An unexpected self-quarantine in Chile

Oscar Mannens, who spent weeks in Antarctica conducting experiments for Team Polar, returned home later than planned. He tested positive for COVID-19 during a stopover in Santiago on his way home and had to self-quarantine for a week. “There I was, on the other side of the world, in a country whose laws I don’t know and whose language I don’t speak.” Cursor telephoned him the day after he returned home safely to Susteren.

photo Oscar Mannens

If someone had asked Oscar Mannens whether he would have liked to extend his travels, he would have said yes. But spending a stressful week in a hotel room in Santiago with a view of concrete high-rise buildings wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. He would have preferred to stay in Antarctica. “I became very passionate about the beauty of the landscape on the South Pole.”

He had even asked the expedition leader of cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot if he could come along for a second trip. Together with Ewout Hulscher, Mannens was on board representing Team Polar. Whenever the tourists went out for a walk on the polar ice, the two students were able to conduct their experiments for the Antarctica-rover. They eventually had five days to do so. “But an extension of our trip didn’t happen. After we sailed back to Chile, Ewout and I were supposed to fly back home. I tested negative for COVID on board the ship, and everything seemed fine.”

Because the students had to spend a two-day stopover in Santiago, they were required to also show proof of a negative test result at the airport. “That’s where the stress started. We had explored the city together and saw that most test locations were fully booked already. We asked the people at our hotel for help and someone eventually came in the afternoon to test us. We would receive the test result at two in the morning. That was inconvenient enough, because we had to go to the airport at seven.” Things got even more unpleasant when their test result remained forthcoming, and they didn’t get any sleep either. “When we finally got up at five in the morning and still didn’t have a test result, we started to panic somewhat. Now what were we supposed to do?”

Positivo or negativo?

At that moment, Ewout got a WhatsApp message with the word ‘positivo.’ “This app was deleted just a few moments later. Huh? Then, he got an App with the word ‘negativo.’ That was very confusing. Ewout then asked if we could also get my result, which turned out to be positive.” That’s when their hearts sank into their boots. “You find yourself on the other side of the world in a country whose laws you don’t know and whose language you don’t speak.”

The first matter that needed to be solved was a very difficult one. “Do we stay together or do we move on from here individually? The idea that Ewout might get infected as well, which would have meant being away from home even longer, led us to decide that he should go ahead and travel to Schiphol.”

Empty promises

And Oscar went into quarantine in his hotel room. “The fact that I had no idea what to expect made things very unpleasant to me. The authorities didn’t contact me once, despite their promises. I made many expensive phone calls to the embassy. They never answered my calls and I spent twenty euros on it. I found a telephone number for ‘Nederland wereldwijd’, which allowed me to app with our government. But it took a whole day before they responded, and their advice was to wait until the Chilean government contacted me. I was very disappointed by all that.”

His character didn’t get in his way. Oscar believes that he takes a realistic view of the world. But he is also a planner who likes structure, “and that’s something I had to let go of here.” After that first sleepless night, he had to change his ticket to the following week. “We needed to make sure that Ewout’s ticket – we had booked together – remained valid. How stressful was that!”

Waiting, waiting, waiting

Fortunately, the automotive student didn’t get sick from COVID-19. “Compared to a common cold, it wasn’t even that bad.” Nevertheless, he didn’t enjoy much peace and quiet during those seven days in the hotel. “I was continually waiting for answers. It was difficult to contact the receptionists by telephone, and there were only two people who could speak some English.”

He did however get some serious help from the ship’s expedition leader, Antarctica expert Florence Kuypers, who also has an advisory role on Team Polar. But it took three whole days before Oscar started to believe in a positive outcome. “I emailed Alphonse Bruekers, who I know from TU/e innovation Space, about my situation, and he immediately called in the help of ESA, after which the Dutch embassy in Santiago received an email. Only then did they start to listen. I have to say that I’m disappointed by the fact that they only help out when a university sounds the alarm because a student needs help.”

More stress

Things became stressful again after Oscar’s quarantine period was over, because he needed another test result before he could get on a plane. “The company I had asked to come and test me on Friday, just to see if I had recovered from COVID, didn’t even show up! The hotel then assisted me in finding another company for Sunday’s test. They showed up hours late and once they had arrived they simply put a self-test up my nose. All I needed for a green checkmark was a photo of a negative test next to my passport.”

It was only after he got through customs and on the plane that Oscar finally started to feel relieved. Was his experience abroad worth all the stress? “Absolutely! I think of it as a once in a lifetime experience. Seeing and being in Antarctica was definitely worth the time spent in quarantine.” Apart from his experience and the spectacular photographs, he also came home with a practical task. “So far, I paid for all the hotel, flight and telephone expenses myself. I hope to get that money back some day.”

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