Part three of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drive through a foggy desert)

The Limari Valley, south of La Serena, Chile.
October 2019

If you want to know how I came to be driving to quarantined Santiago read part one and part two.

I set off heading south on the Pan-American Highway

…or ruta cinco as we tend to call it, stabbing my finger at the various buttons on the radio, twizzling the knobs and trying to work out how to use the radio since I hadn’t any time to stop and contemplate the device. I had a five-hour journey ahead of me and five hours before I needed to be at the airport.

The dual-carriageway double-laned road was empty apart from the occasional lorry trundling along in the sunny afternoon. There were beautiful views as the road winds along running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and from time to time beautiful empty beaches in magical looking coves appeared, then the road would snake around, through more cactuses and I’d feel like I was in the wild west.

The radio played half a song and they the signal went

Then another half song might play and then the signal would go again. At least focusing on the radio distracted me from the fact that in all the chaos, I hadn’t thought to use the bathroom before I left home. Emotionally I was in shock, all at once loving the freedom of being out on the road and actually moving yet, at the same time panicked, with my foot on the gas not daring to dawdle.

My fears were the following:

  1. The service stations would be closed
  2. I would get lost trying to fill up the car before dropping it off by the airport
  3. I would be missing some important piece of paperwork when the police stopped me
  4. In all my anxiety, I would cause myself a fever and set off a load of coronavirus alarms
  5. I would arrive at the airport too late for the plane

On this beautiful sunny afternoon what I hadn’t worried about was fog

The road sign indicated that I could go at 120km/h. The fog (or do you call it a deep sea mist) that descended threatened to slow me right down. I knew that if I continued to travel at 120km/h I might end up being posted back to the UK.

I saw a lorry ahead, then it disappeared, and a game began where I hunted down lorries and crawled around them. I switched the radio off to concentrate.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies cleared and the fog disappeared. I switched the radio back on and the sort of song that makes you want to dance came on.

Time however was ticking by

Two and a half hours into the journey I stopped at a service station, yanked on my blue floral mask and dashed inside where to my delight not only were there open, clean toilets but also a woman selling take away coffee. I checked my position on the map, shared my location with the chap who I had to meet to give back the car, and set off.

The sun set, the fog returned, I could no longer see the cactuses

So I practised taking long calming breaths. Everything was going to be fine. I prayed that all the lorries on the road had working lights. At least, I reasoned, there was no chance of me getting bored on this solitary trip. Thankfully, as I began to turn inland, Santiago is not beside the sea, the fog disappeared, however, the traffic grew heavier. I began to look out for the first of the police cordons.

A line of red lights, uniformed officers waving their arms and I slid into the queue

I rolled down the window, put my mask back on my face and wondered which of all my documents I would need to show. The British Embassy (contacted in part one) had never responded to my query. The government website suggested I needed my boarding pass and my passport, and then I also had my ‘I don’t have covid-19’ QR-code.

I didn’t have a boarding pass. As I was driving my dad was busy trying to do the check-in for my flight, but for whatever reason, the website didn’t allow him to simply send me my boarding pass. Two smiling highway officers poked their head through my passenger window.

Part two of the repatriation ordeal (in which I discover the second flight is cancelled)

Posted on - 3min
Through the fence.
September 2019.
Elqui River.

You might want to read part one first.

I called the booking agent, Opodo, who acknowledged that indeed, it did seem that my flight on Sunday was cancelled and that the airline had rescheduled the flight for the Saturday. The signal quality was terrible and the agent at the other end just kept repeating that it appeared I was correct. Yes, the flight had been moved. No, nobody had contacted me. Yes, this was very inconvenient. Yes, getting to Santiago from La Serena with eight hours’ notice wasn’t ideal. However, they were unable to provide any support or guidance other than to advise me to ring the airline operator.

