One year ago we were stuck in Argentina, one year ago our flight was canceled 9 times, and one year ago we were repatriated through an Air France flight, long after the airport of EZE was closed. One year.
One year ago, a bit more, was the last time I hugged someone else then my husband and kids. Lupe, Gustavo, Patricia, Gabriel,…to name but a few. More than once. And very close. Do people in Argentina still hug? Do they still share mate? I wouldn’t know, because…
One year ago was the last time we flew an airplane. Without face mask. We knew we probably should have, but they were not available, not in Argentina, not in Belgium.
All the things that did and didn’t happen in that one year, the things we did and didn’t do, it is too much to count. Things that were unthinkable then, are normal now. And what we took for granted then, makes us crave for and embrace now.
We are supposed to see light at the end of the tunnel, or so they say. I don’t know.
We are supposed to be able to travel again soon. But where to? While we are going towards summer and opening up, the southern hemisphere is going towards winter and closing down the borders again. While the north is going to take a short summer break, the south will go through yet another storm. Vaccination doesn’t catch up with the virus, not in Europe and not in Argentina.
But well, what’s another year.
What’s another year, Argentina…. Wait for me. I’m coming as soon as it is possible. With or without hugging, with or without sharing mate.
This is totally and utterly surreal. When we left our country less than 1 month ago on this photographic trip to Buenos Aires, the world was still how we knew it, the world I grew up in. There had been many changes over the years, but all those changes came slowly and we chose to be part of it (or not). The internet, the cell phone, the smart phone, video calls…. They came slow, and now we can’t imagine how our life was before these inventions.
In just a few weeks time that world has changed. In just a few days time, Argentina went from ‘corona is far away’ to a total lock down, with rules much stricter than even in Italy, where they count up to 1000 dead a day. In Argentina they had (yesterday) a total of 17 dead, over just less than a month.
We realised even more that the world has changed when we got into the airport, after being stopped and checked by the police several times. An airport that was dead and closed. The international airport of Buenos Aires isn’t very big -the national airport is a lot bigger-, and the 500 people of our plane didn’t give the impression it was totally empty, as everyone was keeping a distance. But the announcements before boarding, with detailed instructions on how to behave, the demanding tone of the voice, and especially the people complying without complaining, was surreal.
We got on a ‘special plane’, this was a repatriation plane, and the crew volunteered to pick us up. They got a full round of applause even before we took off! The food was limited, and everything was brought in one round. Aperitif, food and coffee, just to limit the contact between crew and passengers. We were not allowed to move around the plane except when necessary.
Even Paris seemed asleep. Our plane was the only one in that terminal. There were only French and other Europeans in the plane so the pasport controls were fast and we were out of the airport in no time. Nicely keeping the 1,5m distance, as voices through the speakers kept on repeating.
Getting to Belgium was another problem to tackle, as the French-Belgian borders are closed, and to move around in France you need special documents, just like in Argentina. There are hardly any trains riding. Our TGV was canceled.
We were lucky to have our son pick us up : family members are allowed to pick each other up. Armed with a whole file, including copies of our passports, our flight tickets, proof of residence, proof of relationship, he set off to Paris.
But just we had read on the embassy website, the police is tolerant for Belgians picking up relatives in Charles de Gaulle airport, and our pick up seemed a piece of cake. Only the Belgian police at the border wanted to know where we came from and wanted to see proof of relationship.
The Belgian roads (in contrast to the French and Argentine) are still rather busy, at least during the day, nevertheless the trip home was fast.
Finally home we have a zillion things to do. What a difference to the complete boredom in Argentina! We are now in quarantine, the 3 of us ; for 2 weeks we are dependent on the goodwill of my sister in law and my nephew to do the shopping. We will have to make up for that later, once life turns back to normal.
When will that be? Will the old normal ever come back? What will the new normal look like? Or is this new normal? We will just have to wait and see about that!
We have a flight, so we should be relieved. We are! Even though we won’t fully believe it until we’re actually in the plane. We are more than experienced with flight cancelations.
We wake up 2 hours after the usual 5am (time Air France Belgium opens and we could rebook a canceled flight), and have 3 coffees. (Until now our coffee was rationed to 1 a day, as we only have 30-ish Nespresso capsules and can’t get to any extra and the only alternative is Nescafé powder). Being able to drink a good cup of joe (and another one) (and another one) seems like a gift from heaven.
