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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Notes from the plague pokey

There is restorative power in art, which is why so many people are drawn to it.
Empty plaza with police car, gouache on paper, Carol L. Douglas
American corporations are masters of assembling prepared foods into a simulacrum of cooking. The bar at the Hilton is the only place to buy meals, and what’s on offer are ersatz dinners. Although we’re trying to avoid them as much as possible, there are no cooking facilities in our rooms. Even the minibars have been torn down due to coronavirus.

We decided yesterday that we needed breakfast, so we took a seat in the lobby and ordered coffee and omelets. We were not far from where we’d been seated the night before. From my angle, I got a clear look at the area. A lone lump of cheese remained on the table. Underneath, the carpet was littered with bottlecaps and crumpled cocktail napkins. There were crumbs on the leather upholstery. The hotel crew might be spraying surfaces with alcohol, but if they’re not also wiping, picking up, and vacuuming properly, their efforts are wasted.
We're sharing space with airline crews.
As we ate, another large air crew arrived. This one was from Air France, and they immediately colonized every table around us. France has (as of last night) 45,000 cases and 3000 deaths from coronavirus. An Edelweiss Air crew was already here, but, until then, it had been easy to ignore them. That was folly, however; Switzerland has one of Europe’s highest rates of recorded coronavirus.

The Hilton is Argentina’s plague pokey and we’re there because we’re foreigners. But we came to Buenos Aires certified as healthy. Our goal is to remain that way. Airlines are grounded right now because they’re vectors for the spread of this disease. We don’t hate these crews, but we’re afraid to share space with them. At the same time, we’re also eagerly anticipating the arrival of an Eastern Airlines crew, because that brings us one step closer to heading home.

Apartment buildings across the street from us. I feel blessed to not live in a high-rise.
The answer is to insulate ourselves as much as we can. Jane Chapin and I ventured out in search of food that we can eat in our rooms. This time we went to a different supermercado. If we didn’t strike gold, we at least found fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and cheese. We came home with four heavy bags and formed an assembly line to wash it. Last night our crew dined on tuna-fish sandwiches, fruit, palm hearts and mushy peas. After the horrid bar food, it was divine.

Painting from the window with Lynn Mehta and Kellee Mayfield. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
Jane has jiggered our accommodations so that our group has two rooms facing the street. That gives us small windows on the world where we can take turns drawing and painting. Kellee Mayfield shared her gouache with Lynn Mehta and me. I left my watercolor and gouache at home for reasons of space; I will never travel without one of them again.

I was relieved and comforted to have a brush in my hand, although my painting is as bleak and raw as my psyche. There is restorative power in art, which is why so many people are drawn to it, and why I believe it’s important that everyone should have the opportunity to do it. While we Christians believe in the Resurrection, we not immune to the pain of loss.
You have to know the password to get in. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
I had intended to force myself into routine yesterday: drawing first, followed by a few hours of paperwork. I wasn’t able to drag myself into compliance. I went to bed early, foolishly flipping around Facebook before I dropped off. There I saw something that horrified me. An old friend, Wayne Potter, died yesterday, cause unknown. I frantically texted my brothers in the hope that it was a mistake. Alas, it was not. Two deaths in two days was more than my old soul could bear. I cried myself to sleep.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Life in a gilded cage

Buenos Aires is a ghost town from coronavirus. We’re waiting here until all Americans who can be rescued, are.
Those soldiers at the door are to keep us in, and keep anyone without papers out.
If you haven’t met Jane Chapin, she’s a little thing; I think she stretches the truth when she tells people she’s 5’1”. But she’s tough as the old boots she wears. I’d offered to drive the lead car in our midnight escape, since I’m used to dodging white-tailed deer. No; she would take the risk on her tiny shoulders.

We were barely out of the hosteria gate when we encountered our first jackrabbit. He decided his only hope was to lope ahead of us as fast as he could travel. That might work with pumas, but it slowed us down considerably.
Jane clears our first checkpoint. Photo courtesy Kellee Mayfield.
Even at 4 AM the first checkpoint was open. The soldiers carefully scrutinized our papers, calling each of us by name to verify our identities. I had memorized the phrase, Lo siento, no hablo español. The guards were unfailingly polite but utterly serious.

It turned out that documents they cared most about were the health certificates issued by Dr. Carolina Codó. That’s just another example of the importance of local knowledge, since our embassy had told us we didn’t need them.
After daybreak, we drove a long way through a dense fog. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
In our car, David Diaz and I sang silly songs to stay awake. A few hundred kilometers later, another jackrabbit drilled into Jane’s bumper, causing more damage than I thought possible. However, the whole panoply of stars were out, and we missed every guanaco and rhea dancing across the tarmac. The sun rose on a magical, stressful world.

