply a compilation of a few experiences that I found to be unique to Argentina in my short time backpacking through parts of the country, after having visited a few other countries in South America. I never made it to the capital, Buenos Aires, nor to much of the Patagonia (except Bariloche); I really only got a quick peek of the country.
Like most countries, each region has its own sub cultures, and the more time you spend in a place, the better you get to know it as you see past the superficial experiences of a few encounters with a few people. So I hope you enjoy my observations, but also take them with a grain of salt; and I hope to one day be able to explore more, and if so, I’ll share more with you here!
These are things that were unique to Argentina, based on my travels, having explored Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. However, some things, (like mate,) aren’t restricted to the borders of Argentina and can also be found in some of the neighboring countries of Paraguy, Brazil, and even parts of Chile.
Argentina’s GNI is 1/3 that of the US. GNI = Gross National Income. I looked at GNI per capita, converted by PPP (purchasing power parity) from 2018, as reported by the World Bank, which can be found here: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.MKTP.CD
Part of living abroad is knowing that you might have to experience a “reverse culture shock” when you get back to the US. Well, I got the exciting bonus twist of coming back to the US of the COVID-19 twilight zone reality.
I knew it was going to be interesting. But what I didn’t expect was how much I would be impacted by something so abstract as contrasting responses to the pandemic. For a couple of days, I felt like my grasp on reality was slipping like a sweaty palm holding on to another sweaty palm trying to keep me from falling into a mind warp.
Quarantine in Argentina
For more than a month, I was living in a country whose response to the pandemic was a mandatory quarantine since March 20; the plan was to slow the spread of the virus while they shored up their medical facilities and waited for advances in treatment options.
The president had said frankly when announcing the quarantine that businesses were going to suffer this year in order to save lives, to protect the elderly and those most vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus.
He had a well-articulated nation-wide plan (constantly evolving as new information came in). Even if I didn’t agree with all the quarantine policies, I always felt reassured after his speeches, probably because of how well he articulated the plan, explaining that he was taking advice from a range of health and economy experts. He even used power point slides to explain the plan for flattening the curve and to visually show the successes they had had in preventing deaths by limiting the spread.*
The measures were strict, and we were only supposed to leave the house to buy necessities (food and pharmaceuticals), and you could get arrested if you were caught wandering around for any other reason.
Luckily, I was able to easily adapt to the situation; I paused my travels and stayed in a beautiful spot in Bariloche with a friend. With nature as my backyard, I took it as a fortuitous time to rest and write.
I would wake up in the mornings and look out the window into a forest of trees, listening to the river flowing in the distance. After a yoga and a meditation session, I would write and have lunch. In the afternoons, I would usually go running or hiking through the forest. The sun would set around 8pm, and I would cook and eat delicious, healthy food with my roomie, and later we would sing songs, listen to music, watch documentaries, or read.
When hiking, we would usually encounter quite a few other people out, often families, sometimes couples, sometimes single runners. Often everyone a little on edge at first, making sure it wasn’t the police or someone that would call the police to snitch on us for being out of the house. But after that initial awkwardness, we relaxed knowing that it was just other people who appreciated the benefits of being outside in nature during these stressful and confusing times.
I could go shopping every other day, according to my ID number (odds were allowed to go M,W,F and evens Tu,Th,Sa – a policy implemented after cases started increasing in Bariloche). Shopping was often a half-day adventure because of the long lines of people standing a few meters apart, waiting to go in a few at a time.
I was staying a few kilometers outside of the city center so I had more of a rural experience. I would ride Tomás’ bike to the main road, taking the scenic route. Along the main road, I would go to the bulk foods store to buy things like oatmeal, nuts, dates, rice, beans, and most importantly – dark chocolate. Then I would go to the fish market next door, later to the cheese (and meat) store, and finally to the fruit and vegetable stand. Every now and then I would go to one of the supermarkets, but I really enjoyed taking advantage of the more fresh and local options where I chatted with the store owners that recognized me and I supported the local small businesses.
I was not unaware of my privilege during these times. A friend working for the local government was tasked with helping distribute food for those in need since many people didn’t have income during the quarantine. Bariloche has a huge tourism industry, many people earning a good portion of their income during the ski season in the winter months of June-August, and many others are self-employed doing trade work. While the government prohibited price-gouging, provided financial assistance for unemployment, and mandated that deadlines for utilities and rents be extended, needless to say, some people were still struggling. And winter was coming. (Though a friend pointed out to me that she also saw that a lot of people really step up to help each other out during these times, a generosity that seemed to be characteristic of many Argentines that I had met.)
