For two whole months, we were living our dream. In 2019 we finally finished the conversion of our van and shipped it to Chile. We were planning to spend a year or two driving the Panamerican highway from Chile to Alaska.
We started our trip in Santiago, Chile, and slowly made our way through some of the most amazing landscapes we have ever seen down to Patagonia. The highlight of our trip was Los Glaciares national park with its legendary granite peaks: Cerro Torre and Mt Fitz Roy. Our main goal was 4 days long Huemul Circuit that offers spectacular views to the Patagonian ice field.
Sadly, the weather did not look promising, so we spent a couple of days doing day hikes, and then we decided to continue driving south and come back later for some amazing autumn pictures. We wanted to make it to Ushuaia – the southernmost town on the continent, that was supposed to be the symbolic beginning of our trip. Instead, it was the end of it. At least for now.
Crossing the borders from Argentina to Chile
When we started to hear about all the restrictions that Europe is taking to fight the spread of Covid-19, we naturally started to worry about what would we do, if the governments in South America started to take similar precautions. You see, we were in Rio Gallegos in Argentina, and to continue further south to Ushuaia, we needed to cross the borders to Chile and drive through the Chilean territory.
We do not speak Spanish, so we contacted our friends both in Chile and Argentina and asked them if they have any news about either government considering closing the borders. The answer was negative, so we decided to continue with our plan and go to Ushuaia.
Both border crossings went smoothly. We just got a flyer with information on how to wash our hands properly and whom should we contact in case we have a fever. That was all. We arrived at Ushuaia at 9 pm and after a few hours without a mobile network, we connected to the internet again only to receive news that Argentina is about the close its borders the following day.
Quarantine in the woods
Looking back at it, we had a very naive idea about how the quarantine is going to be. We understood, that we would be trapped inside one state, but we thought that we could park our car in El Chaltén and spend a month or two hiking in the mountains while waiting for the storm to pass. Or continue driving north and exploring the Andes mountains while waiting for the borders to open again.
We did not expect a total closure. Within the next two days, the whole country shut down. Not only the state borders closed but also the regional ones. So did national parks. People were not allowed to leave their houses, except for going to the pharmacy or grocery shop. We walked the main street in Ushuaia trying to find a kiosk where we would be able to recharge our mobile internet, but we were stopped by police several times. They urged us to go back to our hotel. How should we explain that we do not have a hotel? That we live in our car?
We decided to leave Ushuaia as quickly as possible. The quarantine was supposed to last 14 days, so we thought we would wait it out somewhere in the woods. But to get there we had to pass through a police control at the exit from Ushuaia. When we mentioned that we plan to go camping we were quickly instructed that camping was forbidden.
After a long discussion on google translate, they let us go. But only because they were thinking that we continue to some other town, where we found accommodation. Instead, we drove for a hundred kilometers and turned to a forest far away from any civilization, where we spent almost two weeks.
It was not easy to stay in the small van in the late fall. On the 2nd day of our quarantine in the woods, we run out of cooking gas in our propane-butane tank. That was a huge setback. Luckily we had a few camping gas canisters.
Looking back at it there was not much to complain about. Even though the weather was cold and often windy and rainy, we spent a lot of time outside – paddling on the lake, running barefoot along the lakeshores, or playing in our forest gym. We put up our slackline and Ivar taught me how to jumar on the trees.
It was not pleasant to wash the dishes and ourselves in an ice-cold lake or spent the rainy and windy days in a small van. But at least we were relatively free.
Two weeks of quarantine in Ushuaia
At the end of March, three days before the announced end of the quarantine, we decided to drive to civilization again to check the news on the internet. Sadly, they were not good. The quarantine was prolonged for another 14 days. We could not go back to the lake as we were running out of the camping gas.
Luckily a friend helped us to find accommodation in Ushuaia. We were a bit worried about how are we going to explain where we have been the past 2 weeks to the police at the entrance of the city. After another long discussion, they let us drive into the city, but we had to report ourselves to a police station. From there we were escorted by a police patrol to our apartment. The police officer left us only after the door of our rental flat closed behind us.
We made it! We had a roof over our head, running hot water, flushing toilet, more or less working Wi-Fi, and a space that was 5 times bigger than our van. We talked about our options and a possible return to Europe but had not been ready to give up on our dream yet. And even if we were, there was no way out. The borders were closed and the flights were canceled. We were trapped.
In the beginning, we did not mind though. We binge-watched a couple of series, Ivar started to work on his thesis and I wrote a few articles that I had promised to deliver. But very quickly we started to feel imprisoned.
We slept poorly at night and spent the whole day in the bed. Motivation to get things done disappeared. Every day I climbed on top of a chair in our small backyard so I could look over the concrete walls and see the trees on the mountains turning yellow and red. As only one person was allowed to walk out Ivar did the shopping for us. In the end, I did not leave the flat for more than 14 days.
Do we have any chance to leave Ushuaia?
We were in contact with both the Czech and Norwegian embassy, but both of them told us that given the place where we are, there is nothing they can do for us. After a few days, reality hit us. We were wasting our hard-earned money on a prison cell at the end of the world. And it can easily continue like that for a couple of months.
I started to hate our decision to go to Ushuaia and sometimes even the whole idea of the trip itself. We could have been in Norway and spent the Easter holidays skiing in a winter wonderland. Of course, that there were restrictions in Czech and Norway too, but nothing seemed as bad as being locked down here.
For me, it was harder and harder to make peace with our situation. I was done with Ushuaia, Argentina, and the trip itself. I wanted to go home. The only thing is that we do not have a home anymore. We sold our flat before the trip and along with it most of our possessions. Our life shrunk to a couple of boxes in Ivar’s mom garage. Home or not, going to Norway, where we could at least take a walk in the woods sounded perfect.