I rang LatAm in Chile

And thankfully they found a lovely lady who spoke beautiful English who wanted to help. The reason why I hadn’t been informed of the change to my flight was simple, the airline had no contact details for me. Opodo had failed to pass such information along. However she could now confirm that I had had my flight moved to the Saturday, and if that were inconvenient she would be happy to swap it for any other flight to Miami from Santiago.

I didn’t know what to do, so she offered to leave a note in my file saying that I would get back to them and choose a flight.

I called my father again

He asked if there was any possible way of getting to Santiago in the next seven hours as financially this seemed like a better option than trying to change the Miami to London flight. My darling housemate called the bus station and confirmed that there were no buses. I already knew there were no planes. I frantically contacted people at random asking if anyone had any idea how I could travel the 500km in the next seven hours.

My father looked up the car hire places in the city, but they all seemed to be closed. My housemate did the same and found one place, located by the supermarket, which offered to hire me a car which I could drop off near Santiago airport. I had to be at the agency within 45 minutes.

So I packed

My housemate made me a sandwich and filled my flask with tea. The other housemate called an Uber to get us to the agency on time. In a mad rush, I applied for another certificate this time to state that I was travelling by car, to the airport and that I still had no symptoms of the virus.

Mask on, I dashed out the house, into the car and we were off to the agency.

Now… punctuality is not a Chilean skill, nor is moving with anything resembling haste

I handed over my driving licence, passport and identity card and waited whilst the man behind the counter bashed down on the keyboard, failing to copy out my name, leading to a multitude of errors flashing on his screen.

After half an hour of this, at 2:30 pm, five and a half hours before I needed to be at the airport, he restarted the computer and decided to begin again. His friend arrived to lend assistance. My housemate went around to the other side of the counter and sat down at the computer to try and help. The three men stared at the screen, muttering quietly in Chilean Spanish, breaking all rules of social distancing, whilst I paced up and down the office.

Just before three o’clock I gave my housemate a huge hug, sat down in the driver’s seat, thanked the gods that the car was a manual and set off on the 500 km trip south.

There had been no time to think.

Part one of the repatriation ordeal (in which the first flight is cancelled and I fill out forms)

Closed borders and the like.
Elqui river, La Serena.
September 2019.

Last Monday, I awoke to a message from British Airways saying that my June flight to London from Santiago had been cancelled. This wasn’t such a surprise. The Chilean border is closed and the only flights out of Santiago at the moment are to the United States. Although, the British government website advises that there are still flights scheduled from Santiago to Europe and Brazil for June.

I called my father, then called my father again and then called my father again. We discussed the options. Getting home does matter because my sister hopes to be married and well, visas… We contemplated a flight via Barcelona. I went to pay the house bills and then returned and called my father again. The Barcelona flight no longer existed. My father was concerned that any flight we booked mid-May might well be cancelled by the beginning of June. I was concerned that come June I would have nowhere to live (although this would not actually be the case as my Chile-based friends are between them so generous that someone would have rescued me).

My mother had her word. She told my father to get me home as soon as possible. So my father booked me a flight for six-days later: Santiago – Miami – London.

At this point my life suddenly turned upside down

Or maybe it was upside down and simply revolved to point in yet another direction. I was heading to the USA for the first time, planning on doing three continents in three days.

By Friday I had given away or thrown half of my belongings. I’d been to the bank and I’d booked a bus ticket for the Sunday morning to travel into Santiago. On Friday, Santiago went into complete quarantine. To go to the supermarket, you now needed a certificate of permission declaring that you had none of a long list of symptoms. And there I was, planning a nearly 500 km journey by public transport right into the capital.

The certificate proved tricky. It asks you for the address of the residence, hotel or place of lodging to which you are going in Chile. You can only put a location in Chile and I was planning on lodging myself in an un-address-worthy, economy-class aeroplane seat. My housemate and I called the British Embassy, the phone suggested we email, I emailed the British Embassy asking for advice. Meanwhile, I created myself a variety of these certificates pertaining to all eventualities with a selection of possible addresses covering travel by bus and plane. The British government website declares that LatAm flights require such a certificate. The bus company told me I’d need one to board the bus.