To prevent the import and spread of cases, national and international flights had all been cancelled since March 20, and travel was not allowed except for essentials (like transport of food). This happened just as some of my Argentine friends were vacationing in Peru, and they weren’t sure how or when they would get home. After a few weeks, they were repatriated on an Argentine Air Force, quarantined in a hotel in the capital for 14 days (flight, food, and room and board paid for by the government), until they tested negative and could return home.
Into the Twilight Zone
What a contrast to my repatriation experience! When I arrived in the US after traveling on a plane with more than 200 people for more than 9 hours, we arrived in Miami airport, and it was as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. Nobody took our temperature, tested us for the coronavirus, or required us to go into quarantine. No one even asked us politely to quarantine ourselves, nor gave us instructions to do so. Nothing was done to ensure I wasn’t bringing one more case into the US.
I shouldn’t have been surprised because over the last month I had had many friends return to the US from all over the world, and they had the same story. Of 11 friends, eight had not encountered any kind of intervention to ensure they weren’t bringing the virus in. The three others had their temperature taken and nothing more. Two were recommended that they quarantine.
This left me asking myself: “Is it so out of control in the US that they’ve given up trying to limit the spread?” Or maybe there’s just enough confidence in our health systems that they’re not worried about another collapse like happened in New York or like what happened in Italy?
When I exited the skywalk and entered the airport in Texas the next day, I was stopped by a gaggle of uniformed men (the Texas Highway patrol) and asked to sign a form saying I would do a 14-day quarantine. Finally, I felt a little reassurance that someone had acknowledged the benefit of trying to limit imported cases to protect my loved ones from this pandemic. That said, there were no guidelines on how to do the quarantine and there was no follow-up to make sure I actually did the quarantine.
Then I heard the Texas Lieutenant governor say that he thought it was reasonable to put lives at risk to COVID-19 to prevent an economic downturn. The faces of my many loved ones that live in Texas – my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and childhood friends – came to my mind.
The stark difference in approach from what I had gotten used to in Argentina, was shocking. I felt like I was going from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye. (Well, Brazil might be the complete other extreme, but this still offered a stark contrast to what I had gotten used to).
I was surprised to see how much I was emotionally impacted by those larger forces around me making policy decisions, creating two different sets of rules for the same game. (Unsurprisingly, a policy based on the assumption of protecting public health and the lives of our loved ones had been more reassuring than a policy protecting the economy first.)
But at least now I understood better why I had been struggling to adapt to the new reality during the first few days, and why it had been so shocking and upsetting at first.
I have to say that it was fascinating to have had the opportunity to live in these two different realities – where different value systems, cultures, and economic circumstances were creating two different sets of rules.**
One of the most fascinating aspects is that Argentina, a country whose economy was already struggling through a serious downturn this year, decided to prioritize public health – people’s lives – over wealth. And the US, with one of the strongest economies in the world decided to prioritize it’s wealth over protecting the lives of its most vulnerable people. It really aligned with the experiences I had had in Argentina – the hospitality I had felt and all the experiences of people taking care of people and not expecting anything monetary in return – and actually being offended if you tried to offer something monetary.
Quarantine in Texas
I arrived in Texas when the “Stay at Home Order” was being lifted, which also happened to be the day after the state recorded its maximum number of deaths due to COVID-19 so far up to that point.***
I had 14 days of quarantine to do, so the official announcement didn’t really impact me (other than the psychological aspect of it). While my quarantine was not being enforced by anyone, I did not come all the way back to the US to be closer to family so I could put them at risk.
I probably don’t have COVID-19, but I might. I traveled on three airplanes (2 completely full), walked through 3 airports, stayed in 2 hotels, and traveled in 2 taxis in Miami.
I don’t have symptoms and I don’t believe deep down in my heart that I have been infected. But reality doesn’t care what I believe. Many carriers that have been responsible for spreading it were asymptomatic. Since I don’t know for certain, I am acting like I am a carrier so that I can protect my loved ones in case what I believe is wrong.
Since I am in the same house with my aunt, this quarantine thing is a little tricky. I walk around with a mask on whenever I leave my room and go into the common areas. I wipe everything down with disinfectant after I sit somewhere for a long period of time, or after I eat. I disinfect the kitchen after preparing my food. Just in case, I don’t share the food I prepare with my aunt, which makes me feel like a horrible person, especially after living in a Latin American country for 4 years.
