While much of the country is in social-distancing mode, we can’t imagine what it would be like to experience this far from home, in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. As of Wednesday, there are an estimated 50,000 Americans who are stuck in other countries after borders closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. State Department has a repatriation task force trying to bring them all back, but many of the people living in limbo abroad do not feel like enough has been done yet.
Tampa resident Jesse Curry and his family are some of the 4,000 who have been locked in a mandatory quarantine in Peru since March 16, and the quarantine was just extended to April 12. What was supposed to be a fun spring break in a new city has turned into weeks of isolation in an Airbnb. Jesse was eager to tell us all about it, below.
I’m a software developer, and I work fully remote from my home. My wife Julie owns a bakery in Tampa. We like to try to travel internationally once a year, and we had an opportunity for some travel during the kids’ spring break. I started looking around for places, and Lima looked interesting. We could bring the family: my mother, Kathy, my 12-year-old daughter, Savannah, and my 6-year-old son, Maximus. The food scene here is really good, so we could also do some restaurant research — look at some potential for drinks, desserts, and foods that my wife might be able to roll into her bakery concept or into another concept. I had planned to work mornings and then spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with the family and check things out around town. We wanted to have a pretty relaxing vacation.
As it got closer to our time to leave, we were obviously somewhat concerned with the coronavirus situation, so we kept an eye on things. We checked the U.S. embassy site for Peru the day that we left, and the travel alert was at a Level 2. Pretty much the entire world has been at that level since 9/11, so I didn’t really think anything of it.
We hopped on the plane and got here late Friday, March 13. The airport was packed. There were lots of lots of drivers waiting to pick people up, lots of foot traffic all around. I didn’t see a single person with a face mask on in the airport or in the city. It seemed like business as usual.
On Saturday, we woke up and had a wonderful breakfast at this café in Miraflores, a neighborhood in Lima. The café was packed, and again, it seemed like business as usual. We spent the day exploring Lima. We went out, had a nice dinner, and came back to our Airbnb. Sunday was basically the same thing, and Sunday night we had a pretty big family dinner.
I woke up Monday morning, showered, got ready for a conference call at 8:30. As I was on the call, I got a text from a friend who said that we needed to get tickets because the flights were full, and we needed to get out. That’s when I found out that the night before, Peru’s President Martín Vizcarra had announced at around 8 p.m. that the borders would be closing at 11:59 on Monday.
We started frantically trying to find a flight home. We checked every single U.S.-based airline, initially trying to find flights that would connect to Tampa. Then we started looking at flights that would just get us to Miami or Fort Lauderdale or Orlando, and couldn’t find anything. We started looking at flights that would just get us into the U.S., looking at Houston, L.A., places like that, and still couldn’t find anything. Then we ended up looking at the Latin American airlines and weren’t able to find anything there. We started looking at the potential to go into other countries like Mexico, Panama, Chile. I couldn’t find anything out of out of Peru.
This whole time we had been reaching out to the embassy. We tried calling them and got no answer. We e-mailed them and got an auto reply. We tried calling their emergency line. No answer.
It became evident by the early afternoon that we wouldn’t get a flight out. At that point, we realized that we just needed to stock up, so we went to all the grocery stores that we could find and loaded up on supplies to make sure that we had food to see us through.
The next day, we were under quarantine, which means that one individual can go out at a time. They have to go directly to a grocery store or pharmacy and then come back. And they’re pretty strict about enforcing that. If you’re seen to be violating that, they’ll absolutely arrest you and then detain you for 24 hours, which certainly is a scary prospect.
My Spanish is good enough to order food and maybe some drinks. And I can point and say a few things to get by, but that’s certainly not enough Spanish to get myself out of any kind of confrontation.
We moved to a new Airbnb that’s on the eighth floor and has a balcony that is enclosed, which is nice. We can get a bit of fresh air in a sense that we’re not inside. And we have a washer and dryer and a full kitchen, which we didn’t have at the last one. So, we’re in remarkable shape comparatively.
It feels like the kids have been training for this moment for a while: They’ve got their iPads and they’re in heaven, just playing games and watching movies. Also, thankfully, since they have their iPads, they’ve been able to do school the past couple days here, now that spring break is over and the schools in Tampa have moved to a virtual format. We don’t have a printer here, so we’ve had to hand-copy any of the worksheets which isn’t wonderful, but we’ve definitely got some time. By around 2:30, they wrap up their schoolwork and then they’ve been watching movies or hanging out.
