One couple’s international journey home during COVID-19
My husband, Ray, and I are very passionate about travelling. We’ve been married 26 years and caught the travel bug early in our marriage when visiting Ray’s best friend in South America. Travel opened up a big, beautiful world to us, so different from our desert home in New Mexico. We wanted to experience more of God’s creation. So, for the next several years, we planned and saved and were blessed to visit five other continents, leaving just one unexplored—Antarctica!
An opportunity finally presented itself, and we booked a trip to the remote continent for early March 2020. Our friends and family were supportive, yet apprehensive.
We arrived to Buenos Aires on March 6. Venturing outside our hotel, we found the city bustling and alive with tourists and activity. The next morning we met up with our fellow 199 expedition passengers. We then boarded buses to the airport for a group charter flight to Ushuaia Tierra del Fuego, where our ship would be waiting for us. It was exciting! Waiting at the airport gate, we bonded with two wonderful people, Dwight and Prime, who were assigned to be roommates for the trip.
Finally, we landed in Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of South America. After a few hours of exploration, we were escorted to the port where our ice-strengthened vessel, the Ocean Endeavor, was waiting to be our home for the next 10 days. Before being let off the bus, each passenger had to be screened for fever as COVID-19 was just starting to surface in a few isolated places of the Americas.
Beauty of Antarctica
It was smooth sailing at first through the notorious Drake Passage. When the passage is smooth, it’s termed the “Drake Lake.” In time, the first giant iceberg came into view in the distance. It was immense and beautiful. Prime, Dwight, Ray, and I were now enjoying a good friendship, and we had all signed up with the “Seal” Zodiac group for excursions, so we affectionately called ourselves Seal Team 4.
The next several days were spent exploring the beautiful outer islands of the Antarctic by Zodiac and by landings. We saw incredible ice formations; abundant wildlife such as penguins, seals, and whales; and lots and lots of beautiful sea birds. It was an untouched paradise. Finally, we reached the main peninsula of Antarctica. It was vast and stunning and blanketed in white snow.
Abruptly, on March 14, an emergency meeting was held for all passengers. The expedition leader said she’d been notified that the Argentinian government would be going into full lockdown effective March 16 because of the coronavirus. Leaving the county would be difficult after the lockdown, so we needed to cut the trip short, pull up anchor, and head back to the Ushuaia port immediately.
This return passage through the Drake was not as smooth. It was now the “Drake Shake,” as they say, with waves sometimes reaching as high as 30 feet. The ship rocked heavily. Fortunately, Ray and I faired pretty well.
Quarantine on Ship
As we approached Ushuaia, another emergency briefing was held to notify passengers that the Argentinian government was now requiring all travelers to enter quarantine for 14 days. Because we had already been in remote isolation away from other humans and had no symptoms of the virus onboard, we were given “good time credit,” so we had to quarantine for only five more days on the ship. But this would thwart the plans to try to leave the country before lockdown.
During quarantine on ship, expedition staff and ship crew went above and beyond to make passengers feel cared about and comfortable. Passengers were free to explore the ship and enjoy the amenities.
In daily briefings and through the Internet we learned that the Argentinian COVID-19 response was further tightened. Passengers’ flights were being canceled, and each passenger booked and rebooked flights multiple times. Concern set in.
Fierce negotiations were going on behind the scenes by our ship leadership to get permission for passengers to disembark the ship and board a charter flight to Buenos Aires.
Off the Ship and Into the Real World
On March 22, we were allowed to disembark the ship. The first thing we noticed was port officials with masks and guns. We were loaded onto busses and escorted by police to the Ushuaia airport, where we were met by more armed police and medical personnel in full protective gear. It was surreal and unnerving. Each passenger was screened for fever and virus symptoms. Inside the airport we were directed to social distance six feet apart and proceed through immigration to our gate. The mood was tense.
We touched down in Buenos Aires and sat on the plane for another hour while waiting for medical staff to arrive to do additional passenger health screenings.
