BUENOS AIRES, 11/04/2020
On Sunday 15 March 2020 in the evening I received a message from Ana (in Buenos Aires) which said “I have some not very good news. Have you seen the news?” I had of course read about the escalating coronavirus crisis in Asia and Europe but had not yet seen the specific news Ana was referring to: that the Argentine President Alberto Fernández had just announced the closure of Argentina’s borders.
The geography of Patagonia is important to this story. Take a quick look at an atlas if you’re not familiar with it.
On 15 March I was in Puerto Natales, CHILE. I quickly realised I was stuck in the Chilean part of Patagonia - which is expensive and where I know nobody - for at least two weeks and maybe much longer. If I was going to have to delay or abandon the remainder of my journey and be stuck somewhere I wanted it to be Argentina, not Chile. I was only 20km from a border crossing and could have crossed earlier that day (instead of eating a shellfish lunch and being sick!) if only I had known.
At that point I still imagined I might be able somehow to meet Ana in Ushuaia in three weeks’ time. What I knew for certain was that, whatever might happen, I did NOT want to be stuck in Chile. I was fairly sure that the following morning - Monday 16 March - I would not, as a foreigner, be allowed back into Argentina, which you will recall I had only left five days earlier. But I had to try.
I’m going to tell most of this story through my Facebook (FB) posts, which I think better convey my emotions.
FB 14/03/20: If anyone needs any tips on ‘self-isolating’, let me know, yeah? #patagonia
FB 15/03/20: Not a phrase I expected to need to rehearse but “No he estado en Europa desde 2018“. (I haven’t been in Europe since 2018)
FB 15/03/20 (evening): Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Argentina has closed its borders. I am stuck in Chile. I can’t risk starting to cross Tierra del Fuego because there is literally nothing at or on either side of the border, so I would quickly run out of food. I will have to wait in Punta Arenas (southernmost Chilean city where I’ll arrive tomorrow) and pray Argentina opens its borders in time for me to get a bus to Ushuaia in time for my flight, which is to Buenos Aires. I wouldn’t mind being stuck in Buenos Aires where I have ‘gente’ (people), but I really really didn’t want to get stuck here in Chile or frankly in Patagonia generally. And I could have crossed back *today* if there had been any warning. Waaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh.
FB 16/03/20: I am back in Argentina. Crying but - I think - OK.
My day so far:
1. Bought a week’s worth of food and fuel.
2. First border post: “This crossing is closed to everyone. You can try <other crossing>”
3. Second border post, stamped out of Chile but warned the Argentine border is only open to Argentines and residents. Continued to top of mountain pass praying hard.
4. At Argentine border... I’d like to get back to Buenos Aires if possible. You’ve only been in Chile? The truth is I’ve been in South America since 2018; you can see all the stamps. Nods. Where are you going right now? I need to think; I was en route to Ushuaia but maybe I need to replan. Nods. Stamps passport. HD walks out and bursts into tears. I didn’t think for a single second it would be that easy.
5. Small Argentine resto. Greeted by man in face mask. Can I have lunch? I’m sorry, we can’t serve you or we’ll be fined. Gives me the wifi password, then shortly brings me out a massive takeaway container of hot food with a spoon and glass of water. For free. Perhaps this is my life for a bit, eating free food on pavements.
Am feeling totally disoriented and there’s probably no point trying to get a room here so I’ll probably start the 270km east across the steppe to Rio Gallegos. No idea what’s ahead but my relief at being (probably) stuck in Argentina and not stuck in Chile is indescribable.
From 16-19 March I rode across Argentina from Río Turbio to Rio Gallegos. About 270km of flat, windy nothingness. I had booked a room in Río Gallegos (a windy oil city) for four nights to enable me to get online and make some kind of plan.
On 19 March Argentina’s national lock-down was announced but I didn’t know this until I arrived in Río Gallegos.
FB 19/03/20: Having spent four days cycling across Argentina to the nearest city I have arrived to find that foreigners are banned from hotels by law*. Yesterday at a remote police post they tried to detain me in a generator shed simply for Being Foreign. I have absolutely no idea what to do. I haven’t tried to get into a supermarket yet. I have enough food for about two days.
The above post - made via the wifi in the empty central square - rapidly generated 104 comments including several from me as I tried to figure out my options and quickly discovered I had none: I was about to be *detained* in Río Gallegos.
*In retrospect I realise foreigners had not in fact been banned from hotels by law. This was pure xenophobia on the proprietors’ part. Shame on them.
