Bogota breakdown: 10 lessons from an endless COVID lockdown

Lockdown and its close-knit family of dry laws, masking, self-isolation, curfew and quarantine have had extended shelf life here in pandemic Colombia. Throw in some country-specific phenomena such as repeated street demonstrations, roadblocks, food distribution standstills, general unrest and widespread vandalism, and you begin to get a glimmer of present-day life in this Latin American country, just about 1,725 miles south of Miami.

As things in the United States begin to show serious signs of returning to some semblance of normal, life in many other places in the world shows a contrast as stark as day and night.

In Colombia, the common expression such is life has taken on a whole new meaning.

Some days, evenings or nights, here in front of my building in Bogotá, the sound of a saxophone makes itself known. In the years before the pandemic, this was an unknown amplification. Yet now suddenly, a lonely saxophone can throw us back haphazardly and without notice to the origins of jazz, to poverty and pain. The saxophonist sets up shop in front of building after building and plays his set repeatedly throughout the evening. The lonely sax player is doing his best to make ends meet during a pandemic that seems to have no end.

I have left my building in Bogotá precisely three times in the last nine months; once in April to get my first AstraZeneca jab. Last month, I needed cash to pay a  plumber for an apartment emergency, so I went to an ATM. And three weeks ago, after a seeming never-ending 12-week wait, I went to the San Ignacio Hospital at the Javeriana University to get my second AstraZeneca shot. I finished my 21-day waiting period for maximum immunity to click in just a few days ago. Will my behavior and routine change much? I don’t think so.

Here at the end of June 2021, infection numbers and deaths were breaking records daily. Although we now appear to have passed the peak of our third wave, the mayor of Bogotá is warning that we will most likely have a fourth. As of this writing, the country has had more than 4.6 million Covid cases and there have been 117,000 Covid-related deaths. The daily death rate is still hovering, down somewhat from the third peak, at around 500, and Semana is reporting that one in three Colombians has now had Covid.

Yet, even now, in the midst of so much continuing and brutal uncertainly and after a year and edging toward a year and a half of pandemic living, I have been able to isolate some simple life lessons from my time in isolation (pardon the pun.)

#1 Creating order has opioid-like calming benefits

I don’t have a housekeeper. Making my bed in the morning has always been my responsibility. And I’ve always done it (well, almost always), sometimes later in the day, sometimes earlier. Covid has taught me that earlier in the day is better. The well-being effect clicks in sooner. That I have made my bed every day since the beginning of the pandemic now registers as not only not a bad achievement at all, but as a constant top-up of good energy for the day ahead

#2 Hot water must go down as one of the most brilliant inventions in history

I am more than proud that I have taken a shower every day during this year and almost a half of Zooming. The camera may not lie, but Zoom surely can. I could have gotten away with a day without a shower. Nobody would have been the wiser. But even if my shower happened in the late afternoon, it was still a shower. I have done something like 500 showers since March of last year. I may no longer be definably sane, but I am, and have been, clean. And the rush of hot water revitalizing my body must go down as one of the greatest inventions of all time, way ahead of the Model T, and perhaps just edging out the magic of Photoshop.

#3 Physical books rule

The pandemic has secured streaming as most likely the way we are going to watch movies from here on in. Cinema as we used to know it, going to a public movie palace to view the latest Hollywood offerings along with hundreds of other non-vetted fellow earthlings is over. Ah, but books! Books are forever. Books are physical, to be enjoyed alone in the privacy of home. Throw in the fact that Amazon is now offering free delivery on books to Colombia, and I’m in 7th pandemic heaven. (Everything is relative.) Books lead us inward to discover nuances of meaning and feeling that movies can only envy. I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, and I am humbled. Vargas Llosa’s study and investigation of the life of the Irish patriot Roger Casement leaves me in awe. If any book can change perceptions of history, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt can. The book is a spectacular achievement.

#4 I am not Anthony Bourdain

I am not a food adventurer. I do like to eat out, and was amused to read mid-pandemic that what people missed most about going out to eat was not the food but seeing other people. Restaurants, it seems, are our showcases for seeing and for being seen. Restaurants are fashion hotspots, of all things. Lockdown, of course, changed all of that. Stuck at home, I learned that I can cook the same dish twice a week, without shame. I now know that I can get by on maybe 20 to 40 basic recipes for life. I’m good with my food. Oh and during this pandemic time of self-distancing, I have finally figured out how to scramble an egg. A pinch of corn flour does the trick. That and a splash of cream. Add chopped tomato and onion, and there you go, perfect Colombian huevos pericos.