We arrived at the Rio Gallegos airport in ample time. And then our troubles began. Our payments hadn’t transferred from Expedia; we would each have to pay again. (If you’re keeping score, we’ve paid for 14 flights so far, have used four, and have a reasonable expectation of using two more.)

If I can’t draw or sing to alleviate boredom, I make up and solve math problems in my head. This one was elementary: there were ten people in line, each transaction was taking more than ten minutes to complete, and our plane was leaving in an hour and a half. There was no way we were all going to make it on that plane. Doug and I were the last in line.

In Buenos Aires, we stood at the taxi stand trying to figure out where to go. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot.
I recited the 23rd Psalm and prayed. The clock above the desk moved inexorably forward. The agents were as flustered as me, but finally we were finished. We tore off to the security checkpoint. There, waiting, was Jane. She was not going to board until she was sure we were on the flight too.

Any thought that we would mooch around the airport at Buenos Aires looking for a flight were immediately quashed. We were ordered to leave by a soldier. Buenos Aires is a ghost town, but Kellee Mayfield stood at the taxi stand and booked us rooms at the Hilton. At the hotel, another set of soldiers scrutinized our health certificate before allowing us to pass in.

The streets of Buenos Aires are empty. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
We’re in a luxury hotel with no services—the laundry, restaurants, cafes and shops, rooftop pool, gym, etc. are all closed. There are as many staff as there are guests. We can leave to walk one block to the supermercado or pharmacy. Anything other than that, and we’ll be arrested.

Our departure has been moved back to April 2. I imagine there are still American citizens in the provinces that they’re trying to round up and bring to Buenos Aires. A few more days in this hotel is minor if it brings someone else home, and it appears this is really and truly the last flight until May.
Kellee Mayfield waiting her turn at the pharmacy. We can only go in one at a time.
Much more personally devastating was that last night my uncle, Robert Marusza, died of coronavirus at Buffalo General Hospital. He was a great man in both the personal and public sense, and very important to me. In normal times I’d be cancelling everything and heading to my home town. But these are not normal times. Funeral gatherings are banned in New York. Like his own children, I mourn from afar.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Our last day of quarantine

Much of what we do is meaningless time-filler. When that has been torn away, where are you left?
Unfinished last painting.
We have certainly run into a pathogen, although I doubt it’s COVID-19. I’m secretly relieved that it ran through me before we start our engines and make a course for Rio Gallegos in the morning. Woe to them who are in its throes en route.

Yesterday, Cristina informed me that I was confined to my room until I was six hours without a fever. This wasn’t her edict; it was that of the village doctor. I could go outside for fresh air, but not into any common areas. My mind turned inevitably to a comment Jane Chapin made to me earlier this week about the shrinking nature of our confinement. I really should be ashamed of myself. 

The Diary of Anne Frank was required reading in my youth. She and her family lived for two years in their cramped attic, and their release was immeasurably worse. My room is perfectly lovely, and I’d managed to snaffle The Spectator on my phone before Cristina noticed me.
Bushwhacking with Jane Chapin. The undergrowth is thick in the valleys.
I went outdoors and sat on a bench in the sun. Eventually, Jane found me, and we went bushwhacking. Mercifully, we have only a few hundred acres to roam in, or we might have managed to get lost. We tromped around in the undergrowth until we found a small stream with a view.

We set up to paint. My gut had been acting perfectly foul all morning, and it was there that the floodgates opened. I am missing part of my colon—that critical part that tells the average person that the @#$! Is about to hit the fan. I wandered off into the brush and cleaned up as well as I could, then returned and folded up my paint kit. It was a beautiful day; so what if I was covered in merde? I lay on my back in the warm sunlight, chatting with Jane as she painted.

Lying on my back in the sun, talking to Jane while she painted.
I’ve had less effective colonoscopy preps.

As I write this, Jane is checking us into our flight from Rio Gallegos tomorrow. We will leave here at 4 AM, driving hours in the dark, keeping a close watch for the guanaco, vicuña, or huemules who might like to ornament our cars’ front grilles. Ours is the last flight from Rio Gallegos to Buenos Aires and we do not—as of yet—have a plan to get from Buenos Aires to America. But I trust in my God as my protector. He hasn’t let me down yet.

