You know how it is, one minute you’re getting away from all the troubles in the world in one of South America’s most beautiful countries, the next, you’re holed up in a hot and sticky hostel with 12 other worried souls and a strong suspicion that it might actually be months before you can leave.
Yep, back at the beginning of March, when Greystones’ Lesley Ann Devereux joined her hubby for a holiday in his native Peru, they thought they were getting far, far away from the brewing Covid-19 panic.
Only, the coronavirus decided to go to Peru too. And before you could say “Atchoo!”, the country was in complete and utter lockdown.
Peru is a country that has gotten a lot of things right. Such as a seemingly endless supply of natural beauty (bejiggers, that Rainbow Mountain is something to behold), one of the longest histories of civilization in the world, its fine array of spuds, and a fine December 25th tradition, when, a town just outside Cusco celebrates Takanakuy – wherein, any two people with an axe to grind get to punch it out in the town square before heading off for a drink and toasting a brand new year.
Reckon that would finally put that shiny big square down at the harbour to some good use.
The one thing Peru hasn’t quite managed to get right just yet is its economy – which is why they reacted to the first whiff of Covid-19 with a swift and severe lockdown. And it meant that Ms Devereux had to practically fight to find a flight home to Greystones…
This is Lesley Ann’s own story of how she got from way over there back to here…
For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been based mostly in Ethiopia, my work for GOAL bringing me closer to home this month, as I begin a new job in our Dun Laoghaire HQ. Not that I was anywhere near Dun Laoghaire when the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect.
My husband had headed back to his native Peru in February to visit his family, and at the beginning of March, I came to join him until we both flew home on the 31st. I hadn’t been to Peru in 12 years – since before we got married! – and I was so looking forward to visiting this amazing country again. When I booked my flight, friends were saying how lucky we were to be getting so far away from the growing coronavirus spread in Europe, and it felt like South America was just about the best place to be right now. Maybe it was naïve, but I never expected any problems.
We spent the first few days with my husband’s family, and from there decided to spend a few days in Cusco, which is the base for the Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley sites. It’s also a World Heritage Site, and one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.
We had been there for one day when, on the 15th of March, the Peruvian President declared a State of Emergency and full quarantine. At that point there were maybe 40 or 50 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Peru, but people were getting worried and the government really wanted to put measures in early to prevent the massive spread which had been happening in Europe. I believe this was the right thing to do. Peru is a developing economy, and their health system could never cope with a situation like that of Spain or Italy.
However, the measures imposed were the strictest in Latin America, and among the strictest in the whole world! The country went into complete lockdown – controlled by the military and police. Borders were closed. All internal movement between cities and towns was prohibited. A full quarantine was enforced where people are only allowed out to buy food and go to the pharmacy – even dog walking was prohibited! A curfew was put in place – originally it was from 8pm to 5am but now it’s been lengthened to begin at 6pm, and even 4pm in some places. The government immediately began arresting people for not complying with the restrictions. At the same time, the economy has completely shut down, which has had massive effects on people’s welfare. About 10 million Peruvians live day to day – if they don’t work they don’t eat. The whole situation has really exacerbated people’s vulnerabilities, and of course, is now having massive effects on tourism, which many families depend on for their livelihoods.
When the State of Emergency was declared initially, people were given 28 hours to return to their homes within Peru, for foreigners to leave the country and for Peruvians abroad to return home. This was virtually impossible for the majority of people. Peru is a huge country and the road and transport infrastructure is not like Europe. Many people were stranded in jungle towns and cities which are only accessible by plane. The city of Cusco, where my husband and I were, is a 24 bus journey from the capital city.
Internal flights were cancelled. Thousands ended up stranded, foreigners and Peruvians alike – including about 135 Irish citizens and around 600 British. There simply wasn’t enough time for us to make the arrangements to get to Lima to and leave the country before the airport shut down. So, we ended up being quarantined in our hostel.
At first we decided to just make the most of it. Our situation wasn’t as bad as that of many others, especially the Peruvians themselves, who suddenly faced massive difficulties just being able to access food. We were also seeing images on TV of hundreds of Peruvians stranded for days in airports – such as Cancun in Mexico – unable to get home. The airport had shut down and they were sleeping on the ground with no food. At least we had a nice accommodation, where we were safe. I downloaded War and Peace onto my kindle, made friends with the 12 other people stuck in the hostel, and together we planned to keep occupied doing exercise inside, watching films, playing cards, etc. The hostel owners were so good to us; we were really lucky where we were staying. Many accommodations had closed down when the State of Emergency was initially declared and people frantically had to find somewhere to stay.
