When we planned our year off we had a lot to think about. Jobs, houses, plane tickets, insurance, cars, and much else. While we hardly ever have plans when we’re actually on the road, we put in a decent amount of consideration before we headed off to try to make sure that we would get the most out of our year off and so that we could enjoy our once in a lifetime experience.
And then came the Coronavirus.
Who plans for a global pandemic!? Certainly not us. And probably not many others either. Everybody around the globe has been impacted and forced to deal with extreme uncertainty and disruption, and as travelers living out of a car in Latin America we were certainly no exception.
From a Whisper to a Storm
For much of the time since we had left Canada for Chile there were bits and pieces of information about the virus that reached us. We passively kept track of the situation along with other world news. First it was in China, then in parts of Europe, then elsewhere. Latin America seemed completely off the radar and we hardly gave it a thought. It seemed like we were in the safest place on the planet.
True, we briefly considered the fact that Torres del Paine might not be the best place to be with hordes of tourists panting their lungs out, but as we cruised north into the emptiness of the Patagonian Steppe we thought we would surely be leaving any bit of risk behind us. After arriving in El Bolson, Argentina, we spent several days enjoying the craft beer and delightful little markets the on offer from the comfort of a riverside campsite just outside of town. All the while, however, the global din surrounding the virus was growing stronger, and we started to think that maybe we should lie low for a while. Besides, the travel routine was getting a bit repetitive anyways, so maybe some time on a farm somewhere might be nicer. After a couple of messages sent through workaway we found a nice place that was happy to have us, and we were getting ready to make the drive north a week later.
And then somebody called the police on us.
As we were getting money from a local cash office, the cashier, clearly noting our accents, asked us how long we had been in the country. What does it matter, we thought, but told her we had just re-entered Argentina about a week prior. She told us to wait for a moment, and we obliged. And then next thing we knew, we were asked to step outside to talk to the police. They asked how long we had been in the country and strongly urged us to socially distance ourselves on account of the virus, which we told them we were trying to do anyways once we got cash and groceries. While we understood the concern, we couldn’t help but feeling slightly uneasy about how the whole situation unfolded, and it was the first purely xenophobic reaction we had been subject to after months on the road.
Not knowing who else would take it upon themselves to call the police on us simply for existing, we decided to pack up our riverside campsite outside of town and headed far into the hills, up a secluded mountain valley, and down an unmarked gravel road to a new campsite, about as far away from humans as we could manage in order to protect both ourselves and others. A cool, clean creek ran by, and we spent our days lounging in the sunshine and reading.
Although we had no cell reception or internet or power, we spent several days there very happily. It really wasn’t a bad spot! After a few days our food stores started getting a little low, so we headed back into town to stock back up.
And then the police stopped us again. The virus had erupted into a full blown pandemic.
Quarantine in a Tent
This time they wouldn’t even let us into town. We chatted with local police, federal police, and health workers, all of whom had different ideas about the current coronavirus regulations and precautions, some of them wearing masks and using disinfectant, and some of them kissing friends and sharing mate tea. The main issue, it seemed, was that we hadn’t quarantined for two weeks after entering the country (even though we had been in remote parts of Argentina for a month already and only popped into Chile for 3 days before coming back again). No, we weren’t allowed to go into town to get more groceries, but fine, we were allowed to drive in to use cell reception so long as we stayed in our car and kept the windows up. Cool.
With windows up, we frantically downloaded all of the ebooks we could, tried to read news articles to find out what exactly was going on, and braced ourselves for another week of hiding out in the middle of nowhere… and then off we went, back up to our old creek-side campsite.
For the next week we nearly went crazy. Although our camping spot was nice, the forest was too thick to go on walks of more than a few minutes up or down the road. The only sign of civilization were some gauchos on horseback who would pass by once in a while (but they completely ignored us). One day we played “who can throw the heavy rock the furthest” (Elliott won). We tried to push start the beetle, just to see if we could (we could). Elliott ate some random plum-looking fruits he found to see if he would get sick (he didn’t). With a careful eye on our cellphone batteries we chewed through all of the ebooks we had downloaded (we barely scraped by). Lisa decided to give the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a try (she loves them).
Our food situation was also pretty dire, and it was a good thing we had a backup bottle of wine and a couple of dried sausages tucked away in the beetle for a rainy day. Nonetheless, by the final day of quarantine we were getting pretty tired of plain pasta with plain tomato sauce. As we were chowing down on our last lunch of crackers, cucumber, and mustard, we were shocked to see that even in our remote camping site, a car pulled up and the police had found us there too! They were just checking in, it turns out, and they were also accompanied by a public health worker that gave us each a fancy certificate indicating that we had completed our quarantine. Yoo hoo!
Bright and early the next morning we packed up camp, fired up the beetle, cranked the heat lever back, and headed down from the frosty mountains into the land of the living.
… but the land of the living was dead.
While we were at our mountain retreat the world had gone crazy. Argentina had been put into a full lockdown and people were only allowed to leave their homes to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy, completely preventing any travel to the workaway host we had arranged only a hundred or so kilometres to the north. All national parks had been closed. Borders were closing and flights were being cancelled. Canada had issued a statement suggesting that Canadians abroad return home, and Austria looked like it might be getting hit as bad as Italy in terms of infections.
As a first course of action, Elliott sent out a few messages on workaway to try to find a temporary place to take shelter in El Bolson; the thought of spending weeks or months cloistered away in our mountain retreat with no connection to the outside world was not appealing. As Lisa bought food staples Elliott scoured the internet for every piece of information he could find. After Lisa came back with $100 worth of good, healthy, practical food, it was Elliott’s turn to head into the supermarket to pick up $100 of beer, wine, fernet, snacks, and junk food, working on the logic that if we were going to be stuck somewhere again we might as well get drunk and have some fun while doing it. Conspicuously missing from both of our carts were plain pasta and plain tomato sauce.
We faced a decision. Should we stay, or should we go? Across Latin America there were stories of travelers ditching their vehicles and scrambling back to their home countries. In some cases, special buses or flights were organized by embassies, likely at great taxpayer expense. Other travelers decided to stay put, whether at a hostel or a campground or just in their vehicle somewhere at a remote beach. Others decided it was all overblown and continued traveling just like they had before, albeit some of them were arrested and deported as a result.
It was our decision to travel in the first place, so there was no way we were going to rely on our embassies and the Canadian taxpayer to get us off the hook. Whatever we did, we would have to do it on our own. Scrambling out of Argentina would have meant abandoning the beetle for good given that it has Chilean plates, can only be sold in Chile, and its Temporary Import Permit for Argentina would have lapsed before we could get back to it. That would have cost us several thousand dollars, not to mention the other several thousand we would have to pay to take last minute flights back to Canada or Austria. And even if we did go back to Canada or Austria, where would we go? We have no home in either place, and staying at either of our parents’ would have meant putting them and others at risk after travelling through countless airports in the midst of a pandemic. Besides, with a full year off from our jobs, time was on our side. While other travelers couldn’t cope with the uncertainty of whether they could predictably make it back to their lives and jobs on time, the only place we had to be was in Austria come July, a full four months later.
As we were discussing what to do and preparing with heavy hearts to inevitably return to our mountain hideaway, Elliott got an email from a new workaway host. Yes, they would be delighted to have us. Yes, we could come right away. And yes, they were on a farm just outside of El Bolson and we should be able to make it past the police checkpoints. It was wonderful news and we made up our minds in an instant.
We would weather the storm in Argentina. And so began our sojourn on a sheep farm.