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In Chilean Patagonia During COVID-19, 'Isolation Leads To A Sense Of Precariousness'

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On the edge of this southern beech tree forest, photographer Andria Hautamaki has just enough cell service to use her phone as a mobile hotspot, and then share the connection with her computer.
Andria Hautamaki for NPR

On the edge of this southern beech tree forest, photographer Andria Hautamaki has just enough cell service to use her phone as a mobile hotspot, and then share the connection with her computer.

As a photo and print journalist based on a remote, off-grid cattle ranch in Chilean Patagonia since 2011, I'm accustomed to limited connectivity. Since the coronavirus reached this continent last month, my access to the Internet and other humans has been even further reduced.

I was in Argentina working on a story in mid-March when the pandemic began to shut down international travel. With my next assignment postponed indefinitely and my travel plans U-turned, I crossed back into Chile, returned to the southern tip of South America and hunkered down on our ranch with my partner and our animals.

The ranch — called Estancia Anita — sits on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in southeastern Chile, next to the Torres del Paine National Park. It's isolated and it's rural. Living here during COVID-19, we feel an extra sense of safety but also heightened fear.

Social distancing is simple in these vast expanses of unfenced land; there's only three of us — me, my partner and a ranch hand — living on nearly 10,000 acres. At the same time, our isolation leads to a sense of precariousness, life on the edge.

Estancia Anita is bordered by four glacial rivers that demarcate its property lines, and it's this nautical connection to the rest of the region as well as our off-the-beaten-track location are qualities that distance us from the coronavirus. Yet these same characteristics test our self-sufficiency and resourcefulness and would complicate access to medical care for any health situation that might arise from the pandemic.

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We must stay healthy.

But our lives are intertwined with danger. River crossings. Tempestuous weather. Protecting the herd from wild cattle. Now, because of the fear of catching the virus, just resupplying in town seems too potentially hazardous.

Under normal circumstances, I would be traveling to off-ranch photo assignments, or making the 3-hour trek by car and boat to visit the closest town, Puerto Natales, for several days. Yet as Chile has closed non-essential businesses and undergone increasingly restrictive stay-at-home orders, we choose instead to shelter in place and maximize the consecutive days we can spend at the ranch.

This pandemic has pushed our limits to just how connected, and disconnected, we can be at the same time.

As the rest of the world adjusts to home offices and considers buying an additional computer monitor, I plan which horse I will ride an hour to my "Internet spot" to write emails and upload this photo essay. These words you're reading were sent from the Patagonian wilderness, at the edge of a forest tinged with the golden hues of autumn. Here, I get enough cell service to use my phone as a mobile hotspot for my laptop. I generally head here every other day to check in on family and friends and correspond with editors and clients.

The rising moon is nearly full as I sit in my two-person tent, emailing a selection of images. Outside, my horse is tied to a tree, and my dog is curled up nearby.

Wrapped in leather chaps and layers of fleece to stay warm, I stare at my computer screen and the estimated time remaining: two hours. I can't say that the Internet is ever fast, but sometimes the connection is agonizingly slow. I already have a night ride ahead, so there's no sense in rushing now. As the Patagonian wind whips through the branches above the tent, my mind wanders to how swiftly the world has changed in such a short time.

The only outside news we receive at the ranch are wisps of international headlines that filter in during top-of-the-hour updates on the AM/FM radio. When I do connect to the Internet, catching up on recent global happenings feels like unraveling a tornado.

The file transfer finally ends. I click my laptop shut, turn off my solar-powered lantern and pack my saddlebags. It's at least an hour back to the house, including several stream crossings, and I'll need to ride slowly in the dark. But my work is done for the day, and the wind will be at my back.

Riding out of the forest, I'm engulfed by moonlight. Remote living does come with particular challenges, but I am grateful for these open expanses that keep me grounded. I often listen to podcasts on my commute, but tonight, I choose silence. Besides, along with my silent shadow, jingling spurs, a loyal dog and snow-capped mountains, I have good company: the Southern Cross and Orion twinkle softly overhead. I nudge my mare forward once again, and we trot into the night.

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