The Life Quarantine
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Disclaimer: All notes, perspectives, and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. State Department. Though this is my quarantine story, I'd like to dedicate this post to my fellow Fulbrighters still here in Argentina and back in the U.S. as they, along with the Argentine Fulbright Commission, have been incredibly supportive, generous, and kind in one of the most stressful and unpredictable situations any of us has or will ever endure. An extra thank-you to the Commission for fighting for us throughout the entire process to help us receive our funding and remain safe in-country. I hope that if you glean anything from this post it is the fact we are still here and have managed to adapt, perhaps even thrive, demonstrating resilience and courage, and most importantly, a dedication to our education, to ourselves, and to furthering the mutual understanding between our two cultures.
So here we are. The worst (we hope) is behind us as we start to regain a sense of normalcy in our lives after the past several months of the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has been quite the experience. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you believe, we were all in this together and will never forget the "Big Pause" for as long as we live, at least I hope so. We all have some really interesting stories now that will be told for generations about this time. My hope is that you continue to tell yours and share the many things you learned about yourself, about your loved ones, and about the world. May we not forget them as we move forward. In this same sentiment, I would like to share some of my experiences during the pandemic that have surely changed the way I will move forward with my life. Perhaps they may be of use to you. Thanks for taking the time to read this entry.
Above: A mural near my house in Mendoza. The light caught my eye and I then noticed how relevant this moment seemed to our current situation of quarantine, social distancing, and how we are facing a "new norm" where human contact is now hazardous to your health.
I am writing to you today still here in Mendoza, Argentina, but life is very different than it was several months ago. If you read my last blog entry,The Life Mendocino, you know that I came here to carry out a research project and cultural exchange as a Fulbright Scholar. It was something I had been working towards for almost a decade. I had imagined how much fun it was going to be and I thought I knew exactly what I was going to be doing in my time there. I could picture it so clearly and I was ready for anything I could imagine. The first five weeks of the Fulbright "experience", as the Program refers to it, was everything I imagined it would be, and more. My trip...my experience, was going just as I had hoped it would, at the time (you can read all about it in the previous post). I was so excited for the future and couldn't wait to explore the country, the culture, and the city. But life had other plans for me (for us all, really).
This is my quarantine story.
The Calm Before the Storm
On March 12, 2020, twenty-seven eager and wide-eyed Fulbright Scholars hailing from various parts of the United States convened in Buenos Aires, Argentina to begin what we had hoped would be a fulfilling nine-month project and cultural exchange – the experience of a lifetime. As we were all complete strangers at first, we shared something in common - we were Fulbright Scholars. We had all worked incredibly hard to get here to pursue something we were passionate about. For many of us, this meant putting our lives on hold for a year (several years realistically with planning and preparing). We had quit our jobs, moved out of apartments, and had not planned on returning to the U.S. for quite some time. For some, it even meant ending relationships. We essentially had nothing to go back to and had everything ahead of us exploring Argentina.
To kick-off our exploration of the country, the Fulbright Commission in Buenos Aires hosted a 3-day long orientation for our cohort including a brief bus tour of the city. The orientation was focused mainly on how to remain safe in the country as a foreigner and to familiarize us with the numerous resources available through the program; you know, in case things didn't go according to the plan. We had presentations on all of the great resources available to us from the Fulbright Program and the U.S. Embassy. We were assured that our safety and well-being were of utmost importance. The aspect I appreciated the most was the Argentine Fulbright Commission's candid demeanor towards us. It was relieving to hear the Commission emphasize their empathy toward the realities of conducting our projects - that it is inevitable that things will not go exactly as planned.
“Re-calibrate your expectations and adjust accordingly" - Argentine Fulbright Commission
Above left: Image of me at the Argentine Fulbright Commission office holding a book about New Mexico that I gave them as a gift representing my project and the similarities between New Mexico and Western Argentina. Above right: Group dinner during a power outage (details below).