On Saturday morning I bought myself two apples and a banana for my adventure

And four additional facemasks. Heading back home, I ambled through Puertas Del Mar in the sunshine trying not to think about the achingly long bus journey, there were horses in the street eating the grass. I had my train ticket from London to Leeds, I’d checked that the London Underground (metro) was running and I knew my route. I even had my ESTA for my planned 12-hour stopover in Miami and new travel insurance as my normal travel insurance covers me for everywhere except the United States of America.

Lawn-mowing.
Puertas del Mar, La Serena
May 2020

In the circumstances, I felt that I was doing quite well

I logged onto my computer and clicked onto the LatAm website to pay for my suitcase. I clicked through, parted with yet more pennies and was about to close the browser when the word SATURDAY caught my eye.

Saturday 16/05/2020 11.10pm

My flight, I thought, is not for Saturday. It’s definitely for Sunday.

I checked my email because it would not be the first time that I have found myself flying on the wrong day this year. The emails definitely all said Sunday. I checked the junk email folder, nothing. I tried to think it through, was it a result of the time difference? If so, why would it still say Saturday. I checked my emails again. It was definitely a Sunday flight.

I called my father

The chaos, it seemed, was only just beginning.

Courage versus comfort (or not as the case might be)

Peering towards that which we cannot see.
Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
January 2020

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I find myself craving a little comfort

Actually, I find myself craving a lot of comfort.

Instead I find myself trailing the streets trying to find some place of education which is willing to employ me so that I might have a contract and stay in the house which has become my home and in the city where I have made friends. Comfort would be to stay in this odd place on the edge of the world, facing out towards the great Pacific Ocean, speaking my uneven, clunky Spanish and weathering viruses and social unrest.

It’s sad to realize how much of modern life is designed to lull us into being comfortably numb; we’re expected to go about doing what we’re told because it’s easy.

Srdja Popovic and Mathew Miller, Blueprint for Revolution

One plan has me going to a new town somewhere else in Chile

I’d know nobody and be doing the whole thing from scratch, albeit with better Spanish. It’s not an ideal solution but it would keep me learning and teaching and it is at least a plan. It may remain just a plan though, as it depends on much more freedom to travel than I currently have.

Another plan has me in England until this is all over, which would be comfy indeed – there would be Yorkshire tea – but perhaps I would lose something of what I’ve been fighting so hard to have. Not to mention, I have yet to get to England.

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough’.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak (read more on deliberate practice)

Truthfully, I am exhausted by the emotional taxation of the changes in my life

Bitterness seeps in. Frustration rests within my muscles, which are tense from the continual strain of the stress that I’m facing. There is a deep anger inside of me. Now I finally trust myself to be able to work and function in a sociably acceptable manner, the situation around me makes doing these seemingly normal things a whole new level of difficult.

Knowing that pretty much everyone is going through a tough time should help. I know talking helps. Although, in a way, I’m overwhelmed by the uncertainty that everyone around me is feeling. Tempers are short – mine included – and I reckon we’re all tearing up a bit more than before. What do you say to a friend who fears her nephew has the virus? I’m a little more equipped at such difficult conversations nowadays (post-therapy), but I still struggle for words of comfort.

Yet, I think it’s the disappointment that hits hardest

People had plans. My sister’s supposedly getting married. I booked my flights and arranged my dress-fitting especially for the wedding. I also planned on doing a course whilst I was in England, which is now postponed. Students, who want to learn, find themselves stuck with online learning and a substandard education that will further divide the rich from the poor. The teachers don’t enjoy it either, teaching a class where you can’t see the student’s faces is a horrible experience. You’d think we could do video, but the internet connections we’re relying on won’t necessarily handle it. Yet, if the classes don’t take place, how will the teachers be paid?

