When things start coming at you, they can come slowly at first and then all of a sudden.
It’s Monday, March 20th and I’m in Eliana’s place, my hostel bolthole in Punta Arenas. I got into Chile four days previously, on the eve of the Argentine/Chile border being closed to foreign travellers because of the growing official concern about the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, I’ve been staying with Eliana, my Fairy Godmother, although she has a slightly different take on her position.
“Soy la reina de la casa!” she says laughing.
Yes, she is the Queen of the House. This is her home and her world and I am the outsider she has taken under her wing in rather extraordinary circumstances. The unseen, and un-seeable, threat that is out there grows daily more visible and with it a palpable communal anxiety.
An ambulance stops outside neighbour Maria’s house and two paramedics in hospital blue spacesuits go to the gate. We watch from Eliana’s house as Maria emerges from hers in her dressing gown and walks slowly towards the vehicle. The paramedics help her inside and, blue lights flashing but siren off, the ambulance leaves the tiny estate.
“Corono-veerus,” says Eliana, watching through the window blinds.
Punta Arenas doesn’t strike me as a place of out-of-the-ordinary violence or general security concern (notwithstanding the centre city spray paint carnage from last autumn’s anti-austerity riots) but Eliana has cameras covering all angles of the outside of her house, and several inside. One day I ask her if it is necessary; it is she says. Anni, a young midwife living is the hostel announced one day that yesterday, her sister had her car hijacked at gunpoint in the capital, Santiago.
The day after Maria is taken away, Eliana is looking at the multiple screens of her CCTV security loop and watches, with alarm and annoyance, as Sergio, Maria’s husband, leaves his house and walks along the footpath past her house, apparently going to the shops.
“La cuarentena es obligatoria,” she says to the screen, “obligatoria!”
She takes screen grabs on her phone and send them to, I think, her brother in Amsterdam, or her children or maybe her pal, Marisol, presumably to ask them what should she do.
A couple of days later, the ambulance is back. This time to take away Erico, Maria and Sergio’s adult son. The next any of us see of Sergio is him driving off some hours later, never to return – or at least not for rest of the time I was there.
A few days later, Eliana has a fellow around, a bloke in a white space suit, plastic gloves, facemask and a large, industrial size sprayer which he uses to spew chemicals all over the front of the house, especially the windows and doors, the gate, and the pavement and kerb outside.
Eliana then bought one of those garden weed sprayers, which I assemble for her, and the pair of us spray everything again the following day. A mix of bleach, chlorine and household floor cleaner, for all the good it may do. Wiping door handles becomes an almost hourly ritual.
All of this is happening against a backdrop of daytime TV, especially CNN Chile, doing what 24 hour news channels do. There are urgent, drama-laden reports from around the country about social distancing, empty streets, quarantine (the word is used in Chile in the context of stay-at-home lockdown), of hospitals coping (just), and the daily litany of stats, from here and around the world. The health minister is a regular on the news bulletins . So too the president, Sebastián Piñera. Occasionally there’s a cut away to Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, neither of whom is taken seriously by any of us – me, Eliana, Marcos, a now out of work chef from Ecuador who is also living in the hostel, or Anni. I am the only resident to qualify as a tourist.
The four of us are cooped up waiting – hoping—for this to pass. The only one who goes out regularly is Anni because she’s a health worker. Eliana, Marcos and I occasionally go to the shops for food but that’s about it. I try to walk regularly, down to the sea or to a nearby wetland for some bird watching.
On the week of March 23rd, a partial lockdown was introduced in Punta Arenas. In Santiago, some 3,000 kilometres away, several areas were already under night-time curfew. Now us too. Being outside between 10pm and 5am is banned by government decree. Not that you’d think it would make any appreciable difference: the pubs and restaurants are already closed and, with autumn fading and winter approaching, not many people go out after 10pm anyway.
Even during the day without any significant restrictions to movement, the city centre streets, just about two kilometres away from the hostel, have taken on an eerie quality. Cars, many of them bangers with go-faster, rasping exhausts and inflated suspensions to raise their rear ends, still sped about but increasingly, people are staying inside.
We’re in the hostel one lunchtime and there’s the latest stats report on the news. The figures for Magallanes (our region) are up again. Not a huge number in the scheme of things – I think it was a dozen fatalities – but rising. A new casualty was an unidentified 68-year-old woman. Eliana is convicted it was her neighbour.
The next thing, a green and white van of the Carabineros de Chile, the country’s paramilitary national police force, pulls up outside Maria’s house. Behind it is a blue and white ministry of health car, driven by an official accompanied by a soldier. They press the gate buzzer but there’s no answer. The official gets on the phone and seems to take instructions but one thing is certain: there’s no one at home, either to come out or to open the gate.
The official walks along the footpath to chat to Eliana, who has been watching from her gate. She explains what has been going on, about Sergio’s coming and going. He listens and gives her a special number to call if she sees anything or has any other concerns.
New restrictions are coming, it seems.
That night, President Piñera is on TV again talking gravely and extra within hours, new restrictions emerge: there is to be a total lockdown in several urban areas, among them all of Punta Arenas. Except for medical emergencies, no one is allowed leave their homes from 10pm on Wednesday, April 1st, for a week and there’s speculation that this new regime, or some variation of it, could last until into June.
Health ministry official temperature tests everyone on the flight out of Punta Arenas. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Gradually, up and down Chile, the cities are being sealed, no movement permitted in or out, and certainly not by foreign tourists. The centre of Santiago is a ghost town; Puerto Montt, the nearest town north of Punta Arenas (2,100kms or 1,300kms depending how one travels – air or road, via Argentina), is to be sealed; as is Osorno, further north again but still a long way from Santiago.