The embassy sends us message that AF has organized yet another flight, now departing on the 31st. I have the instant reflection to book, in case our flight gets canceled. Or, as a friend said, to make sure my shadow can go too. It’s ridiculous, I know. I don’t know what we will do once we are back in belgium : shall we keep on calling AF, out of addiction? Just to listen to the melody they play while waiting? Inventing new trips that we will never take? It’s increadable how fast a person gets conditioned to do something.
I pack and repack my suitcase. I check in. I check the flight. All’s still good.
Finally it’s time to set off. We consider ourselves experienced ‘drivers-to-the-airports-during-total-lock-down’, but that doesn’t mean we are not nervous. The lock down is getting more strict every day, which is obvious as there are even less cars than last time, and we are dependent on the behavior of the cops at the check points.
The airport is closed. Like last time. The French ambassador is organizing things. Like last time. There is a huge line outside, everyone staying at 1,5m from the one in front of him, and one by one we can slowly go inside the airport. Everyone is very chill and everything goes very slow. Social distancing seems to make people calm. Nobody pushes.
But all seems normal. The plane is here (we see it), our bags are checked in. So I guess it’s time to become euphoric. It’s time to drink a glass of wine. Or champagne, whatever! As long as it has alcohol!! Let’s celebrate that we are going home!
….but all the shops and restaurants are closed too, so we can not buy a drink nor food.
We will have to postpone our celebrational drink until after take off. But who minds waiting in times like this… it will taste all the better!
PS thanks to everyone for rooting for us! For all your messages and support!
I never expected to get to part 9, but here we are, still stuck in Argentina.
We now live out of our suitcase. If they call us, the embassy, we only need to put our pijamas in the suitcase, lock the house and go. We now shower before we have our coffee, we don’t leave the dishes for later, we swipe the floor immediately after a meal, we clean the bathroom after each use. You never know when they call.
We could paint the house -we have all the material- but we daren’t. What if they call when we are in the middle of a wall? We need to be ready to jump into the car and drive to the airport in no time.
But we do need to eat. My husband ventures into town to get some food from the fiambreria, the butcher and the bakery. The food from the local almacén is just horrible, with half rotten tomatoes, plastic tasting cheese, and rubber sandwiches. We didn’t even dare and order meat there.
He sets off. He got stopped at the edge of town where he said his usual opening phrase ‘soy belga’, but this time it didn’t work. They asked for his passport, checked the entry date (check!), but said that as a foreigner he has to stay in his house (quarantaine) and can’t go out, not even to buy food or go the pharmacy. He has to order at the local almacén, they say. When he told him he must go the bank, they decided to call the police….
The police then escorted him to the bank, and then back home, as if he were a criminal, or more like a celebraty. No way he could do something else. No butcher and no fiambreria. And apparently he was lucky his car wasn’t confiscated.
The thought of having to eat the junk from the almacén for a couple of weeks isn’t a pleasant one. Especially knowing that there are such great delicacies for sale close by in the center, but out of reach because we are foreigners! Not being able to chose your own fruit and vegetables. I know, we are too spoiled, but a Belgian and his food!!??
But help is close by. Literally! We have some great new neighbors, who also prefer the food from town and don’t mind helping us out and who, being Argentines, can leave their house to go shopping! They are not afraid of us and from the beginning we have been in close contact. They too are stuck here, their main house being in Capital.
So now that we have food, I can dedicate myself completely to boredom. And bored to death I am. Hardly any internet, we can’t download movies, no video talks. Nothing we can do around the house. Bored.
But then I like to leave the excitement for last.
All of a sudden, out of the blue, I receive an email from the embassy stating that we can book a flight on the French repatriation flight of Sunday. In just a second I kick boredom off and I go into total stress, opening laptop, trying to connect to the internet, going to AF website… trying to book online while my husband calls AF. It takes ages. Really ages. The website constantly blocks, gives errors., time and time again, but on the phone HB had more succes.
A couple of hours later it is official. We leave on Sunday with a special repatriation flight of AF. So until further notice, this is the last part of life as a pariah. These are the last few days as a pariah, more then ready to go into quarantine in Belgium…. I can’t wait to get to work, I have loads of things to do, catch up. I can’t wait to be locked up in my office. Knowing my family is close by.