After being packed in a tiny hot room each day, we finally got some time to explore Buenos Aires; however, site- seeing was a bit challenging as it rained heavily the entire time (below are a few highlights and images of my limited exploration of the city). Nonetheless, I still got to meet some really incredible people, see a few cool things, and make a few great memories.
One of the most memorable evenings is pictured in the image above (right). The evening began with hunger and ended with a candle-lit group dinner. After debating on where to eat for what seemed like hours, we got a recommendation for a great spot (East Indian Cuisine). Once we all arrived, we found the restaurant without power. While many would throw their hands up and go elsewhere, our hunger and collective ambition got us seated at a table lit by two candles. Following a few jokes about our romantic setting, we were served some of the best food I have ever tasted. We ate and drank for quite some time that night each getting to know each other a bit more and about our respective projects. Everyone seemed full of hope and enthusiasm. We were ready to take on the world!
Above are a few images that capture my brief tour of the city. I hope to return one day with more free time and, hopefully, better weather. What I can say is Buenos Aires is a very interesting place and completely different from Mendoza in both character and culture. Top left: Image of the city from the airplane. Top right: Rainy streets of the city. Middle left: "Floralis Genérica" - statue by architect Eduardo Catalano designed to be animated, closing its petals in the evening and opening them in the morning. Middle right: The historic bookstore, Ateneo Grand Splendid, which is a converted theater. Bottom left: Tour of the Recoleta Cemetery to see the tomb of beloved former First Lady, Eva Peron (Evita). Bottom right: One of many living walls seen throughout the city.
"We had no idea what life had in store for us just around the corner"
"La Cuarentena" (Argentine Obligatory Quarantine)
On March 20, 2020, barely a week after our orientation, Argentina declared a nation-wide obligatory quarantine in response the COVID-19 virus, which would bring the country to a standstill for several months. On this day millions of Argentinians became prisoners to their homes, and with them, our cohort of Fulbright Scholars. As borders closed, airports were shutting down and the Argentine government became very serious about the national quarantine, our carefully crafted plans for the next year were suddenly obliterated. The U.S. Embassy strongly urged, at first, that all U.S citizens return to their country as the potential for them to return at a future date was uncertain. The Fulbright program is an operation of the State Department and ostensibly the U.S. Embassy, so the program participants were technically under their supervision. Because of this, it was announced that the Fulbright Program and all grants would be suspended and that all grantees were strongly encouraged to return home.
Above: Excerpt from an article about the situation for Fulbrighters around the world during the pandemic. Source credit - Inside Higher Ed
At this time, we were confused, anxious, and angry. But more than anything, we were determined. We were not going to just throw our hands up and accept blanket responses. As a cohort of some of the highest-achievers in the country (U.S.), we had a lot of questions and were not willing to just follow blindly, so we started digging in our heels and demanding answers. I mean, what did they think we were going to do? When can we come back? Will we get the rest of our stipends? What about health insurance? Why can't I just stay here? Is returning to the U.S. advised or obligatory? As none of us had planned on living in the U.S. for the next year, returning home meant taking on huge unplanned financial burdens, finding places to live, finding jobs or relying on unemployment, and not to mention, taking multiple flights in the U.S. where the COVID-19 cases were exponentially higher than here in Argentina. It all seemed like a huge mess. We didn't have answers. No one did.
To no avail, our questions were met with vague, bureaucratic, and non-committal responses from the State Department, which quickly became much more targeted, forceful, and coercive to give the impression that we would lose all chances of receiving our stipends and alumni status if were refused to return to the U.S. (you can read more about the global problems all Fulbrighters have been facing here so you can better understand what we are dealing with). We understood that the State Department and the Embassy would want their people to be safe; however, in the moment, it became apparent was their desire was to reduce any liability for us. "Standard Operating Procedure" as it was referred to.
