Live Inspired: flying home during Coronavirus

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

Past the international baggage claim, an unused security area in Houston’s George Bush International airport looked outrageously big — its gaping confines made larger by an impossibly tall ceiling that felt as though clouds could form inside.

I’d been through this airport many times, and now I wondered: had it always been so cavernous?

Without foot traffic to create its normal humming soundtrack, each step seemed to resonate as I walked through this bizarre expanse. The voices of a single employee and a single other traveler bounced off the lofty metal beams and echoed throughout the chamber.

As I walked in their direction, I didn’t bother to get closer than 50 feet away.

“Am I going out this way for connecting flights?” I asked in a normal speaking voice, yelling being completely unnecessary, as I pointed toward automatic doors. My instincts had been dumbed by the lack of the typical stream of moving bodies.

The airport worker answered in the affirmative, and as she did, the only other passenger in this yawning space breezed past me.

“We’re going to terminal C,” she said. “Let’s go.”

We were two commuting strangers, suddenly linked together as human explorers in a dystopian future not unlike scenes from movies about the end-of-the-world.

Old woman sits in front of a dirt-floor home with a bag of food basics

For El Salvador’s rural residents, Coronavirus challenges shift, heighten

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

High up in the hills of La Paz, El Salvador, the ruthless spread of Coronavirus feels, in some ways, distant.

Here, where tamarind trees twist above thick, tropical jungle, there are few televisions from which to pipe in the constant pulse-raising reports. In the villages of this rural department, where roads from the nearest town of Santiago Nonualco become rocky throughways and throughways become narrow dirt paths connecting labyrinths of homes, there have been no confirmed cases. Unlike El Salvador’s cities and towns, here there is no military on the prowl, no checkpoints blocking these dusty, rock-encrusted roads. Masks worn below are rarely seen in the mountainous villages above.

To some degree, life goes on — far from the country’s dense, urban core, where the news of mass arrests, crowded containment centers and rapidly expanding hospitals keep a population on edge.

On March 21, El Salvador’s government implemented a mandatory, 30-day, in-home quarantine, enforced by the military and national police, to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Later, president Nayib Bukele extended the mandate an additional 15 days.

These strong government measures were primarily made to avert a major outbreak in the three largest cities, where more than half of Salvadorans reside. In rural areas, people are more spread out, more self-contained and significantly less mobile than many in other parts of the country.

But if the public health threat here feels minimized, the impact of the moment for those who survive off the land and a daily wage feels acutely magnified, cutting off access to the scarce resources available, such as working the fields, selling wares on the streets and buying food.

For individuals who subsist off of mere dollars a day, going nearly a month without income is crushing in and of itself. But for a community based in agriculture, the crisis has struck extra bad timing — planting season. With campos lying dormant and important deadlines cruising past, for many the virus is threatening not just to steal the income of weeks or months, but possibly an entire year.

“It’s gotten really bad,” said Ventura Coruvera Vasquez, who cuts cane and other crops for a living. “Normally we go (to the fields) in camiones, now we would have to use buses and (because of the infection potential), the owner says no to that option.

“So what? We have to wait until next year.”

El Salvador under quarantine: desolation, heavy artillery, pupusas and hope

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

A ghoulish light descended on the pupuseras as they worked — the TV glare mixing with fluorescent bulbs as it bounced off green walls. But the aroma was practically heavenly.

Scents of charred quesillo and pork fat dripping onto the griddle and oozing through masa cakes floated through the open sidewalk window and out onto the street. That, and the alluring sizzle made me stop in my tracks after first walking past. I spun around and returned.

“Estoy de vuelta,” I’m back, I said, yanking down my blue, medical mask to show my smile. “Por el olor.” Because of that scent.

I ordered a pair of revuelta pupusas to take with me. And I almost felt something I hadn’t in weeks: normal.

Live Inspired: In this midst of this chaos, a moment of quiet

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

I’m writing this just after midnight on a Wednesday; the world, from my San Salvador balcony is quiet.

The world, here, is never quiet.

Situated on a cliff hanging over a valley that stretches out beneath a frantic highway, my apartment sits in the heart of the vibrant Antiguo Cuscatlán neighborhood — a place where at any moment one can hear the call of street vendors selling paletas and pan; the clamant broadcast of church services, those pastors speaking in tongues via mics connected to far-reaching amps; the roar of traffic and the groan of heavy loads in trucks that have been on the road a few years too long; the long-extending parties that thrive in the event center just across the street.

Playlist: Social Distancing Vibrations

We’re all a little tense right now. Some might even say scared shitless.

Maybe what we all need is to pop in our ear buds, fire up a good soundtrack and put something on the stove with loads of garlic. Dancing while cooking is scientifically proven to, if not keep you virus-free, at least make you hate your apartment-prison a little less. So wildly swing your spatula as you dance in your underwear. That’s right, we’re in our underwear; as long as we’re cancelling everything, let’s go ahead and cancel pants. Then go sit in the one place on the floor where the sun pours in long, golden slivers. See if you can melt into your yoga mat. Do you have any brownies? If so, you should eat two right now and absolutely not worry about the pounds. Scream your favorite lyrics until your cat gets really scared. Repeat.

Can we find some humor in our situation? Like a scrap? Is it there? What about joy? Is there joy to be found? I don’t know, I really don’t. But let’s all keep trying, anyway.

Happy listening. (Click below.)

With Coronavirus impact growing, El Salvador is on lockdown

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

With no known cases of COVID-19, El Salvador is nonetheless taking dramatic measures as life fluctuates between feelings of normalcy and the bizarre.

The week started out so innocently.

On Sunday morning, before returning from a short beach weekend at the glorious Playa El Jaguey in eastern El Salvador, I was marveling at the sunrise melting over the island-filled bay and just how alone I was on the long, pristine sandbars.

By Wednesday evening, I felt like I was in a real-life version of Contagion — surrounded by hundreds of strangers at the grocery store as the shelves chaotically emptied, and my Twitter feed began pinging me into a panic.

Soon, I’d be marveling at how alone I was once again, but for wildly different reasons.

In the span of a couple hours, life had changed. I’d gone from scoffing at what I felt was “overblown” reaction to COVID-19 to being an unwilling participant in a full-on quarantine — changing travel plans, committing to lost money and wondering what will happen if I unintentionally overstay my visa here.

Around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, someone messaged me that the entire country was on lockdown.