A woman looks down at a man leaning against her from the sidewalk amidst an unhoused community.

Why I fell in love with Skid Row

On a Wednesday in April, armed with my camera, a notebook full of questions and a vague idea about reporting on the area amidst the Coronavirus era, I strolled into Skid Row like a tourist in a foreign country.

It wasn’t all that smooth. I hadn’t yet make connections, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I stayed only a couple of hours — until just before dark — and managed to be the recipient of a couple death threats before then.

But a seed had been planted, too. On that first day, I met both Shorty and Blue, the two individuals I’d develop the closest relationships with, months later.

Something about those first hours lured me in. I started to return every week, then twice a week, then three times.

Day after day, the notebook slid into my backpack for longer stretches. I was no longer reporting all the time, I was just there. Skid Row was good for storytelling, for compelling photography, for a different kind of reporting. But it was also where the excitement was, where new friends were, where my mind expanded. It was, frankly, where I wanted to be.

Eventually I decided to stay the night, just to see what it was like — borrowing an extra tent and camping out on the sidewalk alongside my new community. Those wee hours were difficult in a lot of ways; filled with drama, noise and gunshots. But soon I stayed over again, and again, entranced not just by seeing a new world but by being in it, and discovering so much about life and myself and what’s really important along the way.

To someone who has only abruptly passed through or heard of Skid Row in the broad — overwhelmingly negative — media strokes in which it’s usually painted, this might seem confusing. Isn’t Skid Row the place people arrive when they have nowhere else to go? Isn’t it some place that everyone is trying to get out of, desperate not to be?

My friend Joey, who graciously housed me the rest of the time I was in LA (since then, I’ve spent a couple weeks in North Carolina, a couple weeks in Missouri and am now road tripping east) came along with me on several occasions and experienced the uniqueness of Skid Row for himself.

Still, one night back in Santa Monica, when I just got back from The Row — as its often called locally — he posed the question.

It’s clear this isn’t just a “job” you’ve given yourself, he acknowledged. “You love it there. What makes you love it so much?”

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.)

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.