The end?

Published on 1 June 2020 at 10:32

Our last blog we ended with "We will wait, keep all options open and continue to enjoy some well deserved rest, good company and delicious food". On Sunday May 10, the last day of the harsh Argentine quarantine is announced that once again (already for the fifth time) the quarantine is extended with two weeks and again without loosening of the far-reaching restrictions. The only relaxation was at the end of April that a stroll was allowed however no further than 500 m from once home. Cycling and jogging are still prohibited. The Argentine government primarily chooses to save human lives. It's doing well because there are few corona deaths in this country.


Enjoying freedom within a radius of 500 m from our hostel: on the hilltop overlooking the town of Chos Malal


The domestic and international air traffic is banned until September 1. We expect that this will also apply to provincial and national borders. Traveling by bike will therefore probably not be possible until September. And after? We know now that the restrictions are easily extended at the last minute. Peru keeps its borders closed until at least October. We also hear rummors that foreigners are shouted at on the street with 'gringo virus'. Fortunately not in Chos Malal. Slowly it becomes clear to us that we are stuck without a prospect of relieve. We decide to give it a try to leave Argentina. At the umpteenth police check - 'Pasaporte por favor' - on the way back from the supermarket, Roelie asks the officers if there are any possibilities to get to Buenos Aires at all. The answer: no ahora no, no not now.


We send an email to our contact person at the embassy if they know anything about the opportunities to get away through Chile. Chile has not yet shut down air traffic and perhaps we can cycle from Chos Malal to Santiago to take a flight. We also ask whether it is possible to depart with cargo ships. The next day a staff member, his name is Bastiaan, from the embassy calls us to answer our questions. Chili will be difficult and the embassy doesn't know if and how to sail away on cargo ships. His advice is to get to Buenos Aires. But he also notes that this is quite a challenge: Chos Malal is very remote.


Bastiaan then calls Nestor, our hostel owner, to discuss with him how the Dutch cycling-couple can get away from Chos Malal. Because of the oil fields, the provincial capital of Neuquén has a relatively large number of foreigners, so Bastiaan guesses it's sensible to get to Neuquén and arrange something of a joint transport to Buenos Aires via a tourist office.


While Luc announces that we want to have a nice parrilla (bbq) on Friday for our dear hosts, the message arrives that at Wednesday a bus will go from Bariloche to Buenos Aires with a stop at Neuquén. Bastiaan recommends “to focus on this possibly last organized transfer”. Nestor arranges a friend with a pick-up who can take us there for a reduced taxi fare. We have to arrange enough cash quickly to pay for taxi and bus. With our Buff scarves over nose and mouth we enter the post office annex Western Union agency to bring in the necessary pesos. That remains a very strange feeling as if we are going to rob the little bank. As usual, the armed guard allows only one person to enter. After Roelie has completed the extensive forms and received a nice stack of banknotes worth € 250, the official reports that there is no more money left. Okay Harry, new round of new opportunities tomorrow early in the morning on the day of departure; they will open at 8:30 am.


In the meantime, Bastiaan is waiting for the details for a travel document authorized by the embassy. He must have a name, ID and license plate of the driver and car that drives us to Neuquén. Nestor wants to try to get bicycles and luggage in his own car. We unscrew our precious titanium bikes and Nestors VW Vento apparently has enough space. He passes on his details to Bastiaan. His wife Carina, meanwhile, has made an appointment for us at the hospital for necessary health certificates. We need it for the trip to Buenos Aires.

We have to wait for an hour outside the hospital because the doctor is somewhere inside doing something. We now know that 'waiting' is a kind of national hobby or tradition and that we as Dutch people are apparently more bothered by this than the Argentines. In the supermarket, for example, just 4 of the 5 cash registers can close, so you wait almost an hour to be able to pay.

The doctor's assistant writes down on the back of a reused, quartered paper our name and passport number, while the doctor asks us if we have a fever or cough. He takes the temperature twice and listens to our lungs when inhaling and exhaling. He almost wants to give the green light to him when another question comes to mind: "Oh yes, if we have been in contact with Chileans ...". "Yes, but it has been a while." This last statement is checked with the stamps in our passport, which cannot easily be found in the now frequently stamped passport. We tell him when we left Chile but also that we met many Chileans at the campings in the lake region around Bariloche when we were there. Anyway, we get the rag with a stamp and signature stating that we currently have no symptoms of corona. 


