Surfing the Wave of Covid-19 in South America

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Two weeks ago, I boarded a flight for Argentina. I chose to go after proper consideration of the risks which I blogged about here: Why I’m still traveling during a Global Pandemic. We had a once in a lifetime wedding to attend and we weren’t going to let the media scare us into hiding from our lives. We had a reasonable 2 week travel itinerary, 4 days with friends in Cordoba, then spend a week winding our way down through Patagonia, crossing to Chile to catch our flight home by March 17th. This is the story of how things went to plan, but changed quickly and ALMOST didn’t.

Day 1-7 : The Waters Seemed Calm

The first week was beautiful, our friend’s wedding was in the country-side on a gorgeous summer day. It was a proper holiday away from the fears of the world, surrounded by friends, joy and sunshine. I feel so blessed I got to see my friends Gachi (founder of My Check Inn) and Augustín marry in the most epic Argentinian wedding ever. It was more like a music festival than a typical wedding!

The joy of ignorance!

Next on the schedule was El Chaltén. There we met up with our awesome German friend, Sandra, who was on sabbatical for 4 months traveling through South America. We had not seen her for 8 years, since she had couch surfed with Adam in 2011. The serendipity that she was in the same part of the world at the same time as us reminded me why travel fills we with such joy. Magical and unexpected things happen when you travel, new connections are made, and existing ones are re-enforced.

Day 8-10: Trekking Glacier National Park – Argentina

We spent 2 days offline, climbing some of the many trails to view glaciers and lakes and spot native deer, ducks, condors and birds of all colors. We told each other stories of our lives and dreams of our future and basked in the fresh air and sunshine. On our last night, we drove out to the park entrance to dance in the dying rays of the day before we parted ways.

(audio credit to Scott Holmes)

SIDE NOTE: Sandra wasn’t able to cross into Chile due to the Covid-19 restrictions. Instead she is now stranded in Argentina, waiting for emergency flights to be arranged back to Germany. Her journey is still being written and we wish her luck with all our hearts.

Day 11: First Sign of the Incoming Wave

The next day, as we drove out of El Chaltén, things started to get scary. The first issue was one of our own making. We had gotten so wrapped up in our plans and goodbyes that we forgot to fill up the tank before we got on the road. We had a 3 hour drive on a quarter tank of gas and we didn’t notice until 1 hour in. By then it was too late to go back. So we slowed down and took more note of the passing SOS boxes, just in case. There is NOTHING between El Chaltén and El Calafate except beautiful vistas and herds of guanacos. We rolled into town with one bar left and the car blinking at me to get to a gas station ASAP. We were dumb and we got lucky. Our luck would continue over the next 4 days, but just like we didn’t know if we’d make it on that quarter of a tank, we weren’t quite sure what each day would bring as the Covid-19 wave rolled on.

That afternoon we hopped on a bus with Hielo & Avantura and about 15 other eager travelers to visit the Perito Moreno, the only glacier in the world that is not shrinking. The first thing the guide said was “If you are not feeling comfortable because of the Covid-19 virus, you are welcome to ask for a full refund and leave now.” That was the first official acknowledgement we had encountered that there was anything to worry about We all said no and off we went.

The animated gif below is a loop of the collapse of a 70 meter tall chunk of glacier in the late afternoon. As the heat of the day warms the glacier, the ice cracks and collapses into the lake. Thirty kilometers up in the mountains behind the glacier face the clouds from the Pacific Ocean collect over the Andes and drop snow almost continuously on this unique micro-climate. So even as these giant ice bergs drop in the front, the glacier never gets any smaller. Sometimes it grows to cross the small channel to the land where we stood and forms a bridge. This occurs once every 4-5 years. It was truely spectacular to observe this phenomenon and reminded me that destruction is so often part of creation, since it is the new ice forming in the mountains that pushes the old ice to collapse into the lake.

Day 12: Sh*t gets Real: Crossing the Border

The next day, we boarded a bus with 40 other people and headed for the border crossing with Chile. It turned out the National Park we had entered the previous day was now closed with no scheduled opening date. We also heard that Argentina was restricting entry of foreigners but that Chile was still open. We were going in the right direction and settled in for the 6 hour ride. Being packed in with lots of other people, our paranoia started to kick in. So we used our buffs to cover our faces and made sure our hand sanitizer was always close at hand.

We arrived at the Argentinian border around 12pm. There were 3 other buses ahead of us on the Argentinian side and 2 buses coming in from Chile. We all found spots to lay in the sunshine as it was clear we weren’t moving soon. Slowly, we acquired information as the hours ticked by. After 2 hours we found out the delay was processing the incoming buses. In the end, one bus was sent back to Chile and the other was allowed through. Those who were considered “safe enough” based on which countries they had visited in the last 14 days got in. Those who were not “safe”, were turned back.

We watched helplessly as one man lost his temper and stormed out of the small office. He was followed by 3 officials trying to calm him down. Clearly he didn’t win that lottery and whatever plans he had in Argentina were no longer viable.