It’s definitely a little bit rough with the 6-year-old in particular, because he’s spirited, so having him in a small space is kind of hard. He misses his stuffed sloth, Slothy, but he has two new alpaca stuffed animals. He’ll have a meltdown here and there. When we had to exit our last Airbnb, as everyone was frantically trying to pile into this taxi that may or may not have had a permit for travel, there was some kind of situation with his socks. He was flopping on the ground and screaming. Stuff like that is pretty trying.
But in general, the kids have been wonderful given this scenario. My daughter is very much into art, so she’s been drawing on her on her iPad. One day, she spent seven or eight hours creating a drawing. I’m glad that she’s into something that can keep her so focused for such long periods of time.
We’re in the best shape that you could be in. We have shelter. We have food. I’m able to work. We’re able to sustain ourselves here. If we need to, we could extend the stay here for a while, so we’re not in any immediate danger personally.
The people of Peru have been wonderful. They’re surprisingly calm and so respectful in their shopping, the exact opposite of the American shopping style, where you see people fist-fighting over the last package of toilet paper. The second day that we went out, there were some shortages in the grocery stores, but it wasn’t terrible. By and large, they’ve had some pretty well-stocked shelves, especially with prepared food at some of the places. While they may not have tons of stuff to cook your own food, they do have prepared food ready to go. One of the things I was really surprised to see is that down here, they didn’t get the hoarding-toilet paper memo. Everywhere you go has toilet paper, even the small bodegas.
Before the lockdown here, we had actually talked about the idea of maybe extending this trip an extra week, waiting for things to calm down in the U.S. I’m talking to friends back in Tampa, and they’re very likely going to go on a mandated lockdown pretty soon. There’s been a lot of requests for self-isolation and some quarantine, but the voluntary measures haven’t been implemented by most people there. The restaurants have been forced to close. My wife’s bakery business is undergoing some pretty massive changes right now, and she’s not there to help guide that. Thankfully, her staff has really stepped up and kept things running, but there’s a lot of stuff changing and we really feel like she should be back to take care of that. My mother is a health-care professional, and she’s really eager to get back so she can be helping people. Whenever we get back, she’s going to face an additional 14-day quarantine before she can go back to work.
Since last week, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find flights. The information that was coming from the State Department was terribly outdated, if not just completely incorrect. They provided us phone numbers for a bunch of the airlines and suggested that we book flights, when flights were absolutely not available. The number they gave us for the Colombian airline Avianca was actually a phone-sex line. The Peruvian government had made it clear that the only flights that would be allowed would be state-sponsored flights. The level at which they botched this is unheard of, and the communication was basically not present. Then when they did finally start communicating, it was often erroneous.
Everybody’s anxious. We have no idea when we’re going to get home. The earliest American Airlines could rebook me would be May 6. That’s when they plan to start flying into the country again. That’s a pretty long time to be in a foreign country when you had planned to just be here a week.
There are a lot of rumors going around that this quarantine could be extended an additional 15 days, 90 days. There’s even talk about the potential for borders to stay closed for 18 months or more. I’m not a Peruvian citizen and don’t plan to become one, so I would like to try to get out at some point.
There’s a Facebook group, a Telegram group, a WhatsApp group, and a Reddit sub for people that are stuck here, and we’ve been able to use those groups to connect and share information, which has been very nice. But there’s also people entering those groups that have been offering fraudulent charter flights and taking people’s money. In that vacuum of information, people are falling for it.
In the Telegram group, there’s a person named Tomás who has been translating President Vizcarra’s speeches for us. But I definitely feel like the State Department should be sending out recaps of the news that’s important. In the past two days, they started sending out some more emails, but they’re still somewhat out of date.
I certainly can’t fault Peru for enacting these measures. They had very few cases of coronavirus, and they’ve managed to keep the numbers down quite a bit. [Editor’s note: The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has gone from 86 on March 16, the day the borders closed, to 480 as of this writing.] As opposed to the hockey stick-shaped graph of cases that we’ve been seeing in other countries, they sort of flatten off in Peru. It’s something that was definitely good for Peru. But it’s not fun to be caught in the crosshairs.
This hasn’t made me not want to travel, but I think Julie may need a year before she’s ready to leave the country again. I couldn’t imagine if we had come without our kids. That would have been really terrifying. This is definitely a very unprecedented situation, so I’m planning to travel with them in the future. Max wants to go to Japan for his birthday.
I really just want some clarity and assurance on when we can go home. If they were to tell me that it was going to be April 5 or 6, and I was guaranteed to be able to go home, I’d be happy. It would set my mind at ease. That’s something very finite and something we can deal with. But right now, we don’t know. Are we going to go home tomorrow? Are we going to go home this week? There’s so much uncertainty. It’s maddening.
We hope Max and any other stir-crazy children out there can make use of these calming yoga poses for kids.