It’s almost 9000 kilometres from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Toronto, Canada. As the crow flies.
Although that is quite a distance, in normal times it’s not difficult to arrange flights. Just use a reliable online booking agent like Expedia, and the logistics are figured out for you.
But getting home during the pandemic proved to be no simple matter.
The Eastern Airlines Flight would get us into Miami, Florida. Before we boarded though, the Canadian Embassy told us that we must purchase flights from Miami to Canada. This seemed reasonable. But to which city? We have family in Calgary, Toronto and Manitoba. Complicating the decision was that our only vehicle is in Calgary. And our “summer residence” is in Manitoba but the cabin does not have water service until mid-May. As for flights, the most direct were from Miami to Toronto.
Thankfully Hostel Nagual had good internet. We were online for big chunks of time each day. Looking at flights, discussing accommodation.
So, for better or for worse, I have tried to capture the main issues we encountered while attempting to get home during the pandemic. And a few amusing moments. Emphasis on few.
Finding flights. First of all, the online booking agent sites can’t keep up with the flight changes and cancellations. They offer all kinds of cheap options, but then those flights don’t exist.
So, in order to know what airlines are still flying to a particular city, we resorted to googling each Canadian airport, scrolling through the list of Arrivals and Departures. Once we knew which airline from the USA recently flew into Calgary for example, we searched that airline website for possible flights.
Still no guarantee that the flight would go. But it was at least a possibility.
In the end we purchased American Airlines flights. Miami to Charlotte NC, and then Charlotte to Toronto.
Permissions. A day before our flight, Eastern airlines sent us an urgent email, containing a letter of permission to travel to the Buenos Aires airport, a document to be printed. We did not have access to a printer. But we were not too worried since we knew the taxis in Argentina also had to carry travel authorization documents in order to pass the many police control points.
As we pulled away from the hostel, our taxi driver showed us his document, specifically pointing out that it included permission to drive to the airport for Air Canada flights. I told him that we were going on Eastern Airlines. “No, he said firmly, “You are going on Air Canada”. He looked back at us. Aha moment. “Si, si, of course, it’s Air Canada.”
Paying for services not rendered. One of the difficulties in making decisions about flights and quarantine accommodations is that once you click that Buy Now button, the money is gone. It ain’t ever coming back. But what if the flight doesn’t go?
For our first two Air Canada flights, that we didn’t take, we paid a total of $8000 Cdn. Air Canada kept the money. We phoned and asked for the money back. Now you are laughing. Of course you don’t get your money back. Regardless that they cancelled the first flight. Vouchers only, no exceptions. Infuriating also, was that they did not allowed us to use the money from the first flight to pay for the second flight. Incredibly insane. Apparently legal.
Same thing occurs with Airbnb. Although we had gracious offers from family, we decided for the safety of everyone, to rent an apartment for the 2-week quarantine. First we had to contact the host and ask if they would accept our possibly covid infested body at their pristine accommodation. At this point I felt like a refugee. Some said no. For those who said yes, the next question was, “What if the flight gets cancelled and we don’t get there”. Sorry, once you book, there are no refunds. For them, it’s just that simple.
Traveling through the USA. This was not our first choice but in the end became our only choice to get home. We were confident that the Covid load on the first flight would be low. All passengers had been quarantined since the Argentinian borders closed on March 16. Argentina’s Covid stats remain low.
But spending many hours in 2 US airports, with their raging Covid cases, was definitely a risk.
A surprise to us, was that the Miami airport sounded like we were still in South America. Bob was delighted that he could order his Subway sandwich using Spanish. I was surprised that he was so delighted. You just spent 6 months struggling to speak Spanish and now when you are in an English speaking country, you speak Spanish? I guess it takes longer than 1 flight to adjust.
Travel Comfort. Honestly Eastern Air sent the oldest airborne plane on the planet. If the guy in front of me moved, the back of his chair hit my knees. No electronics. Two tiny TV screens attached to the ceiling, which usually at least play a safety video, were turned off. They appeared to be black and white models. Remember those?
On American Airlines, it was announced that due to Covid, they would not be serving. So when the pilot told the flight attendants to prepare for take off, they sat down and buckled up. And they stayed there for the entire flight.
Most airport seating are stiff plastic chairs with metal legs. But Charlotte North Carolina has the most wonderful airport seating. Spread throughout this vast complex are rows of big white wooden rocking chairs. In front of windows, under indoor trees. Amazing how a little rocker time can provide such a comforting feeling.
Use of Masks. We learned that a mask was a requirement for the first flight. Bob and I had been given masks on our drive to Buenos Aires, during the police escort to the hospital. But foolishly left them in the van. Staying in the burbs of Buenos Aires, there was no option to buy one. Luckily two days before our flight, a friendly couple, Burgit and Mike arrived at the hostel, preparing to fly home to Germany. Burgit had an extra and gave it to me. A generous offer.
