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La Pandamia: Puerto Madryn

24th MARCH 2020: I AWAKENED TO the pre-sunrise pale coolness of the Patagonian dawn. I had snatched some sleep from the long grinding night of rumbling trucks. I could tell by the light hangover feeling brought by restlessness instead of alcohol.

Checking all the responses to yesterday’s calls for help took me the rest of the morning An overly successful result, and I decided to set a deadline for 2PM before heading North to whatever my fate might be at the provincial border with Rio Negro. It might be OK, it might not…. 50/50? Part of the “Might not.” could include deportation and I wasn’t finished here in South America just yet.

At 1.30pm, a swarthy looking biker dude wearing a piss-pot helmet on a cruiser with what looked like an old Honda 250 Superdream engine rolled up and introduced himself as El Mendo. I’m used to casual encounters at gas stations, so thought nothing of the encounter, but he communicated that he saw my messages and signalled me to follow, so I followed. We rode toward Puerto Madryn and turned off into a dusty neighbourhood outside the city limits to a secluded farmhouse and tells me I can stay there and he will come to check on me. Out of sight, out of mind… it would only be for two weeks, after all.

A few days later, I’m told an earth barrier had been built at the junction to cut off Puerto Madryn from Ruta 3. How temporary does that sound? No reports of local Covid cases but horrific scenes on the news channels from Buenos Aires. To my suspicious mind, they looked too staged to be genuine since there was so much happening in such a small area – like a B movie – but I wasn’t really sure, having no other sources to check on.

The house had been built by El Mendo’s own hands. It had cold but clean running water sourced from a municipal tank that is topped up twice a week via trucks. Two 40 gallon drums stood in the bathroom as a reserve.

Electricity was from a generator at the end of a long cable housed in one of the outhouses. I ran it for an hour a day to charge my laptop. The laptop charged faster than the phone so, to save fuel, I used the generator to charge the laptop, and laptop hibernated solely for charging the phone through its live USB port.

The warm days were being robbed daily by the cooling evenings as they marched toward Autumn. The cool and the dark encouraged me into my sleeping bag not long after sunset. I had a cell signal and had worked out how to top up the SIM credit via debit card as traditionally cash and voucher so I was able to keep up to date with interesting developments around the world.

Two weeks became three as President Fernandez kicked the lockdown can down the road. Two further weeks. food delivery started to become a problem, since my new friends had to repeatedly pass through a police checkpoint and arise suspicions of possible illegal activity.

A kind family offered me a place at their home inside the city limits on a comfortable mattress in their converted garage. I gratefully accepted and hurriedly packed away my things ready to be collected since the presence of the checkpoint prevented me from riding the few kilometres. Crouching low in the backseat of the car, we slipped quietly through the Police checkpoint, Oniwan Kenobi style, to my new base.

I now had hot water, WiFi and electricity but had to lie low as I’d heard that some people had been deported and, after the broken agreements, I revoked what slim trust I had in local authorities and held on to whatever travels would be possible with Big Brother’s promise of ‘The New Normal.’

Discretion was the keyword. I had to hide whenever a visitor arrived, No problem lying low in the garage but a couple of times I had been caught in the bathroom and had to sit there until they left. I soon learned to take my phone with me.

The Winter slowly passed while the quarantine deadline continually being kicked down the road. I had all I needed: food, shelter and the warm hospitality of my hosts, despite my limited Spanish language skills.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to study but it turns out I’m not good at languages, or that keen on conversation for that matter, and found the effort uninspiring and progress slow enough to become burdensome and demoralising, so I plodded along with the basics on Duolingo.

There’s time enough to catch up on my blog but my lack of freedom became depressing so I abandoned it, in preference for trying to find out what was really going on in the world scouring the internet for reliable independent news.

A few months later, the restrictions eased and I was able to go out occasionally. I spent my birthday and the birthdays of the family here… then Christmas and New Year.

The internet access meant I could keep in touch with my family and I spoke to my Mum once or twice a month. My sons don’t seem too bothered and rarely respond to messages or calls so I gave up. It’s less disappointing just to remain quiet but leave the door open. Maybe one day they might call back.

I love travelling South America and the people are really friendly and generous – including the Police when they don’t have ridiculous orders from their overlords.

7th MAY 2021: Meanwhile, I continue to keep a low profile. I don’t have to hide from visitors anymore but it still feels like I’m in hiding even if I’m able to walk down the beach and enjoy an occasional beer. My only crime being a traveller exercising the dwindling rights of freedom while it’s still legal. If the aim was for practical social isolation, camping at Dolavon fit me just perfectly. Now that I’m confined to a city, forced closer to many more people, it all seems to be more about control than health.

It’s been a year now and still, the restrictions continue with no definite end in sight which means they either never will unless either you accept more government controls or a global, people’s revolution takes place. As it stands, it looks like travelling days are long gone, but while there is still hope, I’ll carry on waiting. If I could escape Puerto Madryn then I’d only be caught at a national or international checkpoint. We truly are on a prison planet.

I’m one year into a two-week stretch… think about that for a minute…

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