I maintain the 6 feet of distance from my aunt, whether we are inside or outside. When we are outside together, I try to stay downwind from her. I don’t pet the dog or the cats (just in case).
I touch my face a lot. My nose always itches probably because of the allergens here and/or the face mask always touching my nose. So I wash my hands a lot and use a lot of hand creme. It is a weird life. I was never the OCD type, at least not like this.
I spend most of my time outside, where I don’t have to wear a mask and I can breathe fresh air (and because I’m an outside, nature-loving kind-of person.) One time I ran to a park to exercise, and it there were so many people there, running and exercising! It was like normal, pre-COVID-19 times. It was a real challenge trying to stay a good distance from everyone.
My uncle and his wife surprised me and came to visit when I first arrived. It really made my day to see them! They brought their own chairs and sat 2 meters away from all of us, and we conversed for a few hours without physical contact. I didn’t hug them and I haven’t hugged my aunt since I got here a few days ago even though we haven’t seen each other in over a year. In Peace Corps, I won the “Most Likely to Give You a Hug” superlative, so you can imagine how hard that is for me. It’s a weird life.
My quarantine time is coming to an end, so I’ll be able to hug my aunt and visit my parents. I can’t wait to start living a “normal” life. Except not normal. Since there is a lot more movement here in Texas, I feel like I have to be extra careful since many others are not. There will probably be a higher risk of infection in the next couple of months (or who knows how long?), and I still am not trying to be a carrier and accidentally infect my parents or loved ones.
Living in two different realities under this pandemic has allowed me to see some of the pros and cons of different approaches. When it comes down to it, I don’t have any control over the policy choices that have been made, and I can only adjust to the situation under which I’m living. I feel encouraged by the fact that every week there is better understanding about the disease, how to treat it, how it spreads and what we can do to prevent spreading it.
This article in particular, “The Risks and How to Avoid Them,” made me feel a little more assured that by eliminating large gatherings (like the cancellation of sporting events, conferences, etc.) and taking the precautions that most people are starting to take individually, we can keep the spread low enough not to overwhelm hospitals.
Maybe I’m being optimistic. But for me, that’s one of the most important things to hang onto, even as your hands get sweaty, during any kind of crisis. Hope for the best, while being prepared for the worst.
* The quarantine started as a two-week duration and was extended three times while I was in Argentina. In the third extension, the measures began to be loosened in places without cases or with few cases. More power has been given to local governments along with the guideline to keep the rate of new cases lower than doubling every 15 days.
**One thing that I keep remembering is that one policy solution does not necessarily fit all. There are different customs, cultures, ways of gathering, ways of greeting, ways of getting around, etc, in each place, and those all can have profound impacts on how a virus spreads. One example (of many): In the few days I have been here in Texas, I am reminded of how much people are in their own cars, live far apart, and have a larger “space bubble” around them, compared to my four years in Latin America. That expectation of “personal space” that pervades much of American culture is something that might actually help with the COVID-19 physical distancing to minimize the spread of the virus.
***Reported numbers of deaths and confirmed cases tend to reflect the reality of the impacts of the disease spread from about 1-2 weeks prior (due to incubation time and the time it takes for symptoms and complications to appear). This was more than a month after the “Stay at Home” order was put in place.
A group of backpackers were on a multi-day hike through the wilderness with some local guides. They woke up in their campsite one morning after a long, tough day of hiking at a good clip the day before. They quickly prepared their things to get an early start on the day. As they approached their guides to let them know they were ready, to their surprise, they found their guides sitting quietly and relaxing. When they asked what was wrong, the guides said, “We walked fast yesterday. We’re waiting for our souls to catch up. If we continue on now, we will have left our souls behind and we will have to come back to fetch them later.”
My last full day in Bariloche, I crossed the stream one last time and said my goodbyes to the forest and that majestic lake that always brought me a sense of tranquility.
With friends, we harvested those bright red fruits of the Rosa Mosqueta, and that night we drank Rosa Mosqueta tea and ate apple crisp from apples Tomás harvested off a nearby tree. Walking back to my cabin, I said my farewell to the night sky (specifically to the southern cross which is only visible in the southern hemisphere).
