As I unfortunately predicted in Week 3, there would be no Patagonia Chronicles Week 4. Not anytime soon, anyway. The proverbial shit has proverbially struck the proverbial fan. In the span of a week, I have gone from the wild and jaw-dropping landscapes of Patagonia to my couch. For now, I am quarantining at home, reading 100 Years of Solitude while I try to endure my own 14 days of solitude.
What an absolute hectic last week it has been. Here’s a timeline. I’m writing it out mostly for me to realize just how quickly everything has happened, and how in the span of a week, everything suddenly went from normal to me sitting in the basement of my parents’ house binge watching everything on Disney +. I didn’t even know they made a Frozen 2. How long have I been out of the country?
March 13: Friday the 13th. I should have known things were too good to be true. I was out hiking on a perfectly clear day when I met two Instagram followers randomly at a viewpoint. Later that night, a guy I met in Cape Town over a year ago messaged me saying he also happened to be in El Chalten. And my Brazilian friend who I serendipitously ran into a week ago was coming to town later that night. We all had dinner and drinks together while I tried wrapping my mind around how small the world really was.
March 14: The Small World Squad and I go on an amazing 8-hour hike to Laguna Torre. Life was good. We followed up our hike with siestas and bar-hopping, a routine that had become my favorite of my entire South America trip. Epic hike with a good crew followed by happy hour hopping in the beautiful village of El Chalten. Tonight took us to three different bars, where I irresponsibly went from sunset beers to mulled wines to gin and tonics. We were meant to hike to Laguna de los Tres the next morning, a challenging 22 kilometer round trip that I was clearly not thinking of while ordering drink after drink.
March 15: Shortly before leaving to return to our respective hostels, we agree to meet at the trailhead of Laguna de los Tres at 11 AM.
I wake up to the news that the national parks of Argentina are all closed. There would be no hiking for us today, or anytime soon, it seemed like. All of a sudden, the wide open mountain town of El Chalten begins to feel like a prison. The Small World Squad changes their name to the more appropriate Quarantine Qrew and panic ensues. The 5-person team dissolves to two. One member flies home and two others hitch a ride to El Calafate. With two nights left at our respective hostels, Nathi and I remain in El Chalten. We maintain our happy hour hopping routine, despite not going on a 10-hour hike to cancel out the calories. I chat with my hostel to see if there is any end in sight, and they have no idea. No one knows anything, and that is the worst part. Uncertainty is all that we hold certain.
March 16: My hostel suddenly tells me that they plan to close in two days. Our favorite bar shuts its doors as well. The streets of El Chalten are desolate, almost as desolate as the grocery store shelves of the town’s two supermarkets. A street that used to be buzzing with backpackers going to and from the trailheads in a steady ant-like stream is now completely devoid of humans. Nathi and I make our way to the bus station to book our rides to El Calafate for the next morning. There are more travelers in the bus station than in the entire rest of the town combined. We aren’t happy enough to do happy hour hopping tonight so we just pack our things and prepare for the move to El Calafate.
My hostel in El Calafate tells me that they have to cancel my reservation. A French traveler had arrived in the country on March 8, past the cutoff point that the government deemed to be within the realm of safety. That hostel has to go into a 14-day quarantine, and each new guest would start the 14-day quarantine all over again. Nothing makes sense, and we just have to live with it.
March 17: That same reasoning that that hostel had to quarantine apparently applies to public transportation, as well. You have to have arrived in Argentina no later than March 3rd to be able to travel within the country and enter El Calafate. I arrived on February 11th, which is my only saving grace at this point. Nathi arrived on March 3rd, barely making the cutoff. We arrive in El Calafate after a lengthy wait at the gates of the town. Police are checking every car that comes in and out. Being on a bus full of travelers, we are stuck for about an hour as they check everyone’s passports to make sure we’ve been in the country long enough.
Finally, we make it through. My hostel seems like a perfect place to wait out the apocalypse. Great Wi-Fi, a room all to myself, an awesome kitchen and super friendly staff. I seemingly had everything I would need if I were to be stuck in the hostel for two weeks. I stock up on groceries so I can cook my own meals for these two weeks.
Late on March 17, I check the news about coronavirus in Argentina on my phone. El Calafate has its first case, a traveler who had been in isolation and had just now tested positive. I go to bed, not sure what to expect the following morning.
Morning of March 18: This is where things get real. I get up at around 9 AM to go catch the remnants of the free hostel breakfast, only to get turned back because the hostel has gone into quarantine. They have to limit the amount of people that can be in a room at once. They tell me more information, saying that El Calafate is now under lockdown. No one can leave their houses, shops are closed, and the only way to get around is by taxi to and from the hospital or to the airport. It is 9:15 AM. By 9:30, I have my flight back to the United States booked.
My first flight would be from El Calafate Airport to Buenos Aires, followed by a flight from Buenos Aires to Chicago. The hostel tells me that I need medical approval to fly and that a doctor will visit the hostel to do the checkups. I distractedly eat my breakfast before packing my things and having a quarantine dance party to try and lighten my mood. At 11:30 AM, I ask the hostel whether the doctor has come yet. Then and only then do they decide to tell me that he actually isn’t coming anymore and that I have to go to the hospital myself.
Well, thanks for letting me know. It’s not like I have a flight to make or anything. I take a taxi to the hospital, and thankfully the checkup only takes about 10 minutes. There is something eerie about being in a hospital, though. Seeing the line of people with each person spaced about 2 meters apart was when things started to get real. I was sweating like crazy, and it was getting hot underneath my clothes. The more I thought about it, the more nervous I got. The doctor stuck a thermometer in my armpit and I was fully prepared to fail the test. Just like school, hey? I aced the verbal exam but would likely fail the physical portion.