Thanks to you all for your support and your messages!!
Ps. According to the ambassador it’s not correct that foreigners have to stay in their house. He is checking and doing the necessary to solve that.
We leave the airport and look for a taxi. There are none. The airport is closed. We go the other terminal where there is a ‘cascos blancos’ team (whatever that is) who shout as the see us, that my husband and I need keep a distance between us of 1,5 meter. I jokingly tell them we sleep together so there is not much use to that. They don’t think it’s funny.
They also tell us we must go 2 weeks into quarantine as we have left our house. We go into discussion, tell them we don’t come from abroad but have just spend some time in the airport. She gets mad and says we will be detained when we don’t comply. Meanwhile a transfer was offered to us which we accepted, not that we had much choice, and get out of there as fast as we can.
We got into the car. We decided to get back to our weekend house after a phone call with the embassy (they had called me after they heard of our adventures and troubles). They tell us that first 2 weeks probably nothing will happen so we are best there. It feels good to finally hear that they are there and trying to work things out. It feels like there is (again) some light at the end of the tunnel.
But first we had to go back to the appartement where we had left our rental car key. The car was parked in the street. The taxi driver had some special permission and we were asked nothing at the check points. We picked up the key and loaded our stuff straight in the car and got out of the city. Waze made us evade the check points, which was necessary as our permission to be on the road (canceled flight) could not have led us into the city center. Had we been caught it could have resulted in confiscating the car and having us detained.
I find this hard, the only law I regularly break is speeding on the highway, so the probability to be detained and our car confiscated because we got to our rental car in order to get to our house is freaking me out. It sounds like over the top, but I know they must do something to keep the stubborn argentines at home. They have to contain this virus.
We get to our first and only checkpoint on the highway. We start with our usual sentence ‘somos Belgas’, we are Belgians. The guy immediately shouts to the others that we are foreigners. We have to pull over and they first check our passport to see if have to be in quarantine. Check! Then the letter of the embassy saying we can go to the airport. Check! Then we say the flight is canceled and before I can show the picture he says yes, the airport is closed! He smiles and adds that we are good to go, and that Belgium isn’t one of the affected countries anyway! We gladly say yes! and move on.
We arrived safely at the house, and will be living out of our suitcase, ready to drive to the airport once we are called. When we are called. If we are called.
Its grey and gloomy when we drive out of the city towards the airport. The roads are as good as empty, here and there a lost metro-bus, some cars. It seems particularly eerie if you know the situation. The country is in lock down, people are stuck in their houses, this in trying to contain a dangerous virus that can destroy life as we know it. It feels like I am moving into a war movie. There are roadblocks everywhere. The majority of the access roads to Capital are closed off. On several points in town and on the highway there are check points, where your permission to move is checked. If you fail to show one, they just confiscate your car.
We get to the airport with a ticket of Ethiopian Airlines tonight, but we first wanted to try and get on the Air France flight to Paris. With the situation as it is, where people are stuck all over the country, we were hoping in ‘no shows’ and get on the waiting list. Air France flight is only 13h, and when we’re on it we’re on it. Where as Ethiopian airlines will be 16h plus 7h in the plane and take off isn’t certain until it has actually taken off…. so we decide to spend all day in the airport.
The airport is closed. People from the French embassy are organizing things. We wait hours outside in the cold, until we get confirmation that it won’t be possible.
So we check in to our Ethiopian Airlines flight online. Here on the tv screens the flight does not show. There is nobody we can ask. There is nobody. We call Ethiopian airlines in Buenos Aires, in Sao Paolo, in Belgium. They all say everything is normal and the plane will come.
We meet some people that are on top of the waiting list of Air France. One of the 4 can go. Then Air France decides it’s not him but another one of the group who must go. The first guy must get back off the plane, his luggage must stay in the plane ‘for sanitary reasons’ and when he gets back into the airport they say he must go into 2 weeks quarantine. These are crazy times. They hope their embassy can help them out.
We come across a guy who works in the airport and ask him about the Ethiopian flight. He says not to worry, it’s coming. Bit by bit I start breathing again. I won’t be happy until I see the plane take off in São Paulo ánd is on its way here.
