Peter Murtagh in the Americas: 'I’ve left behind something that’s going to get an awful lot worse'
Coronavirus lockdown: Biker accepts defeat for now as borders slam shut across the region
A Chilean health ministry official takes the temperature passengers on the flight out of Punta Arenas. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Last month, Peter Murtagh began a planned journey through the Americas by motorbike, from southern Chile to Alaska, for an Irish Times series. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has put a spanner in the works. This is part four of his now suspended travelogue. Click for parts one, two and three
When I struck out on my ultimately unsuccessful assault on Puerto Natales, I left my Punta Arenas hostel showered with the good wishes of its owner, Eliana. And as I was about to ride off, she rushed out of the house to give me a bundle of surgical face masks and gloves, and to top up my tiny bottle of alcohol-based anti-viral gel. “Buen viaje!” she said as I sped away.
Don’t underestimate this. Giving me those things was an act of great and unselfish generosity. For the week that I had then been in Punta Arenas up to that point, none of these items had been available in any of the city’s multiple chemists or in the supermarkets. They were like gold dust. And yet, here was this kind woman giving them to me, the stranger from outside, not knowing what the future held for her except that masks, gloves and gel would only become more precious than they already were – a likelihood brought into even sharper focus last week.
When I got turned back by the military on the outskirts of Puerto Natales and was forced to retrace my journey, Eliana welcomed me back and so, for the past week, I’ve have been holed up again under partial quarantine with her (and her four fidgety poodles) and with Anni, a midwife in the local state hospital, and Marcos, a chef from Ecuador.
I’d like to tell you about them.
Eliana is 62 years old and in November 2018, she lost her husband to liver cancer. His name was Manuel and he was 69. She goes to his grave every fortnight.
“My soul is there,” she says. She’s not morose or consumed by grief, however, at least not as far as I can tell, because she’s also full of life and fun. She wears glittery gold trainers, the sort you’d expect to find on the feet of a 12-year-old girl at a birthday party, and she laughs a lot and bounces about the house.
Eliana and Manual have two grown-up sons – Alesandro, an architect, and Leonardo. “He work on acoustic; whale sounds,” says Eliana. She also has a brother, Elie, who lives near Amsterdam and they talk a lot on the phone, especially now.
He’s been there for 25 years and used to teach government. “I am old and sick,” he told me one day when Eliana handed me the phone. “I don’t have any place to go because you can only go running or have a car or biking, but only alone. Everything alone.”
Eliana’s hostel, her home, is fantastically cluttered. There’s mountains of stuff everywhere – stuff like you see in the non-food aisles of Lidl and Aldi. There’s so much stuff that the other day Eliana had a bloke around with a pick-up truck and she gave him a load of it – a bicycle (perfectly good, as far as I could tell) and several suitcases and Ikea-like storage boxes, all full of stuff.
It made no difference to the overall clutter.
The hostel’s front room is a shop in the summer and is full of glass display cases with sweetie cases on top of them, and fridges and coffee dispensers and juice dispensers and toasters and plugs, plugs everywhere, and extension cables to all the equipment. Beside all this are two breakfast tables for the people who would otherwise be staying in the hostel and every time any of us four get up from the table and step into the shop area, a hidden pressure mat sets off – ping-pong bell – as though someone has walked into the shop from the street.
Eliana like to paint. She’s doing one now based on a snapshot of a grandchild. She also likes to take photographs and has some very serious kit – including a big new Nikon with a huge telescopic lens. The other day, she and I engaged in some competitive sparrow-in-the-rowan-tree-across-the-road photography. She won easily.
Marcos (the ‘s’ is silent) is 34 and before the Covid-19 crash, he worked in a restaurant around the corner opposite the big supermarket. He’s a quiet, slightly intense but very friendly fellow. He takes great care of his appearance, shaving daily and combing his jet-black hair into a neat parting. That said, in recent days, Marcos has taken to padding about the place in socks, shorts and a T-shirt. Standards may be slipping as la cuarentena drags on.
Marcos has taken on the role of house chef. And thank goodness for that ’cus he’s great at it. He used to have a restaurant in Ecuador but the other crisis, the economic one a few years back, put paid to that. The main daily meal for us is eaten at about 2pm. It’s usually something like pasta, ravioli maybe, or rice with some salsa or beans, and a piece of meat or fish. The other day, I did salmon darns which everyone liked but I think I’m seen more as the source of wine, a role I am more than willing to play.
As this drags on and Marcos has no job, the future looks bleak. I think he’s going to try to decamp home soon, though he may now have missed that option. He hasn’t said so but I expect it is because he’s running out of money.
Anni the midwife works in a new-ish hospital about four kilometres from the hostel. I walked with her there the other morning and went on to watch birds in a nearby wetland reserve. Anni has a little English and so each time she comes home, sometimes from all-night shifts, I ask her “Baby?” and she will tell me yes or no and that everything went okay.
Anni is from the Chilean capital Santiago, is in her early 20s and is missing her family. The other evening, she said an anaesthetist in the hospital had tested positive for the virus. Colleagues were now in quarantine. Anni was quieter than usual and went to bed early.
An ambulance came the other day to the house next door and Maria, the woman of that house, was assisted out by men in space suits. “Corona-veerus,” said Eliana as we watched.
A day or so after that, the ambulance was back and left with Erico, Maria’s son. Eliana has security cameras around her house and the next day, she watched the husband and father, Sergio, walk out of his place and past hers to go shopping. “La cuarentena es obligatoria,” she said, evidently annoyed her neighbour wasn’t completely self-isolating.
Eliana had a disinfectant spray man come last week and spew chemicals all over the front of the house and the footpath outside. Several times a day, she wipes down the entrance gate and the knobs of the main doors.
Each mealtime, we watch the telly and listen to the ministers, officials, medics, and sometimes President Sebastián Piñera, talk about the number of cases – all rising like almost everywhere else. For days, there has been a 10pm to 5am no-exceptions lockdown and last Monday, March 30th, it was announced that it was going to be 24-hour from Wednesday night – for seven days initially but with talk of severe restrictions extending into June.
I have had to accept defeat, for now.
It is simply not possible to write about a journey one is not actually able to make, even with restrictions, one in which meeting people, and engaging with them, is central to the story to be told. With borders remaining firmly closed, I cannot progress out of this small and southernmost pocket of Chile and, even if I could, cities further up the country, such as Puerto Montt, Osorno and others, are one by one being placed into lockdown with no movement allowed in or out.
A Punta Arenas businessman, Patricio Corcoran (I have written about him on Tip2Top.ie) kindly agreed to house my motorbike in his warehouse. The Wednesday plane to Santiago was crammed but I got a standby place. Elaine and Marcos hugged me and wished me safe home and love to my family. I watched them walk away as I made for the departure gate. I hope they’ll be okay.
Health ministry officials temperature screened all passengers. I was 36.8 – “Super,” says the medic, “yes, good”. The guy beside me, a hotel worker now without a job, said: “It’s the last plane out.”
I think there was in fact another before the 24-hour lockdown kicked in. On Friday, the BA flight to London was indeed the airline’s final flight from Chile. It wasn’t quite the last plane out of Saigon, but it was a bit of a scramble and it feels like I’ve left behind something that’s going to get an awful lot worse, sadly for those who truly will bear the brunt of this crisis a hell of a lot worse, before it gets any better.
Peter Murtagh returned to Dublin on Saturday and is now in self-isolation. He plans to go back to Chile early in 2021, to continue his journey to Alaska. Apart from writing in the Irish Times, he has been blogging on Tip2Top.ie