Late in the afternoon we can finally continue with our lasagna bolognese for which we kneaded dough last night, let it rest, rolled and cut into lasagna noodles. We both have bruised hands from the heavy work with the primitive rolling pin. In the morning, the noodles curled up and pulverized. Fortunately our housemate Luc, and also a former French chef, successfully tried to moisten the noodles today. He advises to soak them again before use and Roelie throws all of them in a big box filled with water. Luc almost suffers heart failure because all the noodles stick together immediately. It's a big hassle to take part them again. 

Then Nestor invites us to eat our last diner (Milanese and salad) with him and his wife Carina and although that seems the best plan at the time, we do continue making the lasagna and promise to come to their house with the result.


Ingredients for the bolognese sauce and the uncurled lasagna noodles


Against all odds, the end result is delightful. Carina has Italian roots and maybe that's why it's not surprising when she shows us that she has a pasta machine, which would have been perfect to make the noodles with. We take a look at our swollen palms and learned another lesson: you won’t know if you don’t ask. It is an unforgettable cozy evening and we realize once again how much we hit in with hosts Nestor & Carina and roommate Luc. How we will miss them!


While it's still freezes early in the morning Harry returns to the post office to get another pile of money and then we wait for the formal, by the ambassador personally signed letter to be able to leave Chos Malal. Carina joins us for the ride to Neuquén because it'll probably be dark when they return and Nestor suffers from night blindness. We leave well in advance because of the expected checkpoints. It could take a long time. Eventually we are a bit surprised that we are barely stopped and checked. Nobody asks about the papers and only once Nestor and Carina are asked to give their name and their temperature is taken. We, the gringo in the back seat with a stack of panniers in between, are not asked a question and no temperature is taken.


With Carina and Nestor, just before the 6-hour drive to the provincial capital of Neuquén.


Some 50 kilometers before Neuquén we park on the end of a row of cars and trucks. Nestor informs what's going on. There is a protest and the activists have blocked the road ahead. The protest is not aimed at quarantine, but at the working conditions for employees in the fossil industry. We think is a pity that the protest focuses on people who really need to be on the road. No-one is driving around for fun here now. Within an hour the road will be released for fifteen minutes, before it is closed again and we understand that it is tricky whether or not we can continue. After an hour we see some movements in the distance and before it is our turn to move we already clock 13 minutes. We just make it and Nestor and Carina applaud encouragingly to the 20 activists as we pass the blockade. We have difficulty keeping our middle fingers under control.


Nevertheless, we arrive too early at the bus station in Neuquén. The bus has been delayed a lot (partly due to the same roadblock) and it will take another three hours before we can board. Nestor and Carina want to stay to wait with us, but we are relentless that they start their return trip. They have done so much for us and could drive in a few more hours of daylight. Along the way we saw horses and nandu's and Nestor is afraid accidents will occur. He prefers to stay in a hotel instead of driving through the dark. Although we now understand that waiting is not an item here, we feel troubled and we say goodbye to our friends. We know that we are Corona-free, so we cuddle repeatedly for a long time.


On arrival the minibus contains only three passengers from Bariloche, two Americans and one Italian. The rest of the passengers gets on in Neuquén. We already met the fellow passengers while we were waiting at the immense deserted bus station. They are Colombians and Mexicans who indeed work in the oil industry around Neuquén. The bus journey takes 16 hours and once again the legal travel permit isn't checked. The bus driver is regularly asked at checkpoints where he comes from and where he is going and sometimes has to show his papers, but that is all. No temperature recording, no health certificate, no embassy letter, nothing, nada.

Most striking we find the arrival in the center of Buenos Aires. In front of two officers, the bus of foreigners is unloaded and we start working on the sidewalk to reassemble our bicycles and put on the panniers. We are working on it for quite a while and the officers remain present but do not bother to ask us anything. We didn't expect that, because we know we certainly would have been questioned in Chos Malal and we heard that Buenos Aires is even more strict. It would be divided into neighborhoods and that there are strict controls between the neighborhoods. With the papers at hand, we cycle the last 8 kilometers through different neighborhoods to the booked apartment without being stopped once. We notice that there are many people on the street, including cyclists and not many policemen. We can just cross an intersection before a demonstration passes. No, again not against the quarantine, but something of bike deliveries. Unlike five months ago we now see them in large numbers cycling around. Delivery seems to be booming during corona.  


We feel more free in Buenos Aires than in Chos Malal. There is hardly any police to be seen, or - more plausibly - they are less noticeable among the heap of people in this metropolis.