Iron-ore laden creek.
Meanwhile, the mountains are shrouded in fog today, as if they are sad that we are leaving. Every morning of this trip, Natalia Andreeva has sat by the window and watched the pink light flicker up onto Glaciar Electrico. “Beautiful!” she breathes. Stripped of all the impositions of our world—of socializing, parenting, working—she remained centered on this one joy of all creation. 
Reader Robin M. asked me how we move our wet paintings. The wettest go into these PanelPak carriers.
The Age of Coronavirus has been one of great costs. There is opportunity here, as well. Much of what we do is meaningless time-filler. Some of it is downright corrosive. When all that is torn away, what are you left with? Do you like yourself well enough to be content in your own company? Can you organize your day, your week, your life, without someone else telling you what to do? If not, think of this as a wakeup call. Nobody owns your happiness but you.
Those that are drier are interleaved with waxed paper that I cut to size before leaving home. I then make a bundle of them, reusing the stretch film I brought. You can also use plastic bumpers or slivers of wine cork to separate the paintings.
This is my last post before we hare out of here. We leave tomorrow at 4 AM. I may be writing from Rio Gallegos, or it may be a week before I find a wi-fi signal I can poach. Until then, take care and remember to wash your hands.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Montezuma’s revenge

We had almost cleared quarantine, so why were we suddenly all feeling rotten?
Kellee Mayfield listens to rap music while painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
“Kellee,” I said quietly over breakfast, “you need to take my temperature.” Kellee Mayfield has this nifty no-touch thermometer that she aims at your forehead. If you’re below 100° F, it gives you a green light. If you’re above that, it squawks and flashes red at you. I know this because it did that to me. My heart sank.

I immediately went to bed, took a combination of Tylenol and aspirin and isolated myself. Periodically, Jane Chapin would come in and wave the magic thermometer at me. My temperature dropped into the safe zone, but I was not feeling well at all.

I was not concerned for myself; I’m overall as healthy as a horse, and I don’t have any underlying medical conditions that would encourage Coronavirus to knock me off. But I would have hated to be the weak link that kept us in Patagonia for several more weeks.
Hoping to paint here today. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
Meanwhile, some of my fellows were suffering a different ailment: traveler’s diarrhea. In the past, this was sometimes known by the rather rude names of Montezuma’s Revenge or Delhi Belly. Sometimes pathogens in water don’t bother natives but upset the stomachs of visitors. But lest we feel superior, our own North American pathogen, Giardiasis, or beaver fever, is particularly nasty, and nobody develops tolerance to it. I speak from experience.

But whether it was different food, too much Malbec, or something in the water, three of my fellow travelers were laid low. Since we can’t flush the toilet tissue, I can’t even imagine their difficulties.

By the end of the day yesterday, we had four members of our little troop in some kind of distress. The problem with illness in the Age of Coronavirus is that we question every little spike in temperature, bad gut, or headache. That’s especially true in a foreign country, under quarantine, on sufferance.
Those who can, painted. Those would couldn't, slept. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
Even in the face of worry, the show went on. Those who could, went out and painted. Those of us who couldn’t, rested. Kellee Mayberry told me that her painting blew into the river. I was sad to have missed that.

This morning my temperature is down and my fellows have returned to their usual bathroom habits. Once again, we’re all our usual cheerful selves. Tomorrow our quarantine ends, so today is the last day in which we can paint all day. I plan to make the most of it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Climb every mountain

“If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you, too?” Apparently, yes.
The Whole Enchilada, by Carol L. Douglas, 12x16, available.
Because I’m an early riser, to some degree I exist outside others’ routines. I went to bed last night intending to write about the fine job our state department has done in interfacing with us. My friends keep sending me horror stories from the big national papers about other stranded travelers, complaining that our embassies aren’t helpful. Our experience has been nothing like that. Dalia Sava at our embassy in Buenos Aires has communicated efficiently and quickly with us.

At bedtime, our airline tickets were confirmed, the embassy would be issuing us a pass to travel through the quarantine area, and El Chaltén’s doctor would write health certificates saying we have completed quarantine. Things were looking pretty good for us to get home by the 29th of March.
Jane Chapin and me climbing down from our aerie. Photo courtesy of Kellee Mayfield.
And then I made the error of looking at Facebook while my laptop booted. Jane Chapin posted an hour ago about our Copa Airlines flights being cancelled. If that’s the case, we’re in the soup again. I hope she’s sleeping now; she spent four hours yesterday gathering, formatting and sending our passport and license information to Dalia.

We can’t stay here. Termination dust—the first snow of the year at high elevations—appeared on the mountains yesterday. Hosteria el Pilar closes for the season on April 1. This isn’t a business-driven, Maine-style winter closure, but an absolute necessity. The water lines must be drained and the rooms closed up before winter descends on the Southern Andes in all its fury. Leaving my room this morning, I was buffeted by wind whistling down the corridor. It was strong enough inside to wrest the door from my hand and slam it.

