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.

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.

On the road with COVID-19

What does the word quarantinemean? 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 Mehtain 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 Andreevadrew 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.

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 GlaciaresNational 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.