Don’t cry for me Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
Don’t keep your distance
Songwriters: Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice
It was a lovely day, the first full day on our drive to the south from the salt pans near the Bolivian border through the Wild West of this remote corner of Argentina.
Despite scary world news about the new virus, Argentina still seemed unscathed and we were in good spirits and full of energy, as you can see for yourself. Our children have been bombarding us with messages, begging our return. We reveled in their sudden attention, but intended to finish our trip as planned.
We should have known better! It Was Friday The Thirteenth! Something was bound to ruin our travelers’ euphoria that had lasted for nearly six glorious weeks!
As the sun was setting over the sharp edges of Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Shells) we pulled into a spectacular hotel Los Castillos de Cafayate at the foothills of the red ridge of the same name (Castles of Cafayete).
Over two bottles of cold beer, one lager and one stout, with the view to kill for, we looked at each other:
“Are you thinking of what I am thinking?”
This would be a nice remote hideaway to dig in and hide from the pandemonium virus fever! We could relax here and write those parts of our blog we couldn’t get to over the last days, driving from sunrise to sunset, before hitting the sack, dead to the world.
Oh, Friday the Thirteen! How quickly everything can change. The pleasant empty country roads suddenly became menacing with frequent check points
set by police, military, gendarmery, national guard… who knows what those guys in wide variety of uniforms call themselves. They were still polite enough while checking our papers, with flowcharts in their gloved hands, questioning our entry dates and past moves, inquiring about our future plans, filling in their freshly printed forms,
stepping aside to call the distant seats of power for advice on what to do with us. After passing through the fourth check point that morning we tried, with the first sign of a working phone signal, to call a small resort in the vineyard
where we spent the night on our way to the north a few days back. When we tried to make a reservation for the night, we learned our predicament was far worse than we thought.
Overnight the government imposed a new nationwide protocol for dealing with foreign passport holders. Every hotel was to report to the local hospital all foreigners checking in, so the doctors could come and check them for fever. Through US embassy warnings we also learned of cases of foreigners being detained in hotels and kept in involuntary quarantine even past 2 weeks. The bad news kept rolling in. The Argentinian land borders with Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brasil and Uruguay were being closed. The direct flights to the US, UK and EU were shutdown. All National Parks were closed effective immediately.
The writing was on the wall. Coronavirus reached the southernmost tip of this continent and we better deal with it immediately. Our air tickets to fly out of Mendoza to Buenos Aires were for March 18, long five days later. Our Norwegian airways tickets to fly out of Argentina to London Gatwick for April 1 were clearly too late for us. Our situation was ridiculous. We have been in Argentina already for 6 weeks and without any exposure or symptoms we could hardly be considered as somebody bringing the virus here. But with the number of cases in the country rising, we were simply singled out with all other foreigners as dangerous people threatening the health and well-being of Argentina. Our daughters in the US started sending us possible air flights to get out, but we were still far away from a main airport. Taking turns we sped on empty Ruta 40 at 150 km/h.
Our depression lifted momentarily when we screeched to a halt, spying animals along the road. Some still very much alive like this elegant guanaco
enjoying her sandy bath
or barely a mile down the road this Nandu family, a mother with her chicks
and, if not alive, fossilized animals were impressive, too.
Even without the occasional stop, the drive would have been too long, so we hunkered down in a cheap motel. We figured the receptionist/cleaner/cook would not bother with much paperwork. Indeed he only had us fill out a paper and didn’t even ask to see our passports or make copies. But hours later a knock came on the door.
“My owner called, noticing you are foreigners, can you show me your passport with the entry stamp.”
“Sure, my friend!” I said sweetly. “Why don’t you call your boss right now and even take a photo of our page with the entry stamp.”
While I stood by, he placated his boss and nobody made the call to the hospital. Whew.
In the morning we texted our Mendoza Airbnb. We have stayed in a cottage of a lovely Belgian-Argentinian family on our way in. “When we return, are you supposed to report us to the authorities?” The answer came immediately: “No, don’t worry. This is your home in Argentina. Just come, whenever you can, we will put the keys in the mailbox, if you are late. “ We have always been fans of Airbnbs, but now our love was cemented forever.
In the moments the internet worked, we looked at our options to fly out of the country. With our tickets to London deemed worthless, we abandoned our last planned excursion to Southern Patagonia and focused on any option to leave Argentina with any airline flying out of Buenos Aires to any airport outside of US, UK, or EU which may have a direct connection to Prague.
Why Prague? We do have a place to stay there with family support, health insurance, AND Prague airport was STILL open to flights from so called safe countries. We found two options: Qatar Airways flying daily through Doha, and Turkish Airlines a few times a week through Istanbul. We chose Turkish, as we are familiar with Istanbul and we have some friends there, who might be willing to help us. And if the Prague Airport shuts down (rumors were of 30 day total air travel ban throughout the whole of Europe being negotiated by heads of EU States) we would much rather be stuck in Istanbul than Doha. With this important decision made, we bought new tickets to Prague for March 20, ￼connecting nicely to our March 18 evening Mendoza flight to Buenos Aires.
