Quarantine Day 5 or
The Time We Almost Went To Argentina Jail or
You Guys Aren’t Taking This Seriously
Ok, I’m sorry, the title gives it away, but it was catchy, right? You want to know: how did we, the oh-so-good kids that we are, get in trouble with la policia?
We got to Mendoza two weeks ago. We were supposed to help out with the grape harvest on a vineyard here, but we found out in the airport there had been a “miscommunication” and, whoops, the harvest is over and no, you can’t stay here when you get in. Lo siento, adios. So we booked one night in a cheap hostel in Mendoza city and then spent a quiet week in a local artist’s loft. Lovely woman. Those first two days in our little AirBnb, things were just beginning to shut down, and though no laws or decrees had made the closings official, we did show up to a bodega to do a wine tasting and found it (and every other business in the area) shuttered. So much for our picture-perfect vineyard hopping.
Two days later, the US State Department sent out their advisory that anyone abroad should come home immediately, “we can’t guarantee your safety if you delay.” Well, it didn’t seem much to us that you could guarantee our safety either way, State Department, so we decided to stick it out and reserved a lovely semi-rural house for a month starting March 20th. Will reassess in April, we said.
The next day the three of us (me, Ruby, and the artist) went on a walk. The busses were mostly empty as they passed us on the poplar-lined camino, but people were still out and about. We passed half a dozen vineyards, climbed up the only hill in the area, and took the nice photo (right) that accompanies this fun little story of our rough life as outlaws. Our host, la artista, didn’t speak English, so I got in some serious language practice. Things were pretty ok. We shared a bottle of wine (or so) when we got back and our host told us about her art exhibition in France that led to a friendship with a wealthy older Greek woman. The two of them bussed to Athens for a brief jaunt, where the woman introduced our host to her friends at a five-star hotel beside the lake where she swam every day.
Roundabout eight, we got the word that the president was shutting it down. As of midnight (yep, four hours’ notice) no one would be allowed to drive anywhere except to get food or medicine. No more than one person per car. Great, cool. So we called up our next hosts, caps in hand. Extenuating circumstances and Argentinian hospitality meant that they came and picked us up at 11:00pm, a day early. We got to our new place by 12:30. No problem. No policia.
It’s lovely here, really. We have our separate house with our stone walls and our big windows. And there are really excellent dogs. We stayed put like good foreigners. After a few days, we found ourselves out of wine and bubbly water. Fatefully, the host had already made a run to the store that day. Out of options, we decided to go to the corner mercado to do a quick restock. Ruby had already been to this store, some fifty yards away from our house, so our assessment was that the resupply was a pretty low-risk objective.
Well, the store was closed. Things are closed a lot on this continent. It’s something you get used to, like, for example, have you ever been in a city where a major bank’s ATM was out of cash? That happens all the time here, apparently. “Ha, you just print whatever you need,” our host said when I told him about our bottomless ATMs in the States. I guess he’s right.
Anyway, we decided to walk the half mile to the next, slightly larger store. Two minutes into our walk, a car with three men pulled over next to us.
“Please stop there,” one of them said to us in Spanish.
“What?” asked Ruby.
“They want us to stop and talk to them,” I told her. Three plainclothes guys got out of the car. I don’t believe any one of them was as old as I am. One of them was wearing a Policia hat. Maybe I should’ve been more skeptical of that, but I wasn’t.
“Where are you going?” asked the one that looked most able and likely to put me in a headlock.
“We’re just going to the store,” I told him. My Spanish is pretty ok when I’m not being interrogated. When I am, well, let’s say things are about to get a little rough. I’d add that my accent gave us away, but we were very clearly gringos right from the start. I have long blond hair and blue eyes. I do not fit in.
“Where are you from?”
“Uh, the United States?”
“United States?! Why are you not in quarantine…?” Uh oh.
“No, look, we are in South America since, um, November, and, we come from Peru, since, um…”
“Peru? If you came from the US to Peru, then you have to…”
“Wait, wait, he needs to talk,” Ruby interrupted in a flash of questionable bravery.
“No, look, we have been out US since November. Coronavirus wasn’t something yet,” I explained.
“Do you have your passport?” Uh oh.
“No, they are in our house. AirBnb.”
“Where is that? Do you know that no more than one person can be out at a time?” Uh oh.
“No! Uh, We think…thought…that we were allowed, um, just cars, ah, just one person in a car? The house is very close. Two hundred meters.” We thought just going on a walk was ok. Apparently it was not.
“You can’t be out walking together. Have you been watching the news?” This guy was definitely not amused.
“No, I understand now. Yes, um, we have news, but, and we know this very serious…” My Spanish is usually better than this, really. We told them that Ruby would continue on to the store and I would walk back. This seemed to satisfy them, surprisingly, and they got in their car. I dutifully turned around.
At the first intersection, the car was waiting for me. Uh oh.
“Ah, no, next one,” I said. They were not, in fact, satisfied by my gringo promises. They followed me to our AirBnb’s gate and waited while I went in to get our passports, which I didn’t know the exact location of. I quickly explained to one of our hosts, David, what was going on. I asked him to tell them I was just looking for the passport and not trying to escape and to please not put me in Argentina jail. David, who is French and also very gringo, did not want to talk to the policia. Thankfully, his partner, Ariel, came back just then. Ariel is definitely Argentine. He went out to talk to them and I, gracias a dios, found the passports (in Ruby’s purse) just a few moments later.
After verifying the stamps in our passports, both the host and I got a long talk about coronavirus, paying attention, and taking things seriously. I thought it seemed like they believed our story, but then they asked to enter the yard to see where we were living. To make sure, naturally, that our hosts weren’t hiding a bunch of quarantine-violating Americans.
It was around then that Ruby got back. “They followed you home?” Yes, they did. Yes, they really were making sure there weren’t more of us. Yes, they were wearing masks now.
Our cortisol and heart rates were high for a couple of hours after they left. We opened up our laptops to check the news. At that point, Argentina had 266 coronavirus cases. The US had 32,000.
This was five days ago. Things are stricter here now. Now there are 580 cases in Argentina. You all have 85,000. Stay home, friends.