Love in the Time of Coronavirus

It’s pandemic season. Are you in your favorite place in the world? Peru and Colombia ordered lockdowns. Peruvian airports were ordered to close, stranding hundreds of gringo tourists. They couldn’t leave the country. The U.S. embassy has arranged for a few planes to come and go, so the Americans are getting out, sore feelings and all.

I have a gringo buddy in Buenos Aires who was scheduled to visit the States in May. He cancelled because Argentina would require him to quarantine in a state facility for 14 days upon his return. He stayed in BA, where people are only allowed to leave the house for food or doctor appointments.

A shitstorm is coming to Venezuela because their healthcare system is in the Middle Ages. A shitstorm is coming to Mexico and Brazil because they aren’t doing anything to mitigate the spread. A shitstorm is coming to the whole world, even to you, no matter where you are. The only question is how much shit will rain down on your location. Where would you rather be to ride out the shitstorm?

Being in the States for just over a year, that question has occurred to me. What would I be doing if I had stayed in Lima? I’ve decided that I’m happy where I’m at, in a suburban American house with a yard.

Lima is a hyper-urban place. We couldn’t stockpile food for more than a week in our apartment. In my American house, I could bunker down months if I were OK with canned food. In Lima I would be going nuts with cabin fever. I couldn’t stand being couped up indoors. Imagine what it would be like for small children.

Here I have a back yard to prowl. In Lima I had a rooftop patio, but it wasn’t nearly as big and came with serious privacy issues.

Even if I didn’t, most American cities will never prohibit people from going outside. It’s unenforceable, absent a zombie apocalypse. I will always be able to stroll the neighborhood. They’re taking people to jail for doing that in Lima. And it doesn’t seem to matter how much money you have.

But not everybody in the States is free to walk the dog. Old friend from Bogota, Daniel a.k.a. Ajiaco, relocated to New York a few years ago. We were a little envious of his setup in Brooklyn when we visited in November, but right now he is confined to 500 square feet with his wife and two children. How would you like to be doing that right now?

I think Peru’s president made a good call to quarantine the country, but I wonder if it will only work if the whole world does it. Even if coronavirus is stamped out in Peru, how long until a Machu Picchu-bound tourist brings it back in through the airport?

If it’s impossible to stamp out the virus without a global shutdown, in what country would you want to be when the healthcare system goes under? I don’t have any complaints about Peruvian healthcare, I even got stitches on the cheap at one of the hospitals for proles. But that place is packed with wall-to-wall people on normal days. I do not want to see what would happen to that or the nicer hospitals in a chaos scenario.

On the other hand, in defense of Peruvian healthcare, I pay more in dollars every month for American health insurance than I paid in soles for TWO MONTHS insured in Peru. And it’s not like the American system is going to withstand the pandemic. I won’t be able to visit a hospital for months.

Some Americans reserve hopes that it won’t be so bad. Absent a national lockdown, those hopes rest on one possibility: the weather. The warm weather will reduce contagion, at least until next winter when we’ll be more prepared. Maybe that will play out and everything will be fine.

But that hope only exists in the northern hemisphere. For Peru, winter is coming. And Lima’s is a humid winter, maybe a ripe climate for coronavirus to flourish.

What to Do on Lockdown

No matter where you are, you’re probably not living life as it was. Or you won’t be for long. We’re just now entering a period of disruption. What to do?

Camping

Soon after moving back, I introduced the family to the all-American tradition of camping. Camping is a way to get out of the house and have fun while not neglecting your civic duty of flattening the curve. Load up into a car, drive out of town and set up at a tent somewhere. Visiting the local store for supplies isn’t any riskier than your local grocery store. You may want to be careful in the public restrooms, or you can camp near a river and bathe au naturel.

Only problem right now is Missouri is too cold to sleep outside. We would have to drive several hours south, or wait a month. But then it’s game on.

As a repat, I was worried how the Peruvian wife would take to camping. Sleeping outdoors under the stars, as awesome as that is for me, seemed like a tough sell with her. There isn’t a camping culture in Latin America. A very few over-educated types might own tents and go once every couple years, and others may sleep in a tent once in their life on a trek to climb a mountain or hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

But sleeping in a tent in the wilderness isn’t an end in itself for Latins. If anything they might find it curious why anybody would want to do that, and I get that. I understand even in Europe camping is not as common as here in the States, where it’s a national pastime, a tradition going back to the frontier era and Westward expansion. The Boy Scouts themselves were born in the USA (and currently undergoing another distinctly American tradition).

But I convinced Wife to try it on the pretext of seeing if the children like it, and playing up the all-American importance of it (“We’re in America now, let’s live like Americans!”). It may have been a little premature as April nights in Missouri get down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But I hadn’t gone camping in over a decade, and I was itching for a vacation on the cheap.

So the stage was set to both embrace American culture and have a trial run for the children. Would they sleep through the night, especially the two-year-old? I chose Meramec Caverns, which is close enough that if they couldn’t sleep, we could throw in the towel and come home.

What can be more fun than fire?

