Having lived abroad for five years, switching realities often between the US and Argentina, I’ve noticed that my soul often takes a little while to catch up with my physical body. My body travels thousands of miles on jets and goes through customs but my spirit sticks behind with the same people and routines. There’s a soul delay. That’s where I am now. In-between two worlds.
Physically I am in drizzly gray Rhode Island, just before spring, checking out sublet ads on craigslist at my mother’s house because that seems easier than furnishing a place during a pandemic, but my soul is still back in Argentina watching what’s unfolding in my other home.
I left Argentina to come back to the United States as the coronavirus crisis progressed and borders shut down, but I didn’t know if I was making the right call. It’s still hard to know.
While I was still in Argentina, I sat on the couch of my apartment watching the new Argentine president Alberto Fernandez take proactive, decisive national measures to protect the health of the Argentine people against the spread of the coronavirus. He said many times in many ways that the health of the people was his priority.
“We must slow the economy to slow the spread of the virus,” he said.
I still remember that feeling of calm settle into my body as I watched the Argentine president talk about reasonable and caring steps to protect the whole of society. That feeling was so unfamiliar to me: feeling calm watching a political leader. The whole idea that you could have a responsible, caring, rational president: wow.
Since then, Fernandez has drawn praise for his handling of the crisis with an approach that sharply differs from the madness currently happening in the US, Mexico, and Brazil.
As of this writing (Thursday, April 2), Argentina has 1,133 cases (2.5 per 100,000 people). The US has 214,461 (65.6 per 100,000). Argentina clearly was able to keep their numbers so low (compared to neighbor Brazil too) because Argentina imposed a coordinated national quarantine when the pandemic was in early stages and only a few hundred people had tested positive for the virus (versus the patchwork craziness of states making their own decisions in the States without help from the federal government). Guatamela and El Salvador imposed strict national quarantines days after Argentina.
This was all rather ironic given that Argentines often say their country is disorganized compared to the US. The contrast in how the Argentine government is handling the coronavirus crisis couldn’t be clearer compared to the US’ response.
Oh, how I wish more countries took decisive action based on the advice of scientific experts rather than their gut instincts. And on a desire to save lives.
I planned to fly back to the US on April 16, but on March 12, I posted on Facebook “I am dazed.” That was the day the president of Argentina announced the country was blocking flights between Argentina, and countries considered high-risk at that time: China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, US and all of Europe. That ban wiped out my original flight because American Airlines cancelled all travel to Buenos Aires until May or June. American Airlines would only take calls from people who had flights in the next three days, so information was impossible.
The morning after I recovered from the shock of that announcement I realized here were still ways of getting home through Panama, Brazil, or Chile. So the decision had not been taken out of my hands then. (Somehow life is easier when we don’t have to make decisions!)
But then one by one more countries’ borders started to close.
I didn’t know what to do.
My friend Chris thought I should go quickly if I was going to come to avoid getting trapped in Panama or Brazil. (Brazil might be the worst place to be after the US, as Bolsonaro, their president, is out-Trumping Trump still shaking hands with people at rallies in the middle of a pandemic.)
Jenny thought it was safer to stay put.
Both friends live in dense, large U.S. cities and were grappling with their own stay-or-go decisions. Tough choices are everywhere.
I thought it was safer to stay put too. I felt safe in that little apartment in Buenos Aires, and as a writer, I treasure having my own space. I had bought plenty of food for the cuarantena that had just been announced: lots of meat, vegetables, coconut oil, the food for the keto diet I had just started. I had gotten myself into a routine of yoga and a calming meditation in the morning, then writing most of the day when I wasn’t doing coaching calls. I have a memoir to finish so the solitude didn’t seem terrible: it would be an enforced writing retreat with no distractions. I had Netflix to watch from a comfy couch. I had my computer and a printer. I had more interaction on screens than I needed. I kind of liked all that alone time.
Meanwhile in Buenos Aires people started daily cheers at 9 pm for healthcare workers.
But of course I didn’t know if day after day, week after week of alone time would feel so good. I was afraid of being unable to get home if my parents got sick. I was also afraid of infecting my mother if I got the virus on the plane rides. And I wasn’t sure it was such a great idea to run home to quarantine for an indefinite amount of time with my mother. (Just because you love your mother doesn’t mean it is a good idea to live together in quarantine.)
