State of Catastrophe!
So the answer to the question, “Did I go on the British Embassy’s repatriation flight?” is NO, of course not. Being an optimist, glass is half full sort of person, I decide to stick it out in the hope that I can do some more travel, at least in Chile, if not Argentina. You never know, they may fling open the borders and we can hop over to Mendoza, one of the wine capitals of the world, and raise a glass to being able to travel about again.
I contact Christine about the repatriation flight and it turns out that she is booked on it. She should have been going all the way to Columbia with me where she was going to do some voluntary teaching before flying on to India, Nepal and South East Asia for the rest of the year, ending in December. She, like me, has stayed in Chile in the hope that she could salvage the trip but is now throwing in the towel. She is in her mid sixties and suffers from high blood pressure so feels she can wait no longer. I reason that I am in good health so can wait until July when commercial flights to Europe are promised. I can review the situation then.
Two days after the repatriation flight has departed, my optimism suddenly seems very misplaced. In a bid to explore further afield, I get on the train to Limache which is inland. The train winds its way through arid coastal mountains covered in large cacti. The journey is an experience in itself with buskers entertaining passengers with live music and drama. Pan pipes, classical and rock guitar, and even a dramatic monologue which I don’t understand but enjoy because of they put their hearts and souls in to it, are all on the programme. I reflect on the fact that it is one of the few places in the world where you can enjoy a live performance! As the train approaches Limache, it passes through the lemon groves of the fertile Central Valley. Once in Limache, I walk down its wide boulevard and find the park with a band stand. It has a European feel to it. As I sit in the park, having a snack and doing a spot of bird watching, my phone pings. I don’t normally look at my phone when I’m out and just use it as a camera since being held up at gunpoint but this place seems safer so I have a quick look. It is a message from Ximena saying Valparaiso and the surrounding area is going in to lockdown in two days. I stare at it in horror! I have been in Valparaíso for about six weeks and, don’t get wrong, it’s been great but it is starting to outlive its time and the mere thought of being stuck in an apartment and not able to go out is very depressing!
It’s a case of you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. During my time in Chile to date, I have not been subject to restrictions. They declared a State of Catastrophe for 90 days in March which involved closing the borders and bringing in a curfew from 10pm to 5pm which didn’t affect me in any way. The folks back home and in many other parts of the world were stuck in doors but not me. I had the freedom to roam. Certain parts of Chile were locked down but, until now, not me.
I make the most of the next two days of freedom and get on the bus north to Horcon, the fishing village, a two hour bus ride up the coast. Here I stock up on sea bream, mussels and clams from a local fisherman. I try to buy some of the ??? but he refuses to sell it to me, saying it is for ceviche, a raw fish snack that I have tried.
It transpires that during lockdown you can leave your home five times a week for three hours at a time for shopping, basics and to get medicines. You need to get online permission. It suddenly feels as if I’m living in a world with shades of 1984 and Gilead! This will put paid to trips beyond Valparaíso.
Heather and I decide to drown our sorrows in alcohol and Heather buys us two beautiful wine glasses decorated with images of Valparaíso.
On the first day of lockdown I decide to test the waters without a pass; why waste a good pass when you can use the excuse that ‘I didn’t know’ on day one. I get my Idiot Abroad Routine out and dust it down. I haven’t used it since the waterfalls and national parks of Pucón but it comes naturally and is like riding a bike. I find a rat run down in to town which is unlikely to be checked but once I enter the town centre I feel more of a target. I successfully clear the town centre and head round the bay to where I can walk by the Pacific Ocean. I head through a park and take some photos of huge anchors and an even larger statue of a seagull.
As I push on towards the ramp that leads up to the promenade, I get a sense from people coming in the other direction that I may be heading in to danger. I have, however, become paranoid owing to the current situation so I press on right in to the trap. I am stopped by two young members of the Marine Police. They say something in Spanish which is clearly, “Please can we see your pass?”. I look very confused and tell them I’m English. They kindly explain the system to me in basic English. I can apply on line. I ask if it is in English, knowing it is not, as I don’t speak any Spanish. They look worried and get on the phone. At this point, I feel like saying, why don’t you look in that direction and I’ll go in that direction but that would rather blow my cover. Plus, bird watching isn’t included on the list of reasons to apply for a pass.