Legally I had two options: leave the country or self-isolate. In practice I could do neither because all domestic transport was grounded and the hoteliers in Río Gallegos closed their doors to *all foreigners*, regardless of previous movements.
Trying to disappear (‘desaparecer’) wasn’t an option because I didn’t have enough food and besides… the Patagonian weather! In a panic I appealed to some young women police officers patrolling the square. Within half an hour I was surrounded by two kinds of police and two uniformed officials from the immigration department. The photograph above was taken by a local press photographer without my consent. I share it here without hers. It shows me sitting on a park bench, very cold and using the park wifi to try to determine if I could somehow get to Buenos Aires.
FB: Fuck. There is supposed to be one final flight to Buenos Aires tonight at 02:40am. I’ve been police escorted to the airport to buy a ticket only to be told I have to buy it online, and now the flight seems to have disappeared. The airport is closed, I’m standing outside using the wifi. If I don’t get on that flight I’m in quarantine here for minimum 14 days. Food provided but not internet. Jail, basically...
It’s no good. They are under orders to take me back to the quarantine if I can’t book the now non-existent flight. Computer says no...
Ok I’m going offline potentially for two weeks minimum. Thanks for the support. I have books...
FB 20/03/20: As some of you already know I have been detained in quarantine in Río Gallegos (Galician River) in Argentine Patagonia. Ostensibly this is because I recently crossed into Chile for a few days.
I arrived in Rio Gallegos yesterday planning to lie low until the end of the month (self-isolation being my modus operandi in any case!), hoping I might be able to complete my three-year ride to the bottom of the continent thereafter. On reading the UK FCO website I understood that Argentina was giving foreigners who had passed through high-risk countries (apparently including Chile) the option to self-isolate for a fortnight or to leave the country immediately. In practice I could do neither, because hotels are closed to foreigners*, the land borders are closed and there are no internal or external flights.
*I do not normally stay in hotels but in the circumstances it would not have been sensible for me to try to camp in the Patagonian wilderness for a fortnight. I need food and I need to know what is going on.
So here I am at a municipal gymnasium, under 24-hour police guard. We are four Europeans (26-43) and one Porteño (25). We are sleeping in dormitories and food is delivered in Tupperware twice a day. Officially we do not have internet access but before I arrived the others accessed an office where they found this wifi router. There is a yard where we can get outside if there is a sunny day. Four of us speak English and we all speak Spanish, so the latter is our lingua franca. At the moment we need toilet paper and soap; hopefully this will be rectified [NB This was not due to a shortage; they just didn't bother to give us any.]
This morning officials from the immigration office came and connected me to the British Embassy, I suspect as a direct result of your Twitter efforts. I have been advised to stay put (not sure I have another option but it’s a nice sentiment!) until such time as transport options become available.
I would have liked to continue to Ushuaia on 1 April and thereafter to return to Buenos Aires. Sadly, I've just received an email saying that my flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires on 7 April has been cancelled, which is confusing as officially the lock-down is only until 31 March. I will have to wait and see how things look in a fortnight’s time.
At the moment I am angry not to have had any opportunity to make choices about what to do. However, given the way I was starting to be treated for being a foreigner - which in my experience is totally uncharacteristic of Argentines - I am glad to be in a safe place, out of the wind, with food provided. Supposedly we will get a certificate of quarantine and perhaps we’ll also be seen by a medic before being released. I hope that will be enough to prevent ongoing mistreatment.
I will listen to parts 6 and 7 of Proust and I have loads of unread books on my Kindle.
I’m sorry I was snappy yesterday. I was frantically trying to investigate whether I could get back to Buenos Aires last night while trying to hold it together (not to mention being desperate for a wee for hours!) and was stressed out by the number of messages that kept popping up on my screen. I really appreciate all the kindness and the efforts you’ve been making to contact the British Embassy on my behalf. I realise everyone has their own things going on and would be very glad to catch up with friends over the coming fortnight. Much love, HDx
P.S. The image is of the gymnasium rules. My favourite is ‘Don’t jump on the beds’.
FB 21/03/20: UK FCO Argentina page now saying internal flights suspended UNTIL 1 April and international flights FROM 22 March, while still ‘strongly encouraging’ Britons to leave the country as soon as possible. SO helpful.
Under 24/7 police guard here for.no.reason - what an insult.
FB 21/03/20, evening update: Tonight we finally got enough soap for everyone, and laundry detergent. And SIX more European inmates including a family with two small children. So now we are 11 in total.