Not content with climbing the mountain behind the hosteria, Kellee and I attempted to ford the river on rocks. We ended up with wet feet and no paintings to show for it.
Jane did take some time to paint yesterday. She and Kellee Mayfield and I climbed the nearest mountain to get a different view of the glaciers. We followed a trail, thinking we would meet up with our fellow painters. Not finding them, we hared straight up the steep hillside. About halfway up, I told them I’d already had my quota of falling off cliffs this year, having tumbled down one in Parrsboro, NS last July. None of us had rappelling gear and we were suddenly in a maze of granite ridges.

“If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you, too?” is a famous parental question. I now know the answer is yes. Faced with a choice of being left behind or staying with your buddies, you soldier on. The good news is that none of us fell, even descending into a wicked headwind. The view from up there was sublime. We hunched down behind boulders as the wind increased in force. All of us painted well, although there can be no detail when your easel is bucketing in a fierce wind.

I was spent from the climb. All I had left in me was this very tiny (8x10) view of our hosteria.
Packing up, we realized we had no idea how we’d gotten up there. A mountain looks very different from the top than it does from the bottom. But Kellee and Jane are both half mountain goat, apparently. They found a route down, one that was actually easier than our route up. My knees are protesting, though. The rest of the day, I limped around the hosteria, going no farther than the bench in front to paint.

POSTSCRIPT: Our return flights are indeed cancelled... Again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Capturing the rainbow

I don’t think we can count on them sending the helicopters any time soon.

By the Rio Blanco in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
My friend Barb made it back to Maine from Thailand and slept for 19 hours straight. Then she woke up and tried to figure out how to wash her travel-tainted laundry without access to a laundromat. Not that she’s going back to work any time soon; she works in a pre-school.

It’s good to know that somewhere in the world there are flights moving. Why they’re moving in Asia, the epicenter of this disease, and not in South America, is beyond me. But our carefully-laid plans of the weekend are now thrown into confusion. We have ascertained that we can take the cars to Rio Gallegos but we have no idea if we have a flight when we get there.

Jane Chapin is having vivid dreams, all reflecting her anxieties. She dreamt she was trying to keep a box of baby hedgehogs alive, and that she was naked at the mall. During the day, she’s her usual level, funny self, of course. In the dark hours, the fruitless effort and endless conversations are starting to wear.

We have no idea whether flights in Argentina will resume on the 28th or the 31st or some date in the future. Nor do our representatives at the Embassy, who are now in regular contact with us. Yesterday, the State Department sent out a survey to collect information about American nationals stranded overseas. There are some 13,500 of our fellow citizens who have requested help to get home. I don’t think we can count on them sending the helicopters any time soon.

We use WhatsApp to communicate with our Embassy reps. “That’s the same group as Doug Perot?” they asked each of us. How Doug became the point man for our group, none of us know, but I felt very important being married to him.

Painting by the window.
Some of my friends back home have told me that I don’t know how bad it is in the US; that I’ll be coming home to a police state. We have exactly the same news as the rest of you. With that, exile in Argentina isn’t markedly different from exile in Maine. I prefer the chipper attitude of my Uncle Bob, who’s in his eighties and immunosuppressed from cancer treatments. I couldn’t go see him before coronavirus, either. Instead of complaining about my absence, he said, “I’m not going anywhere near anyone!” and then told me all the news from Buffalo.

Also in Buffalo, my technologically-impaired brother-in-law saw Kellee Mayfield’s interview with an Arkansas television station. Stuck at home, he’s learning to surf the internet. I didn’t think the old boy had it in him.
Downpour, by Carol L. Douglas. That's the first rainbow I've ever tried to paint.
Yesterday started with a halfhearted rain and moved to a downpour. It’s impossible to paint outdoors in these conditions, so we painted from the windows, or read, or played Scrabble. David Diaz set up in the greenhouse, where he was nearly deafened by the roar of rain hitting the plastic roof. Natalia Andreeva painted Lynn Mehta; if the bad weather continues, she’ll have painted us all by the time we go home. Katie Cundiff taught two university classes.

I spent a lot of time looking out the window, like a child deprived of her recess. The meteoric weather shifts remind me of Frederic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes, that magnificent, show-stopping canvas that now resides at the Met. Even though it was painted in the northern parts of the continent, it captures something of the character of Patagonia as well.

Monday, March 23, 2020

No, we’re not panicking

Is this ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Groundhog Day’?
Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, available.
A tale of woe from Peru validates our decision to ride out our quarantine here in El Chaltén. Whether the situation there is as dire as the Washington Post makes it sound, I don’t know, but the lead paragraphs are of all parties behaving badly. Our experience couldn’t be more different.

