On Difficult Decisions: I flew back to the US from Argentina during the coronavirus pandemic, but I wasn’t sure I made the right decision

by | Apr 2, 2020 | Travel | 10 comments

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.

Decisions are hard, but once you make a decision, you’re on a path. The more time you live with a decision, the less you regret it. Because you start living it, feeling into what’s good about that path.That’s how I felt walking through this park in Providence yesterday. Spring is on the way finally in New England, and if nothing else, there are beautiful walks. There will be more good things too. I just don’t know what they are yet. The magic will come. It always does.

Walking the path of life in Providence, Rhode Island, early spring, the green of life will come soon

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

10 Comments

  1. Kerry

    Wow Sasha, what a harrowing journey, and I feel for you having to make that decision to leave or stay. I wonder how I would have chosen, had I been in that position.

    I narrowly missed my window and am now border-separated from my family in NZ. Jacinda Ardern placed the country in Stage 4 lockdown on March 24. I could have been there too – I had a flight booked for March 21 for a family visit which I decided to postpone, not knowing the borders were about to close. When I heard, it was a sad and terrible day for me, realising I should have got on that plane after all.

    But now I am grateful to be here in my Melbourne home where I feel more in control and probably less anxious than being stuck in my ‘other home’. I have all my books and favourite things around me and contact with my income stream. By cancelling my flight and inadvertently choosing to stay, it was the right self-care decision, as heart-breaking as it is. I so badly feel for people who have not been able to return to where they feel comfortable.

    Plus, am very thankful to be an experienced quirkyalone at this time!

    And I’m relieved to know my parents are safe in their homes with family delivering food to them, and under the care of a quick-acting, decisive government. NZ – and Argentina – wil come out of this much sooner than other nations.

    Reply
    • Sasha Cagen

      Hi Kerry! So good to hear from you here and to hear how you are doing. Yes, there are and have been so many tough decisions all around.
      I agree that it’s really valuable to have your own space, and being an experienced quirkyalone helps! We know how to amuse ourselves! I am sure many quirkyalone types (or creative types, or those who enjoy solitude) would agree. In some ways being alone is not so bad when you have creative projects and things to keep you busy.

      We have zoom and other platforms too. I may organize a call or class for my community soon, so stay tuned.

      I agree too that the countries that have taken proactive measures will come out of this sooner. I am proud of Argentina, and very scared and outraged about what is happening in the US. I hope your leaders are behaving more responsibly in Australia.

      Lots of love, and we’ll be in touch…

      Reply
  2. Jenn

    So very eloquently written. I am in Buenos Aires and I felt this same uncertainty as everything started happening. This is the first time in almost 8 years where if I wanted to get back to my family, I couldn’t get there. It’s hard when you’re life is developed in one, place but your heart is divided between two countries. The thought crossed my mind to go to my family, but with no health insurance in the US and the lack of response there, I decided to stay here. I am glad you are settling into your decision and hoping you stay well. I can imagine your mom is happy to have you there with her as well. You’ll get back here before you know it. <3

    Reply
  3. Meera Pamidi

    So much of what you said resonated with me. I too struggled with the decision of whether to stay here or go back to the US. I’ve only be in Arg for about 8 months (nothing compared to your 5 years!) and my plan was to only stay here for about a year in total anyway. But for me since I do not currently have healthcare in the US, and b/c the US felt a bit apocalyptic to me (although I’m from CA where I think our Gov. is doing a good job so far), I decided to stay here. At least here I feel like the situation is under control, so far. Although I do wish it was acceptable to go outside and take walks (where I live in CA it’s still okay to do this so as long as you’re staying away from others). In any case I hope you are safe and well in Rhode Island!

    Reply
  4. Miranda

    Wow! I think it’s part of our human instinct to always think ‘what if’ or maybe just mine as I tend to be an eternal procrastinator.
    I’ve been in BA for 18 years and reading your experience was similar to what I’ve been going through too. I was back home in Boston with my grandfather in hospice when the borders started closing. I had only arrived 4 days earlier and I had to make the excruciating decision to stay in Boston or go back. My grandfather sadly passed and I made the decision to come back to BA, I have a life and job here but there isn’t a second that goes by that I don’t second guess my decision. It’s horrible thinking that even at this moment, there is no way to make it back to Boston. Borders closing is no joke.
    Wishing you the best! Enjoy the beautiful New England spring time

    Reply
    • Suzie Cixous

      This week I have been feeling that “what if” a lot (though I’m also a procrastinator!). I’m in New York, where the hospitals are world-renowned — as some of the least prepared in the world. What if we had left NYC when I wanted to, when we still could?

