I suppose the simplest place to tell this story is the beginning.
When my husband, Dylan, and I were discussing what we were going to do for our honeymoon a couple of years ago, after a particularly indulgent happy hour I turned to him and said, “let’s go to Antarctica!”
He laughed. I was serious. Five glasses of wine, serious. I promptly opened up Instagram and showed him all of the beautiful pictures from travel bloggers, expedition companies, and travel magazines that had put this destination on my radar.
Like most people, his immediate reaction was “isn’t it cold?” As if I was suggesting we would (or even could) trek to the literal bottom of the world when it’s -30 degrees. We worked through the details, set the down payment, did the marriage thing, and scheduled our trip for about a year and a half after our wedding (we were married in Mexico, and those vacation hours and money don’t grow on trees, ya know.)
We went through the usual explanations when talking to people; “no, you actually go during their ‘summer’, which is certainly colder, but safe for humans,” and, “there are not direct flights or hotels in Antarctica, so we’ll be going with an expedition company,” or my favorite, “no no, polar bears are native to the Arctic, not Antarctica.”
I’m not sure we ever fully convinced our friends and family that we were sane in picking this destination, but we knew this going to be the trip of a lifetime, and we set off to work through all the details.
The plan was to fly into Buenos Aires (BA), Argentina. From there, our expedition company, Quark Expeditions, would take us on a charter flight to Ushuaia, AR (the southernmost city in the Argentina, and the world), where we’d get our on expedition boat and set sail for Antarctica.
Being the travel junkies we are, there was no way we were going to travel all the way to Argentina and not take some time to see the area, so we scheduled vacation days on the front end. The plan was simple. Head to BA early, vacation, explore and adjust past any jet lag, then hop into our 10-day expedition, home a few days afterwards.
I want to pause and note here that we’ve received some real cruelty from people. We were featured on both local and national news outlets, and as any comment section goes these days, we had strangers who thought we left during the pandemic, wishing us death or abandonment. I understood the consequences of sharing our story, but I won’t be approving any negative comments on this post, on my own blog. We simply didn’t leave during the pandemic, and had no control over what happened next.
As we made our way through February the Coronavirus was sweeping through China, making its way to South Korea and Italy. And we were watching the news closely.
On February 29, just a few days before we departed, the United States reported what was believed to be at the time the first death from COVID in Seattle. Travel warnings were in place for China and Italy, however the United States and Argentina (really, the continent of South America as a whole) were essentially free and clear to travel, with no warnings on the horizon.
We set off for Argentina and Antarctica, having no idea how quickly the rest would unfold as we were at the bottom of the world.
SOURCE: New York Times Coronavirus Timeline: https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-timeline.html
On March 4 we departed. All reporting was pointing to China and select European countries as the source of concern. And it was a blissful few days meeting penguins, having whales swim a mere 2-3 feet from our zodiac boats, sea kayaking by immense icebergs, learning everything there was to know about Antarctica, and making new, lifelong friends.
Little did we know, while we while we were peacefully at sea, exploring Antarctica and unplugged (you know, internet is few and far between down there) the virus would snowball into a global pandemic around the world.
Staff gathered us on March 13 to inform us what was going on in the world, and that it was time to head back. There was a pandemic raging around the world, boarders were closing and a national emergency was being declared.
To get back to port in Ushuaia we had to sail through the Drake Passage. The Drake is famously known as a place where three bodies of water converge – the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans – and those who have traveled it often call it either the ‘Drake Lake’ or the ‘Drake Shake’. The currents at that latitude in the world do not allow for the high winds to meet any resistance from a land mass, and it’s considered the ticket of admission to Antarctica.
On our way to Antarctica we were blessed with ‘Drake Lake’. Calm and peaceful, the sun shone brightly on us as we made our way to this incredible continent.
However on our way back the gods of the ocean unanimously decided it was our turn to go through the gauntlet of the ‘Drake Shake’, and with waves clocking in at 26 feet tall, we were at a severe disadvantage to get back to Ushuaia quickly. Our anticipated time to travel back was going to be about three days. And as you know, three days in this pandemic is a lifetime.
On March 14 we were notified that the Tierra del Fuego province was under a mandatory lockdown. This is the southern province of Argentina and where Ushuaia is located, and also we where we would be required to put down anchor an go into quarantine as well.
Since we had been on the boat for a week, officials agreed that we technically only needed another week of quarantine to complete our full two weeks. We had a wonderful doctor on board, we were a smaller vessel (a little over 200 of us with staff and passengers), and this allowed Ushuaia port officials to make the decision to let us stay in the port waters. A fate that many people on large cruise ships did not share during this time.
We would instantly come to learn that one week in quarantine was the least of our problems to solve. Time was not on our side, and the world continued to close while we waited.
Coming into port…
We arrived in port at March 16 and though our quarantine was technically scheduled to end on March 22, there were a number of factors working against us:
- Ushuaia is not an international airport, and is a three hour plane ride to Buenos Aires. Before getting out of Argentina, we first had to get to an international airport.