Buenos Aires is a city of 15 million people, where we would be burrs under the saddle of a nation struggling to keep its people safe. Here, we can be what we actually are: harmless painters. I have faith in the world’s economy (although I marvel at the speed at which it’s become unhinged). An important part of that is air travel. Our international travel network will be back, adjusted for coronavirus. And then we will be home.
Cowpath, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
Meanwhile, even the most peculiar circumstances become habitual when repeated. We eat breakfast together, Kellee Mayfield takes our temperature, and then we scatter along the Rio Blanco to paint. Luncheon is purely ad hoc; most of us, I think, are subsisting on caramels, apples, and the remains of a bag of potato chips. Like the Biblical loaves and fishes, those chips survive day after day. At 7:30 we gather for supper, which Cristina, Guillermo, Sergio and Pablo (the only remaining Argentines among us) conjure from supplies.

My husband faces a deadline, so he’s working. It doesn’t matter to him whether he’s in Maine or Patagonia; he can still teleconference and work with his computer in Rochester, NY. Katie Cundiff is teaching her college classes at Ringling online. She is seventy years old, but quickly adapting to the idea of teaching online. Every day, Jane Chapin talks to Dahlia, her new BFF at the American Embassy in Buenos Aires. The time seems to drag for Alexander, who can’t work remotely and isn’t a painter. But we’ve all settled into our routine. “It’s like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’” Kellee said.

Cerro Electrico from the path to the National Park, by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
Over the weekend, we’ve developed a plan. It involves jerry-cans of gasoline and a seven-hour drive to Rio Gallegos, the capital of Santa Cruz Province, just as soon as we’ve cleared quarantine.

There is just one gas station along the way. This being rural Argentina, it may or may not be open. Against that possibility, Guillermo will supply us with gas, which we’ll stow in Kellee’s car before we leave. “If you can fill up, then leave the cans for someone else,” he said. That’s only one way in a thousand that Guillermo and Cristina have demonstrated their wonderful kindness.

I have one reservation: my scruples have not yet eroded to the point of stealing a car, especially from someone as kind-hearted as Sebastian from Avis. We really must clear this with him first. “I will call,” said Cristina. “But it can wait until Monday.” Panic? None of that here.
Rio Blanco, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
Today, Guillermo will teach us how to pour from a jerry-can into a gas tank in the inevitable high winds of Patagonia. Apparently, this involves using a one-liter soda bottle as a funnel, but the aperture is cut on the side, not the top. The tires on these cars are nothing to write home about, but each of them has a full-size spare. As we’re leaving at 4 AM, there will need to be a wingman watching for vicuña. They inhabit the biological niche of white-tailed deer in the US: roadkill. “Drive down the middle of the road and follow the line,” said Guillermo.

A note from a friend in the United States gave me calculations on how much toilet paper is necessary to survive quarantine. According to Georgia-Pacific, a 2-person household will need about nine double rolls for 14 days. We are using nowhere near that much. We can't flush toilet paper here; the septic system isn’t up to it. (This is no surprise; there is very little topsoil here, just glacial till and granite outcropping.) Used tissue goes in a small, lined receptacle that is emptied daily. It's amazing how much that cuts one's consumption.

Water, however, is not a problem. There is a cistern at the top of the hill. It serves to pressurize the water system, exactly the same way a water tower works in a city. After inspecting the cistern and marveling at the ingenuity of running plastic lines up the hillside, we set up to paint. There are spectacular views of several peaks and glaciers. On a clear day, you can see to Chile. I couldn’t help it; I broke out into song. The hills are alive with the Sound of Music.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

That way madness lies

Stranded, we don’t have the luxury of recrimination. We recognize that we all must pull together.
I amuse myself with a weird little still life.
Yesterday was a wonderfully warm day of rain. It wasn’t heavy, like one would expect in a rainforest, but light and lacy. In a moment, the sky would cross from bleak to brilliant and back again. Rainbows broke spontaneously over the mountains.

Despite the exotic beauty, none of us are traveling with umbrellas. We decided to stay inside. Lynn Mehta and Lisa Flynn painted interiors. David Diaz agreed to sit, so he was painted by Jane ChapinNatalia Andreeva, and Kellee Mayfield. I made a desultory effort at a still life, above.  As you can see, my heart was not in it.

Jane, Guillermo and Cristina puzzling over this morning's news.
Mostly, we attempted to find a way home. The State Department recommended that we contact a travel agent in Buenos Aires. We did; they could book us from Buenos Aires to America, but we are two thousand miles from Buenos Aires. The current rumor is that flights will not resume from El Calafate at all.

