“Mr. Johnston, my name is Elizabeth and I’m calling from the United States embassy here in Peru to see if you’d like a free flight home to the states for you and your family.” The voice said on the other line.
“I’m sorry.” I said in disbelief. “Who is this?“
“I work for the embassy here and I’m calling to inform you that your family has been selected to fill extra seats on a charter flight for the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints who are repatriating dozens of their missionaries from Peru back home. If you accept, the flight will be free and you’ll be flown to Salt Lake City.“
“But, I’m not even religious!“
“No one’s perfect sir. They’ve offered to repatriate Americans on their under booked flight.”
Just before the phone rang, we had been standing outside the US embassy in downtown Lima for hours along with 400 other Americans trying to frantically get home. Just a day before that, the Peruvian president announced that in addition to the lockdown, men and women would be permitted on the street only on alternating days and the coming weekend would be the last for flights back home. Our strategy up till then was to wait for an email announcing we had gotten on a flight, but after nearly 3 weeks, we heard nothing.
We decided to gamble and just ‘show up’ at the embassy hoping to get on a standby flight the next day which were open seats for passengers that had not made it to the embassy or had not received the message that they were selected. Up till this point, I had rated the embassy’s efforts to get us home as a generous ‘7’ on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being a complete shit show, and 10 being an absolute cluster-fuck. Two weeks ago, as many as 80 people were being selected for standby flights, but as the system administration improved, only 10 to 20 seats were filled with standby travelers prioritized in order of who was first in line. There was no way we’d get on a standby flight that day, but after meeting with embassy officials, we were hopeful of getting out the next day or the day after that before being trapped indefinitely. We had abandoned our comfortable apartment in Miraflores for a stay in the ‘El Polo’ hotel across the street from the embassy where we could queue up in the morning for a better shot at getting on a standby flight. Curfew lifted at 5:00 am but people were lining up as early as 4 in the morning. Staying at a local hotel meant Lisa and I could alternate waiting in line before embassy officials made rounds at 10:00. That was our plan before the phone call came.
When I told Elizabeth we were waiting in line, she came out to meet us and confirm both our contact details and that this was in fact not a scam. We got some ramen noodle soup packets from the local convenience store for dinner before it closed at 4:00pm as our hotel had suspended all food services.
Leaving Lima Via Military Base
The next morning, we chartered a taxi to pick us up at 5:30am and drive us 40 minutes through a dozen checkpoints to the church who had chartered a bus which was taken by police escort to the military base near Jorge Chavez International airport. Upon pulling in, we were greeted by a Marine that walked us through the procedure of going through a makeshift customs office wherein we’d sit in chairs in an airplane hangar, distancing from one another and the officials would come to us to check passports. After a hour and half wait, we walked to a LATAM plane on the tarmac and boarded a 9 hour flight with the Mormons to take us home.
Arriving in Salt Lake City
I always wondered what it would be like returning to our native country after 15 months abroad. I was starting to think that our arrival would be met with our parents and a mini ticker tape parade of people that would recognize us as world famous travel bloggers. “Isn’t that….is that them?” they’d say pointing in our direction as we strode proudly to the baggage claim. I had a prepared speech of what I’d say to the customs official when he or she would ask why I filled in the word ‘a lot‘ in the box for: “Which countries have you traveled to prior to this visit?”
Alas, this was not to be. Instead, we were met by a friendly TSA official who checked our passports and waved us through rather unceremoniously like we were any other passengers. Which we were.
What surprised me the most about being back home was the appearance of how everything seemed so ‘normal’ compared to life in Peru. We had read that the US was practicing social distancing and encouraging face mask usage, but enforcement was spotty and dependent on regional mayors and local governors. We immediately drove to a ‘Target’ store to stock up on underwear which we left behind after the evacuation in Arrequipa and lightning cables which were showing wear; both of which were not available in Lima. Back in Peru, the national guard was on nearly every street corner ushering you either home or to the pharmacy, grocery store or bank. Walking you dog was prohibited. A bike ride was sent home. Here in the states, people seemed to be driving around freely and walking the streets like it was just an ordinary time. Even in times of crisis, the ‘land of the free’ trumps public health and wellbeing.
Salt Lake City might just be the most beautiful city in the country. Unlike Denver which has the beautiful rocky mountains to the west, Salt Lake City is surrounded by snow capped mountains in a giant bowl, at the bottom of which sits great Salt Lake. The next morning we took the most beautiful drive from this elevated city of God past dozens of billboards extolling Jesus’s virtues slowly downhill to the sweltery city of sin known as Las Vegas. The contrast between the two places couldn’t have been starker and I wondered how many Mormon teenagers did Vegas weekends of debauchery before a mission or if they were too pious for such affairs.
We pulled into Ontario International Airport to drop off our rental car and were soon in the arms my parents Shirley and Gary to officially announce we were home. Soon after, we were reunited with our two cats, had a home cooked meal and had begun the two week process of self quarantine with all the comforts of home such as a well stocked library, cable TV and afternoon card games with grandma and grandma. We resumed our routines of daily exercise and online learning to fill our mornings and afternoons and spent the evenings watching Trump’s coronavirus briefings followed closely by journalists trying to make sense of his blundering statements.
In a few days, we’d make the 2 hour drive to Lisa’s parents house and spend the next 10 weeks driving back and forth between the two, waiting for this pandemic to pass and life to get back to normal.