For those of us who had just landed in the country to begin the "experience of a lifetime" for which we had worked so hard, this request was devastating and demoralizing. At first, I think we all thought this would all blow over in a few weeks and things would be fine. But as the situation developed, it became clear the decisions were final. I remember this moment because I had a deep sinking feeling in my stomach as I saw all I had worked for and envisioned for myself crumble in the blink of an eye. It was very disheartening, like the wind had just been let out of my sails. Fortunately, I had started my grant five weeks earlier and had already been making a lot of progress with my research and learning a ton. But the feeling in my stomach was more than just lamenting my research goals or the things I thought I wanted to do. It was a reaction to the thought of leaving the new friends and colleagues here with whom I am really enjoying getting to know. So I decided to stay despite the chaos and a certainly uncertain future.
Note: Despite many months of no definitive answers from the Department of State or the Fulbright Program, most of us have received the full sums of our original awards and are now considered Fulbright Alumni.
United in Quarantine
As the obligatory (mandatory) quarantine was set in motion, the six of us who (stubbornly) decided to stay here, suddenly became foreigners or extranjeros stuck in a quarantine in a strange new country – a scenario I thought was reserved for movie plots (what up Netflix!? Do we get our own series now?). Because of this unusual circumstance, we've been able to witness the quarantine here from a unique perspective. Hopeful this perspective and experience will be of some use one day. As for now, I am learning a lot about the culture here and able to reflect on my own based on how I've observed the actions of the country and how people have reacted and adapted to the changes. This blog is dedicated to sharing these experiences in hopes that we may learn something from comparing our individual and collective experiences during this time.
The word quarantine has been used around the world to describe the efforts of limiting or eliminating the spread of the COVID-19 virus by means of "social distancing" or "self-quarantine". In Argentina, the quarantine has been taken more seriously than what I have observed in many other countries, especially (unfortunately) my home country. From the outset, the President of Argentina has enforced the strictest standards of quarantine in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus and to prevent the healthcare facilities from becoming overloaded. While Argentina has excellent healthcare for its citizens, the country, like many, are not prepared for such an influx as was predicted.
Above: Argentine President, Alberto Fernánde, sporting a face mask or barbijo, setting an example for his people. How does this image compare with those in your news? Image credit: Ámbito.com
Quarantine here has meant being legally confined to your house and leaving only to purchase food or to acquire several other essential services between the hours of 9AM and 7PM. Even then, only one person was allowed out per household. Imagine, at 7PM, sirens blare ominously like a scene from Europe during World War II. Police patrol every street, control every major access point, and even use drones to spot violations. You can be arrested and fined on the spot. No longer can you shake hands, give a hug and customary kiss on the cheek, or share a drink. You now touch elbows, if you touch at all. Your mask or barbijo is now part of your everyday attire. Everyone is a potential threat to your health.
At first, I thought the heavy-handedness was just part of the global panic and media frenzy. You know, people over-reacting to the situation. After speaking with people here, I started to understand that the President really knows his people. What I mean is that because the Argentinians are so social and have many habits of close contact, these efforts were intended to save people from themselves. Because of the highly-social culture here, I have also observed the quarantine to be incredibly difficult for people to endure. But the Argentine people are strong, resilient, and quite accustomed to riding out difficult economic and political situations. Perhaps no word better describes this collective resilience right now than solidarity.
Above top: "I Stay at Home". Many signs throughout the city promote a collective brand for staying at home and adopting a "new normal". The government is doing a good job at helping people change these habits and providing the necessary resources to do so. To me, this demonstrates solidarity here - that everyone is working together, doing their part, to get through this. Above left: Signs promoting new habits for using open spaces and parks. Above right: "New Habits Save Lives - Let's Respect the Health Protocols". Signage reminding everyone that this is a group effort.
Quarantine Cultural Immersion
We've all been in some sort of quarantine, lock-down, social-distancing situation for many months now with varying degrees of restrictions and abilities to be mobile. What you may not realize about my particular situation is that on top of the regulations of the national quarantine here, there were some special circumstances in my home here that made my quarantine that much more dire. Due to members of my host family who are immunocompromised, it was agreed that there would be only one designated person to leave the house so that we could limit the exposure even further. And guess what...that person was not me. So, to respect the wishes of the family, I began the the longest stent of my life (hopefully ever) in the house without leaving - 45 days without stepping foot out of the front door. Luckily, I've been "trapped" with some pretty great people and have learned more than I could have ever imagined because of this.
