Chicago and a host of other cities & countries issued Shelter-in-Place orders in an effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in the past ten days. People are freaking out, understandably. I’m here to tell you that the recommended “shelter in place” practices aren’t all that bad, and there’s potential for silver lining.
How would you know?
For almost a year, I voluntarily lived a “shelter-in-place” lifestyle.
From September 2013 through July 2014, I lived alone in Latacunga, Ecuador. I was a recipient of Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant, which funds U.S. students & recent-ish grads to work part-time in English Language departments of public universities in select Fulbright-participating countries.
Wait, you were living abroad and you sheltered in place?
Essentially! I only went to work at the university, grocery shopping, and running. I did go on trips with friends about once a month, and occasionally joined a coworker at their family dinners. But most nights—and weekends—I spent alone in my apartment.
[I don’t care about your story, skip to the Tips!]
That sounds horrible!
It does sound horrible, but I actually loved it. I slept regularly for the first and only extended period of my life. My mental health issues all but disappeared. I got in great shape, and miraculously lost the 20+ lbs I had put on in college (not on purpose—more on that later). I outlined a half dozen creative projects I maybe one day will be lucky enough to pitch. I kept a relatively successful niche blog—and inadvertently developed an online brand with a dedicated following. I grew and developed significant personal and professional relationships in Ecuador and back in the States, both virtually and in-person.
I didn’t specifically set out to do any of this. In fact, when I accepted the Fulbright and committed to this lifestyle, I was terrified of many of the things people fear with social distancing and shelter-in-place. I was afraid of being lonely & isolated. I was afraid of my mental health spiraling out of control. I was afraid of messing up my job, and my important relationships. I was afraid of having the personal willpower to see the long, lonely scholarship period through all on my own.
Most of all, I was afraid of myself.
How did you get over that?
Eh, how one gets over anything. You prepare as best you can with the knowledge that you have, and you just steel yourself and jump in. You acknowledge your terror, existential and otherwise, hold it in your hands and let it save your life when it’s smart, and tell it to screw off when it’s dumb. Easy to say in hindsight.
Why were you staying in so much anyway? I thought Fulbright was about traveling and experiencing new places and people.
It is! I had been to Latin America a couple times before for extended stays, so I had an idea of what to expect socially and culturally. I prepared as best I could with the knowledge that I had, and steeled myself and jumped in.
- go to the gym
- hang out with people my age
- go to restaurants or bars
- go out dancing, clubbing, etc
- eat-pray-love stuff popular with other gringos (yoga on the beach, “volunteering with orphans” etc)
- outdoorsy stuff popular with other gringos (ie rock climbing, petting endangered monkeys, etc)
I committed to changing—adapting—“essential” aspects of my personality that turned out to not be so essential after all.
But Terry—those are all of your favorite things! How—and why—did you cut that out of your life for so long?
Yes, they’re a lot of my favorite things, but they don’t define me. They certain aren’t prerequisites my happiness or contentment or purpose. They’re more like my favorite color, which is purple. Yeah, I like purple a lot, but if I never see that color again I won’t be sad.
I didn’t go to Latacunga to “live my best life” or to “find myself” or to self-actualize; I came to Ecuador to be with Ecuadorians.
Ecuadorians take care of each other with unfathomable dignity. I came back to learn from them their ways of being a good community member—for shouldering weight when you have the strength, for giving back using your unique skill set, for huddling together when things are bad, and celebrating madly when things are good.
It was really important to me to learn not just by watching, but by doing. Perhaps counterintuitively, being a responsible participant-observer implicated a lot of Staying at Home.
Wait, how did staying at home make you a better community member?
Honestly, the cultural norm in Latacunga was to be a bit of a homebody.
Sure, people go out and do things—they take trips to the national parks and participate in “turismo nacional” in other cities and national parks and beaches. They go to nightclubs and out dancing and to eat “comida tipica” or foods unique to cities and regions. But rare is the group of teens or twenty-somethings roaming around doing these things together. Most folks do this with their extended family.
The main social unit in Ecuador was the extended family. It was rare—even frowned upon—for a young person to move out of their family’s household, which typically occupied a few buildings on the same block or plot of land. Dorms did not exist. Students who did move outside their home communities to study typically rented a room & purchased board in the household of another extended family in the city of their university.
It was actually seen as virtuous and desirable to spend most time at home with your family than doing literally anything else.
Where were all the twenty-somethings?
Most twenty-somethings I met were deeply ingrained in their family life both socially and economically. They worked several jobs—usually some sort of service job in the family business, student work, and childcare. Many were entrepreneurs on the side, selling homemade food at soccer games on Sundays or working with the community brigades to repair roads and other civil services.
No one had time or space to go drink craft cocktails or party all night. They barely had time to see their own significant others. If they did travel or go out, they wanted to bring their parents and grandparents—who else would help with childcare?
Furthermore, most people already had kids before they even thought about college. College was seen as a second or even third step of adulthood.
Couldn’t you have gone out and done things by yourself?