…whenever we venture into the world as travellers, our capacity for wonder, engagement, and growth is directly related to the capacity of our hearts.

Don George in his introduction to Better Than Fiction 2

Today, in the middle of doing yoga, I paused and reflected on the battles I am facing, and the battles that other people are facing around me. It occurred to me that now more than every I need to be clear about what my priorities are.

When you prioritise some things, you have to also deprioritise others

Painfully and achingly, what keeps getting deprioritised is my pride. I’m from a family who rarely admits anything’s wrong and often don’t have a clue how to ask for help when they need it. I am coming to believe that this is partially because they don’t recognise when they need help. We are a family of highly proud people.

And yet I do not have a single plan that doesn’t include a need to ask for and accept help. I am unable to pull myself together and manage independently. You would have thought I’d have learnt this enough times going through my dependent, can barely look after myself phase when I was in therapy, completely reliant on my parents. But no. It seems my dependency is something I must continue to learn.

What I love about travel is how it shows me a different way of living

I’m thrown into situations where I need help. Frequently I have little idea what’s going on and rely on the help from people who barely know me. The other day a Japanese friend brought me a gift of chocolates, face masks, hand sanitizer and sterilizing fluid. It is a simple gift, but thoughtful and well timed. Since at some point I’m going to have to travel a quarter of the way around the world in the midst of a pandemic, I will be needing what he’s given.

The more conversant and comfortable you can be with your emotions, the richer your experience of life will be, and the more capable you will be of forgiving.

Archbishop Desmond TuTu and Reverand Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (read more on forgiveness)

Humility is not my natural guise

Admitting that I’m overwhelmed by this situation and the uncertainty that I now face isn’t easy for me. I can get angry about it, but the greater fear is that getting back on my feet and have a foundation that I can be proud of, is going to require an awful lot of asking for help. It’s humbling seeing person after person reach out and offer me assistance.

I sit here writing, listening to the neighbour practising his guitar

A close friend told me that I have to remember that although I don’t know what will happen in the months to come, what I know is that right now, I am in Chile, and I’m in the place I want to be. Maybe it won’t last, but I have to remember that today exists and I need to remember to live it.

Brené Brown writes that we can choose courage or we can choose comfort. I think she’s wrong. I believe that comfort comes when we trust that we have the courage to do what is necessary. My discomfort, I believe, comes not from my courage, but from my fear that I don’t have the courage to do what is necessary.

I can be a good, kind and generous person without necessarily being independent. Ain’t that a shocking idea?

The uninvited guest

Salt lagoon near San Pedro de Atacama.
This is the desert.
January 2020

We had a visitor to the house. Honestly, it really wasn’t intentional.

You see, I live in a small bungalow with a large German Shepherd. This works out surprisingly well most of the time. He’s a very good-natured dog, however, the other day, as my housemate and I were eating our lunch, we glanced out the window and saw that next-door’s cat was in our garden.

The dog peered down at it, calmly with an air of curiosity.

Now, you should know that this cat is not the brightest kitten in the litter. The other day it entered the garden and spent a long time mewing before we realised it didn’t know how to get home and dropped it back over the fence into next-door’s yard. Luckily, that time the dog was in the house and fast asleep.

This time we weren’t so lucky. This time we watched as the not-so-intelligent cat took a swipe at the rather-large dog’s maw.

The dog registered the threat as hostile and acted as a large German Shepherd in Chile is supposed to. He gave chase.

But of course, the stupid cat still had no idea how to get out of the garden.

So, the dog chased the cat, my housemate chased the dog and I did the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances: I grabbed the cat.

If I could have, I would have dropped it safely over the fence, but the cat fought against me (I have the scars to prove it) and I dropped the cat before I reached the fence. At which point the cat darted past the dog straight into the house, I followed, slamming the door behind me, putting myself in the house with the cat, leaving the manic dog barking in the garden with my housemate.