What we have found is that the Patagonians themselves are about a thousand times more informed and helpful than any central administrators, government or airline. I confirmed that the airport was closed over WhatsApp; my new friend Sebastian answers my messages, which is more than I can say for Aereolinas Argentinas.
Kellee takes our temperatures daily.
Of course, our Patagonian friends have only a few people to worry about. Our State Department and the airlines have tens of thousands of people on their docket. Still, a day spent on logistics left me feeling fractious. I’m not anxious, but I realize how oppressive our bureaucratic culture can be, even in small doses.

The irony is that we are at least as connected as people back home. Kellee gave an interview to an Arkansas television station; it was their lead story. Yesterday, I ordered a new brush roll from Amazon. That reminded me that I should Facebook my postal clerk to tell her that we won’t be home any time soon. I’m getting photos of my grandkids, family news, and even the occasional phone message.
Laundry, quarantine style.
My fellow artists remain patient, cheerful and kind. Yes, we could have made different decisions that resulted in a different outcome, but there have been no recriminations. Yes, we are running out of wine and clean clothes. But we agreed on our course of action, and we continue to support each other as we muddle through. Nobody talks politics; nobody blames anyone, and certainly not our government. We recognize that, in extreme conditions, we must all pull together.

At one point, Kellee pointed to Guillermo and Cristina and said, “See this couple here? They are the epitome of what humanity should be in a crisis.”

That—the best, rather than the worst—is what we’re focusing on. Paul exhorted the Colossians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Nobody here is overtly religious, but they’re living that.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Hiking in the Andes

“You don’t belong here,” the young men said. “Go home!”
Rio Electrico, by Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, available.
Whatever our quarantine meant on Thursday, on Friday we were permitted to hike along the Rio Electrico. The trailhead is a few scant kilometers from Hosteria el Pilar. The trail leads into Los Glaciares National Park and ultimately to Chile. We wouldn’t be walking that far; the park is closed. However, we would have views of other distant glaciers and mountains.

We’re traveling with fairly light kits, but they are still full painting kits. They weigh between 15 to 30 pounds each. Mine is on the heavier side and I did not bring a backpack. My solution is to loop the strap of my messenger bag across my chest, like pictures of Navajo women in my long-obsolete schoolbooks. It works, more or less, although after 8.8 miles of moderate hiking, my neck was feeling the strain.

Keeping a low profile is paramount, so we traveled in two small groups. Mine included Kellee Mayfield, David Diaz, and Lynn Mehta. We immediately proved our lack of woodscraft by neglecting to download a map. Instead, we searched the dust for footprints, as if we were trackers in a spaghetti western. A few kilometers of this nonsense and we found the trailhead. It was marked with large brown-and-yellow signs, directly across the road from a parking lot.

Jane Chapin above the Rio Electrico.
Guillermo had warned us not to allow ourselves to perspire as we climbed. “This is not Amsterdam,” he said. The realization that we were hiking in the Andes came slowly, but it left us rather awestruck. If I had a bucket list, this should have been on it. Most of the hike was through a wooded glade that the ever-present wind could not penetrate. It was, indeed, warm. But when we cleared the trees, the piercing wind was frigid. Wet clothes would have been dangerous.

Our first destination was a refugia two hours up the pass. A kilometer short of it, we came across another band of our fellows—Jane Chapin, Natalia Andreeva, Lisa Flynn and Natalia’s husband, Alexander. They’d been driven back from the refugia. It was occupied by four young Argentine bucks, intent on riding out the virus in the solitude of Patagonia. “You don’t belong here,” they said. “Go home!” It has been our only negative encounter so far.

Argentina has banned internal flights because too many people are using the break to vacation. I understand. Most of us live undemanding lives compared to our ancestors. We haven’t learned to take danger seriously. The impulse to break quarantine is terrific.
Painting along the Rio Electrico. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
But it didn’t matter whether these four twenty-somethings were survivalists or just want to party in peace. We were best off leaving them to it. We retreated along the riverbank and set up to paint a superb view of what may or may not be Glaciar Cagliero Sur. It was horrendously windy. I’ve painted in more pleasant blizzards, and I’m from Buffalo. “We’ve hiked two hours to paint for fifteen minutes,” laughed David Diaz.

Alas, we are again confined to the grounds. We will be allowed to roam when we have a certificate of quarantine, or when the Marines show up to rescue us. Alas, our second set of flights has been cancelled. Right now, we have enough flight credits to travel South America for a year, great whacking charges on our credit cards, and no way home.

Meanwhile, the US State Department is calling in all American citizens. That’s of very little use when there are no domestic or international flights available. Those of us with political connections have contacted them to see if the government can intervene.
Meanwhile, the clouds and the sky remain spectacular.
Matthew Parris has a wonderful little essay in this week’s Spectator on the thrill of apocalypse to school children and other romantic souls. We all like breaks in routine—for a while. “On how many gravestones in how many churchyards does that phrase from Romans 15, 9-11, ‘and they shall sing a new song’, appear?” he asks.

