Life as a pariah in Argentina (part 5)

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Slowly but surely this whole adventure is turning into a complete nightmare. Or rather, a complete joke.

Just recapitulate. I’m sure you already lost me a long time ago.

1. We had an Air France flight leaving on the 31st from BA. It was canceled after Argentina refused planes from countries affected by the virus.

2. We rebooked AF on the same date via Sao Paolo. It was canceled as AF decided to stop flying after the 23th.

3. We rebooked a flight leaving on the 23th. It was canceled because the first part (GOL) was canceled.

4. We were rebooked on the 24th, first part with LATAM. The first flight got canceled.

5. We got rebooked on the same day, earlier flight. Later that was canceled too.

6. We got rebooked on the 27th, first part with GOL. A few hours later that was canceled.

7. Eeeehhmmm. What happens now? Should we still trust Air France and believe they will bring us back? I have certainly lost faith. They just book you on whatever flight not checking if it is still flying.

We have been on the phone and texting to different airline companies and official institutions all afternoon and evening, but to no avail. We even considered a flight through Addis Ababa but thought 5000 usd a bit over our budget.

We are especially dissapointed that our embassy and government is letting us down.

Tomorrow we will yet have another day of calling and searching for a flight. Or maybe we should just start to accept that we will be here for a few weeks or months. Doing nothing. Waiting….

Addendum on Tuesday 24/3

8. I am rebooked by Air France leaving on Thursday EZE-GRU (operated by aerolineas) GRU-CDG. My husband can go on Saturday : EZE-GRU-LONDON-PARIS operated by British airways.

9. Within 12 hours both flights were canceled.

Addendum on 25/3

10. We booked a flight on Ethiopian airlines, EZE-GRU-ADD-BRU we checked in, went to the airport on the 25th. We first tried to get on an AF repatriation flight (failed), later that day the flight of Ethiopian got canceled.

11. Our Air France flight was rebooked. Mine was leaving on the 27th EZE-GRU (by aerolineas) GRU-CDG (AF) and husband on Saturday through British airways. We called AF, they confirm what we already knew : there are no flights to GRU, and they can’t get into the ‘system’. He confirmed that both flights are canceled. We rebooked them on the 1st available flight after the airport reopens. That is May 5th

Addendum 26th of March

12. We are offered to book on a repatriation flight of AF, EZE-CDG on the 29th. We rebooked our flights of May 5 to this weekend.

Life of a pariah in Argentina (part 4)

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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!!

Life of a pariah in Argentina (part 3)

In times of Corona, nothing is sure. Changes are made by the hour, people hardly get time to adapt. Even in Argentina, where today there are (only) 79 cases and (only) 2 people died.

The Argentine government came together to discuss a total lock down. That it would come was already certain. Even what it would like was already published in the paper. What had to be discussed is when it would start. Would it start now, or after the extended holiday weekend?

Probably the traffic jam of today in Pinamar (a popular beach city) caused by Porteños (inhabitants of the capital city of Buenos Aires) who wanted to evade the prohibition to travel over the weekend (in order to contain the virus and not spread it all over the country), this by leaving 2 days early, had something to do with it.

The lock down was to start now. As in a few hours. And is going to last until the 31st of March at least. (Friday morning 0h)

The papers were full of it, with all the details, but -according to our neighbor- suppositions : and as long as the president does not speak to the people, nothing is sure.

And of course, the president only spoke to the Argentines and not to the Europeans who wanted to get out of the country, so we were totally left in the dark.

Meanwhile the Belgian Embassy was keeping busy and let us know that we should not leave our houses ánd that Air France is putting on 3 extra flights to get us home. Stay in our house, ánd take a plane? Eehhhhh? Is it one, or the other?

In all this confusion all I did was take my camera out and go shooting the stars -again- and wait to see what the morning brings.

We aren’t home yet!

