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 282: Adjusting to the New Normal while #StuckinPeru

Day 275: Stuck in Lima Peru with the Coronavirus Blues

Day 282: Adjusting to the New Normal while #stuckinperu

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.

Watering plants. One of the many routines keeping us occupied.

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. 

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