They come up with a solution. They will take me up to the nearest police station to get me a pass. All three of them leave their post (there is one snoozing in the police car) and drive me through town to a police station. I feel very envious of all the other people without a pass who are now able to enjoy the sea breeze!
We arrive at the police station and there is a long queue of Chileans outside queuing to get passes. A significant number of Chileans don’t have internet access so have to go through this rigmarole every time they want to buy toilet rolls. I don’t need to join the queue because I have a police escort straight to the front of it! I feel like a VIP! One of the police officers asks if he can have his photo taken with me. Oh, bless! I take the opportunity to take photos of my friendly boys in blue before a local police officer is found to help me. Unfortunately, I need my passport to get a pass. The Marine Police offer to drive me back up the hill to get it. They couldn’t have been more helpful. I decline the offer of a lift back to the police station and wave them off.
As soon as I have given the Marine Police the slip, I head off in the other direction to the viewing points on the hill to see the mountain views now that they have been graced with some snow. It is spectacular and takes my mind off lockdown. This, however, is short lived as I spot soldiers coming in the other direction. What sort of a country is this? Clearly one that had a dictatorship in living memory. I dive down a side street and hide behind a concrete structure outside house. Somewhere where I can see them pass but they can’t see me. A woman looks out of a nearby door and glares at me. Has she worked out what I’m up to? I clearly look very suspicious in my straw hat!
Once the danger has passed, I continue on and dodge round an army road block on Plaza Bismarck, muttering ‘Oh for the love of God!’ under my breath. I eventually end up in a distinctly dodgy area so turn round. Back at Plaza Bismarck, with pleasant views over the bay of Valparaiso, I find that the army appear to have packed up and gone home for tea. Alleluia! Peace at last, well apart from the Alsatian puppy that jumps all over me and has to be dragged off by its owner. It obviously can’t read the “I don’t like dogs” sign on my forehead. I eat my grapes and sip on my drink when all of a sudden the army turns up again in the form of a lorry load of them! They pile out of the back and at least half head in my direction. I look nonchalant but they continue coming. They gabble something at me in Spanish which clearly involves this bloody on-line permission pass. Sorry, don’t speak Spanish, I tell them. They don’t speak any English. Result! Perhaps they will leave me in peace to finish my grapes. But no, they find a superior who does speak English. He explains the new rules. I look confused but tell him I live round the corner (2kms round the corner, actually) and I will go home and investigate getting one of these bloody stupid passes. Off I go, back to base and manage to avoid being picked up by the airforce, SAS or navy seals!
The next day I apply for a 3 hour shopping pass and it is granted. I decide I will put the start time in for 30 minutes after I leave because I can use a rat run to get down in to town that is very unlikely to be checked. This tactic doesn’t work as it sets the time for you in real time. I head off to the coast to go bird and wildlife watching, trying to figure out how I explain the shopping bit if the pass gets checked. A police officer stops me in town and asks to see my pass. I complain loudly in English about how this is wasting my precious 3 hour shopping time and he’s so taken aback that he hardly looks at the pass. Perhaps there’s an angle there. Just use an old pass/don’t worry about going over time. My friendly Maritime Police are not at their post checking the coastal route so I spend a pleasant few hours watching the birds, including Peruvian Boobies (yes, that is the name of a feathered bird for the dirty minded amongst you!) and Inca terns. The sea lion drama is very entertaining too. I get an extra half an hour by using the rat run back up the hill. One should be grateful for small mercies these days!
Heather is very worried about how the stray dogs will survive during lockdown. I joke that they should be culled. She’s not impressed. She suggests she should bring one home. I’m not sure if she is joking! She probably has a few stashed in her bedroom as I write this! She buys extra food for them and takes it out when ever she goes out. I have to say that I do get more dogs coming up to me barking for food so I get some dog food myself. She’s a bad influence!
I decide to use the extra time I have to improve my Spanish. I ask Ximena if she will give us lessons and she kindly and enthusiastically agrees. She comes every day at 5pm (or closer to 6pm as she is often on Chilean time!) and it really helps. Heather is very much a beginner and I am intermediate but Ximena caters well for both of us. In addition, she tells us many stories. One that sticks in my mind is accusations by women that the police raped them when they were in custody during the recent riots. The fact that people were blinded by police and army is not disputed so, whilst this is harder to prove, it would not surprise me.