Life as a pariah in Argentina (part 2)

We kept an eye on our rescheduled flight to Belgium, (our original flight was canceled and rescheduled through Brazil), it wasn’t canceled, yet, but the situation was getting dire, especially in Europe, where not only Italy and Spain, but also Belgium and France had gone into lock down. The Schengen borders were closed and so was the French-Belgian border. We could but wait and see what happened.

Meanwhile I was keeping busy. Shooting the stars and the Milky Way, shooting the clouds. And again some clouds. How many clouds can one shoot? But the scenery is always the same. If I had brought my big tele I would probably have started shooting birds. Imagine!

And we waited. We kept in touch with our friends here over the phone, as we all practiced social distancing. And with friends and family back home. We regularly received an email of the Belgian embassy.

Until the day that Air France let us know they were canceling all flights after the 23th, including ours… again. We immediately rebooked it for the first available date, the 22nd, but this time to Paris instead of Brussels, as there are no longer TGV trains riding between both cities. Our son would have to pick us up in Paris by car.

But wait? Is that even possible? The borders are closed between Belgium and France, ánd it is forbidden to be with more than 2 in one car. Will he be able cross the Belgian/French border, and can he take us both together or does he have to ride twice?

It’s an interesting question, because however much the press writes about what can and what cannot, nobody seems to have a clue on how nationals can (or can’t) go home.

(Eventually a friendly lady at the diplomatie.belgie Call center gave us the green light so we can start packing!)

So it’s time for a final grocery run to town. But guess what? We are told we can not enter the town to where the shops are. Only people who actually live there (and prove it) can go in. A good thing we are leaving! I make a turn before they stop me. I don’t want them to freak out when they see my passport. They will be worried to death that they’ll die of Corona now that they held my passport. I want to spare them. My shopping isn’t that urgent.

So I go back. To pack.

But in this world, this world where we are at war against a virus, nothing, absolutely nothing is certain.

Life of a pariah in Argentina (part 1)

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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.

My Buenos Aires project was put on hold…

Amazing Albania

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Ploshtan

I feel like I am a real globetrotter right now, and after one amazing adventure I dive into the next. Another, equally amazing.

From Ethiopia, Africa, straight to Albania, Europe.

Tirana

In a way, both countries are alike, and then they are also totally different. Ethiopia has never been under European influence. Albania has been closed off from the world (and Europe) for decades. As a communist country they weren’t even part of the Warsaw Pact. Before that they have been part of the Ottoman Empire for a very, very long time. Even though they are geographically part of Europe, they couldn’t be more different than us. One would think.

A series of people on a car event in Tirana

I couldn’t be more wrong. How different everything seemed at first sight, it immediately felt like home. Their housing is different, old, in need of restoration. We would say ‘poor’. But they have the same habits as we do, go to modern coffeeshop and restaurants that could have been in any European city. They even look like us.

City of Pogradec

It is on the first day already, in Tirana, that I lost my heart. My favourite photographic subject is cities with ‘character’, with a soul, that do not look like postcards, where I love to make beautiful what others call ugly. Buenos Aires is top of my list, well Tirana took its (well deserved) place in my list. If you want to go shopping, well, don’t go there, but just to walk around in the alleys, between the buildings, through the buildings, through markets, enjoy, watch people, Tirana is perfect. It’s a city that lives, its vibrant, it’s fun!

Pogradec

From Tirana we drove inland, through villages, small towns, over spectacular mountain roads with amazing views. This is how you get to know the real Albania. Small towns that look like mini Tiranas, villages where everyone comes outside to talk and chat and everyone seems to know everyone. Little hamlets that are dying out because also here, people move to the cities. Old communist era factory towns half in ruins. Driving around is easy, roads are good and distances not too long.

road to Ploshtan

But the most striking is the Albanian people, no matter what their reputation abroad might be (don’t they always play the bad guy in movies?), they are extremely friendly and hospitable, and the country is perfectly safe. They just can’t wait to help you, and when they do, they give you all the time you need. At times ‘help’ is something that comes in handy ; if you want to do something and have no idea how to get it arranged. There is few accommodation for tourists, which does not mean there are no possibilities. ‘Everything is possible in Albania’ is the slogan we used all that time, and that is thanks to its people.

