ICE, Travel Ban, and Prolonged Weirdness in Arizona

It’s July and while friends and family back home in the UK and Europe are returning to some semblance of normality, I continue in much the same fashion as I did back in March when this pandemic first hit: at home, alone.

I’m not entirely alone. Thankfully there are a few dogs and humans knocking about, preventing me from going entirely insane. Family, friends, and colleagues, however, are perpetually out of reach. I’m not sure how much longer for, either.

It’s summer in southern Arizona, which means two things: hazy days and sweaty nights. Residents have but one choice to make: whether they’re going to be morning larks or night owls. There’s no middle ground when it’s a thousand degrees outside. We are afforded sunrise or sunset, with occasional dances in the monsoon rains. During the rest of the time, we’re bound indoors exposing ourselves to the freezer when it all gets a bit too much.

Arizona has been one of the US epicenters for COVID-19 transmission rates and it’s not difficult to see why; we’re all stuck inside, in close proximity, facing the breeding ground that is air conditioning. Businesses have been lax. Masks have only been deemed essential very recently. Plus, it’s the wild, wild west, so there are plenty of entitled, conspiritualist types who feel they are above reasonable societal constructs like empathy and compassion. It’s a real hoot, I tell you.

Tucson is a humble, “blue” pocket in an otherwise mostly-red state. It’s easy to forget that I live inside that bubble until I venture out into the mask-less chaos of ridiculously large trucks boasting bumper stickers declaring Trump adoration, religious fanaticism, or confirmed racist status. These days, thankfully, that doesn’t happen often. I keep it that way; it’s safer within the city limits where the influence of the university’s scientific community can somewhat prevail. Reason: it’s a precious commodity.

Any hope that I had for a normal-ish fall semester crumbled some time ago. I’ve not given up hope on the future altogether (don’t worry, Mum,) but I am finding it difficult to imagine any kind of normal classroom scenario or ability to socialise at a bar for many months. It’s quite depressing. And all because a vast swathe of the population would rather take a chance on continuing life as normal. After all, their president says everything is OK, therefore it must be. No matter the nonexistent scientific credentials on either end. It’s a statement that says “your life matters not if it inconveniences me” and that, my friends, is America.

I’ve seen a load of graphics floating around social media that say some variation of:

“I don’t know how to tell you that you should be kind to people.”

And it’s true.

At first, I asked what went so wrong in the childhoods of all of these people that could have made them so lacking in empathy and compassion for others. Then, I took a step back and remembered: it’s a symptom of US culture itself; the dark side of the American Dream mentality of “I’ll do what I damn well please, no matter the cost to others.”

There’s a lot of fear in this country. Fear of scarcity. Fear of being any less than the best. Fear of other people. It has intensified since 2016 – since America decided that politics and professionalism no longer mattered, instead opting for sensationalist reality TV as a decent substitute.

The US has suffered from systemic racism since it decided to take root on native land and destroy its people all those years ago. Since then, we’ve watched as the white man has succeeded with ease, while all other peoples have fought ten times as hard for one-tenth of the financial gain.

I’m a white British woman living in the US and even I have experienced xenophobia. The US is notoriously difficult to live and work in for anyone without significant money in the bank and has been for some time, but during Trump’s administration, we’ve seen the visa process be extended from 2 to 6 months. More recently, during the COVID-19 crisis, applications have terminated altogether, the Social Security Administration has closed down and a travel ban has been put in place for those traveling to the US from the UK and much of Europe. There are no signs of these things lifting anytime soon.

Then there was the ICE ruling. In case it slipped below your radar, allow me to enlighten you. US Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE) (a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security) passed a rule on July 6th, 2020, stating that international students studying in the US would be unable to continue this fall if their universities were exclusively offering online classes. I wrote more about it here. Thankfully the rule was rescinded after countless prominent universities filed federal lawsuits, but it begs the question: if this can slip through, what might come next?

It’s all a bit of a mess. I’m safe in the sense that I have a roof over my head and plenty to eat, but that isn’t enough. Most of life’s pleasures lie out of arm’s length and I fear the toll on mental health that this hostility and negligence will take. America continues to fall apart and it’s one of the greatest social experiments ever conducted, as we further isolate ourselves from each other while our leadership fails to acknowledge that there is even a problem in the first place.

We’re resilient, and therefore undoubtedly strong enough to bounce back. But it won’t be without a touch-and-go adjustment period. I don’t think any of us know quite what that will look like.

Photo by Sharosh Rajasekher on Unsplash

Ramble On

I would consider myself a pretty experienced camper. I’ve pitched in the middle of nowhere where I’ve had to carry my life on my back, I’ve hiked a mountain and had to dangle a bear bag off a cliff, I’ve slept (or at least tried to) at a festival where I wondered if my tent would be pissed or vomited on in the night, I’ve camped in a civilised campsite, on a beach, in a forest, in a thunderstorm, and in the desert. And I love it.

I can appreciate why camping may not be everybody’s cup of tea. I mean, there can be obstacles putting up or taking down your tent if the weather is not cooperating, you can get cold if you don’t have the proper gear, you can wake up to a sauna if you’re somewhere hot, you are hyperaware that there isn’t a toilet handy, you can get invaded by various animals and insects in the night, and you can have noisy people next door etc.

However, despite all that, there is something so incredibly magical about being tucked up in your sleeping bag when the rain starts to fall, or you’re next to the beach and can drift off to the waves crashing or owls hooting or crickets chirping or whatever else resides in your surroundings. There is something so liberating about being able to carry your house with you, as a hermit crab does and stay where your mood takes you.

It is also where I do some of my best thinking. On my most recent venture I was pitched up in a designated campsite on the Pembrokeshire coast. The view across Fishguard Bay was breath-taking and the facilities on site of an impeccable standard. However, as I lay there drifting off to sleep, all I could thinking about was how safe the area was. I could drift off into a deep slumber knowing that no bear or wolf would stop by in search of food. I was safe. But the trade-off is that you are fully aware you aren’t in the wilderness. It’s the outdoors in a box.

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Compare the above scenario to when I was camping in Arizona two years ago. I was in the Chiricahua Mountains with two friends; we’d hiked for hours, well into bear and mountain lion territory and set up camp as dusk infiltrated the evening air. We spent the next few hours building a fire, cooking some steaks and casting our eyes upon some of the clearest night skies I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering. It was true nirvana.

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Before bed, we put everything into a bear bag and dangled it off a cliff edge about 100 metres away from the tent. I drifted in and out of sleep that night, startled by any sounds of scurrying outside of the tent for fear we were about to encounter something much bigger and stronger than any of us. We were miles from any help and really had to have our wits about us.

The next day we awoke to a sparkling sunrise and after a good breakfast began our descent. We’d made it through the night and despite almost dying of dehydration by the time we had reached civilisation, we had had one of the best camping trips of our lives.

This was adventure; real Lewis & Clark style travel. To feel like a pioneer and feel the air of unexpectedness puts all of life into perspective. You are ignited by excitement and awe at the world and all the majestic creatures which walk this earth; and you are filled with a profound respect for the wild that you enter into.

It’s a funny trade-off: safety vs adventure. You can camp somewhere pretty and sleep soundly, or camp somewhere majestic with the risk of being savaged in the night. I think you’ll find the latter to be the one you’ll hold closer to heart.

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