It was another foggy San Francisco day — or so the windows of my overpriced bedroom told me. I was gazing out over a jumble of swinging power lines, as I so often found myself doing, two computers idling dimly next to me in bed. My newly purchased plant collection and scented candles did very little to lift the mood of stillness, of impending and lingering gloom that the fog seemed to echo. The sound of nothingness had started to fill my ears like a growing scream. As with so many people, COVID-19 had hit me like a shock to the system.
I had moved into a new apartment in downtown San Francisco — with a complete stranger and only a small bedroom to call my own — just one day before the city became one of America’s first to issue shelter-in-place orders. (The city is still under similar orders today.) I had expected to be working from home full-time in the large open common area, sourcing and marketing organized group trips around the world. I was excited for this setup. This job. This life.
But by the second day of that life and nearly every day thereafter, my new housemate — who had lived in the apartment for years — was also forced to use the common area to work a very demanding job. A loud one. She was on conference calls and video chats practically non-stop, leaving me feeling out of place in the common space and both of us feeling generally despondent. Squeezed. Claustrophobic.
Even more than the loss of the life I had planned for 2020 — the new job, the new apartment, the new lifestyle — the physical effects of being trapped in a small room started to weigh on me more than I could have ever predicted. I became depressed. My bed became my office and my dining room; window-gazing became my main activity. I started doing online Zoom yoga classes on a slim yoga mat laid out next to my bed, with no extra space on either side for twists or stretches, only partially committed to this new reality. My life was now contained in a 15×15 square box with two big windows, minimally functional WiFi, and little else.
I tried to force myself to make the best of the situation: I attempted to take all of the self-betterment advice flooding social media to heart. This was My Time™! Here was an opportunity to expand my creativity, begin crafting my long-neglected memoirs, start a meditation practice, redo my resume and recalibrate my dreams. While I don’t want to say that all of this unsolicited life advice was bullshit, it was certainly bullshit for me. I was unable to tap into any form of creative productivity. I wasn’t moving my body. I felt in a permanent state of waiting, watching, not commenting on the world around me. I was stunned.
Despite my shock at feeling the world as I knew it crumble, I do believe that struggles can bring out the best in our resilient selves and often in ways that we don’t expect. After confining myself to my bedroom — as I felt the health experts and government had told me to do — I hit a breaking point in my personal struggle for well-being. In that moment, I did what I knew best: get out. Only I could change my circumstances, and I brashly made a decision to do just that. After all, it had worked for me before.
When I was 17 and had just graduated high school, the only university that accepted me was a good one: UC Santa Cruz, the UC system being one of the main reasons my parents moved the family to California. Blame it on being a teenager, but I didn’t bother to reply to my acceptance letter from UCSC until the very last day I could accept their offer — scholarship included. I have vivid memories of walking to the post office just blocks from my high school, thinking pseudo-adult thoughts to myself. This is the next chapter; so it begins. Placing my acceptance letter in the blue box, I felt keenly aware I was signing my life away.
Maybe one of the reasons I had waited so long to indicate my acceptance was that it all felt a little too easy, too clear of a path straight from high school to a nearby university. But in the end, the timing didn’t matter — accidentally or purposefully, I had forgotten to place a postage stamp on my letter of acceptance. No amount of phone calls to the dean could get UCSC to make an exception for me or even offer me a deferment. Two months before I expected to live the American teenager’s dream of moving into my dorm room, I was smacked in the face with the reality that I was not going to university, and I had nothing planned for the next year. As normal and boring as attending university had felt to me then, the prospect of doing nothing and living with my parents seemed much worse.
In my rose-colored memories, the next decision for me was a no-brainer: Deciding to head for an entirely self-funded gap year in Thailand and Southeast Asia seemed like the only logical step. I had never traveled anywhere except across the border to Canada with my family, but I had seen the movie The Beach and had developed an obsession with Thai culture, Buddhism, and the promise that there were like-minded people similar to me doing exactly what I was doing — wandering the world in search of true experiences, a little fun, and the chance to grow and learn every day.
I would go ahead and change my personal narrative from the girl who forgot to put a postage stamp on her college acceptance form to the girl who saved her money and went across the world with no fear and just a backpack. I hadn’t known anyone who had done a gap year like this, but I wasn’t afraid to be the first. I was enticed by the idea of trailblazing and of the possibility that anything I wanted was out there in the world. How did I expect to find it sitting in my parents’ living room? A dorm room? A box in San Francisco?
I’m older now, but apparently I haven’t really changed. If anything, I believe even more that if my present world is not serving me, I have the power to leave it behind and create a new reality. I started building on my plan to leave San Francisco: I quickly sold all of my belongings, gave my notice on my month-to-month apartment, and decided to move to Mexico — one of the only international destinations available to me as an American — for the foreseeable future. Mexico was a country I had spent a lot of time in, and life in a small town on the beach sounded far superior to being stuck in my room in a large American city. While my decision to head south at the height of the COVID-19 crisis was certainly not a risk to be taken lightly, I think it speaks volumes about knowing myself, being kind to myself, and developing methods to help myself when no one else is going to.
When I bought that one-way ticket to Puerto Escondido, I began to breathe again. Sitting still and waiting was making me feel unwell, and I was able to find a way to exert the little control over my life that I still had: the power to choose where I physically spent my days and nights. I had never actually been to Puerto Escondido before, but like Thailand so many years ago, I was seduced by stories of a friendly beach town with surf all year-round and lots of budget-friendly accommodations. I didn’t know anyone living in this Oaxacan town, but a friend I had met traveling through Asia a few years ago spoke highly of it, and he gave me tips on where to live, how to negotiate a great monthly deal on a furnished room and bathroom, and the phone numbers of some of his friends still living in town. Somehow that seemed like enough to me.
Let me be clear: Moving here has not been without struggles. After all, this is a foreign country to me, where I don’t know anyone. Simple tasks like getting money and buying coffee have to be figured out by trial and error. Despite this, I know I’m lucky. The ability to choose a new life and to work remotely — or work at all — during this crisis is an immense privilege: Not everyone can drop everything and move to a beach town in another country on a whim. Speaking only for myself, I have built my life to be flexible, unattached, and mobile — for better or for worse.
Right now, it’s for better. In Puerto Escondido, I can afford my own place — I can afford privacy, something I sorely had been missing in San Francisco. With low rates of COVID-19, a small population, and most restaurants and activities taking place outside, I feel safer and freer than I could have imagined. Swimming in the ocean daily, eating fresh tropical fruit, and improving my Spanish skills all serve to stoke the once-dormant creativity that had been suffocating me in “The City.”
It is — and I am — a work in progress. I have to forge my own path, and it is within the process of figuring this out, little by little every day, that I find my own power. This is one more chapter in my life where a struggle has forced me to be my greatest champion and to make an honest-if-daring choice for my own well-being. Who knows where I would be right now if I had used a stamp? If 2020 had not shaken me out of my plans? What I do know is that change, although painful, often leads to immense growth. And I’m ready for that.