Korab, the highest mountain

Imagine you want dessert after dinner, it’s late, and the restaurant doesn’t have any. Well, they go to the bakery in town, go and take pictures of what they have, let us chose, then go back to buy it!

They can tag along all day, planning, arranging, guiding, and don’t want one LEK for it.

Reading this, it probably does not surprise you that Albania is a perfectly safe country. With a bit of luck you meet people that speak one of the languages you speak. Many have lived abroad and speak fluent Italian, French, English or Greek. And if they don’t, Google translate is always a good friend!

If you want to read the full report of my trip, check out my travel blog

Into Africa

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There is Africa, and then there is Africa. The Africa we ‘know’, and the Africa we ‘think’ we know.

I was in Ethiopia, I was in Africa.

Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been colonised, and that is what you notice when you are there : European influences are minimal, if not non-existent. It truly is a totally different place. Ethiopians don’t even try to be like Europeans, and that is what I like about them. They are authentic, they are themselves.

Road towards Danakil Depression

We went on a photographic road trip, north as well as south. In a group of 4 plus our local driver. I prefer the north, with its harsh nature, the Danakil Depression -of course- but not just that, I prefer the whole region above Addis. I love its few people, the absence of cars on the roads, the constant flow of people walking alongside the roads, the endless magnificently beautiful landscapes. But most people prefer the south, the Omo Valley with the tribes, which is also the most (and only) touristy place. For me that is just a circus, a show for tourists, where I feel like I am in the zoo shooting people instead of animals. A bull jump is cool to see, but there are more tourists than locals.

boy checking his cellphone(s) during bull jump ceremony

The great thing about driving +4,000km in a country as large and diverse as Ethiopia is, is that you actually see changes as you drive. In nature, we go from an inhospitable but magnificent desert over very fertile terraced agriculture, towards the ‘back in time’ Omo Valley. But there are also 80 ethnic groups, all with their differences. Differences in physical appearance, clothing, in agriculture,…

But one can not go to Ethiopia without visiting the historical sites. Ethiopia is so much more than the Omo valley with its primitive tribes living as if we are 200 years back in time. It’s one of the oldest christian countries (older than Westen Europe), with not just interesting -traditional- worshipping, but also exceptional architecture. Churches carved out of rocks, connected with each other through tunnels, all still in use for daily worshipping. I have never seen anything like it!

Women praying in Lalibela St George Church

And then there is Gondar, which was the Ethiopian Capital from mid 17th to mid 19th C. It is known for its castles, its nick name being ‘Ethiopian Camelot’. It’s a whole complex of castles, build by several emperors and there is even a huge bathing palace! Going there makes you think you are in a fairy tale!

Gondar, bathing house, build by emperor Fasilidas

Of course, Ethiopia is also the traditional ‘African’ markets, the people walking alongside the roads, and then, of course, the children appearing within seconds, out of nowhere, when you stop on an empty road with no houses around it.

Market in Dorzi

It is one of the most beautiful countries, in every single way, but for me it was also the toughest to travel. Distances are vast, roads are going from ok to (very) bad ; driving 5 to 7 hour a day was not unusual, and extremely tiring, trying to remain seated with all the bumps and potholes. Average speed of 40km/h or less is not unusual.

The surreal colours of Dalol. You need to imagine the bad fumes too.

It’s tough because of the altitude, apart from the Danakil Depression (-150m) and the Omo Valley, the whole country is elevated above 2,000m.

It’s tough because of the food, and more particularly, the struggle to remain healthy, and the lack of hygiene.

Still, the balance is more than positive, the beauty and the adventure really makes up for the roughness.