I got quite cross with a local official when the new people were being herded in. Does our 14-day quarantine start again from today? What if more people are rounded up tomorrow? Why were we left without soap for <5 days in a ‘quarantine’?
We haven’t had a chance to talk with the new people properly yet as they are getting settled into their dormitory. (We have rearranged things a bit so none of us ‘original’ five are sharing with the new people/ kids, thank goodness!) But I understand they too have been subject to escalating xenophobia over the past few days while trying to keep a low profile in their vans.
Several of you have asked how we’re all getting on. The original group is intelligent, sensible and fun. I like all of them. It remains to be seen how these new arrivals settle in; 11 already feels very different to five.
FB 21/03/20, bedtime update: Tonight after the six new people arrived a homeless street performer walked through the door. No one is allowed to be on the streets so the police sent him here. I’m not clear if he even knows this is supposedly a quarantine for people (tenuously) considered a Covid-19 risk. The lack of respect being demonstrated towards all of us here is quite astounding. They can’t just keep throwing new people through the door without any measures to separate us! Tomorrow we start kicking up a stink.
FB 22/03/20: The newest arrival is a clown. An actual clown.
The sports manager - the only official whom any of us has met - came today and yelled at us about ‘respect’ when we asked why new people keep arriving in the so-called quarantine. He later as good as admitted it isn’t an actual quarantine, it’s just a place to dump people who have nowhere else to go during the national lock-down. Apparently the police brought the clown here ‘by mistake’. He’s loving the free sandwiches so that’s nice. We got some other good stuff today like milk powder, bread and shampoo.
The Embassy called me again today to understand the situation here and update me on my rights. I have the right to break quarantine if and only if I have a ticket for a flight out. They seem to think a ticket to Buenos Aires would be sufficient in the first instance.
So I have some decisions to make, bearing in mind the national lock-down in Argentina until 31 March, about:
* At what point to return to Buenos Aires from Río Gallegos, and
* At what point to return to the UK from Argentina. My original plan was to stay here until mid-May.
There are lots of factors to weigh up, such as:
* The cost of living in Bs As while relatively low is not free, and my tenants might not be able to pay their rents as things escalate in the UK. A ‘mortgage holiday’ would reduce my outgoings but I might have no income for a bit (like many others).
* Buenos Aires is a nice place to be, normally. It might not be a particularly welcoming place for a foreigner as the virus takes hold.
* Healthcare will be under strain everywhere. At least in the UK I am a citizen.
* If I try staying in Bs As at least for a few weeks (which I’d like to), there is a risk it becomes increasingly difficult to get out. And the Embassy will be able to say I ignored their advice to leave ASAP.
Very happy to hear people’s perspectives on these issues, though I don’t need people to keep explaining to me that there’s a global pandemic, I’m aware of that. 😜💚🦠
FB 23/03/20: Thanks for the thoughtful responses to my last post and for all the good wishes and to those passing on the FCO’s ‘recall’ which has hit your evening news.
I have secured a promise of a bike box from a local shop, which is a good start given the national lockdown. I will just need to persuade our keepers to go and fetch it for me.
I’ve also made initial enquiries about a flight TO Buenos Aires.
I’m quite anxious about managing to get a flight FROM Buenos Aires only for it to be cancelled while I’m in transit, leaving me stranded. In any case that’s the next thing I need to look into.
Notwithstanding being shouted at we had a good day yesterday. We were fed plenty for the first time and they later brought chess sets, packs of cards and games for the kids. This morning I found the 25 year old Argentine and the 7 year old French kid (who don’t have a language in common) playing chess.
I’m incredibly grateful for the people I’m incarcerated with; all are really easy company, including the two kids. We chat quite a bit but can also sit together in comfortable silence doing our own things. Even the clown - while slightly odd - is really no bother. Last night someone cracked open two bottles of wine they’d brought in from their camper-van and we had a good laugh at various bit of dark humour found online.
The wifi isn’t brilliant but it’s good enough for us to keep in touch with our Embassies etc (British, Italian, Austrian, French, German).
FB 24/03/2020: Erm, I just got a ‘hug’ 🤗 from the British Embassy!
In other news, I have a capacious box.
And, I’ve just been told off by a three-year-old for running up the stairs: “Doucement, doucement!”’
FB 25/03/2020, 1AM: According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, to VACILLATE means to keep changing your opinion or thoughts about something, especially in a way that annoys other people. I had no idea about that last bit, did you?