We toured the caves and camped for one night on site, and everybody loved it. The trial run couldn’t have gone better. It was just as magical for children and even Wife as it was for me growing up. No more convincing needed.

Over the summer, we went for a five-day trip camping just outside Chicago and Detroit, and then two more trips following float trips around St. Louis. That’s four camping trips in our rookie year.

Hater

Coronavirus or no, we are a camping family. Now the boy says, “I want to stay camping,” as in, he wants to live at a campsite and not in our house.

One of the Missouri campgrounds we stayed at was Latin-friendly, a total shock for me, having given an earful to the wife about speaking only English whenever we get outside St. Louis. The people out there aren’t just trumpistas, I told her, these are “build the wall and cage the children” trumpistas, and they have guns in their pickup trucks, so let’s not provoke them. English only.

Given all that I said about camping not being a thing in Latin America, it was surreal to see at least half of the families at this campground speaking Spanish or Portuguese. We met Peruvians, Colombians, Mexicans and Brazilians. Latin families galore, assimilation in action.

And I thought, we would love to connect with other bicultural families who are into camping. We’re planning a trip to Colorado this summer, in addition to a few Missouri outings. If you’d like to meet up, by all means drop me a line at colin at expat-chronicles dot com.

Cooking Peruvian

We’re not going to any restaurants for big fancy spreads in the time of coronavirus. So it’s a great opportunity to hone those culinary skills.

Wife is a nurse, but foreign-educated nurses must jump through some high hoops to work in the States. She is also a good cook, and I am not just a booster of a Peruvian cuisine, I have experience in the American restaurant industry. So when we moved back I flirted with the idea of peddling Peruvian food.

There is only one Peruvian restaurant in St. Louis, Mango. It’s great, but it’s expensive. Peruvian food doesn’t have to be a white tablecloth affair. It can be like going out for Mexican. So I saw an opportunity in middle-market Peruvian fare. I ultimately discarded the idea for various reasons, high among them being my wife’s not cooking from recipes. She just eyeballs everything, so lomo saltado on Saturday can come out very different than it would if she did it again on Thursday. You can’t do that in the restaurant game. It has to be the same every day of the year.

Being locked down is a great opportunity to perfect and document a few recipes. Even if they are never put to commercial use, I’d like to have the formulas. You can’t just Google Peruvian recipes because the ingredients are so different. You have to find workarounds.

Rule #1: don’t use cod for ceviche.

For example, the cilantro here in the States isn’t as fragrant and flavorful. You need at least three times as much to make arroz con pollo, which is a hell of a lot of work. It’s a lot of work with robust Peruvian leaves, so you basically have to use paste. The imported aji amarillo is bottled in vinegar, which makes it too spicy to work with in the same quantities for aji de gallina. Causa made with Yukon potatoes isn’t as creamy as with Peruvian yellow potatoes. There is no queso paria, so you have to substitute hard parmesan. It goes on and on. We plan to map out all the workarounds.

Escapism

Camping and cooking are great, but that isn’t going to occupy the bulk of your time at home. We are entering a period of unprecedented consumption of entertainment. I’m sharing some good stuff I’ve found. Not the obvious stuff like Narcos. These are long-tail picks you may not stumble upon otherwise. No politics, self help or career improvement in this list. Pure escapism.

SPOILERS ALERT

Pale Fire

“Lolita” by Nabokov is one of my favorite novels of all time. I tried to read “Pale Fire” in 2015 but couldn’t hack it. It was funny, but too thick for what was going on in my life at the time. I picked it up again this year and enjoyed it very much, even starting from the beginning. Nabokov has a biting wit that makes self-deprecating fun of the narrator but also the rest of the world in a mocking, superior kind of way.

I recommend you read this with a dictionary by your side. This ESL author likes to use words most people wouldn’t know, it’s almost part of his shtick in ridiculing the masses. Another tip is to read the Wikipedia article first. The plot summary doesn’t need to be a surprise. Just get on with it.

After completing this I was so enamored with Nabokov that I read his debut, “Pnin,” which was OK, but that will end my study of Nabokov for the foreseeable future.

Ask the Dust

First-person, coming-of-age novel about an Italian-American teen from Colorado relocates to 1930s Los Angeles to become a writer, falls in love with a Mexican-American “greaser.” This is quite a page-turner, I finished it in one Sunday. Foreword by Bukowski, for whom it was clearly an inspiration. ‘Nuff said.

Bad Blood

The inside story of biotech fraud Theranos, whose market valuation peaked at over $10 billion. With 20/20 hindsight, it was never worth anything in a story that showcases the tech bubble, Silicon Valley culture and how one or two compelling charlatans can build a staggering house of cards.

Conspiracy

The Hulk Hogan sex tape scandal may have come across your ordeal as the story that bankrupted Gawker. There was a small backlash and allegations of infringing free speech. But what Gawker was publishing was toxic and illegal. This is the story of how Peter Thiel, who Gawker outed for pageviews, financed the lawsuit to bring the media company down.

The book is being adapted into a film by Charles Randolph, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay of “The Big Short.” It will be directed by Francis Lawrence of “Hunger Games” fame. I devoured this one in three days.