I still have loads of photos to go through, a book to be made, so keep posted to see what’s coming!

PS For more details on my trip, check out my travel blog or watch my gopro video.

FOMO (fear of missing out)

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So I made it. I survived the heat wave. Although I must say it was quite bad, or so I read and heard. The Belgian all time heat record has been beaten. It was more then 40C.

But I cheated. I went south, to more ‘normal’ temperatures, even though we also had peaks of 38c, we had lows of 13C.

We have done a bit of an unusual thing, at least for a Belgian. Instead of flying to our holiday destination, or driving straight to it, get there as fast as we can, we took as many detours as we could find, on winding mountain roads, just for the fun of it. Yes, we love driving! For us it is not a way to go from A to B. It’s the sport, the act of driving itself that we love. Our holiday starts as soon as we get into that car. Even though we try to avoid traffic jams, they don’t freak us out as they do to many people.

We did a mere 1000km extra on the most beautiful roads, we drove 5 days instead of the -normal- 13 hours. Driving long distances is something we learned while living in Argentina, and what we learned to love and appreciate. Stopping to visit and see things instead of speeding to be ASAP at the destination is so much more fun! We suffer from FOMO, fear of missing out. Pass by an interesting place without stopping, without finding out what it looks like, imagine!

Mountain roads, mountain passes, hairpin curves, in combination with amazing landscapes, high mountains and grand landscapes, driving uphill and then down again. That’s not what we Flemish, in our ‘plat pays’ (song by Jacques Brel describing our lands), are used to. Our country is flat. Our country is small. And still we think everything is far away. Dinner in Brussels (1h drive)? Too far!

Perception!

It’s all in the mind!

Grossglockner Panoramic Poad, Goldek Pass, Nockalmstraße in beautiful Austria, have you ever heard these names? And what about the even more spectacular Dolomite Road, Sella pass, Gardena pass and the Santa Maddalena road in Italy? I hadn’t, actually. Mr. Google introduced them to me. Truly amazing and spectacular views! Driving for the fun of driving? Well the Dolomites are definitely my favorite European roads. A place to go back to in other seasons, I guess it’s not for nothing UNESCO world heritage…

5 Days and 2300 km further and my holidays experience is at its height. It has t even started yet, but I’m ready…!

ps all images taken with my phone

Go South

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It’s cucumber time. You notice it when silly things, in which nobody is really interested, fills our news apps and fills the home screen of our smart phones.

So what else to do but talk about the weather? It might me an obvious subject to start a conversation in England, in Belgium it is one to be avoided.

I might have mentioned that Belgians are always complaining, and the weather is their favourite subject of complaint. It’s ‘too cold’, it’s ‘too warm’, even if it’s not too warm then they say it’s ‘too warm for the time of the year’. It’s either too wet or too dry. Any ‘too’ will do.

Now is the time of the so called ‘heat waves’ (5 consequent days with temperatures of +25C of which 3 are +30C). We have always had them, even though not often, but nowadays in the news they make it sound as if each time is the first time ‘ever’. The hottest, the longest, the earliest, the latest,…

It used to make us happy ; it’s the time of year to bring out small inflatable plastic pools for the kids to play in, to play with water hoses, kids putting out a tent and sleep in the garden, fun times with outside BBQ’s where -for once- you don’t need to wear long pants and woollen sweaters, go out to eat ice cream, ‘do a terrace’ as we say in Flemish (‘een terrasje doen‘, have a drink on a outside terrace of a bar…). Where did those fun times go??

Nowadays it’s considered a depressing period, if you believe the news. A lot of death (and they throw numbers in your face), you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that, “keep hydrated”, all of a sudden there is but danger all around you. As if all people are old, sick and fragile. Nowadays people -healthy young people- actually get scared of heatwaves.

It’s a little bit contradictory, if you know that Belgians are travelers.

