Stranded: Chiang Mai residents stuck in South America and Europe

Chiang Mai residents, Swiss couple Anne and Armin Schoch were caught by the pandemic in Argentina and are still a long way from home.

By | Mon 8 Jun 2020

Ann and Armin Schoch have been long term residents of Thailand for decades. Working in the travel industry, Armin is also a Thai citizen.

It all started with a lovely farewell dinner with our friends in Chiang Mai on March 2nd. The conversation was mainly about how lucky we were to escape to Argentina and Chile and leave all the Coronavirus drama and worries behind us. Friends were envious about the timing of our holiday, avoiding the Corona situation and the air pollution. We had been planning that trip for two years; little did we know that it would be the longest ‘holiday’ of our life…

We arrived in Buenos Aires in early March where we met with my youngest sister and her husband who had flown in from Switzerland. We had a wonderful three days visiting the iconic city, visiting all the landmarks, basking in the atmosphere of the old Buenos Aires and enjoying a tango performance in the oldest Tango Salon of BA, Cafe Tortoni.

We then flew to Cordoba and drove to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital, where we saw the old Inca baths and enjoyed the stunning views of the Cordilleras. On the way down we saw a family of wild lamas crossing the road, wonderful!

We had planned on doing a tour of the famous wineries of Mendoza but were told on the morning that all wineries were now closed due to the Corona situation. Instead we went to visit the oldest mineral water producer Villavicencio’s lovely Villa and Museum and Mid-afternoon dropped off our Chilean friends at the airport.

It was at this point that we started to hear the bad news; all of Argentina’s borders were to be closed down by midnight.

We went back to our hotel where we were informed that from now on and for the next 14 days we were to be quarantined in our rooms. We tried to convince the hotel manager to let us drive that night to my brother’s house in Cordoba, over 600 km away, but to no avail. We were informed that the police were doing the rounds of hotels in Mendoza to ensure that all international and out of province guests entered quarantine. We were stunned; in the 10 days since leaving Thailand the virus had caught up with us and Argentina was under a state of emergency and lockdown!

We had no choice but to comply…there were only four rooms occupied in our hotel, three for us and another one a guest in the same situation as us. When that guest tried to leave the hotel, and was brought back by the police, we knew the authorities were serious about enforcing the rules.

The first two days we had room service, until the hotel restaurant closed down, and the next two days we could order food from a restaurant, but that also closed down. We were left with only breakfast for the whole day.

Luckily we found a bakery near the hotel which was still open and managed to arrange a meal delivered once a day to our room door. We are so grateful to the lovely woman who cooked such a wonderful homemade dinner every day.

For the next two weeks we lived to the rhythm of one warm meal a day, delivered with wine which was so nice! Contact with the outside world was through video calls and messages, it was almost fun!

We were kept busy answering messages and calls, keeping informed about the situation in Argentina, about repatriation flights and abou the guidelines from the Swiss Embassy.

At least the internet worked perfectly! Time almost flew by…

My sister Myriam and her husband Jean-Francois, found a repatriation flight through the Swiss Embassy after a countless exchange of emails, but we were still under quarantine.

We were not allowed to even set a toe in the hallway, a policeman was stationed at the reception area and would make rounds of the hotel to ensure we were complying with the rules; it was sort of like being in jail. We made almost daily phone calls to the authorities but with no results.

Finally on the fourteenth day we got passes certifying that we had undergone the mandatory quarantine and an official pass from the police which allowed us to drive back to my brother’s house in Cordoba.

The next morning we left our room for the first time in 14 days; it was so strange to just pass the doorway; we almost felt giddy! We left Mendoza at 10 in the morning and arrived in Cordoba at 2am the next day after countless checkpoints including a long wait at the border to San Luis Province where the local police didn’t accept our passes! We thought we would have to sleep in the car until the next morning.

After four hours waiting we were finally allowed to continue in a convoy led by the local gendarmerie car which displayed huge stickers saying CORONA and kept its flashing blue lights on all the way to the Cordoba province border.

The roads were empty. It was an eerie experience, and we felt like a convoy of the infected!

When we reached the border of Cordoba Province we were allowed to continue on our own to Cordoba City without police escort, taking the smaller roads to avoid more checkpoints and hassle.

My sister and her husband were confirmed on a repatriation flight to Switzerland and managed to get taxis to the airport (a difficult task as very few taxis had the license to drive all the way).

There were many checkpoints on the way and every time they had to prove they had done the quarantine and were confirmed on a repatriation flight. They also had to travel in a taxi each as only one person was allowed per taxi. The cost was an exorbitant 1200 US dollars!

They arrived at the airport after a 10 hour drive and were back in Zurich the next day.

As for Armin and I, we thought we would wait for a KLM flight to use our own tickets and spend some more time with my brother and family, since we had been talking only through room to room telephone for the last two weeks.

But by the next day, it was announced that Argentina would close all its borders until October!!!! Frantically checking flights to Europe, we couldn’t find anything. By pure chance a week later my niece Eliane found a KLM repatriation flight on Twitter organised by the Dutch Embassy which was flying the next day. Nothing advertised on their website of course!

We managed to get seats by contacting KLM directly by phone and started to arrange a taxi to get to BA airport, by that time two persons in a taxi was ok. The eight hours’ taxi drive to BA airport was uneventful. I think by that time the police were getting tired of hassling people.

We arrived in Switzerland on April 8th and believed that we would be able to fly on to Thailand at the beginning of May. We stayed with my sister’s family in the beautiful region of Montreux in semi-confinement leaving the house only for grocery shopping and waiting for our flight back to Thailand.

Unfortunately everyday seemed to bring more bad news; Thailand was closed until end of May, then end of June.

All this time we were rebooking our flights to Thailand multiple times to comply with the ever changing rules and were starting to feel like refugees…we just wanted to get home and resume our lives.

Well, over two months later we are still stuck in Switzerland. The situation in Europe is almost back to normal but Thailand’s borders are still closed to international flights. Luckily for us, we are now staying in a very cute chalet in Valais, lent to us by our dear friends Francette and Andrew. We are situated at 1000 metres altitude above Sion with a fantastic view over the snowcapped mountains and clean air!

Armin is now keeping busy redoing the walkway to the chalet; moving almost two tonnes of earth and breaking up half-tonne of stone to prepare for a new walkway with stones set in concrete.

The highlight of last month was our son Oscar’s visit; he had been working from his room in Holland for the last two months. It was so lovely to be reunited as a family for two weeks in these very strange times…

View from our chalet

In conclusion, we are among the lucky ones, we had so much support from family and friends and we are staying in one of the most beautiful regions of Switzerland enjoying stunning nature and good food.

Nevertheless, we really want to get home like so many others stranded around the world.

Our little story was just for your entertainment, our hearts go out to the multitude of people who lost a loved one, the medical staff who worked under extreme pressure and dangerous conditions and to the ones who lost their jobs or have to live with less than they had before this pandemic.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Thailand and so many other countries where the economy has completely crashed have lots of people who don’t even have enough for the bare necessities or medical care.

We send our love, thoughts and positive energy to them, hoping that the world goes back to a more normal state and that the suffering of so many can stop.

See you in Cnx soon I hope!

Read the harrowing story of another Chiang Mai resident, Simonetta Taruna Gatto, who is still stranded in Goa, India.