After two weeks in the quarantine in Ushuaia, hope sprang from an email from the embassy. There were two flights scheduled from Buenos Aires to Europe. We had a quick discussion and we decided that the time had come to return to Europe. There was no news from the Czech Republic or Norway about possible dates of borders opening. And if there is no progress in Europe, we can hardly expect any in Argentina. The prospect of spending summer in Norway was so much more appealing than the reality of being locked in a small apartment in Ushuaia over the winter.
Moving to Buenos Aires
Luckily, the airport in Ushuaia opened again and we booked a flight to Buenos Aires. It was a last-minute decision, so we had only one day to pack our things and figure out what to do with our van. We were lucky again.
The people who were renting us their flat gave us a number of their friend, who helped us to arrange permission from customs allowing us to leave our car in Argentina. He also set us up with another friend of his, who agreed to let us park our van in front of his house. Even though we have never met any of these people face to face and they are just numbers and names in our Whatsapp, they were so incredibly kind to us helping in any way they could. I do not know what we would do without them.
On Saturday, April 18, we packed our things and drove our van to Patricio. There was just one police control on the way that let us pass without any major problems. We parked our car on the street, handed the keys to a total stranger, and jumped into a taxi. On the way to the airport, we had to pass another 3 police controls. A journey, that would normally take 10 minutes to drive took us 2 hours. You see, to be allowed to travel within Argentina at the moment, we had to have valid flight tickets and documents from our embassies permitting us to travel from A to B.
In the evening we landed at the airport in Buenos Aires. It was quite a surreal experience to walk through the deserted corridors and halls at the airport, that are normally buzzing with activity. We spent our last cash on taxi in Ushuaia and had a small setback not being able to withdraw any money from the ATM at the airport. We thought that we could maybe use UBER, but there were just official taxis that did not accept credit cards. In the end, we managed to persuade a taxi driver to drive us to the nearest ATM before dropping us at our hostel.
Finding accommodation during the quarantine was not easy either. The embassy gave us a list of hotels, that were still open and are willing to accommodate foreigners, but they were all way over our budget, and most of them were fully booked anyway. We tried to contact a few Airbnbs but we were turned down. In the end, we found a cheap hostel that was still opened and accepted bookings. It was nothing fancy, but the price was only slightly higher than what we paid in Ushuaia and we planned to stay for two nights only anyway.
The flight to Europe is cancelled
We hoped that we would be able to leave on April 20 with a Spanish repatriation flight to Madrid. Almost no commercial flights are leaving from Buenos Aires at the moment and if they do, they cost a fortune, even in Norwegian standards.
To make things even more complicated, each of us has to communicate with his embassy. Ivar is not allowed to travel to the Czech Republic at the moment and I can only hope that I will be allowed to go back to Norway with him as I do not have a job there anymore. I do have a permanent residence permit, but no paper that would prove it apart from an old email. After a little bit of ping-ponging us back and forth, the Norwegian embassy agreed that they would try to get a seat on the plane for both of us.
The thing is, you can not book a seat on a repatriation flight like you would do when booking a commercial airline. The embassy has a list and they are the ones who try to make it work. You do not pay for the flight in advance. As far as we understand it, we are just supposed to sign a statement that we will pay for the flight via a bank transfer after we are back in Europe.
I know that most of the Czech repatriation flights were for free, but do not take it for granted. It does not work like that for every single country. (There is an Italian guy with us at the hostel who paid 1800 EUR for his flight back to Italy.)
The day before the departure we still did not hear anything about the flight. Later we get to know that the flight did not get permission from the Argentinian government and it was postponed for a week. We expected, that this could happen and we would get stuck in Buenos Aires, but the reality of it was frustrating.
The next chance was on April 27. We had seven more days ahead of us. I cried. And the next day again and again. When I did not cry I lied on the bed and stared on a ceiling. Ivar found a new interest learning about the stock market but I was just killing time. Which was not so easy since the internet did not work more often than it did.
Another flight is full
Today is April 25. In two days we were supposed to jump on a plane and fly back to Europe. We would still have to go for two weeks to quarantine, but frankly, quarantine in Norway is something we look forward to. At least it would be the last one. It is not gonna happen just yet, though. Yesterday we received a message from the Czech embassy saying that the Monday flight is full. We contacted the Norwegian embassy that confirmed to us that we did not get seats. There is no other flight at the moment.
It is not easy to talk about how it feels. One part of you feels like you have nothing to complain about. You are safe and healthy. At least physically. You have a roof over your head and food in the fridge. You are together with your partner. Your primary needs are fulfilled. So, am I so spoiled that I complain about the inability to move around freely and problems with internet connection? I guess I am.
I do not just miss nature, peace, and quiet. I literary need it to function. I hate cities with their neverending parade of artificial lights and noises. After a few years of working night shifts and struggling with sleeping, I eventually had a meltdown a couple of months before leaving for our trip. When we started to travel in our van, I gradually learned to sleep at night and feel like I have my fucked-up sleeping regime under control again.
Thanks to the absence of any artificial sounds in nature, I often managed to sleep for eight, sometimes even 10 hours in the row. That is all gone now and I feel like I am back to square one. I feel trapped. Broken. Sad. Frustrated. Depressed. Stressed. Tired. Unmotivated. Lethargic. Guilty for putting all of that on Ivar, that certainly does not feel much better than me.
The worst thing is, that I do not know how to fix it. Will I be OK again after all of this is over? The two months of traveling in South America in our van showed me that it is possible. I can only hope, that we will manage to get out of here soon and we will again be able to breathe some fresh mountain air and falling asleep listening to nothing else than the sound of wind in the trees.