The most positive aspect of being confined to the house during quarantine has been the intense cultural and language immersion that is inherent in spending so much time with others. I feel so fortunate every day to have been in the care of the Abraham family and to have learned so much about their culture, family, life, food, language, and many subtleties that make the people here so wonderful. With so many uncertainties right now, one thing is for sure...we will NEVER forget each other and the time we have spent together during the national quarantine.
How to quarantine - Mendoza Style
Fortunately, now as I am writing this, the quarantine has begun to relax and things have some sense of normalcy again; however, it's important to remember how we got through this and what we have learned. So the next time you find yourself in a similar situation as this (hopefully you don't), here are a few pointers and ideas to consider to get through it:
Establish a routine
As a creature of habit, I tend to stick to routines for long periods of time. We all have our own habits, rituals, and routines that we use to normalize our lives and make them more efficient so we can achieve goals or even just get through the day, but we often take this behavior for granted. It seems this is no more apparent than during the days of quarantine. At the beginning, we (in the house) were all very stressed out and didn't really know what to do with ourselves. It wasn't until we created a little bit of structure for our hardy crew that we felt a little more settled. Something as simple as setting a time for meals together really goes a long way.
My personal habit that made a big difference is spending time writing and researching in the morning outside on the patio for at least an hour. This helped me maintain a sense of purpose and created sense of value for my experience in quarantine. As I had a lot of time to think and be really introspective, capturing the thoughts on paper and in my computer has carried me a long way.
Above: My ritual every morning (during the warmer months). The caffeine from the mate also helps get the day going.
Have a designated space for yourself
The house became our saving grace as it affords plenty of space to enjoy outside in the garden and sufficient space to have some distance. We were very fortunate for this as the majority of people here live in very small apartments without balconies or patios. They had it the worst because they literally could not go outside in any regard.
My space was the dining room as it is cool and dim, but has nice light near the windows. It is very peaceful and conducive to studying. For this reason, and because I would often disappear to this space for most of the day, the family started calling it my "cave".
Above: Fortunately, the home I am living in is rather large and has a variety of rooms. I was allowed to inhabit one of the dining rooms, which we now lovingly refer to as my "cave".
Keep in good spirits
I've always heard that alcohol sales skyrocket during tough times. I know why now. Friends, drink responsibly -Always pour a glass for everyone at the table!
If you subscribe to any form of social media, it's not hard to miss the abundance of advertisements and posts for at-home workouts catering to those who love to workout. If you are an exercise addict like I am, being without the gym or access to the park is really challenging. What's even harder is staying motivated to exercise during all of this. To maintain some level of fitness and to combat boredom, I found some creative ways to get my exercise in. It's fascinating what you can come up with to use for a workout when you put your mind to it. Soda bottles filled with water make great weights, the beam across the porch becomes a pull-up bar, and the box of metal parts for the car becomes a great object to bench-press.
But what about cardio? Well, workout videos are great for that, but that gets old. Fortunately, luck would have it that there was a ball court on the property that soon became a 10 kilometer track, well, after you run around it 320 times.
"the same thing that was once considered crazy is now the thing that keeps us sane"
It's funny how you can see something as "crazy" from one perspective, but as "essential" from another. If I were to tell you before the quarantine that I ran in circles around a tennis court for an hour, you would have thought I was nuts! But during a quarantine, the same thing that was once considered crazy is now the thing that keeps us sane.
Above: Photo of the tennis court (actually a Paddle-Ball court, but about the same size) on the property that afforded me the opportunity to keep up with my running and other weird new creative workout routines. It may seem easy to run in circles for an hour, but it's actually quite taxing on your joints and staying mentally focused is the hardest part. As a multi-tasker, I combated boredom by running with my flashcards full of Spanish verbs and gave myself one lap per card.