We didn’t speak enough Spanish to understand the details of what was happening. But our driver told us simply to wait (espere, espere, espere). In the 4th hour I discovered that the toilets had no running water.

When I had booked the bus tickets I chose the 8:15 rather than the 8AM bus because the later bus indicated it took less time on the road. Plus I thought it would be nice to have that extra 15 min at breakfast in the morning. That choice ended up costing us an extra 2 hours at the border. As I watched the 8AM bus get processed at 5PM I knew we had yet another bus ahead of us.

I pondered the randomness of that simple choice. Sitting at home in the comfort of your couch, it seems like such a small thing. Yet in that moment it felt like the difference between getting out as planned or being stuck in Argentina.

Eventually, things started to look up, as the buses on our side were being processed. And then, I suppose reasonably so, the staff working the border decided they needed a break. We learned this watching the exasperated faces of our Spanish speaking companions. Yet another 40 minutes went by, we regretted our decision not to bring a lunch.

On the bright side, it was a clear day, so we sat outside and kept our distance from other travelers. Some were wearing masks, most weren’t. Everyone had a different level of concern for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around 6PM, the lines moved, but then suddenly, they stopped AGAIN. This time the problem was someone on the bus ahead of us was not “safe to travel”. Apparently they had been in Spain too recently. The staff were waiting for a health official to make a call. How long was that going to be? We were so far from the main town and the Chilean border closed at 10PM, would we make it?

Then, just as suddenly as everything had stopped, we were being processed again. By 7PM we had our Argentinian exit stamps and we were herded back onto the bus to drive through. Hope welled in our hearts. But dread lingered in our minds over what the Chilean side might bring in terms of delays; we knew this wasn’t over yet.

On the Chilean side of the border crossing of Rio Don Guillermo.

The difference between the border crossings on the two sides was night and day. As soon as we arrived in Chile, the road was paved, whereas it was dirt on the Argentinian side. At the processing center, the room we entered was big enough for more than 10 people. They efficiently sorted us into the “high risk” and “low risk”. Then the people who had visited high risk countries were given masks, but still allowed in. It took us 7 hours to exit Argentina, it took us only 30 minutes to enter Chile.

We had planned to arrive in Puerto Natales at 2PM, we arrived at 9PM, yet we counted ourselves extremely lucky. Along the way, we met people who were going to miss their flights even if they made the crossing successfully. We saw people sent back the way they had come with no options. We were the lucky ones, but now what?

Day 13: Torres del Paine – On The Edge

The original plan was to do the trek to the base of the Torres del Paine the next day. Now, the idea of an 8 hour hike in the predicted rain, along with 3 hours of driving, sounded exhausting rather than exhilarating. We weren’t even sure the park would be open. Instead, we booked a short driving tour of the park so we could at least see some of the peaks, even if we could not trek them.

Overlooking Lake Pehoe, the tenth most beautiful lake in the world.

The day dawned cold and rainy, but then we saw a rainbow and the sun broke through for the rest of the day. Another lucky day! The park was open, the sun was shining and we were able to see some of the most spectacular glacier lakes and mountain peaks. At the end of the day we spotted a puma and her cub up the hillside. The wildlife was spectacular and the vistas were epic. I actually think the horns, the pointy ones on the right, are cooler than the famed Torres (towers).

Day 13: The Wave Starts Collapsing: Closing the Chilean Borders

We knew at this point that Chile was “closing the border” on Wednesday the 18th. Our flight to Santiago was on Tuesday the 17th, but our connecting flight to Melbourne left at 1:10AM on March 18th. No one knew for sure whether “closed border” meant just for those coming in or those going out.

An angry Canadian on our bus tour directed his panic at our guide. He angrily explained to her that it wasn’t possible they wouldn’t let us out. She repeated “you’ll just have to make sure, sir”, as she was simply sharing the translation of the Chilean President’s announcement, which was not clear.

We started to really freak out. Was the airport going to be COMPLETELY closed on the 18th? Surely Latam would have notified us if the flight was cancelled, right? We’d be entering the secure area before midnight, so that would have to count, right? Surely they will let us leave if they don’t want us here, right? Would the hour and a half layover be enough to make the connection? Can we catch an earlier flight? Should we take the bus to the airport and risk more delays and exposure or book an expensive private transfer?

Uncertainty is a terrible thing and we so often fill the void with worst case scenarios. We had planned to spend a lazy morning at Puerto Natales before getting to Punta Arenas airport around 6PM, but we knew we’d just spend those hours fretting about missed flights. So we booked a car for 10:30AM to make ourselves feel more in control than we really were.

Day 14: Just Get Me to Shore: Our Flight to the Flight

A “Lesser Rhea”, related to the Ostrich, known as Ñandu in Spanish, running away in a panic.

On the drive we saw flamingos, caranchos, guanacos, and Ñandu in large flocks. One surprised bird ran off the road, darting from side to side, uncertain where to go to stay safe. We felt that his panicked run perfectly represented the way we felt on our way to an uncertain future. I assured Adam we’d make it, but I knew there was still a chance our luck would run out that day.