When I was in the middle of trying to decide, I walked into the bathroom, not because I had to go to the bathroom but just to go somewhere. I looked at the toilet with its modern flush button installed in the wall above the toilet. There was no reason to think the toilet would break but you know, Murphy’s Law.
I stared at the toilet flusher button. What if that toilet broke while I was in strict quarantine and there was no other bathroom to use? That question terrified me. In a flash I imagined the ocean in Rhode Island and thought of how much I wanted to plunge in the sea. Like many I was dreaming of the beach. If I didn’t go then I might not be able to go for many months. What about my family?
Decisions can be so excruciating. I’ve made a lot of scary decisions in my life, like the original decision to come to Buenos Aires on my own. As a life coach I encourage clients to make decisions based on desire and not fear. But with the coronavirus, there seemed to be no good decisions, only less bad options.
I walked into the bathroom and saw that toilet button again. The fear of a broken toilet in quarantine struck at my most primitive fears.
I walked back to the couch, sat down, clicked buy on the new ticket, and cancelled the other one. It was Friday. I needed to travel immediately to avoid the risk of being stuck in Panama indefinitely because Panama’s borders closed that Sunday night at midnight.
In a matter of seven hours I packed everything—two suitcases to take with me, and two to leave my with my taxi driver friend Gustavo for whenever I could return to Argentina—to rush back to the United States through Panama.
There were so many things to figure out. How to get the keys to the apartment owners. How to get to the airport. Argentina was in its second day of total national quarantine with cops patrolling the streets for offenders. The normally bustling, creative, chaotic streets of Buenos Aires were totally empty. I couldn’t tell if taxis were allowed to drive on the streets. I left a comment on the US Embassy Facebook page. They said taxis could circulate with a valid reason. (For the record, the US Embassy was not as helpful as they should have been.)
I messaged Gustavo, my taxi-driver friend. We arranged for him to come to my apartment at 11 pm for a 1:39 am flight.
My friend Tan wanted me to come over to say goodbye on the way to the airport but I couldn’t because then I would burst into tears. All I could do was go, go, go.
Just before leaving the apartment at 10:30 I seriously considered not going. I didn’t know how I would manage not touching my face to wipe away sweat while wheeling fat suitcases. Not touching one’s face takes incredible concentration. I was already so exhausted.
I called my friend Jenny, cried, and she listened. Sometimes all I need is for someone to be in my presence when I’m crying.
I kept packing the last things, leaving behind toiletries and all that precious coconut oil.
We drove to the airport in deserted streets, me in the backseat with the windows open. Windows open was the rule for cabs in Buenos Aires in the last days before the national quarantine was called. I still wasn’t sure I had made the right decision but there is a moment when there is no turning back. That moment came about ten blocks into the drive.
When he dropped me off, Gustavo and I hugged each other with the soft look in our eyes. We said later we had given each other a socially distanced hug through our eyes. This is something I treasure about Argentina: the affection. Gustavo is part of my tango business team, he’s a friend. He comes to my birthday.
Gustavo also took the airbnb key to give to the owner, the two big bags I could not manage, and some cash to pay my Tango Adventure assistant.
At the airport a man in full-body light blue protective gown took my temperature by putting the thermometer on my forehead. I also needed to show a plane ticket to enter. Argentina’s airport was he most strictly controlled of any that day. In so many ways Argentina took the pandemic seriously before other countries in North or South America did.
After checking in, I walked to security past dozens of people sacked out on the ground. The airport looked like it had been converted into a homeless encampment of people sleeping on the floor or camping mats. The airport was otherwise empty and quiet.
So began an odyssey that would take about 24 hours from Buenos Aires to Panama to Miami to Boston. Buenos Aires’ airport was quiet by then but Panama’s was bustling and so was Miami’s. Outside of Argentina the airports were business as usual. All the flights were full. None of the airlines instructed us to follow social distancing.
On the first flight—the longest one overnight from Buenos Aires to Panama—I sat in a window seat (researchers say window seats are the safest) with a masked couple sitting next to me. During the flight the woman in the couple leaned on my shoulder as she slept.
Should I gently shove her to the right? Honey, dear, why don’t you lean on your husband’s shoulder?
When we entered customs in Miami we used the touch-screen devices just like normal, without any wipes or anyone to wipe them down.
I could understand why the flights from Buenos Aires to Panama and Panama to Miami were full because people were trying to beat deadlines as borders closed.
