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A Belfast couple were on the trip of a lifetime in Argentina, until family alerted them South America was shutting down - and they needed to get home fast

Lauren Naismith and Danny Gray share their story in their own words

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Lauren and Danny’s trip to South America became a nightmare when they tried to get home

Lauren and Danny’s trip to South America became a nightmare when they tried to get home

Lauren and Danny’s trip to South America became a nightmare when they tried to get home

The prospect of being stranded in South America was for us a very real one. We are back on home turf having escaped from Argentina just before lockdown. It was one of the countries that took the most heavy-handed approaches.

If you had told us at 6.30am on March 16 that by lunchtime our seven-month trip that had been years in the making was about to come to an abrupt end, we would not have believed you.

We are both 23, from Belfast, and met in school. We graduated last year (Lauren from Edinburgh University studying Psychology and Danny from Trinity studying Economics and Spanish).

Both of us have jobs lined up in September in Dublin - (Lauren with Focus Ireland and Danny with Eirgrid working in the energy economics sector). This was to be a year of travel before starting work. We arrived at the start of February and planned to stay in South America until August working and travelling.

However, neither of us could have imagined what would unfold.

On March 16, we had just started work for the day on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina's biggest wine region. Cut off from the internet and 'the real world', the biggest worries on our mind were the heat, the wasps and the boredom of the task at hand.

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The couple enjoying the sights of Argentina before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

The couple enjoying the sights of Argentina before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

The couple enjoying the sights of Argentina before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

The harvesting season is the most intense time of year for any grape farm. Workers come from all around the local area and descend upon one finca (property) at a time. Around 10 men and women hurriedly went up and down the vines, breaking off bunches of grapes with their hands. On larger, more 'boutique' fincas the workers are given scissors and gloves.

Filling up their 20kg crate and slugging it over their shoulder, they then carried it up the steps to the truck and dumped it in. And all of this in 35C-plus degree heat. It is an extremely physical job, especially when you are being paid per crate at a rate of about 30 pesos (36p) per 20kg. If you think how that compares to the price of Malbec in the supermarket, it puts it all into perspective.

Our job was slightly less strenuous. It involved standing in the truck and sifting through 10 tonnes of grapes as they were tossed in to take out the vine leaves. After a long five hours in the sun we started grumbling about the heat and the grapes falling into our boots and squishing around our feet, and about how we didn't know how much longer we could last. We only wish we had never said that... because maybe we tempted fate.

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The couple enjoying the sights of Argentina before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

The couple enjoying the sights of Argentina before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

The couple enjoying the sights of Argentina before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

We came in for lunch, not looking forward to the prospect of liver on the menu, but grateful for some time in the shade. However, our limited contact with the outside world was about to end.

Apart from the news and rumours, our hosts had been telling us over the weekend about borders closing and Italians partying. We still saw coronavirus as a far-off threat, with only a handful of cases in Argentina. However, we were starting to worry about folk back home, and wanting to check they were okay. We turned on our phones and bought some internet. And then the floodgates opened.

We were bombarded with messages from family and friends warning us of the change in the situation globally. We looked at the news. Coronavirus was being described as a 'global enemy' and 'the third world war of our generation'. It didn't seem so far-off anymore. Our hearts dropped to the floor as we read that South American countries were one-by-one shutting down. We had no time to think. We packed our bags, gathered up our flask and straw hats and ran for the bus. From this moment until we eventually landed in Dublin events happened in an unworldly blur.

As we sat in the local bus station we tried to plan our next step. Do we head to Colombia where Danny's aunt lives and face the possibility of being stuck there? Do we go to Buenos Aires and hope to ride out the proposed two weeks of lockdown with Danny's uncle? Or do we listen to our family and get the first flight home? The latter struck us as the most ridiculous-sounding option we had ever heard.

But then Colombia closed its borders, and within Argentina not only flights, but internal buses, were also stopping. It was too late to turn back; the farm owners were going into quarantine themselves. The sad reality now dawned on us that going home was not an option but an inevitability. The question was: how?

Our first exit option to leave through Chile was quickly ruled out when we heard it had closed its borders. Feeling helpless, we jumped on a 24-hour bus to Buenos Aires. With limited internet we relied on our family back home helping us to plan a potential route. With no outgoing flights to Europe from Buenos Aires, Uruguay seemed the next best option.

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Danny working on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina

Danny working on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina

Danny working on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina

Twenty-four hours with only your own thoughts and worries in a crisis situation is a long time. There were plenty of tears as the reality of our dream trip ending sunk in. As we drove past the beautiful Argentinian pampas we promised ourselves that it wouldn't be long before we would be back again. In true Argentinian style, however, the enthusiastic coach attendant suggested we all play a round of bingo for a bottle of Torrontes. We felt we were due a bit of luck but missed out winning by a couple of numbers. When it rains, it pours. After a few hours of broken sleep we got word from our family that they had found us a way home. Colonia del Sacramento-Montevideo-Sao Paolo-Madrid-Dublin. When we arrived at the bus terminal we passed young kids sleeping rough on the floor and hungry faces begging for money. We were reminded of the problems that Argentina will have to face through the coronavirus crisis. The level of poverty will only worsen. It was a sobering thought and to this day fills us with guilt that we could escape.

Danny's uncle Danny greeted us at the bus with hand sanitiser and hugs. On arrival at the ferry terminal we were met with a row of empty check-in desks. We asked the cleaner where we could check-in for our boat only to be told that Uruguay had just shut its borders at midnight to non-nationals. After numerous attempts to contact the embassy we eventually got through and were advised to leave Argentina by any means as soon as possible. It was now a race against time to get to Brazil, the only country within reach still flying to Europe, thanks to President Jair Bolsonaro's complacency. We headed to the airport in hope.

En route we received a message from the home front telling us they had managed to get us on a flight to Brazil. It seemed we had finally found a way home. But in the back of our heads we knew something had to go wrong. And we were right. According to the airline, we weren't allowed to get on our flight since our layover time was too long. We were also worried by the prospect of getting stuck in Brazil with no place to stay. To change our flight would cost thousands of pounds. Checkmate? We took off to the airline information desk in desperation.

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Lauren working on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina

Lauren working on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina

Lauren working on a grape farm in Mendoza, Argentina

Uncle Danny disappeared off at this point to speak to some loitering flight attendants about our problem. He has often been described as the most charming man in Argentina by those who know him. And as always, he lived up to his name.

Within 10 minutes he waved us over and presented us with two new tickets to Brazil, leaving in half-an-hour. Somehow he had managed to persuade them to change our flights free of charge. A very short connection in Brazil and we made it on the flight to Madrid. We were on our way, heading straight into the eye of the storm and the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis.

We were very lucky we got out of South America, and without our team at home and Uncle Danny's charming ways, we wouldn't have made it. Flights from Madrid to Dublin stopped the day after we landed. After hearing the news that Argentina has extended its lockdown until September we feel relieved we got out when we did.

However, this news hits home for another reason. It makes us think of the grape pickers, the bus drivers, the children sleeping rough on the streets. What does this mean for them? How will the lockdown affect people whose wages only stretch until the next day, or who can't stay at home because they don't have a home in the first place?

For us, our dream trip was cut short. But for them their problems run deeper.

Belfast Telegraph