Jess, my sitemate in Peace Corps, had told me that story of “waiting for your soul to catch up” before leaving a place so that you don’t leave your soul behind. It was going to be a long wait since my soul was still off frolicking in the hills. And when it did return, it would be quite a challenge to convince it to come along with me. But I was trying, as I said my “Goodnight Moon” style farewells.
In these time of uncertainty, when international travel is not expected to be readily available for months, and as each country hunkers down and manages the pandemic according to its own reality, I had made the tough decision to leave this comfortable paradise to be close to family and to see if I could be more helpful from the US. It was a decision that had been coming up again and again for the last month, and I had always decided to stay. Until now.
I had had 24 hours to decide and one full day to prepare to leave on the 23-hour van ride that would take me and some other Americans in Bariloche to Buenos Aires to catch a repatriation flight.
Before sunrise the next morning, a nice guy in a van came to pick me up. I said goodbye to Tomás, leaving my tent and my well-traveled yoga mat, along with a promise to return.
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I arrived at the strangely quiet and empty bus terminal where there was a 15-passenger van parked. There were four people standing around outside conversing and three women inside the van, along with 3 young kids. The drivers explained that were waiting for a doctor to come take our temperatures and give us the necessary paperwork* that would allow us to leave the city and travel the 24 hours across multiple provinces to the capital.
I was grateful for the wait because it gave me a little more time to say my farewell to Bariloche, and I stared into the hills with teary eyes. What had started as a small and brilliant point of light beaming from the crest of the hill, was beginning to transform into a complete disc rising out of the hills.
I thought about how many farewells I had said in the last few months and how many times I had stepped into the exciting and scary unknown of the next adventure.
Often I had left a place sooner than I would have liked. Often I had left behind friends that had become my community, giving me a sense of home and family. The fact that I do a lot of leaving doesn’t make the leaving easier. I always feel sad and nostalgic to leave people and places that I have connected with on a deep level. Tears shed are inspired by an indescribable sense of gratitude as much as by a sadness for parting with something beautiful.
As the sun broke free from the hills and shone in its full brilliance, beginning its solo journey across the sky, I accepted this unexpected detour in my journey, just as I had accepted countless other unexpected detours, every one of which had led me to some incredible and unique experience. **
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I climbed into the van a little overwhelmed with all my emotions, thinking about those loved ones that I was headed towards and those that I was headed away from, and the place – the lake, the stream, the forest, the waterfalls, the hills – that I had briefly called home.
The others in the van were also pretty quiet and lost in their own thoughts. A mom and her 3 kids. A tall guy with his girlfriend and an older woman. Another guy who had said goodbye to his girlfriend, leaving her behind as he climbed into the van. An older woman traveling alone. And me.
Tomás had told me to enjoy the landscapes on the ride, especially “valle encantado” (enchanted valley) and “dedo de dios” (god’s finger), and he was right.
The whole day we traveled alongside a river, and the landscapes transformed from rocky cliffs that make rock climbers salivate, to rolling hills offset from the river, to lakes, and even plains. Katherine (the mother of the three kids who had spent the last year traveling through the continental US with her family) commented that it kind of felt like we were traveling through the US, especially Nevada and Utah.
Miles, the 7-year-old, had that special way of commenting frankly about things, and a few hours into the ride, he said, “I wanna go out in the field and run around!” We all laughed because that was exactly how we all felt.
Fairly soon after that, the whole van started to become friends and share stories. Interestingly, just about everyone had been staying with an Argentine family.
It quickly became apparent that I was not the only person sad about having decided to make this journey. Almost everyone was questioning if it had been the right decision for them. Everyone was sad about having left a wonderful place and wonderful people behind. We all found solace in knowing that the others understood the complicated emotions we were going through and the crazy back-and-forth that we had gone through in the last few days.
The young guy was a nurse who had come to Argentina to do alpine climbing, and along the way he had found a community where he felt at home, had fallen in love, and was thinking of starting a life there with his girlfriend. But with the possibility of not being able to return to the US for many months, he had made the tough decision to go back to tie up loose ends. He had wonderful stories of the people he had met and was especially impacted by what a deep connection he had felt talking to people, even strangers, noting how people looked you in the eye and weren’t afraid to be vulnerable and connect, that people were really in touch with their emotions.