I What’sApp Patricio Corcoran. If I was to get out, I ask him, could he store my bike in one of his warehouses? I need hardly have asked. He responded in seconds, of course he says. Can I get to his complex at 10 the next morning?” I say I can and he gives me the name of a colleague to ask for.
Jose Bahamonde looks just like I imagine a warehouseman should – stocky, barrel chest, open-necked check shirt and blue anorak, white hard hat and an over fondness for cigarettes. Around the side of the Corcoran complex north of Punta Arenas, he operates in a small office behind a window hatch, which is where I guess most of the fork truck and lorry drivers approach him from across the dusty gravel yard in which several articulated transport trucks lie idle.
I can see Jose’s mind whirring away as I explain why I’m there, outside his little window, in full biking gear, helmet and all, and he wondering what’s your man on about, or similar in Chilean. He checks with Patricio and after a few moments, comes out from behind the window and urges me follow him. We cross the dusty yard, go into a side lane, down along a chain link fence and through a gate onto a large concrete apron. Soon we are inside a huge modern warehouse where the floor-to-ceiling shelves are only about half full.
Over there, Jose indicates, down that aisle, tucked in between those shelves and that thing on the ground, a piece of machinery of some kind, something from a production or dispatch line perhaps. You can put your bike there, he indicates.
We take off the bike’s all-weather bags and the tank bag but leave on the panniers. I can just about squeeze into the space indicated and get the bike up onto its centre stand so that its full weight is not bearing down on the tyres for what is likely to be a mothballing lasting for months. With winter coming, it will be some time before any motorbike can safely navigate the roads here, even if the borders are re-opened in the weeks ahead.
The removed bags are put onto a pallet, wrapped in clingfilm by one of Jose’s workmates and a forklift lifts them high onto an empty top shelf.
“See,” says Jose, smiling as he points to a CCTV camera at the far end of the aisle. It looks straight down at the bike and bags. He gives a thumbs up sign and I give him the keys. It’ll be safe, of that I’m sure. Now all I have to do is get myself out.
And the options for that are fast diminishing. It is now March 31st. I got a ticket on the flight to Santiago in two days’ time, on April 2nd. But by then, the 24 hour lockdown will be in force. So how to get to the airport?
I manage to get a ticket for the flight on the 1st – tomorrow – but the Latam Airlines online agent can’t process the payment, for reasons neither of us understand. We agree, I’ll go to the airport in the morning and take it from there. . .
Corcoran warehouseman Jose Bahamonde with my mothballed (for now) bike. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Eliana insists on taking me and that I am roused from sleep good and early. The 7am drive to the airport with her and Marcos is eerily quiet and we are almost the first there, just four rough looking guys before us. They could be oil or gas industry workers, or something in shipping perhaps. There’s a lot of all three in these parts. . .
The Latam check-in agent says that overnight I lost the booking on today’s flight because I didn’t pay for the ticket. There’s no point is trying to explain how that happened but she has a solution – maybe. She offers me standby on today’s plane and, if there’s a place after all other seats have been filled, she will bring forward my booking from tomorrow — lockdown day – which is paid for and valid.
I agree and watch the check-in queue wind down as, one by one, passengers are given their boarding passes. I sit there mute but hoping that at least one ticket holder just doesn’t show up.
Next minute, I’m called. Eliana and Marcos hug me, wish me well, wave me off and within minutes, I’m sitting in a jam-packed plane, full of workers who’ve lost their jobs because of the crisis, students getting out while they can and, sundry backpackers and explorers and scientists (some of whom I meet later) and many wearing surgical facemasks. A full-to-capacity airplane is no place for social distancing, however.
When we land at Puerto Montt to let all but about 40 of the plane’s 185 passengers disembark, health ministry officials in space suits board and temperature screen every one of us. I come in at 36.8 which I am told is “super, great” but it’s 1.8 up on what I was a few days before when the army screened my outside Puerto Natales. . .
As we left Punta Arenas, the guy beside me said this was the last plane out. I think there was another afterwards. But from Santiago on Friday afternoon, the British Airways flight to London was definitely their last plane to leave Chile. “An emergency flight,” said cabin crew. Sufficiently out of the ordinary for there to be no proper cabin service for the 14 hour flight, but not so unusual that BA insisted I pay €120 for my rucksack. . . on top of a one-way ticket costing €1,206.
Me, Anni, Eliana and Marcos outside Eliana’s hostel just before my departure.
In both Punta Arenas and Santiago, there was a strong sense of people fleeing, of getting out while they still could, of options fast narrowing to zero. My manoeuvre is a tactical retreat: what’s the point when a long-planned journey actually becomes impossible, when one can’t really go anywhere, and when there is no end in sight? If I can’t go places and see things, meet people and write about it all, then there is no point.
Neither flight out was exactly the last plane to leave Saigon but, slowly and with a grim remorselessness, Chile is grinding ever faster to a complete halt.
One has the feeling that a great and unsettling unknown awaits. I’ll write about then when I return. . .
I want to say a big thank you to Ireland’s ambassador to Chile, Paul Gleeson, who, while helping Irish citizens and other EU nationals leave Peru after its borders closed, which he and his colleagues did very successfully, kept in touch with me, offering helping and cheerful advice. So too did his colleagues, Jackie Bernstein, Ireland’s ambassador to Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay; and Barbara Jones, Ireland’s ambassador to Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and several Central American countries as well. All three were exceptionally helpful.
Bernard O’Higgins father hailed from Limerick, according to information in the museum in Chillan, where he was reputed to be born.