Travel : to go from one place to another on a trip, usually over a long distance’ (Cambridge dictionary). In Belgium traveling usually means ‘leaving the country’ on a trip

Being a traveler -going abroad- isn’t hard for us, if you know that when you drive a car in Belgium in what ever direction, after 2 hours you actually are abroad. But particularly in summer they travel south, or to tropical parts of the world, in search of the sun and the heat, of nice weather, of what they call summer there but what they hate here. To places where it is warmer than 28C all the time, and where they are happy to bear +30C temperatures with no complaint.

But again, now it’s cucumber time. There isn’t a soul at home, reading the news, and yet another heat wave is coming. Nobody to complain, everyone is gone. And then, all of a sudden I see it appear, on my weather app, I almost fall off of my chair :

The warmest temperature EVER measured in Belgium is 36,2C and now 41C? Is this a hoax? Is there some miscalculation? Who can I complain to?

It’s definitely time to go south now, where it’s nice and cool, -which 30C is compared to 41- : it is the world upside down.

Global warming is -literally- hot!

PS I am off to inflate my outside pool

PS I will be back later if I survive this!

TDF (also known as Tour de France)

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Disliking bike races in the way that I do, is probably a sign that I am no real Belgian. (I should have a serious talk with my mother about this.)

Much worse then what I called ‘Football Mania’ when I was living in Argentina, is this “Bike Mania” here in Belgium.

What a day this was indeed! The photographer in me thinks that maybe I should have gone to Brussels today, together with the 500.000 fans that have been counted to be present at the big start , the “grand départ”, of the Tour de France. Just like I went to the Grand Place last year to shoot the Red Devils who had made it to the world cup semi finals. But then again, no!

You read me well! The Tour de France, which literally translates into ‘tour of France’, in case you didn’t get that, the tour (race) on bicycles (bikes) around France has taken off in Brussels this year. For those people that are not so good at geography : Brussels, the Capital of Belgium, which, as far as I know, is still an independent country and certainly no part of France.

Every other minute some kind of newsflash vibrates on my watch. News alerts from both newspapers and tv stations alike, about the amount of people present, how the city of Brussels had become totally inaccessible, tips on how to get there if you happen to be desperate, an article on why it is important that it started in Brussels, an article on how it is the most polluting event on the world (this in an era of global climate awareness 🤔) and a couple of dozen other newsflashes that I didn’t even read. On the radio music and normal shows have been canceled for constant live covering. Even my husband -who wouldn’t even watch the world cup if it weren’t for me- sits next me watching the tour, live on his phone ;”They are sprinting” he tells me, apologetically.

It will not be missed, it can not be ignored. The tour 2019 is on again. I remember my astonishment when I was living in argentina, where they cover the complete race live on TV, in many -if not all- coffee shops and restaurants. At the time I thought that was insane, and we even googled the amount of people watching the tour in comparison to the -in my opinion- much more fun to watch and follow World Cup.

Well, if you google it you find out we were not the only one to wonder, a lot has been written about that. 3,3 Billion people seem to watch the tour, and a mere 3,5 billion watch the World Cup.

The amount of 3,3 billion viewers sounds insane, especially if you know there are only 11,5 million Belgians. Who else is watching?

In Belgium biking is big. We are supposed to have many good bikers, we have a biking tradition. Every Belgian man in his midlife crisis feels the need to bike up that “Mont Ventoux” in France (much better than getting a much young mistress I would say). And not to be forgotten : the best biker of all times was our own (Belgian) Eddy Merckx. He won the TDF 5 times (actually he won 11 “grand tours” to name but a few of his victories, but his list of accomplishments is too long to copy here), and the first time he did so was 50 years ago, so it’s in honour of this half god as we Belgians see him, that the tour started in our capital this year. 3,3 billion people have seen it. He deserved it.

The TDF will be omnipresent for the next 3 weeks.

I need some diversion. Maybe I can go biking somewhere? 😄 Any ideas?

PS photo was taken last year during the homecoming of our football team the red devils.