Our first week was spent trying to sort out flights home. We were told by the embassy that there were potential charter flights to London being organised by commercial operators, but they would cost about $3,500 per person. In the end, they never even materialised. I managed to get linked up to an Irish Stuck in Peru WhatsApp group, and together with the UK citizens, we started targeting our politicians, TDs and the Department of Foreign Affairs to get emergency repatriation flights home as there were literally no other options! In fairness to the DFA, they quickly understood the situation and agreed to organise such flights. And luckily for us, the EU has a budget for this.
So, it meant that we didn’t have to pay exorbitant costs for a flight home. The problem was that Lima airport was closed down, and all humanitarian repatriation flights needed Peruvian government permission, which was extremely difficult to negotiate. It was also a huge logistical challenge to get people from all over Peru to Lima, when internal transport was completely restricted.
The government and embassy staff were doing all that they could, but by the second week things started to get extremely tense, and the sense of urgency to leave grew and grew. The police began doing checks inside the tourist accommodation in Cusco, to ensure people were respecting social distancing and not drinking. We were expected to wear masks even indoors and basically not leave our rooms. They even began to use drones over the hostel courtyards to check up on people. They were doing their job, but it was unnerving for many. Some tourists were being stopped going to the shops to buy food. Among the Irish and British there were many older tourists; there were families with children. Some people were travelling alone and getting quite anxious; a few had medical conditions and were really starting to worry about running out of medication. While we were comfortable in our accommodation for the most part, it was stressful because everything was so uncertain, and we didn’t know how long we would end up stranded there.
Then on March 26th, the State of Emergency and quarantine was extended up to the 12th April, and we also found out that three tourists in Cuzco had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and, very sadly, one of them, an older Mexican tourist, subsequently died. Alarm bells started going off in our heads as the hotels where they were staying were put into total lockdown for at least 28 days but possibly three months! The people staying there, including one Irish citizen, now had to spend 23 hours a day in their rooms, and could incur prison sentences for breaking any of the restrictions. Everybody suddenly became terrified – not of getting the virus, but that someone else in our accommodation would get it and we’d all end up quarantined for months and not be able to make the repatriation flights!
We were lucky in our hostel that there were only 14 people or so, and we agreed together to avoid certain supermarkets, take extra precautions; basically not go out at all if possible, and do everything we could to keep ourselves COVID-free. Finally, on the Friday night of the second week, we were informed by our embassy that a repatriation flight to London and then onwards to Dublin was confirmed, leaving Lima on the Sunday. We then had a 24-hour bus journey from Cusco to the military airbase in the capital. When we arrived in Lima, British soldiers had been deployed to coordinate the evacuation. It was quite surreal.
The UK government had chartered a British Airways flight to take us to London. The staff were so kind, knowing that we’d been quarantined for two weeks and then had such long journeys to make it to Lima. They had all volunteered for the trip, as there was a risk to their staff that they’d end up getting stuck in Peru too. They kept apologising that they didn’t have a full service on the plane but had managed to organise sandwiches and snacks. We all agreed we’d have gladly gone without food for three days if it meant being able to get home! We arrived in London on Monday morning and there was clapping and cheering. Just having made it to the UK was a success. An Aer Lingus flight took us the final stretch to Dublin a few hours later. It was a totally different scenario. At that point most of us hadn’t slept for two or three days, and after all the stress of the previous two weeks, we were completely drained – I think most people were still asleep when we landed! It was such a relief though to walk into Dublin airport knowing we were home on Irish soil!
Overall, it was a stressful experience, but now we are just glad to be home. Our worry continues however, for the other Irish citizens who weren’t able to make the flight from Lima – including two who are in the middle of the jungle, and one who is very unfortunately quarantined in the hostel in Cuzco. We’re doing our best to advocate with the Irish government to work with the Peruvian authorities to get them home.
At the same time, we’re so thankful to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and embassy and consular staff, for all their efforts, as well as the UK government. It was a huge logistical challenge to get people from the provincial towns to Lima and secure all the approvals needed from the Peruvian authorities. We really are so grateful for all their efforts, especially with everything going on in Ireland.
I was among the first in our hostel to be repatriated. I really felt so proud to be Irish and how our government had come through for us. I have travelled and lived in many countries all over the world. As a nation, I don’t think most of us realise how lucky we are! And while the world’s focus is now on tackling COVID-19, it’s important to remember that this is only one issue facing our global community. We have to restrict our movements for a few weeks, maybe months. People living in Syria and Yemen have had restricted movements and lived in fear for years! Every year hundreds of thousands of children across the world die from malnutrition, war, climate-related catastrophes, or preventable diseases.
I hope that we can learn from the global collaboration in the fight against COVID-19, and put as much effort into tackling those other global crises also.
Meanwhile my thoughts are with all those families affected by the disease in Ireland and across the world, and my greatest appreciation goes to all our government workers and frontline staff helping to save lives and livelihoods in this country.
So, if you’re home, and snug, with the one you love, count yourself dang, dang lucky. And don’t you dare say you’re bored.