We’re in no real trouble. We are not miners trapped in a cave in Chile, or schoolboys caught in a cave in Thailand. (Note to self: avoid caves for the nonce.) Being compassionate people, we want the US government to rescue those in danger first.

However, the break grows old. We begin to long for a return to the familiar. Despite internet contact (which the hosteria laid on in the face of crisis), we want to see our family and friends again. To maintain sanity, we cling resolutely to our groove. We eat breakfast, we contact our families, we wash our unmentionables in the sink, and then we paint. And then we repeat.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Plans derailed

I want to roam, but I don’t want to be a stupid American who gets into trouble with the military authorities.
Southern Beech, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
Yesterday’s plans to hike along the Rio Electrico were derailed. The Army is making rounds, checking the hosterias in the area to verify that travelers are maintaining quarantine. Even though we would still be a self-contained group, it was thought that it would be better if we were not gallivanting around as a group. “I think it’s best if we keep our profile low,” said Jane Chapin.

Alexander is married to artist Natalia Andreeva. He’s not a painter, but is a dedicated hiker. Yesterday, he decided that the best way to get his exercise was to walk up and down the drive. That way, he’d see the soldiers when they arrive. Born in the Soviet Union, he has a healthy respect for the Army. I am listening to him.

We native-born Americans are cheerfully ignorant of the power of the military in other parts of the world. Our army doesn’t maneuver on domestic soil, we have no checkpoints, and people are constitutionally secure in their own homes. This crisis has reminded me of just how fragile that social contract is. Just as we experienced an erosion of personal liberty after 9/11, we may face a similar erosion from coronavirus. It’s up to us to be vigilant.
There were rocks in that large satchel, but it still didn't stop my easel from going over.
In the Arctic and subpolar Canada, wind was my greatest enemy. It’s true here as well. My tough little pochade box blew down three times, despite being tethered with rocks. The first time, it wiped out my brush roll. The second time, my wash tank. The third time, it did me in, and I quit. By then, it was lashing rain anyway.

Being grounded to the immediate environs of the hosteria, I decided to paint the scrubby beech trees. Nothofagus pumilla is the predominant tree cover in this southern polar region, as common here as spruces in the North American taiga. These southern beeches have tiny serrated leaves that mimic their northern cousins. There any similarity with our northern beeches ends. The mature trees have deeply-grooved bark and are twisted and bent by the constant winds.

The leaves of the Southern Beech are about the only thing that resembles the beeches of the Northern Hemisphere.
Berberis microphylla, or barberry, grows wild. It’s known here as calafate, giving its name to the town. The berries of the local variety are edible. Legend has it that eating one assures you a return trip to Patagonia. Sadly, they’re out of season.

I’ve been carefree through this whole venture. Yesterday, I realized I was approaching my first real crisis. I brought 24 boards with me—two for each of ten painting days, and four spares. With the extension of our trip, I’m suddenly left with a shortage of painting surfaces. Typically, I bring too many boards, so rationing painting boards is new territory to me.
Rain, by Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, available.
Perhaps the Army will come today. After all, they have a huge range of territory to patrol. Meanwhile, we feel our range steadily contracting. First, we were limited to the country, then the province, then the town, then our hosteria and its grounds. Will we be limited to indoors next? Our rooms? Whatever happens, we’ll roll with it. In a constantly-changing situation, it’s best to be flexible.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

On the road with COVID-19

What does the word quarantine mean? It changes every day.
Glaciar Cagliero from Rio Electrico, by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
Yesterday I outlined the problems we will have if we break quarantine to head back to the airport. These were reinforced by an email from the US State Department, which told us to comply with local authorities. However, just as the United States is suffering a lack of toilet paper, rural Argentina has a lack of information.

When we left, I asked Jane Chapin what the word quarantine meant. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk; I just wanted to know what was expected of us. It turns out to have been a prescient question, because the meaning of our quarantine has shifted over time. In the beginning it was enough that we traveled in a self-contained group. Now it means we stay in place, and strictly so.

Our host Cristina managed to talk with someone at the US embassy in Buenos Aires. Later, Guillermo suggested that we fill our cars against a possible gas shortage. (They happen here, coronavirus or not.) We duly drove the washed-out, rutted gravel road to El Chaltén’s single gas pump to top up. Although short in mileage, the trip took two hours.

