Escape from Argentina

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After months of being stuck on a sheep farm amid the tragically painful COVID lockdown in Argentina, our patience was wearing thin. As our sanity expired we searched desperately for a way out. The options weren’t good.

The first option to consider was simply to wait it out. By this point we had been patiently waiting for five months, and the government of Argentina showed no signs of putting people before politics and ending or even loosening the nonsensical and ineffective quarantine across the country. Not a great option.

The second option to consider was whether we should book one of the few weekly flights out of Buenos Aries for about $1500 each, pray to Pachamama that we make it through 1600 kilometres and almost as many police checkpoints in the 48 hours we were legally allowed to travel to the airport to board our flight, and abandon the beetle in the airport parking lot given that bloated bureaucracy makes it literally impossible to sell within Argentina. The estimated cost, including abandoning our vehicle and probably having to rebook our flight after missing the first one while waiting at checkpoints: approximately $10,000. Also not a good option.

The third option, technically impossible, was to mount an escape from Argentina into Chile to sell the car, get on a plane, and move on with our lives. And that’s exactly what we did.

Throughout the COVID situation Chile was (and continues to be) closed to anybody but Chilean citizens and residents. We are neither. Yet over the last several weeks there were rumours among traveller groups of people who had been let in to the country to board a plane out of Santiago. With this tiny kernel of hope, Elliott took it upon himself to employ all of the bureaucratic tricks in his arsenal to try to make something happen.

First, we humbled ourselves and asked our embassies for assistance. The Germans couldn’t be bothered and the Americans basically said “you’re out of luck” (to their credit, the Americans DID make a feeble attempt after Elliott CCed about 20 state department officials in a disappointed reply). But despite the situation not looking promising, the Canadians said they would try. Elliott has seldom been more proud to be a Canadian citizen, and Lisa was touched by the fact that as a permanent resident she was treated exactly the same as if she had been a citizen.

While the Canadians worked in the background and eventually sent a diplomatic note on our behalf, Elliott took it upon himself to do everything he could to move our case forward. He sent countless brutally google-translated emails without reply to nameless government email addresses. He took random stabs in the dark with various combinations of email addresses. Once he finally got a reply from a real human, he sent even more emails. Once those didn’t work, he started CCing successive layers of seniority within the Chilean bureaucracy. In essence, he tried his hardest to be really, really annoying. And whether because of the diplomatic note or Elliott’s skills at being supremely annoying, it worked.

One grey afternoon while we were working out in the garden, the phone in the house rang. Lisa joked that it was the Chilean consulate, and with a grim chuckle we both put our heads down in sadness and went back to work. But moments later we were called to the phone and it was indeed the Chilean consulate in Argentina, and in a total surprise they had agreed to provide us with a special permission and safe conduct to enter Chile, sell our car, and board a flight out of the country. It actually worked!

We wanted to leave the next day, but with borders arbitrarily closed for several days we were forced to wait until the following Monday. Luckily that gave us time on the weekend to say farewell to our riding teacher Ailin and to go for one final ride, including Elliott doing a barrel race against one of the local gauchos and almost winning!

We said a fond farewell to our very kind hosts and left the farm near El Bolson in the early hours of the morning on Monday. We encountered our first of six lengthy policy stops in Argentina before the sun had even risen, and they eventually let us through. Once we were in Bariloche we promptly showed up at the Chilean consulate as soon as they opened, but it took them another 3 hours to give us our two little pieces of paper. This put us at about noon, and with not many hours left before the border closed for the day we rushed to the nearest border crossing as fast as we could, only to be stopped by police check after police check with polite but painfully slow Argentinian police asking the same questions, asking for the same documents, calling the same people at some office somewhere, and eventually waving us through, with even a special escort car on one occasion (with the driver deciding that escorting wasn’t important enough to see us all the way through to the end of the route despite us having waited for almost an hour for him to arrive).

Just as the sun began to set we finally made it to the border. It was clear that agents there hadn’t seen much action in the last several months, and it was almost hard for them to believe that we were leaving. “You know you can’t come back to Argentina” one of them said, referring to the absolute bar on foreigners entering the country by any means since March. “We know” we replied with a veiled smile, trying our hardest not to include the fact that coming back to Argentina would be the very last thing we would want to do. The sound of the stamps echoing through the empty building as they approved our paperwork was one of the sweetest sounds we have ever heard.

On the other side of the Andes was the Chilean border crossing, about 60 kilometres down a winding road tunnelled through mounds of snow. The final rays of sun glinted off the ice and the deep green leaves of the trees contrasted with the winter whiteness to remind us that despite all of the borders, quarantines, and bureaucratic nonsense, we were catching our last glimpse of a special place. When we pulled up at the Chilean booth it was clear that they too had been having a relatively quiet time at the border, and after we received a matching set of stamps from the Chileans they decided they might as well check every inch of our car too, probably mostly for drugs but also simply out of boredom (we look like scruffy hippies in an old beetle listening to electro-funk music, so I guess it made sense either way). Everything out, everything back in. Free to go. And then we crossed into Chile, to freedom… or almost at least, after another 14 days of quarantine, this time in Chile!

We couldn’t help but smile as we drove past green meadows and baby cows after leaving the border crossing. Spring had arrived, and it was a time of new beginnings. We encountered some Chilean police checks, but even when seeing the big red letters spelling QUARANTINE on our travel documents they simply waved us through. They were much more relaxed than the mood of paranoia and fear dominating Argentina, and there was significantly more freedom of movement than in Argentina. Some of the highways were partially blocked with truckers’ protests (they loved the beetle), but we got through those without issue.

And finally, after a marathon 16 hour day sitting and driving and waiting in the little beetle, we arrived at our quarantine location to begin one of the final chapters of our wacky journey, this time trading sheep for dogs for 14 days of working and learning on a husky farm… details to come soon!

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