The lines at the airport were to be expected when we arrived at 1PM. When we finally got to the counter, we were so relieved to see our bags tagged all the way through to MEL. No pickup in Santiago, the layover would be enough time they assured us. Great, smiles all around! She was ready to send us on our way and we said, “we need our second boarding passes, the machine didn’t print them”.

Her brow furrowed and she shook her head, “your flight is on the 18th”, she called back our bags and tore up the tags that bore the MEL destination. Don’t panic, deep breathe. “But our flight is a connecting flight, it leaves first thing in the morning”. We showed the itinerary, asserting that we had a valid booking, desperate for the precious seats.

Finally, something on the computer screen made sense to her, and the boarding passes were printed, the luggage tags were re-attached. We couldn’t be angry, they had been working like crazy for hours, mistakes are easy to make, especially when dealing with times that cross over midnight. Our boarding time was exactly midnight between March 17th and March 18th. Not for the first time on this trip, I pondered the impact of such small time differences. What if our flight had been mid-day? What if I had made a mistake booking and had gotten a flight to Melbourne on the wrong date because of the early morning departure (a common mistake I’ve seen made and made myself).

We watched the earlier flights come and go, we waited for our incoming flight with hopes the good weather held. Our scheduled boarding time passed and the incoming flight had not arrived. We checked the website, scheduled in 9 minutes. Would it be enough time? Could we make our connection?

Another stroke of luck, our bid for upgrade to Premium Economy went through an hour before. So we boarded first and had a front row seat to escape promptly on arrival in Santiago. We sat and watched impatiently as the plane filled with more and more passengers and our departure time slipped away. Finally we were in the air, 45 after the scheduled departure. In panic I called the attendant and asked if we’d make our connection. She looked at me puzzled: “this flight is on time“. Once I heard that, all the anxiety that had built up over the day rushed out of me. I collapsed into my seat and slept for the next 2 hours.

We landed on time at 11:30pm on Tuesday, March 17th in Santiago, in the Domestic terminal. Our flight was scheduled to start boarding in 30 min. First off the plane, we ran like a ñandu desperate for an escape, searching for signs to international connections. After a few false starts, we found our way to the 3rd floor and spotted the security lines. They were empty. Stress fell away, I stopped running. We were going to make it. They let us bring our water through, winning! They stamped our passports without fuss, winning! Our gate was 7 minutes away, winning!

Our flight wasn’t even boarding when we got to the gate. people were sitting calmly. It was as if everything was normal. We had reached the shore and we could breathe again. I called my family in the US and assured them I was safe. I told my brother he might want to cancel his travel plans.

“The world is closing”. It crushed me to say it, but I had seen it first hand.

Day 15: Home Safe – Now What?

I’ve changed my tune about travel right in the age of Covid-19, since I wrote my last blog, but I don’t regret having gone. I live for the adventure of travel and I know that adventure means risk. This time we rode a bit close to the edge, and I know we got lucky. Lucky that the people who did their jobs every step of the way did so in the face of even more danger of exposure than we faced. Many of them might be losing their jobs this week. I wish there was a way for me to send express my gratitude. They were professionals in the face of uncertainty and I respect that immensely.

We are now in a 14 day self-isolation at home in Melbourne. We are not showing symptoms and I don’t think our risk of exposure is very high given the low number of cases in the countries we visited. But we understand that this is a game of risk management, and we have many more weeks and months of uncertainty ahead of us. We now know that many people are stranded around the world hoping their governments will rescue them as most commercial flights have been cancelled.

We have incredible friends who are going out of their way to supply us at home (including my co-founder Bron who just brought me a Nespresso machine so I can satisfy my coffee cravings without risking any baristas). We are also setup to work remotely since our teams our distributed.

Currently Vika, our community manager, is trying to get home from India. Our support manager, Ellie had her honeymoon disrupted but landed safely in Sweden for the moment. Issac, our mobile app developer, has found a safe place in California. The rest of the team is back home in Melbourne.

I don’t know what the future holds for any of us. But with a little bit of luck, and a lot of planning, we intend to be here for our community of travel organizers and agents. Both during the quiet time coming up and during the rush that will come when the world is open again to the serendipity and adventure of travel.

Please, join us next week at our Community Meetup to share your stories and how you’re coping with the short term and long term impacts on your business.

While I was surfing the wave of Covid-19 closures in South America, the dev team delivered another awesome set of features.

Challenge to Fellow TravelTech Founders

Somehow there were empty seats on the plane to Santiago. Yet we didn’t see the Aussies we’d met desperately trying to fly standby on ANY flight to Santiago. It made me wonder if those premium seats had been blocked out by some booking algorithm better suited for normal times. I pondered how hard it must be for airlines to handle such rapid shifts to their operational priorities. I have high hopes there are people in the TravelTech space working to make these problems easier in the future. Anyone up to the challenge?

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