How eagerly I had waited for March 9, 2020, the date the first group of cyclists from Norwegian tour operator Oliven Reiser arrived at Santiago airport. The trip had been announced by Oliven Reiser in July 2019 and finally, there I was, waiting for them in the arrivals hall, trying to identify the individual travellers amidst the crowd, holding a sign with the company’s logo.
“Hi there!”, first the eye contact, the smile and the handshake (remember that we were at the beginning of March, before the pandemic and the subsequent social distancing measures). Some of them I knew from before. Was it in Cuba, Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay where we rode our bicycles together? Others, the majority, are long-time customers of Oliven Reiser; some of them have made as many as 10-12 trips with this company, several of which to transatlantic destinations. We have a lot to talk about, a lot to see, in the next two weeks.
I also thanked the participants for not having let themselves be carried away by apprehension about Chile, which would have been totally understandable due to the social outburst of October 2019. The TV images they had seen in their country and the newspaper articles they had read since then, showed a serious upheaval in a country that was doing well financially, but was struggling against structural inequality and social injustice. It would therefore have made sense if they had cancelled their booking and not travelled to Chile on holidays at all.
By the time we had travelled through the Maipo and Colchagua valleys, and were about to leave Viña del Mar for Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley, the issue of the coronavirus had definitely settled into the global agenda. The concern in the group had become evident when we read about the outbreak in Italy and about Norwegians who had been infected during their vacation in the Italian Alps. Even a young relative to a couple in our group had tested positive for Covid-19 in Norway. During our breakfasts, the conversation became increasingly concerned about the situation, especially in light of the recommendation by Norwegian authorities to their citizens abroad to “consider returning home”.
Meanwhile, KLM Airlines cancelled their return tickets, without providing an alternative route. The company simply abandoned all its customers and the same happened with its partner Air France. As a sole solution, KLM offered a return route to Norway from São Paulo which meant that Oliven Reiser had to arrange and pay for the tickets from Santiago de Chile to São Paulo. The return trip was to take place two days later than planned in the original program.
The fact that things were still quite normal in Chile made it possible to carry out the entire program, with the exception of the farewell dinner, as on March 20, all restaurants had to close by order of the authorities. Our last dinner together was held at the hotel, where we even had to sit one meter away from each other, following the new regulations.
At the arrivals hall on March 9, we had greeted each other with a firm handshake. At the departures hall, on March 22nd, there was a long, warm farewell hug. We even joked that after two weeks together we were immune to each other. We could not do without a farewell hug!
Cycling together, as a group, definitely does something to us. A special dynamic emerges among people who ride bikes together for several days, who take care of each other, who share experiences, good conversations, who experience a new culture, new places, good food and impressions. This time, we also shared concerns.
All the trips I have made as tour leader on behalf of Oliven Reiser are unique by definition, because they are made up of different participants, even though the program is similar. As the saying goes, “each person is a world”. The inaugural trip to Chile became particularly special, as it was the first time we were on a cycling trip while a world crisis started to unfold. But although the coronavirus became an inevitable backdrop, the group became a good example of stoicism: “we are in Chile on a cycling trip, we obey the advice of our governments and Oliven Reiser is organizing our returns. We can’t do anything else, so let’s keep riding”. And there was an abundance of immersive cycling in Chile’s three wine valleys: Maipo, Colchagua and Elqui. And, it goes without saying, a lot of sampling of quality Chilean wines in the evenings.
Upon arrival to Norway, the group had to undergo a quarantine in their respective homes.
It is said that crises change history. The world may not be the same when this is over.
Thank you all, again, for an unforgettable journey!