Late at night, unhindered and unchecked, we entered Mendoza, where our AirBnB family was waiting for us with open arms.
What a relief, a real friendly safe home away from home! A lot of laughs, food, drinks and latest news and rumors was shared. Everyone agreed that our plans to get out seemed realistic, so around midnight we all called it a day and off to bed we went to get some sleep.
We did not have to wait for another change of our plans for too long. In the morning we got news that people entering Mendoza will be asked to be in quarantine for two weeks, so we decided not to drive and walked over to the bakery, where we usually had our breakfast. We were greeted with a big smile by the guy who always served us, the only one speaking some English. “Look at the silly face mask they make us wear. They don’t fit and are totally useless!”
Hearing us speak English the young couple sitting at the table next to us, immediately stood up and moved outside, slathering their hands with hand sanitizer.
“They are afraid,” he said.
“Well, we have been here for 6 weeks and in the boonies. If anyone, they could give us the virus, especially if the came from Buenos Aires, where all the cases are, for now.”
In the middle of our cappuccinos
worse news came by text: “The city has asked the federal government to shut down the airport. But don’t worry, it would only be for incoming flights, not departing.“ This is NOT how air traffic works! You can’t have departing flights with no planes arriving.
We paid for breakfast in a hurry and within an hour we packed all our stuff and were on our way to the airport. Our current tickets to Buenos Aires with Norwegian were for 3 days later, so we had to find seats for any flight right away. The scene at the airport was totally unaffected. Calm before the storm. No representative of Norwegian could be found, but we found an Austral (Aerolineas Argentinas) office. There a kind lady was willing to accept our tickets for our already abandoned flight to Southern Patagonia and exchange them for a flight checking in in 40 minutes to Buenos Aires. But wait, we still have to return our rental car! “I can put you on the next flight, if you need more time!” No way, we are going now!
We called the private company we had rented the car from and as the owner raced to the airport to take the car keys
we checked in our luggage. With a few minutes to spare we jumped on our flight, seeing the screens already blinking red. The next flight to Buenos Aires was cancelled.
By 6pm we landed at AEP, the Domestic Airport, and got a taxi. Well, the first thing the taxi driver shared with us was the latest news he just heard on the local radio station:
“All domestic air trafic will be shut down tomorrow and international traffic the day after!”
“What!!!” we almost screamed at him, the inocent messenger of bad news!
“Go to the EZE International airport, right now!” – a 25 miles long drive in the evening traffic.
“When is your flight?” asked the driver. “We don’t have one – yet, but drive fast.” As the driver was weaving in and out of traffic, we were feverishly trying to figure out what to do. Working both of our iPhones and three computers in San Francisco, where our daughters were looking for any available alternative of travel for tonight, we felt like in a Bond movie.
To make this story short, there was NO Turkish flight that night and NO representative when we arrived at the airport. Hence no chance to change our second set of tickets. We had to buy the third set for the next day, March 17, instead! It was the most expensive one way ticket of our life, but thank god for credit cards and cell phones and T mobile international phone service.
So we were bound to spend one more night in Buenos Aires. It is a great country, a great city, with great people!
But the question was where we could spend it? The kids were texting us to just stay at the airport, but no way Jose, not 24 h before two following nights of travel. Not in a hotel, for sure. Back to our trusty Airbnb app. The first request for lodging was denied by the host, despite my explanation that we have been in the country for 6 weeks already. An apartment that was available on line, was suddenly full! Yes, people were starting to get afraid.
Luckily the second request was approved immediately and we ordered an Uber. As we jumped in and headed in heavy traffic back to the city a call came in from the Uber driver, “Where are you, I am waiting for you at terminal C!”
I leaned to the front and asked, “Wait, what is your name, Mr. Uber Driver?”
“I am Pablo, are you Allison?”
Oh, oh! Poor Allison, stuck at the airport. Cancel rides, start rides, pay cash. Of we go again. Except that when we get to the apartment building in record time, nobody is there. Luckily a nice young woman sitting at the restaurant bellow used her cell phone to sort things out and soon we were safe inside. A special gift: No need to check out at noon, stay till your departure and have a safe return.
So we spent the last rainy day walking the empty streets of Palermo Soho. A quarter we stayed in when we first arrived six weeks ago and fell in love with. Spent the last few hours in cozy, but empty Lobo Café
and got our farewell haircuts (exactly 6 weeks from our last haircuts
after our arrival to this country) and we were on our way back to EZE airport.