When we returned, Cristina sadly informed us that—by the newest rules—we had broken quarantine. We were required to file documents and copies of our passports and are now confined to the immediate area of the hosteria. From now on, only Guillermo can go to town for supplies.
Painting with Lynn Mehta in front of Cerro Fitz Roy.
Yesterday, the town of El Calafate announced its first confirmed case of coronavirus, in a French tourist. We wince; it was not our intention to bring plague to the Southern Hemisphere. But we Americans in El Chaltén remain resolutely symptom-free. We have sufficient toilet paper, although this is a cash-based economy and we will certainly run out of greenbacks before we’re allowed to leave.

Meanwhile, the Argentines, having no work or school to go to, have decided to use this time for vacation. Despite quarantine, the streets of El Chaltén are full of young people skateboarding, trekkers huffing dutifully towards the mountains, and bicyclists. To counter this, the government is closing down all internal flights as of tomorrow.
Natalia Andreeva drew this wonderful portrait of me in front of the fire. You'd almost think I talk a lot.
This is a relief. Gone are the endless discussions of what we should do. There is nothing we can do except paint. This morning I shall gather up some hiking poles and head toward the mountains with some of the others. Apparently, there is a point along the river where we can get close to a glacier face. My husband, who is less enamored of glaciers than me, will try to do a few hours of paid work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

No man’s land

May we all treat coronavirus as a chance to serve, rather than be served.
El Calafate, by Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, oil on canvas, available, if I can get it to you.
On arrival at Buenos Aires last week, the flight attendant announced a twenty-minute delay in disembarking. Nevertheless, people moved up the aisle, preferring to stand impatiently with their gear rather than wait quietly in their seats. If you fly frequently, you see this at the end of every flight. These people create traffic jams by attempting to jump the queue.

I am reminded of this by the current logjams at American airports, where thousands of citizens are penned up waiting to clear customs. Rather than add ourselves to the scrum, we’re waiting out our quarantine in El Chaltén. We check our temperatures daily, but otherwise we don’t panic.

Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Electrico, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, available.

Argentina has internal checkpoints. These allow them to control the movement of their citizens in a way Americans would never tolerate. (Remember this when you’re complaining about our government’s response.) There is a city gate outside El Calafate where police stop and inspect traffic. Right now, Americans who haven’t completed quarantine are not permitted into the town. That means us.
Cerro Marconi, by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
We are north of El Chaltén, on the edge of Los Glaciares National Park. Like everything else in the world, the park is closed. Tellingly, the ranger who told us we cannot go into the park asked us to do nothing that would get them in trouble. That, Jane Chapin tells me, is a mark of how much Argentinians need jobs. We are, of course, respecting their request.

There are ten Americans in our party. While they will permit us to leave this district, we won’t be allowed back in. There’s a no-man’s land of about 215 km between El Calafate and El Chaltén, with no houses and no services. There are herds of wild vicuña, the occasional string of ranch horses, and spectacular views. The airport is outside the city gates of El Calafate, putting it in this no-man’s-land. When we decide it’s prudent to leave, we will present ourselves at this airport. If there’s no flight, we are effectively banished; we will not be allowed to return to either El Calafate or El Chaltén until the 26th of March.
Powerhouse, Rio Blanco, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
Needless to say, the only airplane tickets we have are useless. We had planned to fly to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and then to Buenos Aires and then home. However, we can’t fly between provinces, and we don’t have tickets from El Calafate. Our international flight was cancelled days ago. We have—obviously—no idea how we’re going to get home.

This does not rise to any state of emergency. I have twenty painting boards left and I’m surrounded by glaciers and a lovely, peculiar kind of beech tree, nothofagus pumilio. The proprietors here have figured out a way to give us limited connectivity. My kids are fine, so I’m content.
Glaciar Cagliero by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
El Chaltén is a village of about 1700 people. Hosteria el Pilar, where we are staying, is isolated along a high river, ringed by glaciers. It is a center for mountain climbing and trekking and a place to withdraw from the world. The village doctor has said that we should consider ourselves in quarantine here.

Innkeepers Guillermo and Cristina have been resilient and accommodating to their potentially plague-ridden guests. We are outstaying our welcome and they are figuring out a way to accommodate us, even though they were obviously not anticipating this. As we’re in an area which produces no crops, all supplies must be brought in. Guillermo has a rifle and it may get to the point where we’re potting rabbits for dinner. I can skin a rabbit.

Meanwhile, rumor runs rampant. Our own State Department has told us to listen to local authorities, and we’re doing our best. But I have internet and another twenty painting boards. I’m perfectly content.

You have heard the expression, “God is my co-pilot.” To me, that’s absurd. God is the pilot, and I’m just along for the ride. In John 9:1-3, Jesus is asked by his disciples why a man was blind. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Adversity is an opportunity to panic, or it’s an opportunity to rise above oneself. May I have the strength to be a good witness. May we all treat coronavirus as a chance to serve, rather than be served.