Trapped in a foreign country during a pandemic, all in the name of science.
Lake Nahuel Huapi is the same as it’s always been. The blazing sun still hangs in the periwinkle sky, the dull roar of the far-off road still blends in a familiar way with the gentle lapping of waves on the rocky shore. But there’s something sinister here too, darkening the edges of this bluebird day. The steady wind that still blows in over the tips of the Andean lenga has a chilly undercurrent. The road noise is fainter than usual. Planes still fly directly overhead – the INTA building where I work is directly on Bariloche’s flight path – but I have heard that they are some of the last that will fly.
If it weren’t for the barrage of news from friends and the Internet, I probably would’ve had no idea that I was about to be stranded during my annual scientific pilgrimage to Argentina. Up until the middle of March, Patagonia had been a nice bubble of calm, where “the virus” was nothing more than a dinnertime conversation subject and toilet paper was still fully stocked everywhere we looked. Then the bubble burst, so abruptly that I got whiplash. On Wednesday we were extracting DNA as usual in the INTA lab, getting material for the 2020 study on gene flow in Nothofagus pumilio. On Thursday the entire country was on mandatory house arrest. Luckily we were allowed to make a last-minute sojourn to the lab to rescue all of our extracted DNA, so that I could eventually bring it back to Germany. As I quickly pipetted the aliquots into trays for transportation, I tried to ignore the thought of the borders slamming shut around me.
I was among thousands of foreigners who were now marooned in Argentina. Our options for escape dwindled daily: first the transatlantic flights stopped, quickly followed by domestic buses and flights, and then the roads closed entirely until each town was its own island. The Argentine government was still letting a few repatriation flights through, and the German government was doing its best to get the necessary permits, but they would all leave from Buenos Aires. Under normal circumstances the capital is a two-hour flight or an 18-hour drive away from Bariloche, but both options were now forbidden. I was trapped in the boondocks.
The irony of the situation did not escape me. I am a Statesider PhD student, employed by a German university, visiting Argentina to study trees – in other words, an organism who cannot seem to put down roots, studying how another organism is able to live its entire life in one place. This struck me as amusing even before quarantine hit, but when I found myself rooted in Patagonia just like a tree, it become truly hysterical. Still, I did my best to think like a tree and locally adapt to my new microenvironment. I soaked up sun and read in the garden instead of watching TV (all the channels were in Spanish anyways, and the WiFi hadn’t worked in about a month). I stockpiled sugars (chocolate mostly) instead of walking along the beach. I entertained the neighborhood cat who deigned to visit my microhabitat. Overall I must say I’m glad I’m not actually a tree.
At 10 pm on March 30th, ten days after quarantine began, I finally left Bariloche. My local Barilochese supervisor had heard that the local German consulate had chartered a van to Buenos Aires, and it would be leaving in six hours. In ten seconds flat, we went from a listless and newsless existence to throwing everything into a suitcase and furiously cleaning the apartment. I didn’t yet have a flight ticket overseas, knew I might be stuck in Buenos Aires for weeks or months, and didn’t even have anywhere to stay in Buenos Aires. Still, I seized the opportunity with both hands.
Aboard the German bus were two drivers, a family and a friend group, a young couple and an old, and some singletons who chatted among different groups with an easy grace learned in hostels and bars across the world. There was a man with his bicycle, his six-month trip north from Ushuaia having been truncated less than halfway through. There was relief in the air – we had finally been remembered and saved – mingled with disappointment, each of us mourning the loss of our planned future travels and work. I think many of us had held out hope that the situation would change and we would be allowed to continue on, but the moment we stepped on the bus, we had permanently kissed those dreams goodbye.
Thus I found myself wedged into a tour van with 19 Germans and 450 DNA samples, hurtling through an ink-black Argentinian steppe. Everyone tried to sleep, but it is a futile enterprise when you’re skidding down a gravel “highway” at 100 kmh. As the night deepened, the trip became a fever dream. My increasingly exhausted mind started seeing things in the headlight-illuminated steppe grasses that flickered past the window. Pulsating blue lights appeared once an hour or so, marking police checkpoints where the van stopped for twenty minutes and masked silhouettes slowly circled around us with flashlights. Sometimes they would board the vehicle, their exhausted eyes meeting ours, and they collected our passports. Mine always stood out, a navy sliver in a stack of maroon. Sometimes there were questions about our intentions, and we let our volunteer spokesperson tell white lies for us all: yes, all of us do have plane tickets leaving from Buenos Aires tomorrow. I was lost in a sea of half-understood Spanish and German. I managed to fitfully doze only a handful of times. The last time I jerked awake from a shadow-dream, the sky was on fire. Fluorescent orange filled the entire bowl of the sky, and just like that I knew we were close to the sea.
Abandoning all hope of sleep, I resumed my watch on the brightening steppe. Families of flightless ñandú stood in the scrub, one black-necked adult keeping watch over the young ones grazing for breakfast. Islands of red and pink dotted the roadside at regular intervals: sun-baked shrines for Gauchito Gil, the Argentine “gaucho saint” who is charged with protecting all of us travelers who pass. Around hour 18, I started immediately dreaming every time I closed my eyes, except I skipped the step where I actually fell asleep. Around hour 22, night fell again. The clock struck midnight and it was April Fools Day. I realized with bemused exhaustion that someday this would all seem hilarious, but it was definitely not this day. Finally, 25 hours after we left Bariloche, I arrived at my temporary student apartment in Buenos Aires (hastily found through another INTA supervisor), and I plunged into a dreamless sleep.
Technically I was still in the same situation as before, stuck on house arrest and with no news about when I’d be able to leave. But between having new European roommates to break the monotony and the freedom to go outside and walk to the grocery store, I may as well have been in a different world. I lived in the Retiro neighborhood in a six-room student apartment, in a building with such European architectural flair that I forgot where I was until the subtropical breezes of early autumn poured in through the open window. We each hibernated in our individual rooms during the day, self-medicating with solitude and schoolwork and Netflix (the joy of having WiFi again!), and only occasionally passed each other during kitchen pilgrimages for quarantine snacks. But when night fell, we would often gather to drink and laugh and play card games, listening from our third-story cave as the city applauded the workers coming home from the frontlines.
Incredibly, I ended up spending less than a week in Buenos Aires. On April 4th we received email flight tickets for the 6th, when the German government would be launching its fourth repatriation flight. Much to my shock and delight there was also space for non-citizen permanent residents, and they were willing to take me. They sent a Lufthansa jumbo jet, a double-decker 747-8, and the plane was nearly full of Germans and residents. Ezeiza airport was opened specially for us, but it still took five hours to process all of us 300+ passengers. I do have to say that it was the smoothest airport experience I’ve ever had.
I didn’t truly believe that I was finally escaping Argentina until the wheels left the runway. We banked over the city, and I let out what felt like my first full exhale in seventeen days.
Seventeen days trapped in a foreign country, all in the name of science. It could have been far worse, and I know there are still people stuck in Argentina. I’m thinking about sending Angela Merkel a fruit basket in thanks for bringing me back to my second home as fast as possible. I am safely ensconced in my new German apartment, symptomless, and enjoying slightly more freedom of movement. Best of all, my precious, precious DNA samples are now safely slumbering in a freezer at the university, awaiting the day when the science can continue.