Day 296: Home Safely in Los Angeles

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

Desperate Peruvians waiting outside the military base to get on a flight.

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.

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Day 275: Stuck in Lima Peru with the Coronavirus Blues

Day 275: Stuck in Lima Peru with the Coronavirus Blues

Yesterday, the coronovirus finally caught up with us in Peru.

Since the virus started in Wuhan in China back in December, the pandemic seemed largely confined to east Asia. Our friends in China and South Korea reported local quarantine procedures, testing and self isolation. Schools that went on holiday back for the lunar new year took an extended holiday of a few extra weeks of distance learning hoping the lockdown would slow the spread of the virus. It appears to have worked and many of our friends who have left these countries have gone back in the hopes of going back to work soon. President Moon of South Korea wants to share how they slowed infections with aggressive testing.

Meanwhile, things in the West have gone batshit crazy. In the last 2 weeks, country after country have reported new cases which has had a cascading affect of denying entry to travelers from infected areas, shutting borders and hoarding supplies. Entire sports franchises are not in operation. Conferences and concerts have been postponed. A trillion dollars of wealth has evaporated from the stock market. Flights have been reduced and Trump’s travel ban from Europe has caused a deluge of incoming US passengers that have inundated airports and now risk infecting one another in these high density areas and taking the virus home to middle America. With layoffs and bankruptcies on the near horizon, coupled with the fact that most Americans have no or unaffordable healthcare and live paycheck to paycheck, economists are forecasting a recession that may decimate the world economy.

For us, these troubles seemed like a world away. Upon landing in Lima just over a week ago, we visited our new school to be while visiting potential apartments and casing our local neighborhood. Our school in Peru was in session as of Monday the 9th, but the edtech department was ramping up its professional development of distance learning tools. The next day, a local school closed in Lima with one infected person, by the end of the week, our school was shut down and would commence online learning. But life would continue as normal. So we thought.

On Wednesday, we took a series of ‘Peru hop’ busses that would take us south from Lima to Paracas, from Huacachina to Nazca and then hopefully from Arequipa to Cuzco to see the famed ruins of Machu Picchu. We thought that the rural setting and hand washing would keep us safe.

Upon boarding an overnight bus from Nazca to Arequipa, our guide, Christian told us that the Peruvian government was starting to set up checkpoints and administer random temperature checks at road side stops so we should be prepared for that. Villagers, normally embracing tourist busses whole hog are now shunning the crowds and their tourist dollars to keep their local communities safe. Upon arriving in Arequipa the next morning, our British traveling companions told us their tour company had cancelled their Machu Picchu tour and the window of getting a flight back to the UK before lockdown was rapidly shrinking. If they didn’t commit, they risked being stranded. That afternoon we got an email from LATAM saying our flights to Colombia had been cancelled and since our flights to the Caribbean were through Bogota, we’d have to conclude a year of travel a little early.

So It Begins for Us

Yesterday morning at 6:00 am, we had a knock at our door. The receptionist from ‘Casa De Avila’ in Arequipa said a representative from our tour company ‘Peru Hop’ was in the lobby asking us if we were ready to leave for Lima.

Not today.” I said. “We’re planning on going to Cusco tomorrow.”

All travel is shutting down today.” He told me. “This is the last bus back to Lima. If you don’t take it, you’ll have to stay here. Where you are at midnight tonight is where you’ll have to be quarantined for 2 weeks as said by the Peruvian government.

Rousing Lisa from her sleep, we had only a minute to debate (while half awake) whether or not to board a long haul bus back to Lima or risk getting stranded in the small mountain town of Arequipa. On top of that, we were battling a touch of food poisoning that gave us diarrhea for the past three days. (Luckily, no fever, cough or cold) In the end, we decided that being in the capital of Lima would offer better access to flights and other services need we be evacuated.

Ten minutes later, we were packed and out the door not even picking up our laundry and boarded a 17 hour bus for Lima with only two five minute stops. The food poisoning kept Ava vomiting all morning in the bus’s bathroom and the diarrhea kept Lisa and I visiting as well. We were hangry and tired when we pulled into Lima at 11:30 pm so we splurged on a nice hotel and booked a room for 3 nights. After some late night room service, we were fast asleep.

Lima Becomes a Ghost Town

This morning, we woke up to a very changed city and things were moving fast. Initially, our hotel told us we could walk the street if we had passports in hand, but by noon today, police were only allowing singles for pedestrian travel. Staff at our hotel have been keeping their distance and we’ve been self-quarantined to our room. On the street, all shops are closed with the exception of pharmacies and grocery stores and the streets are completely empty. It’s kind of creepy.

By mid day, or school in Lima had reached out to us and kindly offered to put us up in a school apartment for 2 weeks until the travel ban lifted and save us a ton of money on hotel fees. By mid-afternoon were getting updates from the embassy, enrolled in STEP and had news trickling in from Whatsapp groups and Twitter hashtags. Multiple nationalities were stranded all over the country with little to no heads up and no way to get to the capital. We were lucky.

Homeschooling Goes Free

One silver lining to this crisis is the number of homeschooling resources that have gone free. Since another casualty of this pandemic is public education and New York and California have joined the growing list of states that have shut down school for online learning, many companies have offered to share their resources.

  • Scholastic– Online catalog of literacy resources. Great books for students and teaching guides for parents.
  • Brainpop– Multiple topics to create a rigorous well-rounded curriculum.
  • RangerRick– This childhood classic goes free.
  • Khanacademy– Sal Khan’s platform for mathematics. Great use of formative assessments.
  • CK-12– Great content platform with readings, videos that you can tailor for any subject.

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