Katherine (the woman with the three kids) is a pediatrician and former Air Force. With her husband and kids, they had spent the last year traveling through the US in a camper van. They had recently decided to move to Bariloche to live for at least a few months here. Her husband traveled regularly back to the US for work, and in March he had gotten stranded there, unable to return to Argentina. Finally, she had had to make the decision to pack up everything and head back to the US since it was uncertain when he’d be able to come back to Argentina.
The tall guy with his girlfriend was a rafting guide from Colorado and had been working for a few months in the Patagonia during their high season. His girlfriend, a librarian, had come down with her mom (an artist), to visit and explore the Patagonia together. Unfortunately, that trip got interrupted by the quarantine, but they had found a good place to stay. With their host family, they had made all kinds of homemade foods and baked goods from fruits and vegetables they had harvested themselves.
The older woman who was traveling alone explained that she had regularly made the trip between the US and Argentina for decades because her husband is Argentine. This time she was heading back to the US without him. They had come to visit his father, but because of the quarantine, his father’s caretakers had gone back to be with family, so he staying to take care of him. Since her home and work (she volunteers at the Missouri Botanic gardens, which ironically does work in Oxapampa) were back in the States, she had decided to head back alone. She commented to us ironically that she had been a flight attendant on Eastern Airlines, the same airline (well same name anyway) that would take us all back to the US.
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As we entered the city of Buenos Aires, 23 hours after boarding the van, we stopped at one last gas station, a chain called “Full”. Ironically, 2 months ago when I had crossed the border into Argentina on foot, I had been greeted by a Full gas station; a funny thing to mark my entrance and exit to the country.
Our flight wasn’t until the next day, so we had 24 hours to rest and prepare. Katherine and the kids adopted me into their family and we spent the day at a comfortable little place called “Bernie’s”, right near the airport. Despite its location, during the whole 24 hours, I only heard one play fly in – at about 11pm – a plane with Argentines returning from the US, and the same plane that would be taking us back the next day. And the only airplane that flew into that international airport that day.
What could have been some of the toughest days turned out to be some of the most fun, thanks to being surrounded by great people.
With Katherine and her kids, we played games and joked around. Surrounded by our van support crew, we were able to make light of the situation and enjoy each other’s company.
On the plane, I met another traveler who had been traveling for more than a year and mostly sleeping in her tent. She had learned to build mud, adobe, and super adobe houses and had traveled to different sites helping people build their houses.
As I have found over and over again in my journeys, being surrounding by the right people can make the toughest situations not only bearable, but truly positive, memorable experiences.
And so, (completely coincidentally) exactly four years (to the date) after leaving the US to fly to Peru to begin this South American adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was now returning to the US.
*Since Argentina was under a mandatory quarantine, travel was not allowed except for a few specific circumstances, like delivering food products or catching an international flight – but even then documentation approved by the government was needed.
**That was the first of many times I would have to repeat that acceptance process. Sometimes someone has a magical experience where some great internal struggle is resolved and they never have to face it again. More often, that first magical moment of resolve is only the first, because the same challenge surfaces again later, once, twice, tens, or sometimes hundreds of times. But the memory of that first magical moment of resolve can help us overcome the subsequent struggles.
I certainly hadn’t planned on being in Bariloche for more than a month, but then, some of the best experiences of my travels have been unplanned. While most people can’t say that they’ve had some of their best experiences during these last few months, I have been so fortunate to be in great company in one of the most beautiful places on earth – a place that truly feels like home.
During my extended stay here, I have gotten the opportunity to explore one little nook of this beautiful corner of the world on a more personal level.
Thanks to my brilliant and fun roommate, host, and friend (Tomás), I found “home” in a safe, comfortable, eco-friendly, and gorgeous place, surrounded by good people.
Tomás has been my trail guide, my belay (while rock climbing and in life in general), slack line guru, the guitar and trombone in our 2-person house band (not sure what my role is…I guess back-up vocals), and really great company during 30+ days of lock-down.
Tomás has succeeded in (and shared with me) living a comfortable life connected to nature – close to great hikes, buying vegetables from the local vegetable vendors, eating greens from the garden, composting organic waste, and generating such a small amount of trash that we first took out the trash (a small bag) after I had been there nearly a month.
Taking turns cooking we shared vegetarian recipes and I learned a few secrets like how to cook dry beans and the magic of beer yeast as a condiment. I shared a couple of tricks I had learned in Peru (the amazing “ensalada rusa” and the power of adding ginger to a stir fry), and I almost …almost… got to a point where I enjoyed cooking.
