The year begins benignly enough—with mojitos at Lajas, a small town on the south coast’s phosphorescent bay, La Parguera. New Year’s Eve is duly festive—no ill omens, no black swans flying over the Lajas plaza, skirted by electric-blue plankton. But a few days later…a 6.5 Richter quake. The earth below that south coast is moving after 1,000 years; it rumbles for a month. Covid is then but a distant news item.
Suddenly Covid is here, all over the island, brought in by cruise ships and planes. Two Italian tourists are whisked away from the docks to a hospital a stone’s throw from my house—the woman eventually dies. The rumour spreads that the cruise ship has emptied its passengers into the bustling old city: Puerto Rico waits with bated breath. A Panamanian doctor, virulently symptomatic, spreads it all over a salsa festival. Again a stone’s throw from my place, a clutch of cafes, bars and restaurants, where the young spend their weekends, is one day rollicking with music, salsa and kioskos selling delicious empanadillas and arroz con pollo, when the governor announces a lockdown beginning the next day. Suddenly the hotels empty out, no tourist on the beaches, no salsa or bomba in the city’s squares—a city that never sleeps is awake in fear. The quake-hit poor still live in shelters…vulnerable as ever.