So anyway, if you’re annoyed by my vacillating, look away now!
Today I managed to bring forward my internal flight to this Saturday at no cost. I obtained a bike box. I received confirmation of a peaceful place I can stay in London for a month or so from one dear, generous friend, and of an airport pickup from another. I think I’ve also established that I’ll be able to get back some kind of voucher/points (sadly not a refund) for the transatlantic flight in May I won’t now be able to use. I’m grateful for these mercies.
Meanwhile London went into what looks from here like a totally half-arsed ‘lock-down’ that is surely too little, far too late.
My next step is to *extremely grudgingly* purchase an over-priced and circuitous air ticket from Buenos Aires to London for early next week. BUT I DON’T WANT TO. I mean, I was looking forward to going back to mainland Europe in May and to the UK for July/August. I was looking forward to seeing everybody. But I don’t actually wanna go back there NOW! I mean,
* Yeah I’m a UK citizen, but if I or my people get sick we won’t be able to visit each other anyway.
* 1/3 tenants has already told me her self-employed income has dried-up. So I’m f*cked on the money front wherever I hole-up.
Remind me why I should want to go back to grey, germy, Tory, Brexited UK now? Argentina has extended its lock-down to 13 April. Wouldn’t I be better off just sitting tight til then and seeing how the land lies both here and in the UK? Sure, it’s not The Ritz but I’m physically safe and I can’t spend any money! #lockedup
FB 25/03/2020, 3pm: An hour ago I paid for a three-leg journey FROM Buenos Aires to Heathrow starting in the morning on Thursday 2 April. The payment has gone through but the LatAm website says “You’ll receive confirmation within 48 hours”, which obviously is totally non-standard when buying flights direct from airline websites. At a guess they are anticipating the government may close the main airport on 1 April. So whether these new flights I’ve paid for go, with me on them, is still anyone’s guess.
As things stand my flight TO Buenos Aires is on Saturday so if I catch that one I’ll have to lock myself down for a few nights in BsAs. However, one of the group here may need to get to BsAs sooner than me (for a flight to Austria on Tuesday) and the Saturday flight has seemingly sold out (?!) so we may try to get her up there first in ‘my’ seat and buy another for me...
None of us is getting a great deal of novel reading or yoga done here, it has to be said.
FB 26/03/2020: We’ve been steady at 12 people in this 24/7 police-guarded-foreigner-dump for several days now. A couple of times the police have rounded up more people (mostly couples/ families self-isolating in camper-vans in the middle of nowhere) and tried to force them in here with us. Both we and they have protested, so far successfully. And tonight, more than a week into the national lock-down, they’ve shown up with two more pairs. So we’ve been denied the right to self-isolate, incarcerated, and still they threaten us with new people. I had some sympathy for all the misjudgements that were made in the initial panic, but now?
FB 28/03/2020, 1am: This will be my ninth and hopefully final night incarcerated in Río Gallegos. We’ve not heard of any reason the three of us with tickets won’t be allowed to go to the airport tomorrow or that the flight to Buenos Aires won’t go. A chap from the local British-Argentine association has organised a car to pick me at 11am. The two young Germans have a vehicle they’ve arranged to park near the airport for an unknowable period. My bike is in its just-capacious-enough box, and I wasn’t even arsey to all the mansplainers. Monica (from the German-speaking part of Italy) made us pancakes for pudding. I’ve spent most of the day trying to arrange somewhere to stay in BsAs. Much as I would dearly love to see Ana and Jen I just daren’t show up at their buildings and risk more scenes with neighbours and police. So I’ve been booking hotel rooms online only to find they are actually closed - nerve-wracking. I also still haven’t received my tickets for my international flights. Here are a few pics from the last ten days.
FB 28/03/2020, about to depart Río Gallegos:
Taxi to airport with police escort went smoothly. Flight totally full but plenty of personnel and everybody calm and efficient. HD temperatura “perfecta”’(obvs). Second-easiest bike check-in experience ever! I said I’m sorry, I’d usually have put these five bags into one but... and she whipped out a giant plastic bag in front of my very eyes! #silverlinings
Fourth hotel I booked got in touch offering an alternative apartment with kitchenette and a supermarket opposite. (Being allowed across the street to buy my own food is going to feel amazing!) No transport arranged but I’m not too worried about being able to get a taxi.
Chatted with an English guy very unimpressed with the Embassy. Suspect I’ve had a lot more attention than most.
FB: I am IN BUENOS AIRES!!!