Here, the backyard is a natural playground. There is the stream that you have to cross, hopping from rock to rock, carefully choosing your path so you don’t get stranded in the middle or foolishly land on a loose or slippery rock that pitches you into the water.
Crossing the stream opens up a whole new world. You can wander through trails parallel to the rising hills and rock faces in the south and ultimately find yourself on the lakeshore. Meandering along the lakeshore, you see where the stream you crossed earlier empties into the lake.
The beauty and serenity of the lake is like no other. Some times there is a strong wind that nearly blows you over and creates ocean-like waves on the lake. Other times, there is no wind and the lake is as still as glass.
Heading towards the mountain-like hills to the south is a network of trails that meander through the forest and hills. There are hidden waterfalls, rock faces for climbing, and trails taking you up to the peaks of the hills.
As you climb, every now and then you are rewarded with indescribable views of the lakes below.
Walking through the forest there is a constant background sound of buzzing. At first I thought I was crazy but later I realized that it was the sound of yellow jackets. I saw a few buzzing around when we stopped in a clearing to rest on a log and do acro-yoga, looking out over the lake. But mostly they stay hidden and are heard but not seen, swarming in the trees. Except for that time that one stung me in the foot.* And that other time that one stung Tomás. A small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.
One spiny and annoying bush grabbed my attention (and my pants leg) ever since my first hike in the area. It has a strange pear-apple-shaped red fruit that has nothing but seeds inside. I learned that this is the Rosa Mosqueta. An invasive weed that is really hard to get rid of.
One day my roommate and I had the bright idea to harvest the fruit and make tea. It turned out to be the best tea I’ve ever had in my life – and I’m not exaggerating! As it boiled, it put off an intense sugary sweet smell and the tea had a delicious apple-cinnamon flavor.
Speaking of harvesting fruits…you can find apple trees to provide an afternoon snack on the hike (or a week’s worth of delicious apple treats if you get serious about harvesting them).
Sometimes, walking through the forest, I smell Christmas trees. Though the pines are an invasive species here, the smell is lovely. Riding a borrowed bicycle through neighborhoods towards the main road, there are two spots where I smell that delightful smell of eucalyptus – one of my favorite smells in the world (but also an invasive). (Makes me wonder: Do all invasive trees have good smells?)
Speaking of the trees, the old Coihues are the best (and native, not invasive!) When we stumbled across a great Coihue towering above us, it felt like a guardian tree that could protect us from anything. It took three and a half people to hug that tree all the way around.
Then there are the cypress. Huge cypress trees tower above, painting the sky with a deep green on a deep blue sky backdrop. The hilltops are full of cypress, giving their rocky faces a green coat.
I’m not sure which trees change their colors in the autumn, but I was lucky enough to watch the hilltops change colors from pure green to a burnt-orange and red tint as autumn creeped in.
The trails in this area have provided a unique life lesson. My first time going for a trail run, I was filled with a mixture of nervousness about getting lost, but at the same time a sense of adventure, ready to explore my new “backyard”.
Within the first hundred meters, the trail divided into three forks and I had to choose which way to go. Shortly thereafter, it divided again. I took note of my choices so I could trace my way back and try the other options if I got lost or stuck. But the trail continued to divide, two and three and sometimes four forks every few hundred meters, like a maze, presenting me with countless choose-your-own-adventure-like decisions. With so many forks along the way, I quickly lost track.
Some trails were narrower and I did a lot of ducking under low-hanging trees and bushes while others were wide open rocky trails, and I even encountered a road-like trail that seemed accessible for vehicles. A few times I passed through clearings that had been used as campsites, evidenced by the fire rings. And sometimes the trail spit me out along the stream bank. With the stream as a reference point, I knew I couldn’t get completely lost because I could always follow the stream back to the point behind my house.
As I continued to somewhat randomly choose my path forward at every fork, I realized that there seemed to be a great web of trails, most of them probably all connected eventually in some way. As long as I kept the stream on my right and headed away from the setting sun, I would be able to find my way. Sometimes I had to cut through some heavy brush, and sometimes I decided to retrace my steps and find a cleaner trail or to take a more scenic trail, but I was no longer worried about going in the “wrong direction”.
*That was my first time being stung by any type of wasp or bee. I couldn’t believe how much it felt like stepping on a nail. I’ve never stepped on a nail either, but I imagine that’s what it feels like. But it was a small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.