- When we first arrived in Ushuaia there were a few flights out, however as the days ticked by those flights were all cancelled and the airport would shut down. We were relying on our expedition company to get us a charter flight out, which meant coordinating with an airline, convincing the Argentinian government to open the airport and bring in the required personnel to get us in the air, as well as the Bueno Aires airport to let us land.
- Delta and American immediately ceased all flights out of Buenos Aires. We are United members, however this put many of our shipmates at a serious disadvantage to book flights completely from scratch with the one remaining international airline. By the time we left, the only way to get out of BA was through a regional airline. To get on a United flight, we’d have to get Brazil.
- Countries were closing their borders and flights were being cancelled. Real-time information was confusing. There was no clarity on what countries were allowing passengers to transit through the airport and what countries were completely closed.
- When we arrived in Ushuaia you simply couldn’t get through to an airline. This was the point when Trump had declared that no one from Europe could come to the United States, without clarifying that residents could still come home, and this caused massive panic. We were still six days from quarantine ending and no way to Buenos Aires, which was a lifetime away on the priority list for airlines.
As the days ticked by flights were constantly cancelled. And there were people to get home not just the United States, but all around the world.
It’s important for me to pause and explain how incredibly lucky we were. Experiencing all of this was overwhelming at times, though I suspect the entire crew and us passengers instinctively compartmentalized much of what was going on, and got on with our days.
I cannot stress how well we were taken care of, and I cannot say enough about Quark Expeditions. Immediately, the Vice President of the company came down to Ushuaia to be on the ground and help us. The entire company mobilized to work with the Argentinian government, as well as governments and embassies all around the world on our behalf.
We were immediately restocked with supplies when we arrived at port. While everyone here in the United States was running out of toilet paper and eggs, we had all the essentials, we were able to get our laundry done, had three meals a day, snacks, a well-stocked bar, free internet (with an entire makeshift “internet cafe” set up for us), free calling cards for us to call home, and a staff that just kept going.
Throughout our days in quarantine we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, an outdoor barbecue for dinner one night, regular workout classes, a library, daily presentations from incredible scientists and explorers, our our version of ‘TED Talks” where we learned about each other, board games, a stand-up comedy night, dance parties, crafting corners and daily tea.
We had a group of college seniors from Canada who found out that their classes were cancelled and school was shutting down. We listened as they gave their final presentations and threw them an on-bored graduation ceremony.
One of the expedition staff said it perfect – we were the eye of a hurricane. Things were calm, we were healthy and taken care of. All round us, a pandemic was raging. And it wasn’t lost on us that as soon as we stepped off of that ship, everything would change.
As we got closer to our quarantine release date we learned that we would have a charter flight to BA, as well as a hotel room at the Sheraton. Of course, things are never quite that easy.
In order to leave not just Ushuaia, but the country of Argentina, we would be required to have the following:
- A medical declaration by our onboard doctor that we were healthy
- Permission from the Port of Ushuaia
- Permission from the Ministry of Argentina
- A letter from the US Embassy
Additionally, BA was on a lockdown. You could not leave the hotel and go to the airport without proof that you had a confirmed flight. Gone were the days of just heading the airport, walking up to the counter, and getting a flight.
As we departed the boat our flight path was as follows:
Buenos Aires > Santiago, Chile > Sao Paulo, Brazil > Chicago > Des Moines
Five airports in nearly 24 hours. The flights to Santiago and Sao Paulo were on the only remaining regional airline operating, and about 80% of those flights were being cancelled. From Sao Paulo, we were able to get on United. We later learned that the Argentinian government was turning flights away. All cancellations were not a result of the airlines. Brazil was simply the furthest south that United could get, and them and Air Canada were the only international airlines committed to repatriation.
March 23 – 24: Getting home
Going through five airports in the middle of a pandemic was…emotional. We were fortunate enough to be with six other people from our ship all the way to Brazil. Every airport stop was an intensely anxiety inducing experience, constantly wondering – would our flights be cancelled? We would watch the monitors as flights were cancelled right before people’s eyes, sticking them in an airport with no way out and no way home.
Passengers stuck in Santiago littered the airport floors. Airline pillows and blankets were strewn about waiting areas with bodies side-by-side. People piled up in lines to get on planes, needing to be in a seat to know that they had a way out.
We were fortunate. Our boat gave us each two masks for our travels; little did we know how important those masks were at the time.
As we arrived back in the United States, there were no precautions being taken. No one at O’Hare asked us where we had been. We have global entry and cruised through customs without talking to a soul. No one took our temperature, no one was wearing a mask, and other than the fact that the airport was quiet since people weren’t traveling for fun or business, you would have had no idea that anything was going on.
Since we keep in touch with many of our shipmates, we found the same was true for all major ports of entry into the United States. Newark, JFK, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, San Francisco – not one airport cared where we had been as we entered the United States.
We immediately began our two-week quarantine after arriving home, hoping with every morning alarm that we felt good. Wondering if we were asymptomatic.
We thankfully had jobs to go back to and had stocked up on toilet paper before we left. Something that many of our friends, family and around the country were not so fortunate to have.
We were home. But living in the United States, you can’t help but wonder – were we safe? It still doesn’t feel like we are.