Eat well and frequently
Ahh, now my favorite part. Food. Did I mention just how grateful I am to be living with some great cooks? As if food was not already an important aspect of the culture in Argentina, it is even more pronounced during the quarantine. It was something we all looked forward to as we passed the days the best we could. Every day we had something different and for me, they were all very new and interesting. It's hard to decide which I like best. Below is just a sample of what we have been enjoying together in the house.
Though I have been thoroughly enjoying the wonderful Argentine cuisine, in the spirit of exchanging cultures, I thought I'd share a family recipe. Gumbo is a traditional Cajun meal well-known in southeast Texas and Louisiana where part of my family is from in the U.S. It's a meal that takes a long time to prep, but the time is passed with good company, beverages, and good music. It was fun to experience the reactions to this new food and the cultural practices behind it, especially when I turned on some Zydeco music to really capture the essence of the meal.
Above: Prepping, cooking, and enjoying Gumbo with my Argentinian family.
If there is one thing for certain about the Argentinians, they are resourceful. This trait has come in quite handy during the lockdown on many occasions. One of the best examples is something as simple as cutting the lawn. Many people here do not own mowers because of the abundance of garden maintenance services. However, they were not available due to restrictions, but this did not stop the lawn from growing. Luckily, there was an old weed-eater in the basement and plenty of "free labor" in the house. So, we made an event of taking turns (painstakingly) cutting the lawn with it. I don't know how great of a job we did, but it sure felt nice to do it and we had some fun along the way.
Above: Due to the quarantine, many of the services we take for granted were not available, and that grass does not cut itself. Luckily, there was a small weed-wacker in the house, and we put it to good use. I don't know if you've ever tried to cut your lawn with one of these, but it is not a quick process. Fortunately for us, we had plenty of time and plenty of willing participants with nowhere to hide (mwuhahahah (evil laugh)).
Leaving behind many of my friends and family for this trip has been difficult. Fortunately, I have made some good friends here and thanks to technology like Zoom and WhatsApp, we've been able to stay in good contact, perhaps even better than before! I think this might be the case for many of you too. One of my favorite memories of connecting virtually is participating in a group birthday photo for a friend back in Albuquerque. As I could not be physically present to participate, I was able to utilize some Adobe Photoshop magic to join in the fun. Hey, at least one thing I learned in school has helped me in life!
Make time to appreciate the small things
It's easy to get wrapped up in worrying about what we are supposed to do or what does the future hold for us when we are mixed up in this chaos and anxiety is running high. I've found that if I don't get myself centered, focused, and calibrated in the morning, I can end up spending the whole day worrying about things that really have no relevance nor are within my control. What I've found to help me the most is soaking up morning sun with a hot coffee and giving some love to my sweet furry friends. There is something about these three elements that brings me to the present moment and helps me appreciate everything in my life.
Above image: What I miss most about having a dog is the early morning ritual of greeting the day together. I've found a lot of gratitude in simple things, like having the opportunity to partake in this ritual again with my new friend, Diana.
After almost two months of being confined to the house, we finally stepped foot out of the front door and headed directly for the park. I am the kind of person who can't go long without being outdoors or on an adventure in the woods, so the desire to go out was very strong and such a relief to finally do so. Luckily for us, this day was beautiful and full of opportunities to soak in the many things we may have taken for granted before.
Video above: Footage of our (Me and Ceci) first trip out of the front door after 45 days in the house.
Above: My first walk to Parque San Martín once we were allowed limited access outside of the house. I had been craving a view of the mountains for so long as the tall walls of the house limited views in all directions. They say good things come to those who wait. I'll say so. Such a stunning scene to be seen and a reminder of the beauty of Argentina.