Now the cat was under a bed, with no intention of coming out.

The game became one of waiting. I cleaned up my wounds and put plasters where the blood still flowed, then, cursing the cat, we finished our lunch.

Eventually, of course, the cat had to come out, and when it did, I was ready. I pounced. Got it. My housemate rushed to trap the dog elsewhere and I gently deposited the cat, over the fence, into next door’s garden.

So to anyone who’s asking, no, I’m not finding this quarantine boring.

Someone else’s home (somewhere or other)

I don’t have my camera to hand here, so you will have to use your imagination and enjoy this picture from the north of Chile instead.
Near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020

I wake up at 07:30 as the white light comes through the curtain-less window. It’s white because outside hangs a thick mist, which hugs the landscape for much of the morning, although come afternoon there’ll be nothing but blue sky and scorching sun. Between the dark of the previous night, and the mist of this morning, I’m left with only a hazy idea of where I am. I know I’m not far from Santiago, although I feel knowing the village name and seeing the bob of my global positioning satellite assisted blue dot moving on a digital map doesn’t constitute knowing where I am. If there is a village here, I still can’t see it.

I get up and wander around the house

It’s an amateur build, a creative project, a mixture of a building site and a home. I cross the terrace and enter the open front door of its non-identical twin. The owner has gone to work already and I’ve been left here alone. I wander in and make myself a cup of tea. The part where I live lacks functionality.  

It takes time, but after rooting around this stranger’s cupboards, I start to understand where to find what I need. I take avena, an apple and a stick of cinnamon to make porridge. I load my clothes into the washing machine, switch a tap, prod around and hopeful water noises begin. A fluffball of a grey cat rubs against my leg affectionately.

I find some tools to remove the concrete floor

Concentrating on the area closest to the front door to begin. I work for a short while, trying to gauge the difficulty of the problem and then pause. It’s going to take some thinking. I step back outside. The mist directly above has developed a blue tinge and looking out I can see a small lake or rather, with this dry summer, a pond. There’s a suggestion of hill. In a neighbouring field stands a nonchalant piebald pony.

I figure it’s time to explore and so take the keys, hanging on a hook, and head down to the pyramid building below. Yesterday, it was just a glimmer of light, pointed out to me as the biblioteca, but now I discover that it’s a tower roof, missing the tower. By which I mean if you imagine a tall tower, with a triangular roof the colour of terracotta, then what I look down at from the terrace looks like the decapitated point. It slants up from the floor and in beautiful Egyptian form rises to a perspex skylight.

There is a door on one side

Inside is a small coffee table with a notebook lying atop, a few worn chairs, an old-style school desk and shelves with books: Oscar Wilde and The Little Prince, an English dictionary and the complete works of Dostoevsky – which is a coincidence as I am reading The Brothers Karamazov.

With the washing hanging, the sun appears and casts the garden in warm light

I marvel at the sudden appearance of hills, or mountains perhaps is the word. Now seems a sensible moment to start thinking about lunch, for I am going to have to eat. It’s a game of ready, steady, cook, which has me delving into the back of the fridge wondering if what I pull out is a courgette or a cucumber. There seem to be an endless supply of tomatoes and enough pasta to keep even me going a while. This though is a game I am quite adept at. I have practised many times before. Frustratingly there appears to be no evidence at all that anyone here drinks coffee.

Outside a horseback herdsman guides his cows to the lake

I watch him and his dogs and smile at the sound of an indignant cow before returning to scrambling in broken concrete. I whack a large hammer systematically at the weakest points of the floor trying to make it shatter, I prise it up slowly and occasionally tumble over. I’m surprised by my progress. I’m going to need wire cutters and a dustpan and brush, but soon the door will swing open freely and there will be space to begin my masterpiece. Meanwhile I place my tomatoes in boiling water to remove their skins and plan how I’m going to make a peach tart. There’s no need to rush anything here and nobody to rush me.