Arriving at a hotel, we noticed it was guarded outside by armed police. The city was in full shutdown, and everyone was to shelter in place. Tourists were no exception. We checked in and were notified that we had to self-isolate in our rooms. There would be no visiting with other passengers, and all hotel restaurants were closed. Limited room service would be available and delivered with a knock on our door with items left in disposable containers on the other side.
Our daughter helped us to notify the embassy about our situation, and one of our seal team members used his airlines connection to help get all four of our flights rearranged time after time. Finally, it came time to check in online and head to the airport. At the entrance of the airport we were screened again by medical personnel, and police asked to see our flight reservations. We were told our flight was canceled, despite showing all was OK on our smartphones. We were told to go to the check-in counter, where they confirmed that our flights had indeed been canceled. We were directed to go across the airport to ticketing to purchase new flights. It was scary and overwhelming.
When we got to the ticketing desk we learned that because of the lockdown and travel ban, the only flights out of the country were three “humanitarian flights” a day. They were issued daily, and the last flight for the day was filled. We were directed to get in contact with our booking airline by phone to schedule a humanitarian flight for the next day. Our phone agent said the flight we needed was not in their system, so they were unable to assist. The Buenos Aires ticketing manager explained that she also couldn’t assist because of aviation regulations. It was clear the system was broken, and we were stuck. I began to pray.
After a few minutes, the ticketing agent spoke to her manager and motioned for us to wait in an area close by. She went to the other side of the airport, and after a long time she returned. She spoke to her manager, got on the phone, and then went to the other side of the airport. I was amazed because it appeared that these two women were taking extra time to work specifically on our problem. Finally, the ticketing agent approached us with a sheet of paper in her hand. It showed four booked flights out of Buenos Aires to Chile, and from Chile back to the United States! She told us she had broken protocols and secured coupons so we wouldn’t have to pay extra for the flights. I praised God for His blessings and divine help!
Since the flights were for the next day, we needed to find a hotel for the night. We headed outside to a small line of taxis that were waiting. As our driver, Angel, dropped us off at our new hotel, he gave us a business card and scheduled a time to pick us up the next day and take us to the airport.
The hotel was clean, quaint, and small. We were welcomed warmly by the receptionist who checked us in, and she let us know there was a small café onsite. It was refreshing and felt “normal,” which is something we hadn’t felt in a while. The next morning after breakfast it was time to meet our taxi driver outside to head to the airport, but he wasn’t there. I remembered I had his card, and I asked reception to please call him. He relayed to her that he was 10 minutes delayed. Outside the hotel was a lot of activity. Personnel dressed in full protective gear were escorting tourists with luggage wearing masks past us to the back of the lobby. The receptionist indicated that we should keep our distance and said it wasn’t safe. I was concerned and uneasy. I prayed again for God’s protection and help.
Several minutes later, Angel was standing outside the hotel lobby, motioning through the window for us to come outside quickly and follow him. His car was parked a block away. It was hard dragging our large, heavy luggage through the streets. He explained that the government had issued a taxi blackout in this area, but he had made a promise to me to get me. I knew God had provided Angel to help us.
We were driving along happily, and suddenly we came to a halt. Police presence was everywhere. I began to pray fervently because it appeared that we would miss our flight. Police asked to see our passports and papers. Satisfied, we were allowed to pass.
We made it to the airport with only a few minutes to spare. The airport was very empty, and we learned our flight to Chile would be delayed. Finally, we boarded. After a long layover in Chile and two flight connections in the United States, we all made it home!
We each had to self-isolate for 14 days, and Seal Team 4 stayed in touch. I’m happy to report that at the time of this writing, we are all virus free!
In the safety of my home, I was able to reflect on all that had happened to us the last few weeks. Our time in Antarctica taught us about a place that reflects God’s beautiful creation. The land was so remote and untouched and absolutely stunning. My time on the ship taught me about the protection and blessings God provided us—an oasis during the initial storm of COVID-19. Our times of hardship in South America taught us that with God, nothing is impossible to those who trust Him.
I know that I serve a powerful and loving heavenly Father who is there for me and others who seek Him.