Only a few airlines were still operating, so it was easy to find our check in. We had scheduled our flight in such a way that we could spend the second night of travel in Istanbul. We even booked the same Airbnb we stayed in last fall for a month and were looking forward to a happy reunion with our house manager. She was excitedly sending us text messages
and shopping for our favorite cheese and black olives.
“Please check our luggage only to Istanbul.“ we asked the Turkish Airlines check in lady.
“I am sorry, I can’t do that, no one is allowed to leave the transit. And anyways your flight to Prague has been cancelled. Go to the office behind the glass door and reissue your ticket for an earlier flight.”
Chaos reigns. People next to us are trying to rebook their cancelled flight to Copenhagen. We are told everything is fixed in the computer, to go back to the counter and check in. New tickets and new luggage tags are being printed. Luckily my husband who is really good with numbers notices our luggage is on the flight to Copenhagen. Back to the drawing board. The flight numbers have been mixed in the computer system. Finally the new boarding passes are in our hands and they even gave us an exit row! After a 17 hours overnight flight we will arrive in Istanbul in the evening and hopefully leave the next morning for Prague. Better get a room for the night if at all possible. In the last moments before boarding we find an airport Yotel cube hotel and book a room.
The flight is surprisingly not full and we have an empty seat between us. (That always makes you feel like you have won the lottery). But by the time we make a stop in Sao Paolo, Brasil, the empty seats get all filled up. Still Turkish Airlines has a decent service and actually pretty good food, one can actually eat.
Upon arrival in Istanbul, we have to find the hotel we reserved. We know there are two, one Airside in transit area and one Landside, and we should get to the Airside one and definitely not go through immigration control. Of course, everyone we ask sends us to the immigration. After some confused wandering around the transit area we finally discover our Yotel.
There is a lot of people trying to get a room, but of course they are all sold out. Two Israeli girls are attempting to check in next to us, only to find out that their parents have reserved the land side Yotel and they are too afraid to go through immigration, and perhaps not get back in the next morning. We feel bad for them, but there is nothing we can do, but commiserate.
We are pleasantly surprised how nice our cube is. The lighting does give it a bit of a brothel feel,
but everything is new and clean with crisp white sheets.
The next morning we feel guilty again emerging from our cube room, seeing the many people draped around chairs and sleeping on the floor. Anxiously we check the flight monitors and are relieved to find that the flight to Prague is still operational.
It is blissfully short and uneventful. We thank the crew profusely for still flying.
The last hurdle for us now is the entrance into Czech Republic. It is clear that all foreign nationals are prohibited to enter, but citizens and spouses or foreigners with permanent residency can get in. I usually leave my permanent residency card in Prague, as I don’t want to loose it and I have no use for it outside of the country, anyway. Well, by strange coincidence this time we have the card with us, so our entry is easy. We expect that there will be some checks after the immigration, like a thermal station or health check up or at least someone making sure we knew we were to stay in quarantine for two weeks. Nothing. We are only given a piece of paper with instructions that basically tell us we actually do not even need to be in quarantine as no South American country nor Turkey are on the list of countries, return from which would put us in mandatory quarantine.
Nobody mentions it, but we have learned from family about the new law requiring anyone outside the home to wear a face mask, against a steep fine. But like in a Kafka-esque drama, no face masks can be found. We check in the airport pharmacy and of course there are no face masks available. As that is the case everywhere in the country, people have started sewing their own from materials available at home. If you don’t have a grandma or any sewing skills it is also acceptable to have your mouth covered by anything, a shawl or a scarf. Luckily I have two bandanas (my essential practical travel item), that I can wrap around our necks.
While I am guarding our luggage, Mirek goes to the airport supermarket to get some essential food staples. I am standing far away from the entrance to the store with no people around when two security officers clad in black with fancy looking masks stride towards me and pointed sternly at my face. I quickly pull up my blue bandana over my mouth and nose.
When I take a few steps to help Mirek with the grocery bags, two other security officers, a woman and a man, rush to our luggage. As I walk back with the groceries they very disapprovingly wag their heads at me.
We step out to the curb fully outfitted as Bonnie and Clyde sneaking out of Argentina and into Czech Republic. Who could have ever dreamt so many years ago under the Iron Curtain that one day we will try desperately to get in and not out.
PS. We are enjoying our home, we have washed and disinfected all our travel gear. As of the date of this blog posting on March 22:
- Mr. Fernandez, President
of Argentina announced in televised address on March 18 (just a few hours after we left Argentina) a full nationwide lockdown till the end of March.
- The last Turkish Airlines flight TK1767 reached Prague on March 21 (2 days after our arrival). All future flights on this route were cancelled until further announcement.
3. We have plenty of time to whip up some past due blogs of our other less dramatic, but more fun South American adventures. Stay tuned.