Almost exactly 23 years ago I was making my way from Ecuador to Peru where my friend Pete and I would hike the breathtaking (literally and metaphorically), Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
With a sense of excitement, wonder and bit of trepidation we arrived to the bus station in Guayaquil for our pre-dawn departure to Lima, only to find out that all forms of transportation had been halted due to the severe flooding that was caused by El Nino unleashing deadly downpours that triggered severe landslides and raging rivers across the country. With stories coming in of entire roads slipping off the steep mountains, we realized that Machu Picchu would become a dream destination for another day. Last week as we traveled deeper into the Peruvian countryside, my hopes for reaching the fabled city were once again dashed.
Just two weeks ago, when we left Rio for Peru, Brazil was just reporting their first cases of the Corona Virus and Donald Trump was touting Spring weather as the magical cure all. After a few days of exploring and apartment hunting in Lima, Peru recorded its first 6 cases. Meanwhile, stories from back “home” were that of growing concern and I began to think that we should start to consider what impact this would have on the final two months of our trip. On the day that we arrived in Arequipa, just a week after arriving in Peru, we learned that the USA was banning all travel from Europe and fellow travelers began to see their tour companies cancelling their trips. That day we sought out information from local travel agencies, including our own, to see if there would be any issues with continuing our planned travels to Cusco and Machu Picchu and we were assured that everything was going ahead as scheduled. Late that night we found out that our flights into Colombia had been cancelled, so we decided that it was time to end this amazing journey and head home after nearly 10 months. After a few hours, we had cancelled all the bookings we could and went to bed dreaming about coming home.
At 6:00 AM the next morning, we received a knock on our door telling us that our bus would be coming to pick us up to take us to Lima, which was a total surprise to us. From the time we went to bed on Sunday night to us scrambling out the door the next morning, we had found out that the president of Peru enacted a state of emergency and the entire country was going on lockdown at midnight, wherever we were at that time we would need to shelter in place for 15 days. In the few minutes we had before our bus came to pick us up, we tried to purchase tickets out of Arequipa so we could get to the airport in time to get a flight out of the country, but all flights were already full or cancelled for the day so our best bet was to hop on the bus and hope we got to Lima on time.
Peru is famous for many things, including its cuisine, fine alpaca wools and deadly mountain roads. Our 17 hour journey from Arequipa had us racing down the coastal foothills of the Andes, known as the Devil’s Spine, where narrow roads were carved into steep cliffs and I tried not to look out the window. Our bus driver was trying to get us all back to Lima before roadblocks were put in place, so we made only one quick stop to pick up snacks and we were back on our way. Just before midnight, our bus rolled into Lima where we were met with empty streets and military roadblocks. After the crazy trip, we were feeling thankful that we made it to Lima and we weren’t stuck in some small mountain town in Peru.
Over the next few days, the reality of our situation began to unfold. In our haste to leave our hotel in Arequipa, we were not able to pick up the laundry we had sent out the day before, so we each had two pairs of underpants and Ava only had one outfit and a set of jammies. During the lockdown, the only stores that are open are pharmacies, banks and the grocery stores. One person from each family/household is allowed to go out to pick things up and then must return directly home. There are no private vehicles permitted and there is a strict curfew from 8:00 PM to 5:00 AM. We have seen various individuals trying to tout these restrictions, by walking their dog, going for a jog or walking with another person, and they are promptly sent home by the many police and military that are guarding the streets. Peru is not messing around.
After a few days in our Hotel the amazing staff of FDR, our new school, moved us into a two bedroom apartment. This was a welcome move, as it gave us a bit more space to shelter in place. I will tell you, it feels like we have spent the last 282 days preparing for this moment. We are already used to living together in tight spaces, on limited resources, far from our family all while homeschooling Ava and diligently washing our hands so that we don’t fall victim to travellers’ diarrhea. We got this.
We are currently in day 9 of our lockdown here in Lima and we continue to wait for news about flights that will take us home. Until then, we continue to follow the rhythms of the day. This morning I was woken up by the singing of birds on our balcony and a peacefulness filled the air, not the norm in a city of 10 million people. I take a few minutes to listen for the waves crashing on the cliffs below and they guide my breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I can hear the baby from the apartment across the hall, welcoming the day with her coos and cries, until the reassuring voice of her mom soothes her back to sleep. After our breakfast, our upstairs neighbor sits on his balcony and serenades us with his acoustic guitar and butterscotch voice. He spends all day playing some of our favorites like he has sneaked a peek out our playlists, however I am not sure he has actually made it through an entire song. Yesterday, he sang well into the early evening hours and Ava commented on his endurance. I told her that this was a perfect time to get in those 10,000 hours of practice and she smiled. In the afternoons, one of us escapes into the outdoors to pick up staples for the day. This is our opportunity to soak in some sunshine and to spend a few minutes admiring the waves as they crash into the shore. With everyone cooking at home, dinner becomes a fusion of aromas between 6 and 8 pm in our apartment complex. The breeze brings in scents of fresh baked bread, slow cooked stews, grilled meats and baked treats. I imagine the tendrils of aroma greeting each other in the hallways, where we can not. Each evening at 8:00 the citizens of Peru stand on their balconies and cheer for the teams of doctors and nurses that are battling for those that are in the hospitals. They cheer for the delivery men and clerks, who are working endlessly to keep the markets stocked, so that we can feel secure that there will be food on the table the next day. They cheer the police and military men that are standing sentry hour after hour, isolated so that we can stay safe in our homes with our families.
Every evening grants us new hope as we awake the following morning by emails from our embassy assuring us that flights home are coming soon and we might just be on them. Our twitter feed of #stuckinperu just showed this morning a slew of people that flew out yesterday and were safely home in the US of A. Like the people in ‘Casablanca’, we all sit waiting, anxiously for any news, any opportunity and any hope that our number is called next.