A community without walls: Skid Row’s tightly-knit nature sows conflict but reaps beauty

Live Inspired, in partnership with John Reamer and Associates •

Under the shade of the bulbous ficus trees that root this quiet neighborhood block, Pastor Blue glides from the white cargo van to the gas burner with rhythmic ease,  crooning to the Luke Combs’ tunes that stand in place of hymns this evening.

“It’s a match made up in heaven, like good ‘ol boys and beer,” Blue sings as he prepares Saturday supper.

“And me, as long as you’re right here.”

On this stretch of Crocker Street in downtown Los Angeles — where a pop-up draped with international flags and filled with seating forms the “Sanctuary” — just about every evening feels like a backyard barbecue.

Blue cooks — hot dogs, sausages, oxtail with rice. Neighbors drop by and linger over beers and a passed blunt. Stories fill the warm, California air as the sun falls low over the city scape, its shards of golden light bouncing off the asphalt, the brick buildings, the lush, stately branches of Indian laurels that frame the sidewalks.

“Like God himself did the afro,” Blue pronounced one evening, sweeping his arm over the view. “Those trees …the skyline …the weather.

“You’ll see the beauty of California, if you can open your eyes past the tents and the cardboard and the trash.”

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.

Quarantined: 14 ideas to keep you from losing your mind at home

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

As the phrase “social distancing,” has become a new, ominous part of our vernacular, I’ve heard an understandable amount of wringing and solemn but depressive consent on Twitter and from friends.

After all, staying confined to our homes is something almost un-American — an unnatural deprivation of the social and consumerist culture that marks our very identities. Here in El Salvador, it defies the local culture, too. Days, here, are typically marked by trips to multiple independent vendors of eggs, produce, tortillas, bread. Breaks for lunch in the neighborhood park, the nucleus of all activity. Stopping for a minuta at the cart on your way home. 

Still, when I first heard that we might need to hunker down, I secretly loved the idea. I’ve always thought I’d do pretty well amidst the bowels of a bomb shelter or in the clutches of zombie apocalypse. Being alone, cooking off of spare ingredients and endlessly entertaining oneself while managing a routine-like schedule? Yeah, we’ve basically just described my personality.

Even as a world traveler, I’ve still maintained the heart of a hermit, gleefully hibernating for days at a time in the midst of editing and writing sessions, cooking with whatever I have on hand and cranking up the music to dance, sola.

When I first wrote this column, a few days ago, I was feeling optimistic. Wartime Amelia and Peacetime Amelia are not that different, I wrote.

However, I’d just been in the midst of a semi-hibernation when the news hit — knowing I had some national and international travel coming up, and attempting to grind and save money as much as possible. I was about at even my own break point. Now, a week into this new reality, it feels different, heavy. The international airport in El Salvador has now closed, cutting off the burgeoning idea that I might venture home. I feel far away from family and friends and — though plans to lift these quarantine measures and reopen the airport are currently scheduled just over two weeks away — I can’t help but wonder just how long it might be until I’m truly able to go. Thinking worst-case scenarios is not necessarily helpful, but they’ve likely crossed most of our minds.

So in an effort to be helpful during this time of solidarity, I thought I’d share some ideas for those of you  secluded in your homes for whom hermit-ing might not come so naturally. And in doing so, I hope to remind myself. All right, quarantine, here we go. Let’s do this.

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.

Confronting my privilege in my work

Some recent online criticism took me by surprise. It probably shouldn’t have.

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

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Last week, Twitter punched me in the gut.

After someone reposted a link to my project explainer, noting that with a white person behind it, it had the chance to go sideways, a small community of Latinx U.S. Americans jumped on board with the criticism, which got pretty extreme in a few cases.

I’m embarrassed to say, it took me by surprise.

I wanted to create this new docu-series exploring U.S. imperialism because I see a real dearth of those kinds of stories in U.S. media — and because these lesser-told accounts that may seem distant and long ago to some are actually critical context for the issues we’re all concerned about today.

In many ways, we’ve forgotten our own history or we were lied to from the start. Revisiting some of those stories and bringing light to them is what I’ve been driven to do.

But since I began the project, I’ve also described, in part, my motivations for what not to do. I’ve talked about being hyper aware of the history of white people in other countries — colonizing and enslaving, diminishing and extorting, profiteering off of faces and experiences and controlling narratives for their own gain.

I’ve explained that as a white person moving through non-white places, one of the few ways I felt I could do good and not harm was to make my work a critique of my own people, my own government; to be a voice in examining that influence so that we can work to change the direction of the tide.

Still, when some of those accusations were slung my way, I was shamefully taken off guard.

Live Inspired mailbag: all things food

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

If you know anything about me, you know that food (and drink!) is a big part of my life. After growing up in my parent’s kitchen — entering cooking contests from the age of 9 — then coming of age in restaurants, then working as a food writer, I’ve always been very motivated by food.

For me, travel is no exception — in fact, food is one of the major inspirations in why I travel. I’m never happier than when wandering through a local market, discovering new produce and new prepared dishes. I believe that the raw origins of a place’s food culture is always evident in its markets; there’s no better venue to get a grasp of the climate and terrain, to understand what and how people eat, to see the various crude ingredients — animal parts, produce, fresh cheese, just-made tortillas — come together skillfully in entire meals at a vendor’s stand around the corner.

While traveling, I’ve also found food to be one of the greatest connectors, which is why cooking and eating will be such a big part of my docu-series project. When we make food for others, we are caring for them in the most primal and fundamental sense. To accept that gift is an intimate exchange; to respect someone’s food is to respect them. And oh the satisfaction of savoring a meal together; do so and you’ll be closer than you were when you sat down.

There is incredible wonder and joy in newness, of experiencing something you never have before. There is incredible comfort and fulfillment in familiarity, in being reminded of our commonality and shared experiences. In food, we have an opportunity to find both: newness and familiarity. We have the chance to feed ourselves physically and mentally, in two wildly different but equally nourishing ways.

With those sentiments in mind, I thought I would focus this latest mailbag on all things edible (and drinkable!). Judging from your responses, food is something you all are passionate about and interested in, too!

By the way, if you’ve missed them, you can find past mailbags about who I am and what I do, about the logistics of my travel and about all things health-and-wellness on the road through the above links.