We wait hours and hours, regularly checking the internet. The Ethiopian airlines website, the website of the airports of Sao Paolo and BA. Until the news comes. According to the airport in SP the flight is canceled. It confirms the rumors that commercial flights are no longer allowed to land here. The 2 other companies that were scheduled today, air canada and Qatar airways, were also canceled. Only repatriation flights, chartered by the governments can land. Ethiopian airlines on the other hand, still say the flight is operating as normal.
We must now wait an official ‘cancel’ message, or we can’t get back into the city. I wonder if the magical letter from the embassy will still do it’s wonders….
So what is next? We don’t know. Only repatriation is possible now. What a pity we are Belgian and not French or Dutch. They seem to have several flights coming. But no, we are Belgian, I check my passport again, and yes. We are Belgian.
Slowly but surely desesperation and frustration are taking its toll.
We are on our way to Capital. You can only drive if you have a special permission. Like us, we have a flight confirmation, and a ‘laissez passer’ letter from the Belgian embassy. We have also received a link of the law saying we can go, in case they don’t believe us.
I feel like I am in an apocalyptic horror movie. To me, apocalyptic is horror, and I never watch such movies. So the feeling I now have solely comes from movie trailers.
The road is empty. We went to fill up the car at the gas station on the highway. Normally this is full of people, now it’s just us, and 1 man serving us. The shop is closed and has a big red ‘No entrance’ sign. The guy keeps a safe distance and wears gloves. He tells us they are going to close down completely.
He tells us the robberies in town have started. With this total lock down people can’t work, and many have no money and a family to feed. Argentines have lived through many crises, but this one is particular : the poor can’t even go outside to beg, as there are no people on the streets to beg from.
The highway is as good as empty. The peaje is closed, or rather, open. You can drive through without paying. The animals are already taking over. We have to break for a big bird on the road. Oof. Just in time he flies off.
At the next peaje there is a well organized check up. We are pushed into lanes where several police officers are doing check ups. There is also press, cameras, TV vans with satellite dishes.
We start by saying ‘Somos Belgas’, we are Belgians, and immediately the cop backs off. He asks our documents and takes my phone in his gloved hand. He reads the Embassy letter attentively and checks the flight time. We are good to go.
The 2nd check point is in Capital, what are you doing here? (The airport is the other direction), but they believed our story that we need to hand in our rental car. No proof needed for that. She warned us that we should call the airport first as there have been cancelations. We know all about that. Our flight is indeed canceled. We knew that all along.
We are now waiting on a phone call by the embassy, that some european flight has 2 free seats. That’s how one travels out of here nowadays. At least when he’s Belgian. We depend on the goodwill of other countries to take us along on their planes.
Meanwhile we wait in this little Airbnb appartement in Capital… patiently.
It feels like our last day, but it isn’t. Probably because it seems like nothing more can happen to us.
We have a new flight. Again. The borders are not closed (at least not for flights to Brazil), and with the necessary documents (boarding pass or ticket) we can leave our house and drive to airport. Borders in Europe are closed (but as a citizen you can always enter.) We have a drop off point for our rental car…
So things are looking good. Right?
We are joking about our life as a pariah. It’s understandable that people are suspicious, but the people around here know us, and should also know that we have been here long enough to not have brought the virus.
We are not allowed into the small town nearby, but we have a small almacén (grocery store) nearby. We asked if it’s still open and they told us it isn’t, but we can order by phone and they get it for us. Convenient right?
Later on we heard that it’s only closed for us. Other people -non Europeans- can go without any problem.
But it seems that other pariahs aren’t so lucky. Some Dutch tourists had stones thrown at them, French were pestered. We are doing well, so far.
We check our flight regularly, and I panic when I see on my phone that our AF flight is canceled again, how many more cancelations can we get? We have had 3 so far! But when I log in on my computer all seems fine.
Our leaving is getting so close that we are starting to live on edge, we would be really disappointed if it went down again. Meanwhile we are getting ready. Cleaning, washing, packing… if they tell us to leave early : we are ready!!
It was already some time ago that I decided to come back to Argentina for one month to do a photographic project on the city. I already have hundreds, maybe thousands of photos of the Buenos Aires, but all of them quite old and none as I would want them in the style I make them now. So let’s go!!
