Quarantined In Argentina

A Long and Incomplete Update

This is a long article about my time in Argentina. But as long as this update is, it’s still incomplete. There are things that I’m working through and questions that remain unanswered.

What is the plan? What’s next? Why are you staying in South America?

These are all questions that I touch on in this update, but I’ll have to revisit them in the coming weeks after the situation in South America becomes a bit more clear.

What have you been doing during the quarantine?

I’ve tried to hit the most critical things in this update, but there are a lot of smaller items that are still missing. The best way to keep up on the day to day updates is to follow me on Instagram, where I post a lot of little things on my stories.

I’ve put a few galleries in this update, you can click the images to see a larger version.

125 Days and Counting

Today is day one hundred and twenty-five of the quarantine in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One hundred plus days sequestered in a room and only allowed outside to pick up food or necessities.

The entire country was, for all intents and purposes, under house arrest.

I arrived here on March 1, at that time, social distancing and limits for people in shops and bars were already in place. The “hard quarantine” was announced on March 20, and things changed radically.

The first phase was simply a total lockdown of the country. Only essential services, the sale of food and medicine, were allowed. The mandate was for everyone to stay inside; the only exceptions were health workers and the security forces.

The streets of the city were empty. All the shops were closed. Restaurants were shuttered. The entire country was, for all intents and purposes, under house arrest.

The Early Days

In the first few days of the quarantine, there was a bit of confusion. All international borders had been closed, and there was a ban on all flights (domestic and foreign). It was no longer legal to drive on the street unless you had a permit showing that you were an essential worker – and those permits were not easy to get.

There was no sense of how long the quarantine would last. I was watching Europe closely and talking to friends in Spain daily. Italy began their lockdown on March 9, and Spain followed on March 14. Six days later, Argentina was in “hard quarantine.”

Things seemed much different here in Argentina. There were nowhere near the daily cases. When the lockdown began here, there were only 30-50 new cases a day. I was optimistic. Perhaps we could knock out the virus quickly and return to some sort of “normal” soon.

Little did I know that the quarantine in Argentina would become one of the longest and most strict quarantines in the world.

The Hotel Shuffle

I was staying in an inexpensive Ibis hotel and decided to go ahead and book my room for a couple more weeks. Things were shutting down rapidly, and I didn’t want to be stuck.

Just the day before, I was called to the front desk and told the parking garage was closing. I had to scramble to find a place for my motorcycle. Fortunately, the hotel manager allowed me to park Shifty Drifty under the stairs in the employee parking garage.

When I went to book the room, I discovered that the hotel had no vacancies. I thought that was odd since I knew the hotel was nearly empty.

I headed to the front desk to see if I could figure things out. When I arrived, I got a bit of a surprise.

The manager at the front desk greeted me with a stern look. “Mr. Wallace. We are closing the hotel.”

“I’ve already paid for two more days,” I replied.

The manager looked at his computer and typed in a few things. “Yes. Yes, we are moving you to our sister hotel, Novotel, in Microcentro. You will stay there until your reservation is complete.”

“Is there parking?” I asked.

“There is not. You might be able to park on the street, but I do not know. All of the parking garages are closed due to the quarantine.”

“Ok. When is the hotel closing?” I asked.

“You will need to be out of your room in 30 minutes,” he replied.

I would shuffle from hotel to hotel over the next few days. I was not able to stay at Novotel because there was just no place to park securely. Instead, I booked a week at an upscale hotel with a garage. The hotel was well outside my typical hotel budget, but I had little choice. Hotels all over the city were closing rapidly.

The other challenge was simply getting to the hotel. It was illegal to drive without a permit. On the first day of the quarantine, the website handling the permits was a mess; it just wasn’t possible for a foreigner to get a driving permit.

“Stay on the side streets. You should be OK. It is the first day, and I don’t think the police are fining people yet. Just be careful,” the Ibis manager told me as I left.

When I arrived at the hotel, the garage was closed, the lobby was empty, the front door locked. I looked through the glass door could see someone inside. I banged on the door.

A man in a hotel uniform came to the door. “The hotel is closed, sir.”

“I booked a week here. I’ve already paid and have a confirmation from the hotel,” I said. I showed him my confirmation information on my phone.

“One moment.” The man went to the front desk and typed and printed a paper. He returned and told me they were transferring my reservation to their sister hotel just down the street. It was a more expensive hotel, but they were going to allow me to stay at the lower rate. How nice.

I made my way to the new hotel (now the third hotel of the day) and was able to check-in. There was no option to park the bike, so I was forced to park on the sidewalk under the security camera. I was having flashbacks to London.

Solitary Confinement

I checked in to the hotel, and they told me I could not leave my room under any circumstance. The only food option was room service. The lobby and hallways were off-limits. It didn’t matter that I’d been in South America for months. I was a foreigner, and I was a threat. The hotel isolated me in my room.

The next afternoon my hotel phone rang. They told me that the hotel was closing and I was going to have to move to yet another hotel. My final stop would be the top of the line hotel in the chain. A five-star hotel that I would not usually be able to afford.

The hotel staff was able to get a driving permit for me. I was able to move due to force majeure. After showing the police my permit, I was allowed to pack Shifty and head the new hotel.

At the new hotel, they told me, again, that I could not leave my room. This began 30 days of solitary confinement. During the next month, my only company were the people on the balconies across the street, zoom calls with friends, and the hotel staff in masks who delivered my food.

The food system was almost like a prison. I’d order food from room service, and the hotel staff would bring it to my room and knock on the door. I would have to wait a few seconds for them to step back 2 meters. I was then allowed to get the food tray off the cart and bring it into my room. Then the door would close, and the staff would leave.

The only signs that other people were in the hotel were the food trays that lined the hall after each meal.