In Latacunga, it was super weird to go anywhere alone without an explicit purpose on any day of the week, much like the Shelter in Place orders in Illinois right now. It wasn’t a law, it was just the social norm. Sure, there were tons of nightclubs and public concerts and festivals, but people went with their entire extended family. Imagine going to a nightclub by yourself, and everyone is there is a full family, nineteen year olds up through their great-aunts. It’s not exactly the place you go to make friends and influence people.
It was not appropriate for me to participate in Latacunga public life for a number of reasons. I had learned the hard way that my light brown hair and blue eyes made me an instant celebrity anywhere I went, and I was often greeted like I was Paris Hilton. No matter where I went, my presence was disruptive—due to my appearance, my nationality, and my obscene wealth & privilege.
After some fumbles, I adopted a sociocultural Hippocratic Oath of sorts: do no harm, even passively. The best way to do no harm, I learned, was to earn the trust of the community, and show up to social gatherings only when invited.
This worked incredibly well. So well that I’d tell any white person, or anyone with a privilege differential, that the best way to engage with a community is to just be a normal respectful person, and one day you might be lucky enough to get invited. And then you can g–but keep your goddamn mouth shut. But that’s another blog post!
So while everyone in Latacunga was working three jobs and having quality family time, what in the hell were YOU doing shut up in your house?
All kinds of stuff! Here’s what my schedule was like:
6am – dawn run.
Terry, shut up. I know you. You did NOT wake up at dawn to run. Don’t lie to me.
I’m not lying! I told you, I adapted aspects of myself I thought were essential, but weren’t really.
The dawn runs were a cultural accommodation. Unlike Chicago, you don’t see folks out in running gear at literally all hours. In Latacunga, a dedicated bunch of middle aged men and women congregated silently in the city’s central park and ran laps around a cute little half-mile track (made out of cobblestones! It was like trail running). I joined them, silently, and my presence did not seem disruptive to this quiet little group.
It was a glorious experience. The sun poked through the fog and illuminated the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano with fiery magenta light. The rising moon in the cold blue sky, the whispering palm trees, Florence + the Machine on my iPod. It was an important, centering meditation. I learned the streets of the city really well without the bustle of traffic, and had some quality time with its unique turn of the century architecture. Also—with the rest of my schedule, there was no other time to run!
I guess I can see you singing Florence and the Machine to a shiny volcano. Go on.
6am – dawn run
7am – cold shower (no water boilers! Needless to say I got very efficient)
8am – make my own coffee and breakfast. While I stopped drinking alcohol, I could NOT stop drinking coffee! I had to go out of my way to find places that sold Ecuador’s delicious coffee beans exported to places like Intelligentsia in the States. Most Ecuadorians drank Nescafe because it was so cheap!
Breakfast was usually some pan and eggs. Fruit if I was ambitious.
9am – bus to university, stop at a print shop to make some copies
10am – first class
12:30-2pm – lunch at the adorable fix-prix hole in the wall place across the street from the university. It was 2-3 courses for $2.25—typically a bean, meat, and veggie soup, an entree of a small cut of grilled meat, 1.5 cups of white rice, a carrot or cabbage salad, and sometimes jello for dessert. It came with delicious freshly-squeezed tropical fruit juice too, but I unfortunately had to stop drinking it since I figured out they didn’t use boiled water to make it and I kept getting amoebas. (That’s how I lost 20lbs).
4pm: EMPANADA HAPPY HOUR! The women professors were kind enough to invite me to their daily snacktime ritual. A guy with a pickup truck and a portable deep fryer set up shop every afternoon to sell emapanadas al viento, puffy deep fried pastries full of creamy mild cheese and doused in crystal sugar. Served with Nescafe saturated with sugar. I still dream about this. The women professors tell me all gossip and give me advice; it’s a really important food-and-ladies therapy session.
5pm: make more copies, last set of classes
8-9pm: take last bus back to downtown, a taxi if I miss it
10pm: “make” dinner. Usually a spinach salad with eggs, or some chicken or beans I made the previous weekend. I don’t have a microwave so I figure out how to reheat things by steaming on the stovetop.
Talk to a friend on Facebook messenger & wrap up classwork while eating
11pm: depending on how bad the Perpetual Food Poisoning is, crawl into bed with a cup of cedron “lemongrass” tea, or oregano to soothe.
Yeah, you really didn’t have time for anything on the weekdays. But what about the weekends?
Yep, three days a week I basically had no structured schedule (Fri-Sunday). It was a relief after the 11 hour days at the university, but it turned out very healthy for me.
Really, most of those days I spent inside my apartment staring out my window, as the popular FB event suggests. And I did pretty well, all things considered.
But you’re an extrovert! How did you survive?
True, but I’m I have identified as an extrovert since I was about 19. In reality I’m somewhat of an ambivert. I get lots of energy from interacting face-to-face with people, especially if they’re telling a story unique to their own life experience or teaching me in some other way. But I equally love learning people’s stories in other ways–books, podcasts, history studies, and blogs.
The extrovert vs. introvert thing is a bit of a false dichotomy. Everyone’s got a little bit of introvert in them. I’ve seen every single extovert I know post about how much they love binging Netflix or scrolling through FB.
Regardless of who you are, click here for my outline for Best Practices when you’re sitting inside staring out windows.