      In early March I wanted to escape the US because as soon as the scale of this thing became clear, my mind instantly jumped to what dastardly, apocalyptically authoritarian ways Trump could take advantage of it. I kept thinking, is this going to be the first scene of the new Handmaid’s Tale? My partner, for better or worse, is not so prone to horribilizing and escape impulses, so he thought I was panicking and over-reacting.

      On Monday March 16, when Canada restricted travel to only Americans, I insisted we seriously consider moving to Montreal. “But we’re not citizens, how could we work? what would we do? what would happen to our stuff, to our lives?” he very reasonably asked. We disagreed and dithered, and by Wednesday that was not an option because the border was closed to US citizens, too. Also by Wednesday, my mother had developed symptoms of the flu, which meant we were scared to move to her New England home, which had been my plan B.

      I felt certain deep in my soul New York was going to be a death trap, but I didn’t know where to escape to. People on social media and internet message boards tried to assuage my fears, reminding me that people in cities are usually healthier than people in rural areas (“But in pandemics??” I virtually screeched).

      Without being able to figure out a clear escape plan, our options fell away one by one, until the decision was made for us: stay in New York, sheltering in place. At this point, trying to relocate would be more dangerous for both us and anyone we came into contact with. I am not happy we are here, but I guess it could be worse. I am trying my best to adjust, because this was our decision, indecisively decided.

      Reply
  5. Chris

    Riveting essay! I didn’t know a lot of the details of what was happening with you, so this was really intense reading. I’m the Chris who thought that once you made the decision to leave, it probably made sense to go as quickly as you could.

    As it was happening, there was so much uncertainty about what exactly was happening, which borders were really closing, and for how long. I remember it felt like an unpredictably unfolding emergency that week, which you capture so well in this essay. On the late Friday night you were leaving, Panama had announced that it would end all international travel that Sunday (so, 36 hours later). Even by Friday there were reports of people with connecting flights canceled, stuck in the Panama airport in limbo indefinitely. That seemed really scary to me, and even scarier stuck in Bolsonaro’s Brasil. It was such a crazy week, where big decisions by horrible presidents were directly affecting all our lives.

    As I write, two weeks later (or is it 200 weeks later? 2 minutes later? what is time, anyhow?), I’m settling in for the night in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and a little while ago at 7 pm I participated in a community clap and cheer from our windows. People living in the US might be more atomized and less connected to our local and international neighbors in some ways, but we are trying to catch up!

    Reply
  6. Gustavo

    Sasha ! Recién pude leer lo que escribiste . Perdón!
    También a mí me supero los tiempos ,al tener que llevar pasajeros a aeropuerto.
    Al leer lo que escribiste, recuerdo esa noche y es tal cual como lo contas.
    Sentí que estabas triste, angustiada,preocupada y trataba de darte ánimo!
    Cuando te deje en aeropuerto quería abrazarte ,pero obviamente no debíamos hacerlo.
    Me fui pensando ,todo lo que te faltaba por viajar,pero me sentí bien, que mi pequeña parte lo había echo.

    Nunca imaginé que mi trabajo se convertiría tan peligroso,
    Pero es mi trabajo y me gusta ayudar a gente amiga.
    Me gusto leer que yo estaba en tu relato.
    Te mando un abrazo Abla distancia y aqui esperando el Tsunami del virus.
    Cómo me dijo una licenciada en enfermería : Cuídate ! El bicho está aquí.
    Me cuido y veo como cambia mi ciudad.
    Espero verte pronto Sasha
    Beso ,chau Amiga!

    Reply
  7. Kathleen F Frances

    I like your attitude “The Magic Will Come”. I live by that too. I have a strange question: What did you do with all that food in your refrigerator? I just answered that as I asked the question. You lived in an AirB&B so I suppose the owner will put it to good use.

    I could see your mind working as you instantly had to make fast decisions.

    I am so glad I was able to visit BA last November with 15 of my Tango Class buddies.

    Thank you for your update. I look forward to more.

    Reply
    • Sasha Cagen

      Hi Kathleen, thanks for your kind note! Since I had to leave by 10 pm and I booked the ticket at 3 pm I had to leave some food behind – not how I would leave an apartment behind in normal conditions but this wasn’t normal. Hopefully they have enjoyed the coconut and nut butters.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

Author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperCollins) + To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Simon & Schuster).

At work on a memoir called Wet, about adventures in healing through sensuality.

Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter (my primary way of staying in connection with readers and clients).

Follow me on Instagram where I share snapshots of my own turned-on life with advice on how to live your own.