#5 Cat litter is the equivalent of modern-day gold

Having lived with cats all my life, I understand that said cats depend on me for pretty much everything, Covid or no Covid. At the beginning of hard lockdown, when store shelves were being emptied of everything, I panicked. What the hell, is there going to be food available for my cats? I wondered. Luckily, there was. But more importantly I immediately conjectured, Is there going to be cat litter? I still remember the moment I called my local cat store, wondering what kind of future we all were going to have without said cat litter. I nervously asked, Do you have Fresh and Clean? Yes, they did. Big sigh of relief! Of course, that didn’t stop me early in the pandemic from hoarding bags of cat litter the way others were stockpiling other modern-day gold products like toilet paper, medical masks and Lysol Swipes. A slight confession, I am still somewhat of a cat litter hoarder. I still need to have at least two weeks of cat litter on hand to sleep easy.

#6 Pacing is a flawed mechanism for dealing with stress

As many, I thought I needed to exercise at home. I watched and emulated

the New York Times 7-minute workout exercise. I quickly discovered that my knees were not what they used to be, no matter how lite I tried to do the exercises. Locked-in at home, I thought I would just walk, pacing back and forth in my restricted apartment. I counted every footstep as I went room to room sometimes in clockwise direction, sometimes anticlockwise, sometimes totally haphazard. I noted all my pacing numbers in a daily diary. I was certifiably insane, until I realized that I was counting even in my sleep. I had gone overboard. I was counting everything, words on my computer screen, dishes I was washing, the number of food deliveries I was having. I’m happy to relate that the pacing and its annotation have long gone out the window.

#7 Crazy has left the building (or everything has its moment)

A decent night’s sleep depends on so many factors, some in our control, others not. Not only has counting my pacing numbers left my mindset, but so too has counting the days until the end of the term of the ludicrous and cartoon persona that was so much in our face over the last four, now distancing, years. This nightmare has, at least for the moment, left the arena. Everything has its moment, and just so everything has its end. The pain, and daily anxiety of dealing with this shadowy figure, who somehow got to be president and install himself as a curse for many not just in the US but around the world, is done. We can only hope. It doesn’t matter that he refuses to let go. Fold this figure into the shadows of history. Now, there is one less anxiety factor getting in the way of sleep.

#8 Mortality is a real thing

I have limited time here on earth. It’s a thought that has occurred to most of us during this pandemic. We are not in control of our destiny. Before this massive interruption to everyday life, maybe some of us thought we were good going forward. Others of us knew we were not in control long ago. A friend said to me early on in this pestilence, “We are back in the Middle Ages.” Not exactly. We have quickly garnered weapons to combat our plague. I am not religious and I hate to posturize, but I think that perhaps our most rewarding lesson from this intrusion of nature might be to think about how much good we can do in our time here on earth. ”How can we best contribute to the lives of others?” It’s a question well worth considering, it seems to me now.

#9 Tillie Olsen knew it all along

The repeated arm movement of pressing heat over dampened clothes to establish order when ironing is soothing and contributive to contemplation. Ironing’s sisters, folding, airing and placing on shelves or in drawers are equally good companions for reflection and for fortifying our inner selves. When we have something so rich in our lives, what do we do? Replace it, of course. We modernize. How about we invent something called a dryer? Throw soothing and contemplative out the window. True, a drying machine gets clothes dried fast, as often as not eliminating the need to iron. Here in Bogotá, I don’t have a dryer. I hang my clothes up to dry, as do most Colombians. When the clothes are ready, I iron, just as people have done for a long while before me.

#10 Breathe in breathe out/ Life goes on

We may like it or we may not, but in one form or another, life goes on. The Spanish Flu pandemic killed from 20 to 50 million people, and possibly many more. It infected some 500 million. Then came the Roaring 20’s, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Swinging 60’s, the Vietnam War, Hippies and Yuppies, the Internet and a new millennium. We were home free. Or so we thought. Only not. We were somehow hard-wired to repeat a pandemic lost in history to most. As of now, our Covid pandemic has taken more than 4 million lives worldwide. Our infections are at close to 200 million. And we are not out of the woods yet. Sometimes, I lie on my bed, and I start a breathing exercise learned in therapy in New York many years ago. I teach my body to relax. I start with my small right toe. I am calm, peaceful, relaxed, I tell my small right toe. I breathe in, I breathe out. I continue toe by toe, limb by limb, body part by body part. I end with my brain. And then, I start again. I am calm, peaceful, relaxed. And then for a while, I am at peace. And if successful, I may even find myself asleep.