Although on Zoom, our Scottish friend Ray demonstrated wearing underwear on your head, Bob luckily escaped that trauma. He had a balaclava liner that he pulled over his mouth and nose, with the hood rolled down at the back.
In the Buenos Aires airport, use of masks was at 100%. No question that absolutely everyone had a mask on. One snack kiosk open.
In the Miami airport we estimated use of masks at about 95%, including cleaners, airline employees, and travellers. Only 2 food kiosks remained open in this humongous building. The Mayor’s voice played overhead every hour, with Covid safety reminders.
Shockingly, in Charlotte NC the use of masks in the airport was no kidding less than 20%. All stores and restaurants open.
We expected to find masks for sale at the airports, but surprisingly found none. Coffee yes. Masks no.
Useless Forms After landing in Toronto, we climbed down a metal stairway to the tarmac. It was a small plane. Immediately a uniformed man handed us each a photocopied form, to be filled out for Customs. It had confusing travel questions like when are you arriving and when are you leaving? Huh? As we moved through the required steps in Customs, we asked how to fill out that form. But we were brushed off.
Finally though we saw that an official was indeed collecting these papers. She didn’t want to hear our questions, just hurry up and hand it to her. She grabbed our papers and immediately, without looking at them, tossed them into a large bin that looked suspiciously like a garbage can. So much for the official Canadian Covid Customs forms. Ours was useless anyway, because they weren’t even completed.
Canadian Customs. If you have flown internationally in the last few years you know that a digital kiosk is the first step. Using the touch screen, you answer standard questions about what you are bringing back and whether or not you visited a farm. Yada yada. Place your passport inside for scanning, then stand back while the machine somehow finds your face and takes your photo. Wait a moment and it spits out a slip of paper with your answers, your new photo, your passport scan. Voila, it’s your declaration.
Next up, a real live official asked us about our quarantine plans. Emphasizing that we must not stay with vulnerable persons. No issues there.
Lastly another official, the same woman who trashed the Covid forms, collected the slips of declaration. Perhaps she was irritated by having to collect both forms at the same time. Anyway, she yelled at the young man in front of me.
“You checked off ‘No animals’ on your declaration.”
“You declared you were not bringing in any animals”.
Then she pointed to the dog carrier that he had in his arms. Puppy obviously inside. “Oh” he replied, “I thought it meant farm animals”.
Seriously? Who brings farm animals on a flight? Like. honey let’s just bring the cow with us, or a sheep maybe.
Vanna. Initially we planned to store Vanna in Uruguay since they offer an automatic 1-year vehicle permit. But due to border closures, that didn’t happen.
In most countries it is an offence to overstay the vehicle permit. The penalty can be a fine, or it can be permanent confiscation. Argentina is rumoured to be particularly harsh.
This is a serious concern for all overlanders in South America. Many attempted to get an extension at the Aduana. Like us, they wanted to leave their vehicle and fly home, but of course did not want the Argentinian government to confiscate the vehicle when the permit expires. Some of those vehicles are worth mega bucks.
The aduana officials have refused to comment. Some made ridiculous statements like, “We could make a decision but it is really up to the people at the aduana where you entered the country, and since all border aduana’s are now closed, we can’t contact them to make a decision.”
Luckily, Vanna’s permit lasts until early September. We will see how things will shake out this summer. Also, we chose an experienced storage company whose owner Cristian speaks English. This will definitely be advantageous as we correspond with him over the next few months.
That’s all we know about Vanna for now. We grew to love her and really want to keep her. But we are not worried. What will be, will be.
Quarantine. Where to stay for the quarantine became convoluted. It was so dependant on flights that could get changed. Horse, cart. Cart, horse. Once we decided to get an apartment, though, it became clear. Incidentally we heard that the Canadian government was paying for hotels if you needed one. Funny no one at Customs mentioned it.
Toronto was a good choice for a few reasons. We have family here whom we hope to visit with after the quarantine. And after American Airlines changed flight times on us, our arrival time ended up being too late in the day to catch another flight. It’s an understatement to say that I was not looking forward to a third day of flying.
We found a nice apartment with a patio and in-suite laundry. The manager, Mohammed, had no problem accepting us. My brother and sister-in-law live nearby. Jerry did our shopping and delivered the groceries along with a fabulous assortment of home cooking. Soup, muffins, quiche and cornbread. Wow! Thanks Ann and Kaelan.
What now? Yay, we get to count our arrival day as day 1. Only 12 more days to go. Whatever regulations are in place by then will dictate our plans. But we certainly hope to do some visiting. Driveway coffee dates, anyone?