We also spend quite a bit of time in scenario thinking and working out options. Ultimately, not much came out of that. The heartfelt wish is to cycle a bit further this year . But only if it is possible, responsible and fun. However, we do not estimate that chance for 2020 to be that great . In that case we must look for a (temporary?) House and a (temporary?) Job. We see, first fully enjoying the reunion with our children and perhaps a bicycle round Netherlands for family and friends to visit. Bastiaan from the Dutch embassy has tipped us to various places where we can stay overnight until a repatriation flight will present itself. We choose an apartment in Palermo, a hip neighborhood full of restaurants and bars. They are all closed, but many restaurants and coffee-bars have temporarily switched to take-a-way and delivery and everywhere countless bicycle couriers are waiting on the doorstep to deliver orders.
The luxury apartment is (ridiculously) cheap, because 1) out of season 2) no tourist in sight during this Corona crisis and 3) the Argentine peso has made an unprecedented dive in value in the last two months. In March we got 88 pesos for 1 euro in Bariloche, today we are collecting 134 pesos for the same euro. Thanks to Western Union, because the official rate would still be something like 80: 1. You don't hear us complaining about that.
So we want to pay cash to the hotel that rents the apartments. That is possible, but it seems as if we are not trusted: whether we want to pay a week in advance? No rather not. We think we'll be here for a few more weeks, but you never know. The friendly lady from the virtual reception understands us and often says yes, but is also relentless and eventually says no. Apparently she's facing strict orders when people want to pay in cash. We decide not to be difficult and pay the week in cash to a cleaning lady and almost simultaneously receive the message from Bastiaan that there will be a direct KLM flight to Amsterdam very soon (within ten days)! And uhh, if we want to keep that to ourselves, because it is still a secret. But a day later we hear it's already official: we have a flight on May 23. We did not expect this, we thought that we would someday (sometime in June or so) catch a flight to Madrid, Barcelona or Paris. Because many more people from France and Spain are still present here.
The Dutch embassy announces that there are two places reserved for us in the aircraft and that KLM will contact us shortly for administrative and financial processing. May we just mention that we are incredibly satisfied with the attention and efforts of the Dutch embassy and Foreign Affairs? We have read so many complaining comments from Dutch people who are stuck abroad who all immediately demanded a return trip to the Netherlands. They complain for example that the embassy does not want to arrange that the camper purchased in Russia for a few rubles is also brought back to the Netherlands. Swearing that Prime Minister Rutte via Facebook that he should be more committed to their fate, as if he did not have his hands full with domestic affairs. And more things like that. As if there is no global crisis going on, as if the embassies can suddenly respond to all individual requirements with their minimal occupation. In any case, we are extremely satisfied with the efforts of our embassy in Buenos Aires and of Bastiaan in particular.
The last days in Buenos Aires, have been dominated by preparing with a touch of sadness. It still hurts to end our adventure. Thanks to a tip from Felix, from the cycling network of South America, we soon know how to "score" two boxes for our bicycles, which could have been quite a thing in this quarantine. Then Felix provides us with dozens of tips for the best ice cream, coffee, cakes and bread from small entrepreneurs in our neighborhood. Of course all take a way and delivery. We fear that we have gained another kilo in this last week.
Our sorrow about the (possible) end of our world trip largely disappears when we call our parents and children Harjan and Evi. Harjan and Evi want us to stay with them. Evi will make her upper floor available from 1 June because her housemate will move and until then we can stay with Harjan, who will make his "game room" available for that. He promises us a barbecue on the first evening and fresh Limburg asparagus on the second evening. How wonderful they both are and how much we look forward to seeing them! Friends give us heartwarmingly many invitations to stay with them or to help us in any way. Annet and Erwin, good friends from Workum, also offer their top floor: “for 1, 10, 100 days or until death do us part” are their unforgettable words.


Departure from Ezeira, Buenos Aires (with mask) and arrival at Schiphol, Amsterdam (without cap). Both airports were unbelievably quiet and empty.


We also spend quite some time in scenario thinking and working out options to resume the adventure. Ultimately, not much came out of that. The heartfelt wish is to continue cycling soon this year. But only if it is possible, responsible and still fun. However, we estimate that possibility for 2020 is becoming less and less plausible. We prefer to return to the Americas to complete the planned route from Ushuaia to Alaska. But then probably from north to south. It is becoming increasingly clear that we will look for a (temporary?) house and a (temporary?) job. Not rushed, first enjoy the reunification with our family and friends and perhaps a bicycle tour d'Hollande.


Visiting Mommy Morskate: at an appropriate distance and outdoors. Difficult but heartfelt.