My pre-paid week ended, and I had no choice but to pay full price for three more weeks. Nothing was open, and with the fines and potential of having my bike confiscated, I couldn’t go anywhere. The month in the upscale hotel costs me more than I usually pay for five months of lodging. My savings account took a substantial hit in April.

After two weeks of being alone in my room, I was beginning to go stir crazy. I began to climb up and down the staircase for exercise. At night I would go to the lobby and stand outside the front door just to be outside for a few minutes.

I spent my days editing video footage I’d been able to shoot just before the quarantine began. I filmed a few new videos for Adorama TV in my little room and did my best to try to stay sane.

Eventually, the “hard quarantine” ended and I was able to find an apartment on Airbnb for a reasonable rate.

Working and Living in the Apartment

I’ve been in my new apartment since April 26, 2020. The apartment is excellent, and my host, Francisco Miranda, is terrific. When I first arrived, the Internet connection was very slow. Francisco had a fiber connection and a new 5G router installed so I would be able to work. This has made all the difference. I finally have a connection fast enough to Zoom, live stream, and upload videos.

After I got to the apartment, things loosened up just a bit. I am in a part of town called Microcentro that has a lot of shops and restaurants. On May 13, the government allowed some non-essential shops to open. It was surreal to stroll down the streets and see a restaurant or office supply store “open.”

The stores were allowed to sell goods, but almost exclusively online or via WhatsApp. Stores posted signs with WhatsApp numbers. To buy something, you needed to text them and then make an appointment to come exchange cash for your goods.

Restaurants are take-away only. Even now, most stores do not allow customers inside. Everything is done outside, with masks, after first purchasing via a website or on WhatsApp.

The store openings came just in time. My MacBook Pro keyboard is dying a slow death. The space bar and other keys are not working correctly. I was able to buy a windows keyboard (with a Spanish keyboard layout). That worked for a bit until, thankfully, Francisco was able to find a shop that sold an Apple Magic Keyboard (English). This seems like a small thing, but the process of getting a new keyboard took almost six weeks. Nothing is easy here.

Exercise – The First Phase

On June 8, the government finally allowed outings for exercise. From 8 pm-8 am, and on weekends it was permissible to be outside. There were rules; face-masks are mandatory unless you’re running, no more than two people together at any time, most parks and public spaces remained closed.

This opening was fantastic. For nearly three weeks, I was able to get out at night and on weekends to explore the neighborhood and try to recover from 10 weeks of no activity.

My niece and her husband, Genny, and Fabricio, live and work in Buenos Aires. Their apartment is just a mile from my AirBNB apartment. We were finally able to visit. Outside of store clerks, Uber Eats delivery people, and restaurant workers, Genny and Fabricio are the only people I’ve seen face to face since the quarantine began in March.

Each night I would explore and take iPhone photos of monuments and buildings and then research and learn about them during non-exercise hours. On weekends I could go out in daylight and see things with Genny and Fabricio.

The Second “Hard Quarantine”

On June 27, the government announced a return to the “hard quarantine.” We’d had nearly three weeks of relative freedom, and now we were returning to almost the same restrictions we had on March 20.

From July 1 “we’re going to ask everyone to return to isolation at home and to only leave to fetch provisions for daily life.”

Alberto Fernández – President of Argentina.

The second “hard quarantine” only lasted 20 days. The economic and psychological impact of one of the world’s longest quarantines has become unsustainable.

The government has spent the time increasing capacity for ICU beds, developing treatments for COVID-19 patients, putting testing and tracing methodologies in place, and creating a comprehensive reopening plan.

Reopening

Three days ago, the government announced the gradual reopening of Buenos Aires. We are now in the first phase of reopening, which will last until August 2, 2020.

Different activities and stores are opening each day. By the end of this phase, we will still be in quarantine, but life will be much closer to normal at that time. Click here for an English article that explains this phase.

On August 2, it will still not be legal for me to ride without a permit. Even with the first phase of opening, I will not be able to leave the city. Returning to travel is not going to happen soon.

What’s Next?

Of course, the goal is to be back on the road. The original plan for 2020 was a ride to Patagonia, a few weeks of work in Buenos Aires, and then a slow ride back to Colombia. I’d planned to spend a few months in Europe during the South American winter (European summer).

That plan is obviously shot.

At this point, planning happens weeks at a time. I’m checking with embassies about border openings, quarantines, and travel restrictions. Things do not look good for 2020. I think the earliest I can travel will be mid-September, but November is looking more realistic.

Border openings, quarantines, and travel restrictions change weekly. It’s nearly impossible to plan. For now, I am enjoying being in Buenos Aires, and I’ll take each day as it comes.

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5 comments

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this! that explains why your youtube hasn’t updated much. That Adorama TV team looked like good times were being had.

  2. I admire your equanimity, Mark — at least that’s what comes through in your blog post. I hope psychologically you are holding up under the uncertainties and pressures you face. I wish you well; I wish you good health; the opening of borders and travel restrictions; and safe travels.

  3. Hope you are able to make it back soon. Were you able to contact US Embassy. I know folks that were stuck in India in similar conditions and took US Embassy’s help in travelling back to US.
    Wish you good health and safe travels.

    1. There are flights returning to the USA, that’s not a problem. But if I leave there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to return and get my bike again. The risk of losing Shifty Drifty is high, the costs of the repatriation flights are high, and there is no significant benefit for me to return at this point. Argentina is a nice place, I’ll wait it out a bit longer.

  4. Quite an adventure. Who knew something so small was going to stop the whole world? But at the end, another new experience for all of us that I hope we all learn and get better.

    It’s now that we get to value all those “insignificant” things that we all take for granted.

    I hope you stay well and get back to the road soon. I hope we get back to “normal” soon, whatever the new “normal” is.

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