Just when I am learning to live with the five a week permission passes, the situation goes from bad to worse. Passes are being reduced from 5 a week to 2 a week! We’ve only had a week on 5 passes! I think it is being introduced in two days but when I apply for a pass I’m refused! I go out anyway! I now know where to avoid and I manage to get over to the old town using back routes but it’s not ideal as it is safer to be on main routes where there are more people in this land of armed robbers.
I have a rethink. I apply for passes using Kathryn and Helen’s passport details. It works! You have to put in your age so I reduce mine by two year each time. It won’t be long before I am 36! I can’t show their passport pages as they are 22 and 20 years old respectively. Everyone says Kathryn looks like me but Richard, the cheeky bastard, says we are the before and after! I have only once been asked to show my passport page (a photo of it on my phone) so I decide to risk it. When I tell Andrew I may have to resort to using the passport details of him and his dad, he panics because he has just returned from Germany where he was at university post Covid 19, having retrieved his things, and he doesn’t want the British authorities, who have told him he has to isolate at home for two weeks, thinking he’s gone off to Chile! That gives me a good laugh!
I am not sure what Heather thinks about me pushing the boundaries of lockdown but she clearly doesn’t approve. She sticks rigidly to the rules. Does she think I am stupid/insane/arrogant/selfish/bound to get caught at some point/all of the above?
It is mid winter here and generally the weather is better than a British summer. Not hard, I know! Anyway, there are a few grey and wet days so I don’t go out and use them to catch up on bits and pieces. On these days my step count plummets from 16,000 to 6 steps. Okay, that wouldn’t even get me to the loo but it is counted on my phone so is a few more but nowhere near my normal step count.
Having my radius of exploration reduced I become this mad woman using binoculars to see beyond the immediate vicinity. It reminds me of when Richard and I did a Nile cruise before we had kids. One day, we docked mid afternoon but were not due to go to the ancient site until the next morning. I bounded down to reception asked them to put down the gang plank so I could get off and look round the local town. They looked nervous and told me I couldn’t get off the boat. “Sorry?” I said, “Can you repeat that? You’re surely not telling me that I’m a prisoner on this boat. What sort of a holiday is this?”. They get Janet, the tour manager, to deal with me. She politely tells me I wouldn’t be insured. “Insured for what?” I asked. “The pavements are uneven,” she said. I kid not, she really did say that. She had clearly been told by Thomas Cook not to tell travellers about the security and terrorist threats, which were very real because we were constantly being guarded by heavily armed guards which she denied were there for us! We joked amongst ourselves that it was an organised tour not an armed tour. And we all know what happened to Thomas Cook! I told her I’d sign a waiver. Another man on the trip came to back me up. Richard, if you are wondering, was relaxing with a cold beer on deck rather than fighting the good fight with me. And I think the other man just saw it as sport. Anyway, Janet said she would see what she could do and then just went off and hid. I had to resign myself to being held prisoner and got my binoculars out to observe local life from the deck of the boat. Not ideal but better than nothing! Mind you, I got my own back on Janet, the tour manager, the next day. After the trip to the ancient site, she gave us 20 minutes as a local cafe. This was my chance to see the local town. Richard said her face was a picture when she asked where I was and he told her I’d gone off the to the Coptic Christian Church.
Most people in Chile are poor. 45% do not have secure employment. You see people trying to sell their tatty possessions and many people live rough, including on the beach. There is a large immigrant population in Chile from poorer countries in South America and Haiti, post the earthquake there. The residents of our apartments regularly put together food parcels and Heather and I give cash to help the poor. Mind you, whilst the residents of our apartments are not destitute, many are clearly struggling and have lost their jobs. Ximena kindly helps to support a number of them. There is a thriving local market place and the list of goods for sale is translated in to English for us! The president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, is certainly not poor, he is a billionaire who employs his relatives. Ring any bells?!
I am still in touch with my Argentinian homestay hosts and some of them have lost their jobs and are in a desperate situation. Argentina’s death toll is less than 600 people in a population of 40 million but there is no end in sight to lockdown there.
Several milestones come and go. On 10th June I would have finished my Dragoman trip in Cartagena and on 23rd June I would have flown to Madrid to meet up with Richard and stay with our friends Ma Paz, Agustin, Miguel and Belen.
I feel very fed up because lockdown is definitely not for me and I make a decision: I am going home!