by Ella Kirkwood, 05/24/2020, Traverse City, MI

Middle School 6-8 Category

La Ventana: Climbing term used to describe the perfect window of opportunity for an ascent; Also, “the Window” in Spanish.
Cerrando: closing.

We had great expectations for 2020. We started it on a three-month sabbatical to Argentina and Chile, “El Cono Sur (the Southern Cone).” All I had in this new place was my mom, my dad, my brother and a suitcase. Yet we found community. We met amazing people. We learned to speak their language. I discovered new passions like rock climbing, horseback riding, hiking and camping, and formed unbreakable family bonds. We had the most incredible experiences.

Pucon, Chile, March 11: it seems so long ago. That’s when the hard truth came crashing down. We learned that night that the U.S. was banning all international travel from Europe and Asia. We feared South America would be next on the list. And we knew then that we needed to evacuate and get home to Michigan as fast as possible. With borders closing, we were waking up from our blissful adventure to the pandemic sweeping the world. I was upset. I told my parents I wasn’t ready to leave. I had so much adventure left.

We cautiously crossed the border back to Argentina. The following day we flew to Buenos Aires, the capital, where we had spent three weeks two months before. On our path home, we flew to Salta. Instead of our planned two weeks, we were there for one day, which we knew would be our last “normal day” for a long time. As we wandered through the city, we were already witnessing how COVID would change our lives; many stores, restaurants, and museums were closed. We braced for home, moving through eight international airports, from Bariloche to Buenos Aires to Salta to Lima to Miami to Fort Lauderdale to Chicago, and finally to Traverse City. Twenty-four hours later, Buenos Aires and Lima closed their international terminals entirely.

I was overwhelmed with a feeling of loss. We had lost the rest of our time in El Cono Sur and Patagonia; we had lost the triumphant return home and the welcome back greetings from our friends. Even the narrative had changed. Instead of people asking about the amazing parts of our trip, they asked about how we got out, how we slipped through the closing borders like Indiana Jones. We returned to a whole different world than the one we had left.

Strangely, though, during our time in South America, we were kind of in training for quarantine. We didn’t get to see our friends and we learned how to spend a whole lot of time together as a family.
During our trip, my brother and I shot and now are editing a full-length documentary film, which we decided to call La Ventana. This was our ventana, our window, our opportunity. Next year I am going to high school and won’t be able to take three months off to travel any time soon. Also, in the post-COVID world that we will live in, will trips like this ever again be possible?

We returned home in a daze. We shut ourselves in our home. I started online school. We found a rhythm in the madness. I called my friends and heard their opinions. We realized that people will write about this time in history books. Every person I talk to has a different idea of what life will be like after COVID. I kept myself busy to keep from getting overwhelmed by all that was changing. I still get overwhelmed sometimes. I just want all of this fear and sadness to be over. But what it comes down to is: these times are hard. For everyone.

Something is missing. Our trip is missing. Every conversation is about COVID and I understand why. But COVID stole something from me, and I look forward to stealing it back. I look forward to the time when I can screen La Ventana. When I can invite my friends to watch our experiences in Torres del Paine, El Chaltén, and Bariloche, and see the extraordinary natural beauty that has changed my life forever.