I arrived in Uruguay the day after COVID-19 came to the country. There were four cases, all tied to one person, fashion designer Carmela Hontou, a B-grade celebrity here. A few weeks ago she was in Italy and Spain, felt sick on the flight home, yet went to a wedding in Montevideo with 500 people the day she flew into Montevideo. She is now Uruguay’s Typhoid Mary.
We are about two to three weeks behind Ireland in terms of the spread of the virus and the reaction. A lock-down is still in our future. When I came to Montevideo it was to a muted but still open city. People were still out and about. Social distancing was seen but was far from the norm. I went to the seaside to walk on the beach and had to zig-zag to avoid people. Even though the crisis had hit, it hadn’t hit home. That changed in short order the number of cases has jumped. Shockingly, bars are still open. People are better at keeping their distance. Still, though, the country is not under the same strict conditions as neighbouring Argentina or Brazil.
My first thought seeing the news from home was that maybe the wise thing to do was to stay here, ride it out as best I can. I wasn’t sure I could qualify for the dole: I took a break from my job to go travelling in January. How would I pay rent? Would I be able to find enough teaching hours? Maybe I thought, I could do some online teaching, or perhaps get a job once one of the language schools here reopen.
The Irish Embassy, though, was doing incredible work trying to get stranded backpackers home, and they contacted me to find out my plans. The Department of Foreign Affairs website is full of urgent warnings shrouded in diplomatic language. I thought to myself maybe it would be better if I was home after all.
But I could not rearrange my original flight because I had requested a voucher from the airline rather than rebook. When I went to try to find a flight I couldn’t because the voucher hasn’t been processed yet. KLM is not responsive to messages. Their website is swamped and they’re asking people to message over social media but explicitly say if it’s a voucher question, they will respond much later as vouchers and refunds are of course much less important than getting people home.
I was punching in keywords like ‘repatriation’ hoping the chatbot would pick up on it, but nada. So I went looking for another flight. Found one on British Airways and was due to arrive on Saturday afternoon. Yay! Called the sister. Arranged self isolating. Contacted the embassy to tell them I found a flight.
Yesterday morning five minutes after I woke up I got an email telling me the flight is cancelled. So now I have TWO airline vouchers that I can use in the future, which is rather like having a huge stockpile of Barry’s Tea but no kettle.
I couldn’t call the embassy directly because my phone doesn’t work here. I had my sister on to the DFA. I received a call from the Irish consulate in Sao Paolo. There are still a few flights going to Europe. The problem is getting into Brazil first as the border is closed. They’re hoping to reopen at the end of April.
If the embassy can guarantee me that I can get across the border, and if there are still flights, I might be able to take a bus across and work my way to the airport in Sao Paolo. I’ll need proof that I have an outward bound flight before they’ll let me cross the border, and I’ll probably get a letter from the embassy. I feel like a medieval nobleman in need of a guarantee of safe passage from the King.
The Irish embassy in Buenos Aires and consulate in Sao Paolo, by the way, are doing an amazing job trying to get everyone home. I’ll never complain about civil servants again. Well, not for a while anyway.
As it stands, unless something radically changes, I am here for the foreseeable. I went through the five stages of grief over the situation in about three hours. I had to teach during all of it so was a tad distracted in class: I think I may have got up and walked away from my laptop in the middle of it just to go outside and scream.
But it’s OK so don’t worry. I am safe in my friend’s apartment which has a nice balcony where I can exercise or just stand in the sun. Nightly the neighbours come to their windows and applaud the healthcare workers and others who are working so hard for all of us. The sunset is always gorgeous.
Niall McArdle’s work has appeared in the Irish Times, Banshee, Spontaneity, Honest Ulsterman, Bangor Literary Journal, RTÉ Guide, AGNI Online and Phoenix Irish Short Stories, and has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio. Say hello on twitter.
Niall is also one of the four founders of this Pendemic project.