March it would be! It’s when (as far as I remembered) there are lots of thunderstorms, and the heat is slowing down a bit. So off I went!
I rented a small airbnb apartment close to where we used to live, and last minute, my husband (completely jealous of my new project), decided to come with me. Me, on a photographic project, him, getting our weekend house back in shape.
It were restless times, the end of February. China was still in full Corona virus crisis, and Italy was just rolling in. Belgium just had its 2nd case, (the first being a Belgian coming from China, the 2nd, from Italy.) Argentina still had to get their first case. There were some signs of a disaster coming but nothing was quite clear, yet!
So there I was, in my adopted home. Many Argentines have Italian or Spanish roots, so they follow close what is happening over there. It was still very far away, and even though they looked at it all with horror, they didn’t seem to think it would ever come here. Not in Argentina, not in this country where they all kiss and hug each other, and, where they drink mate. Quite a typical ceremony-like drinking of some tea-like herb, called mate. Basically they pass a kind of cup, also called mate, with a straw, called bombilla, and every one drinks from the same straw. Imagine they would have to go into a ‘no greeting’ and ‘no drinking mate’ period?? No way!!!
And then day 13 of our stay, all of a sudden, they woke up. The government decided that all flights from affected countries (EU, USA, Chine?…) were cancelled for 30 days, and (among other measures) foreigners and Argentines coming from an affected area needed to go into a 14 day quarantine…
We were in day 13, still one to go. The fact that when we arrived here there were only 2 cases in Belgium didn’t matter. We left for our weekend house where we stayed low until day 14 passed.
The government was quite strict, people were checked upon, tourists that didn’t comply were put on the first plane out, locals were detained.
That is the day when we changed into pariahs.
We are European, we are evil, we not only brought the virus here, we are the cause of all the trouble coming at them. As ever friendly they were until day 13, they turned against us at once. Our doorman looked at us suspiciously. The guys at the entrance of our weekend house asked if we had done our 14 days, people hearing our foreign accent gave us the eye!
By then the country had gone into a de facto lock down. Nothing was closed yet, apart from schools, public buildings like museums, the library, tourist attractions… Restaurants and even the movie theatre were still open, even though in the last, the seats next to you on both sides had to remain empty. But people stopped going out, just like that. One day restaurants were full, the next day they were empty. One day there were still traffic jams all over town, the next streets were empty.
When my shoots were canceled we thought it time to leave the city and go to the quiet countryside. The days of taking the bus all over town were over, restaurants were considered unsafe, and me, a European, was looked at in the same way as that one boy on the bus who was coughing.
Today was the big day, the day we have all been hoping and waiting for, not just for weeks, but for years. The day that the melagomane, populist, demagogue that Cristina was, would be replaced by a normal, intelligent president. How she could talk! Wrap everyone around her fingers saying whatever. Letting her tears roll abundantly when it suited her. As we have seen, for the last time, yesterday.
She managed to leave the country in a complete mess, making sure, during the last few weeks, to make the mess as big as possible. She doesn’t care about the country’s sake, only about how she can make it hard on her successor.
Those days are now gone, and today history was made. At last Argentines felt that their votes had (literally) been counted, that their opinion mattered, that they can make a change towards their new future. And that is what I saw today.
You can read about it, you can watch it on TV, but nothing beats being present when the Argentines let their emotions go and flow. They were not only celebrating the new era, the new president. They were also celebrating hope, finally there is hope of improvements, of economic growth and more security. Hope to finally see some transparency instead of reading and seeing only corruption. Hope to get a better life with a president who works for the country instead for his own pocket and that of his companions. But they were also celebrating democracy, which was undoubtedly, the theme of the day.
It literally gave me goose bumps, and made us all emotional. The joy was powerful, the passion contagious, when the new president and his crew drove through the crowds, and even long after that, people kept on celebrating.
The streets were crowded, the people were chanting and singing. “sí se puede” (yes we can), “Argentina! Argentina!” and many more. Not even the steamy heat, nor the blazing sun, could keep them quiet. The security measures were unseen. Cops, prefecture and soldiers made a line, all the way between the Congreso and the Casa Rosada, to make sure that no opposition could spoil the fun of the celebrators.
It was an historic day. And I was part of it. So proud.