The Swoly Bible

My meathead bros certainly know Dom of BroScienceLife, and if you’re reading this then you are by definition a meathead bro who READS. But did you know Dom wrote a book? It’s as funny as his videos.

How to Live with a Huge Penis

I promised no self-help, but this one is required reading. If the title is intriguing enough for you to click through, the book is hilarious enough to read through.

Love in the Time of Cholera

The title of this post is a play on this Gabo classic, which isn’t really about cholera. I wrote a review of it which was featured in Was Gabo an Irishman? by a collection of expats in Colombia.

Pacificum

This documentary on Peru’s Pacific Ocean was sponsored by the environmental ministry with the goal of building support for marine reserves to protect the ecosystems from industrial fishing and deepwater drilling. Policy aside, it’s a beautiful look at Peru’s coast.

In my early years in Peru, I never saw the coastal landscape as beautiful. But it grew on me, and that transformation came as I learned what was in the water. Above sea level is a desert wasteland, but beneath the surface is teeming with life. Fish that swim, creatures that slither along the bottom, algae and plant life, large birds.

Peru is the world’s top producer of anchovy, which thrive in the cold, plankton-rich waters. The film shows a school. The more exotic marine life is seen in the warmer waters of the north. See Lima City of Kings articles on Pantanos de Villa, La Punta del Callao, the Chorrillos fish terminal and the Islas Ballestas off the coast of Paracas. These sites are showcased in the film, among many others.

Manchester by the Sea

This one stuck with me. Casey Affleck won an Oscar. Family man lost it all because of a mistake while drinking and drugging. Can’t figure out why that stuck with me?

Trotsky

I cannot understand why this biopic miniseries on Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky hasn’t enjoyed mainstream attention. It was Russian-produced but it doesn’t pull any punches. I’ve since read that Putin’s oligarchy does not look on the USSR leadership with the reverence or nostalgia that you may assume. Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin – all those guys are taken to task in this hardcore history biopic. Great actors in every single role, from world-famous characters like Frida Kahlo to the obscure sailor Nikolai Markin. Just a fascinating series, and DARK.

Chernobyl

I read War and Peace in 2018, and enjoyed it very much. I did the Nabokov catalog, and then Trotsky, and now this? What’s the deal with Russia? I don’t know. It’s fascinating history. In Russian culture I see commonalities with Latin America, but without the Iberian warmth, and maybe less competence.

This miniseries on the nuclear meltdown honors the scientists and workers who struggled to avert an environmental apocalypse (much worse than what ultimately was) under the repressive Soviet system. Most died young.

PBS app

Did you know PBS has an app? You can watch all the Frontline documentaries ever made. They used to have the Ken Burns series, but they seem to have taken most down. “Vietnam War” was amazing. More recently I completed “Civil War,” a chapter I hadn’t really explored, but was fascinated. “Prohibition” is a good one, as was the surprisingly good “Country Music.”

Nintendo

Wife bought an old-school Nintendo on Amazon.  It’s a quarter the size of the one I grew up playing, and it came preloaded with over 600 games. Most of those games you remember so fondly are shit, as are the other 500. But this console has Contra and Super Contra, which are enough to entertain me and my boy for months. We save the world from aliens whenever we have 30 minutes to kill. There is something warm in the continuity of teaching him the games I grew up with.

If I remember correctly, Super Contra was a commercial failure, at least compared to the original. I never got into it. Having played both dozens of times now, I know where the developers went wrong. The secret of Contra’s success is that it was EASY. Anybody could beat it. I think they tried to make Super Contra harder. They also tried to do more with the graphics, which just looks worse given the limitations.

Still, after all these years, I must admit that I prefer Super Contra now. The original is too easy.

Please share your books, television and other entertainment in the comments. But don’t just drop a title and run, give us a sentence or paragraph on why it’s worth our time.

Some of these recommendations appeared in my email newsletter. Sign up if you aren’t subscribed. I don’t email subscribers often, so when I do it’s always good. The next email will dish some dirt.

3 comments

  1. I left Colombia on March 12 and I am back in Texas. My wife wanted to stay longer in Colombia and had a return flight for April 1. Now she can’t get out. Colombia, the land of kidnapping, has kidnapped my wife. I understand they are trying to fight a deadly virus, but making innocent people suffer is immoral even if done for good reasons.

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    1. Just before the corona chaos came to the world’s attention, the wife and I were about to shop for a flight to Peru in April. The exchange rate was great, better than I’d seen it in years. Over 3.5 soles/dollar. We would have been trapped in Peru, and worse in a rented accommodation. Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you didn’t make.

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  2. Outside of the great classics like Mario 3 and the Contras, the 8 bit games have not aged so well (NES, Master System, etc.) However, the next generation 16 bit consoles have aged very well (SNES, Genesis). If you play those games today, a lot of them are freaking amazing. They don’t have the load times, tedious training modes, or cut scenes that interrupt the play of the modern games; and the gameplay, sound and graphics of the 16 bit are far superior to what came before. A real golden age of gaming, now is the perfect time to revisit, or play them if never did.

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