But it was hard to understand why the American Airlines flight from Miami to Boston was full. Running crowded flights with cheap seats at this point (March 21) seemed immoral.
I spent the first week after my 24-hour dash through Panama up to Miami worried I had contracted the virus: nauseous one day, cold symptoms another, body aches initially. It’s hard to separate symptoms that come from extreme emotion and stress and those that come from the dreaded virus.
Nine days later I am doing fine. My mother is doing fine too, thank Goddess.
In the end, I don’t think I had coronavirus. All the obsessive hand-washing and use of hand sanitizers, not to mention wiping down the trays and seats in the airplanes, protected me, or I just got lucky. (Or I’m aysmptomatic! I hope not–I don’t want to be a carrier.) In a world without testing you just never know. When are we going to get those tests?!???! Today in Rhode Island the state is ramping up to test 1,000 a day. I’m lucky to be from the state currently rated second most aggressive in its response to coronavirus by wallethub.com. Our governor Gina Raimondo clearly has the same fierce commitment to saving lives as the president of Argentina, but she could go even further with measures if she followed his lead.
A Buenos Aires friend told me over Skype it would take me three weeks for my body to settle. I think he was right. I’m practicing patience. I’m sleeping again. It’s been twelve days since that 24-hour period of travel. I’m almost through my 14-day quarantine. So far, so good.
Now that I am home, I wonder, did I make the right choice? I suppose I did because even though none of this is easy, none of this is easy for anyone, and it’s better to be close to family just in case. I am sad because I won’t be able to go back to Argentina for a long time–maybe not for a year or longer. I am sad I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends other than Gustavo. Foreigners are banned at the moment, and even Argentines can’t leave. I don’t think Argentina will open up their borders until there is a vaccine, a treatment, or at least widespread testing. My transformative tango program the Tango Adventure of course is on pause for a long time too.
I am enraged by the political situation in the US. I fantasize about having a president like Argentina’s who would actually take care of our country.
This US is poised to have the the most deaths in the world as a result of the coronavirus crisis. It twists my stomach to write that sentence.
The Argentines in my life never quite understood how fucked-up the US has become because the image of the US, like the image of Trump, is so Teflon–nothing bad sticks. My Turkish friend totally got it because Turkey is living the same nightmare, only they are ahead of us in the dictatorial timeline. Ojala (I hope!) we get off that timeline in November.
The pandemic has laid that “organized” image bare and will show the rest of the world how brutal American society is with our lack of accessible, affordable healthcare and leaders who clearly do not care about our welfare. Trump wasted two months he could have used preparing us calling this nothing more than a flu. More sickening, prominent Republicans have suggested it would be OK for millions of people to die to sacrifice for the sake of the economy (aka the stock market). Why not do what European countries are doing and pay businesses to continue paying their workers?
But I am here in my native country that outrages me so, and with all these doubts shared, I am glad. I will choose to be glad here because this is what I have chosen. I couldn’t say that before because I was too jostled after suddenly swapping one life for another. With time my soul is arriving to meet my body.
Before I left I posted on Facebook about people in Buenos Aires clapping and shouting, “Vamos!” (“let’s go!”) out their windows nightly at 9 pm in support of health care workers. A friend in San Francisco, commented questioning if anyone in the US would engage in that kind of solidarity cheer.
The movement finally arrived here a couple weeks later. Rituals of support to express our gratitude (and amplify our life force energy) are starting to happen in the US under the hashtag #clapbecausewecare. The idea is to clap to support health care workers—and grocery workers, truck drivers, gas pumpers, food delivery people, and everyone else who is putting their lives on the line so we can stay home to stay safe.
From what I gather, the clapping happens at 7 or 8 pm in the US communities compared to 9 pm in Buenos Aires, which makes me chuckle. Everything starts later in Argentina. People in Buenos Aires are clapping nightly. Vamos norteamericanos. Let’s go!
A friend of mine in Marin just north of San Francisco says that in Mill Valley they are howling nightly at 8 pm to “collectively express thanks and connectedness” in the midst of the pandemic.
Howl, clap, bring it on.
Aplausos in support of medical personnel in Buenos Aires
Solidarity cheers in New York City for health care workers
The West Village in NYC came out tonight on their roofs to thank the Healthcare workers here in the city, the country and around the world. Thank you for all you do. #StayHome @NBCNewYork #clapbecausewecare pic.twitter.com/W73EJhO5GD— Chas Pressner (@cjpressner) March 27, 2020