Somehow, I was not sweaty enough to fail and get my medical certificate to travel. I head to the airport to check in for my flight.
Afternoon of March 18: Only to find out that they had overbooked due to a “system collapse”. Oh, you mean the system collapse that all airlines do when they plan for no-shows? Argentina announced that they would be shutting down public transportation and national flights starting on Friday. It was Wednesday. People are trying to make their way home and you assume that there will be no-shows on the second-to-last-day of flying?
Turns out, there were just enough no-shows for me to get on that flight, but not after two hours of the most tense waiting I had ever had to do. Seriously. I had already lost hope when they called my name. But before they called my name, I was legitimately at a loss. I could not re-enter El Calafate due to their city-wide quarantine. I could not take a bus from the airport, because the bus terminal was in the locked down city. The next closest town was where I had just come from, El Chalten, which was about 3 hours away. And I left that city because there was nowhere for me to go there either.
It was looking like I would be stranded in an empty airport where all stores and restaurants were shut. I had two apples to last me at least a week. And that rabbit I saw earlier if I could catch it. All flights would be suspended in two days. It was legitimately a possibility that I would be sleeping and slowly starving in that airport if I didn’t get a seat on that flight.
It seems silly now, but at the time, it felt all too real. I was scared. As a backpacker, we are not logistically or financially equipped to deal with something like this. If hostels, hotels, transportation companies, grocery stores, restaurants, and everything else is shut, then we are at a complete loss. Our entire lives and homes are carried on our back. I didn’t even have a tent or a sleeping bag. I genuinely had no idea what I was going to do, but thankfully, I didn’t need to find out.
Evening of March 18: I make it onto my flight as the second to last person on the entire plane. We land in Buenos Aires but not before I get to watch another one of those fiery apocalyptic sunsets that had been happening every night for the past few weeks. The departures screen is lit up half in red due to all of the flight cancellations, but my flight to Panama is not among them, yet.
And thankfully, it never turned into that blinking red shade of terror.
March 19: My layover in Panama is a cruel 41 minutes long, but I am assured before I get on the flight that I would definitely make it since all I have to do is go from gate to gate. They didn’t account for my flight landing 20 minutes late. And then not being able to let us off the plane for another 15 minutes because they didn’t align the bridge properly or something. Or that we had to get on a bus after we got off the plane to get to the terminal. Or that my plane would land at gate 136 and the plane I had to board was at gate 106.
My plane left at 7:35 AM. I got to the terminal at 7:37 AM. I don’t think I ever ran as fast in my life as I did for those 5 minutes from gate 136 to gate 106. Again, the last person on the plane. But I was on.
Afternoon of March 19: Home, sweet home. I got off the plane in Chicago, greeted by two morbidly obese airport employees. Home, sweet home. Not a mention of coronavirus anywhere in the airport. A $9 meal turned into $13 after taxes and tips. The guy dressed in all camo at my gate was talking about how everyone was freaking out about some virus but not freaking out about when Jesus would return. Home, sweet home.
He also mentioned that he didn’t need to stock up on toilet paper because he could use leaves and white t-shirts. The lady he was preaching to also suggested using washcloths as an alternative if you had a washing machine. A third person said the only thing he was stocking up on was ammo. Do they know you can’t shoot the coronavirus? Guns won’t solve all our problems, America. In fact, it might be the cause of most of our problems but that is a blog post for another time.
My $90 Uber ride home from my final flight would have likely received a $50 tip had he successfully abstained from mentioning Jesus during the hour-long ride. But alas, I had to hear about how the Lord was angry that we removed the Ten Commandments from school teachings. I gave him $20 anyway for driving me an hour home at near midnight, although he definitely didn’t deserve it after making a 30-minute side trip to McDonald’s for a flippin’ Coke.
March 21: I have awoken from my post-trip hibernation and am slowly attempting to find a routine while in quarantine. It is absolutely mind-boggling how I had just gone from the highest highs in Patagonia to being locked up in my parents’ basement and being left food on the stairs like I’m Harry Potter at the Dursleys or something. Life comes at you fast.
All whininess and jokes aside, I am immensely grateful to have made it home. Those few hours at the El Calafate Airport will stick with me for a while. Never in my life had I been so uncertain about whether or not I would have a roof over my head and a meal to eat each day. My back was against the ropes in a way that I had never experienced before. Food, a bed, and shelter are something that many of us take for granted each day. I won’t go into a preachy rant because I’m sure most of us are tired of this we are the world bullshit that people in positions of privilege keep preaching, so I’ll wrap things up quickly.
Do your part. When you complain about being trapped at home, remember that there are millions of people worldwide that might not even have a home to be trapped in. We are in this together, and if this doesn’t bring humanity together in a way where we can set our differences aside for the common goal of survival, then we probably deserve to be wiped out. Reach out to those less fortunate to see if you can help them, the way so many of you reached out to me to make sure I was okay.
I am blessed and privileged to have the platform of this blog and my social media pages to constantly have the backpacker community at my back. I have had many of you offer places to stay, financial support, or even just kind words and meaningful thoughts. I’m thinking of a way to try and help fellow travelers out there stranded around the world and facing the same challenges and uncertainty that I was facing just a few days ago, so if anyone has any ideas, let me know how you think I can help. I’ve been trying to link people who are stranded in a place with people who are offering them places to stay, as well as hostels that might be remaining open or accommodation that is offering discounted rates. I’m sure there’s a more efficient way to help on a larger scale, so I’ll be working on this, for sure.
Stay safe, wherever you guys are. Thanks for the love, always. And wash your hands, you dirty pigs.