My guest today is Whitni Battle, Dallas resident and world traveler. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Whitni.
Joan Brunwasser: A few years ago, we talked about how you got involved in circus training. Today, we're going to talk about your very recent travel to Argentina, just ahead of the pandemic. Why don't you kick this off by telling us how your travel plans came about? Why Argentina? Why then?
Whitni Battle: Hi! Thank you, Joan. I went with my friend Carmen. She lived there years ago studying Theology and Clown, but had to move back to the states suddenly because of a family health crisis. Since I met her in circus school, she's always spoken fondly of her time there and of the friends she made and of how she dreamed of going back. She didn't want to go alone and she knows I love to travel so she invited me. I'd just been accepted into a Master's Program studying Translation and Interpretation which was set to start in the fall in Monterey, California, so at first I told her that a major trip like that didn't make sense for me, but she was on an existential quest and needed a companion and I almost never say no to an adventure, so eventually I agreed to go. We chose March because the weather is nice then and that gave us a couple months to save up for the trip.
JB: So you weren't being either foolhardy or irresponsible. What did we know at that point regarding COVID-19?
WB: When we got there on March 3rd, we knew that it was a novel coronavirus similar to SARS and MERS, which originated because of a jump from animal to human hosts in Wuhan, China. They were starting to see an explosion of cases in Europe and it was killing people and nobody knew what to do or what would happen. There were still lots of people traveling around Argentina. The line for immigration at the airport had several hundred people in it and took over two hours. Even a week into my trip I was discussing my domestic travel plans with locals and all they told me was that I'd have a great time.
Whitni (right) with friend and travel companion, Carmen, in Buenos Aires
(Image by courtesy of Whitni Battle) Details DMCA
JB: How long were you there before things changed?
WB: When we first got there, Argentina only had around six cases and the U.S. had maybe 150. In Argentina, the virus was being portrayed as something that came from abroad but would be contained. The heads of government said that social contagion would not occur in Argentina and I felt reassured. Everything was running normally and the city was full of people and vehicles at all hours of the day and night, like always. Things started changing one day into a trip I was making by myself toward the North. Carmen had flown home the day before. I stepped off an overnight bus to Mendoza into a different world. The streets were already starting to empty out and the air was charged with uncertainty. The next day, airports and borders were shut down. My flight home was cancelled and there were rumors of a mandatory quarantine starting any time. I didn't know how long I'd be stuck there and I didn't know where I'd be safe.
JB: How unnerving! How did it affect your plans?
WB: I was afraid to stay there and try to ride it out alone in an Airbnb in a city where I didn't know anyone and where the neighbors already seemed suspicious of me, but I was also afraid to move, and going back to the big city sounded daunting so I tried to push on toward the North to look for a place where I could stay with other foreigners. I got to a town called Catamarca but ended up having to walk in circles around the downtown most of the night because none of the hotels would let me stay there. Eventually, I was taken by some police officers to a bus station. There was a makeshift health inspection center there in a waiting room and I was detained there all night by nurses and civil defense officers. The city was being closed to outsiders and they didn't know what to do with me. Right before dawn, they let me go, but by then, there were rumors that domestic transportation would be suspended later that day and the next bus to Buenos Aires wasn't for over 12 hours. The whole north was being shut down so even though I had nowhere to stay and hotels would be closed, I decided my only option was to go back to Buenos Aires, where I'd at least be near an airport in case flights were allowed to operate again. I felt like if I didn't go then, I'd miss my opportunity so I spent 18 hours hitchhiking across the country and then spent a month in quarantine with a guy I met on Tinder, his twin brother, and their dog. It was actually really wonderful. They were both musicians and we would all cook and juggle and read books and do yoga together and I ended up falling in love.
Whitni and 'the guy I was quarantined with and his dog', Buenos Aires
(Image by courtesy of Whitni Battle) Details DMCA
JB: An unanticipated silver lining. How helpful was the US government?
WB: The first day of quarantine, I went to the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires to ask what I should do. The security guards wouldn't let me in the door and a worker in a booth told me they weren't compiling any lists of citizens stranded there and that all I could do was keep calling my airline and searching for flights. A friend from the U.S. who lived there and had her parents visiting suggested I register with the State Department. Eventually, they sent me an email saying that a flight had been scheduled to repatriate U.S. citizens. It was a one-way ticket to Miami that I had to buy for $1500 (twice the cost of my original round trip ticket from Dallas) from Eastern Airlines, which I thought had gone out of business in the '80s.
JB: That's weird. Eastern Airlines did go out of business. How did that go?
WB: The plane was easily from before I was born. It was packed, and everybody had tons of luggage, and there were even a few dogs. There was no food served and everyone wore a mask the whole time. It seemed interminable. Almost everyone on the flight had to spend the night in the Miami airport because we got in too late to get any connecting flights. I got a flight to Dallas the next morning on a big plane where passengers could practice social distancing, even though lots of people, including several of the crew members, weren't wearing masks. The only health check I received during the whole trip was when Argentinian security officials took my temperature before they'd let me into the airport in Buenos Aires.
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