The Silver Lining
When things get tough or we experience some hardship and we try to help ourselves remain positive or hopeful, we often use the phrase "every cloud has a silver lining", which basically means even the worst events or situations have some positive aspect. As someone who has a tendency to focus too much on the wrong parts of a situation, I feel that overall, my mindset and perspective of my circumstances here have remained positive and optimistic. Perhaps it is because of who I am surrounded by or maybe it is because of my optimism, but it seems there are so many great things that are coming from this crisis. As we are emerging from this time, I hope we do not soon forget some of the valuable lessons gleaned from hardship, having to adapt, and the profound thoughts we may have had about our lives with the time to take a step back from what we called life before the pandemic.
"No hay mal que por bien no venga" (every cloud has a silver lining).
The quarantine and the entire pandemic happening has offered many positive aspects to society, although they may not be easy to see as we've gone through a lot of dark times to get there. One in particular has been remarkable to watch grow like wildfire as we've all had some time to take a step back and turn inward for a moment. And that aspect is creativity. I know you know what I'm talking about! We've all seen our friends transform almost overnight into professional bread makers, personal trainers, or have unlocked the inner artist within. And let's face it, our houses have never been so clean and organized! This comes as no surprise though. Some of the greatest inventions and ideas in our world have been born from boredom. In fact, an article from Time Magazine (original publication appears in Academy of Management Discoveries), published a year before the quarantine, explains why we become so much more creative during times of boredom.
Have you noticed a difference in your thinking?
I have. It is noticeable how much more effectively my brain functions when I'm not so worried constantly about work or maintaining a full schedule of things I "should be" doing. After the first few weeks of quarantine, after settling my mind about the many adjustments that had to be made, my thoughts, memories, and even my dreams became much more vivid and profound. For someone on sabbatical, this is great because that is what the time is for. I often wonder if not for the quarantine, would I still be saying this? It seems that I've been able to think past some problems that have been challenging me for many years. My dreams have been more clear and memorable than I can ever remember in my life and I am recalling memories that I never knew I even had. So in a way, I am grateful for this obstacle (quarantine) as it has given me a gift.
The Memes Cometh
A gift given to us all by the internet, and likely the most hilarious aspect of the quarantine, is the storm of memes that has rained down upon us since the virus was first discovered. As a testament to the collective creativity and positive outlook of many out there, I for one am grateful for those who created, posted, and shared them as they helped us all poke fun at our grave situation. No matter what your views on all of this are, being able to laugh at this situation brings us together. Here are a few of my favorites.
Above: Several of my favorite memes collected during the quarantine. Above left: A meme mocking the stereotypes of Argentinians in quarantine. Can you tell what is important to the culture here? Above middle: Some sad-but-true observations of the realities of the quarantine. Above right: One of the first memes of the quarantine depicting scenes from Mad Max in comparison with what was expected to happen during quarantine. Unfortunately, it seems like this may be closer to the truth back home from what I'm seeing on Facebook and the news.
This quick video/GIF really captures the feeling during quarantine here in Argentina (The Argentinians are especially social so being locked away from their friends and family was particularly difficult in this country, which is why the President took such precautionary measures to save people from themselves). Sometimes it felt like being here during a war. The police strictly enforced the regulations of the national obligatory quarantine. There were even stories about the streets being patrolled by drones to spot violations.
This video really speaks to the creativity that was unleashed by the quarantine. One can only take so much of being stuck in the house. It also goes to show that we all have "that" friend. And we should be grateful. You know who you are!
Above: A meme that needs no introduction. As if Netflix was not a large part of our lives before the quarantine, it is certainly enmeshed in our DNA now. I love a good Netflix binge as much as the next person, but we all have our limits.
In closing, thank you for wading through my ramblings. I hope it was at least, in part, entertaining and that you could connect with this experience in some way. Although this trip was planed to be an investigation of the sustainable planning practices of the city, having received the gift of being here during all of his has taught me more about the culture, politics, and the people than I could have ever imagined. For this, I have a much better understanding of the values of the country and the people which eventually inform their policies and practices of development. So, I look forward to continuing to share this gift with you as I (hopefully) return to the investigation in the near future. Stay safe, be good to each other, and try not to binge-watch too many Netflix series. And remember...NEVER FORGET what you've learned from this experience!
What gift has the quarantine given to you?