LatAm flights later in the week looking highly sketchy, but at this moment I’m just really damn relieved not to be stuck 2,500 km from the capital. Thanks for all the support these last ten days. 💚🦠🧼
PS The temperature change is incredible 💦
FB 30/03/20: Today I have learned that Spanish lacks a perfect translation for all that is conveyed by the concept GRIEF. (Duelo is probably closest?)
But it does have the verb BALCONEAR, which - in Buenos Aires at least - means to sit on your balcony drinking mate and watching the world go by, but also serves as a metaphor for being something of a passive observer or passenger as opposed to an active participant in whatever is happening.
FB 01.04.2020, not an April Fool: LatAm airline not only thinks I haven’t paid for my flight tomorrow (I have, and they sent me a receipt!), but one of the three legs is definitely cancelled and I can’t find out the status of the other two!
So I have begun the process of demanding a refund. They’re supposed to do this within seven days but other stuck Brits have been told 120 days. They could go bust in that time! Should I claim a refund via my credit card company simultaneously?
I think my options now are probably
A. Revert to Plan A. My original flight to Europe on 18 May might even run! Some elderly Spaniards are stuck in the AirBnB I had booked here but there are plenty of others available. Given the strict lock-down here which has been extended to 13 April (vs the half-arsed UK knockdown) this looks like a good option.
B. Buy yet another new ticket for an intermediate date (eg BA is showing flights in mid April), or wait and see what the government comes up with. Actually maybe those BA flights *are* what the govt has come up with...
Right now I’m thinking A. Thoughts?
FB 02/04/2020: Hi folks. Just to confirm that I have now ‘reverted to Plan A’. This means I’m safely installed in a (minuscule) one-room flat in the Almagro neighbourhood of Buenos Aires for the next six weeks. As things stand we remain on full lockdown here until 13 April, though many predict the lockdown will be extended a fortnight at a time.
Lockdown here actually means lockdown; you can go in groups of one <5 blocks to buy food or medicine but there’s no daily exercise like in the UK, no meeting your friends in the park for a walk and chat. I guess I will walk up and down the stairs while listening to the rest of Proust, and pop out for groceries most days. One perk of Buenos Aires is there are a lot of tasty things you can order in.
Though slightly taken aback how small the place is I will be OK here. I’ve got a balcony for air and sun, I can cook, I have wifi. I’m looking forward to lots of video chats.
One of the main things I’ll do while I’m here is write up the last few weeks of my pan-American journey and perhaps write one or two reflective blogs as well. Highlights etc.
I should probably have stuck to something like Plan A all along instead of hastily booking the flight-that-never-was. Having said that, without that booking I wouldn’t have been allowed out of jail; nine of them are still in there.
Feeling slightly melancholy for the first time since this all kicked off but that’s mostly cos I’m really tired. I can’t say I’m sorry not to be in a series of airports and aeroplanes today.
On 7 April my original flight back to Europe on 18 May was also cancelled.
So, here I am. Argentina’s lockdown has been extended again until 26 April. The President has said he will consider allowing outdoor exercise. I’m fine. I mean, I’m worried about money as one of my tenants can’t pay her rent but I’ve applied for a mortgage holiday which will help for three months.
Apparently there are 700 British tourists stuck in various parts of Argentina. Commercial flights are very few and far between so the FCO may, eventually, have to organise a repatriation flight. That will present me with a dilemma if a flight is offered before mid May, as I’ve been feeling a lot of relief about NOT travelling any earlier than that. Another scenario has me staying here til my visa runs out in mid June and trying for a flight at that time.
It’s not helpful for me to keep thinking about scenarios, so I’m working on the basis I’ll be here - under lockdown til 26 April - til mid May at least, and simply enjoying my days. Food is in plentiful supply, I have lots of people to catch up with and books I want to read. I can’t deny I’m finding global events very interesting politically/ sociologically/ psychologically as well as obviously distressing and often infuriating. I just need to make sure I don’t actually get ill while I’m here, as my travel insurers World Nomads have declared they won’t pay out for any consequences of coronavirus.
With a group of five friends I have undertaken to work through the useful questions at the end of this, one of several apposite blog posts put out by MJB to help folk locate themSelves during this period: https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/self/covid-19/
And finally, several friends have asked if I can get out on my bike/ whether I miss my bike. No I can’t and no I don’t. It is still in its box. I may not have made it quite to Ushuaia but I did ride from Vancouver to Río Gallegos Patagonia over three years and I'm OK with that.