Departure: The End of the World.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Elliot
Update in simplest terms: home and safe; relieved and exhausted; grateful, yet steadfast in ensuring all our friends return.
Twenty days ago, Laura and I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage to Antarctica to celebrate her birthday on the 7th continent. Little did we know the greatest expedition of our lives would be the trip home.
On March 8, our expedition ship departed the port of Ushuaia, Argentina, through the stubborn 1.5 day journey through the Drake passage bound for Antarctica. No travel restrictions in place. Medically screened twice (24 hrs apart) before boarding. Canceling trip for FEAR of pandemic = 100% loss of expedition and airfare. While traversing through icebergs and glaciers via foot and zodiac boats on a COVID-free continent, the world changed around us. Like all countries, Argentina soon began rapid & drastic measures to protect from Covid-19. Plans made to cease air travel and foreign visitors. Goodbye, Antarctica, Hello Get-Home. Our cruise accelerates itinerary to arrive back in port on Mar 16, 1 day early so 100 Americans aboard can get home. Upon port arrival with NO symptoms aboard our ship, Argentina authorities place our vessel into 14 day quarantine from day of embarking. During this time, Argentina began to shut their borders to all air travel trapping all non-residents in the country. Other countries followed suit, narrowing the options on how we could get home. Even from the few options that remained, Argentina closed airspace. One more complication was added in which Argentina shut domestic flights, thus creating a scenario where we could be stuck in Ushuaia without an attempt to reach Buenos Aires. Scenarios existed where we could be trapped in Argentina until May. The race was on — the fastest and craziest race of our lives. [In hindsight, years of CM travel + watching Survivor + The Amazing Race only slightly prepared us for this moment, this was beyond anything we’ve ever experienced as seasoned travelers.]
We urged help from the US Embassy — — along with our state lawmakers for US assistance for us to obtain a simple ‘transient’ status so we could travel to the airport and depart. Media was alerted so we could continue applying pressure to our federal government about the stranded Americans in foreign countries. While the two of us were not personally affected by medical concerns, the ever-growing delay was worrisome for those friends without access to prescription refills. For us, Samantha awaited at home, brave as she can be, but not knowing our return date. Rightfully, she’s ecstatic we’re home. We’ll spend the next 14 days in self-quarantine, but we FaceTime her 3x day and eventually we’ll create a Zoom sleepover.
Thanks to you, our friends, family, and colleagues, the deluge of calls from everyone on our ship, the increased media awareness, and the extraordinary efforts of Quark Expeditions to aggressively persuade the powers-that-be, the pressure worked. A private charter was arranged for the entire group to leave the ship, depart Ushuaia, and head for Buenos Aires. The charter flight was the ONLY flight allowed between the two cities, and both airports were privately opened for this specific flight. Armed soldiers awaited us at every turn, temperatures checked before arriving to airport, and private charter buses to provide ground transportation, complete with plastic wrap separating passengers from driver (again, none of us were sick.). Landing in Buenos Aires was similar to arriving to an apocalyptic state, but the borders were closing faster than ever. Our hotel room that evening featured security stationed in the hallways preventing us from leaving the room, except for final departure. We were required to show our passports, and proof of quarantine to Armed officers stationed outside the hotel. Proof of flight confirmations and additional temperature checks were mandated at EZE airport prior to entering the terminal. After 4 separate airline cancellations and a race against time, we procured flights on the 5th attempt, but it required an itinerary that took us through 5 cities, 3 countries, and 6,500 miles in less than 24 hours to get home.
Our commitment remains to get every American on-board with us, every fellow passenger and crew member home. We’re grateful to Senator Bob Menendez (NJ, Chair of Foreign Relations Committee) who took a personal and invested interest in our scenario and who has devoted time and resources to force the State Department to help Americans abroad. He created a separate communications portal for stranded Americans in Argentina, and tomorrow, a US Embassy sponsored charter plane will deliver many of our remaining shipmates back to the US, so long as Argentine airspace allows. He’s not our state rep but we can’t say enough about his efforts and that of his entire team. Additionally, so many congresspeople and their staffs communicated with us throughout our journey and we can’t thank them enough for their work. We’re also grateful to US Ambassador Prado of Argentina, who despite some bumps, kept efforts alive for us and continues to do so for the stranded. The fact that he and Laura have formed a great 1:1 relationship is beyond.
Most of all, we’re thankful and indebted to all of you for your texts and posts, your overall concern for our well-being, and your help and assistance in willing us home. Personally, I want to thank my company manager-partner in life. I will always go to the end of the world with Laura…
(penguin pics to come)