Escape From Peru

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The COVID-19 pandemic has struck no industry harder than aviation and the airlines. In the U.S., domestic load factors and flights are a fraction of their levels just a month ago. International travel has been similarly devastated, stranding many travelers for weeks, if not longer. Today’s blog details the experience of contributor J. Scott Dyer and his wife, Kathryn, both of whom are finally home after a harrowing stay in Peru.

All went to hell in a handcart for us as we teetered off the overnight bus from Chiclayo to Chachapoyas in Peru at 7 a.m. on March 16. We weren’t ready for the “have you heard the news” from our guide in Chachapoyas. The country was closing all borders at midnight, no commercial travel in or out of Peru from that time on. And, no travel within Peru. “You’ll have to stay for at least 15 days where you are at midnight.”

We’d been on a 2 1/2 week individual journey through Northern Peru, seeing archeological sides dating to 1500 BC and before, and soaking in the culture. Having been in enough Peruvian towns, we saw Chachapoyas as pleasant enough for a couple of days’ stay, but otherwise lacking. Lima was the only international airport in the country. We had to try to make it there. Getting out meant going to Lima. If we were to be stuck in one place, this was a world-class city with great food.

Our guide talked to our travel agent in Lima, a great guy, married to a Peruvian woman who owned the agency, but who grew up in Brooklyn. Somehow, they got us on the one flight from Chachapoyas to Lima before the shutdown, leaving around 11 a.m.

Our guide and a driver took us the 15 minutes to the airport and talked their way into the airport past the guards. First, we found that our one checked bag/one carry-on each—fine for international travel—didn’t cut it on this flight. The weights were additive and low. Too heavy. We spoke little Spanish but the agent and supervisor thought about it and quickly relented, “this one time only.” Next, we found that Kathryn’s ticket data didn’t match her passport number. Another no go? Initially, yes. Once again, the supervisor and agent talked and the problem was ignored. After screening (normal) and waiting for the flight, we were on the way to Lima.

Once there, we stood in hours of lines. Delta (our carrier) was a no-go as the next flight would leave at 0030 local and thus be banned by the quarantine. It was booked anyway. We heard Avianca was out as Columbia in general and Bogota in particular were not available for onward travel. JetBlue, the flight in the afternoon, was already leaving. COPA had no seats through Panama City or elsewhere, and no more flights. No luck on American. Internet was a joke, and calling reservations was at least a 40- to 60-minute wait.

Our agent got us reservations at a hotel in Lima and we became resigned to being stuck in Peru. One of the first shocks was that eating out wasn’t an option: all restaurants were closed and we’d eat only in the hotel. Outside trips were limited to the grocery store and pharmacy. I paid in advance for the hotel though the 15-day period. It was the evening of March 16.

The next day, went to the grocery and updated our U.S. Embassy information. And we waited. And waited. We joined the Facebook group of Americans stuck in Peru. It was invaluable with real-time, boots-on-the-ground information about what was happening in the country. Two days later, our hotel closed and we moved to another down the street. It was a notch or two lower on food scale, but beggars can’t be choosers. We waited.

It was 10 days into the quarantine before the U.S. Department of State got some rescue/repatriation flights going. That was a long time and we worked all the lists we were on, as well as congressional and big-time media contacts. One days’ flights were scrubbed with one American jet making it to about one hour from Lima until returning, and it took a few days at first before State even confirmed that repatriation via government flights was the only way home. I had an April 3 Delta ticket, just in case, but expected the quarantine to be extended. It was. The flight was canceled.  Each minute was spent rushing into the phone to check the latest email. Each minute was disappointing.

At the second hotel, the screws tightened and we were restricted from leaving at all. The police enforced this and we were ultimately eating only in our rooms. Peru fairly quickly also imposed an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. no-joking curfew, which was later extended to start at 6 p.m. Jail sentences, and shootings, were authorized.

Repatriation flights started on March 25, allegedly for older travelers (we are in our 60s and supposedly qualified), and those with medication or medical needs. No call.  These flights were highly limited as the civil international terminal remained, understandably, closed.

We waited each day for the embassy email, to no avail. Age or medical condition seemed not to matter. More and different forms to fill out.  Congressional presence was helpful; they were doing what they could. Would the new forms cause more delays?  No one knew. 

Each day was a trial of boredom, some hope between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. when the embassy emails came out for flights the next day and being saddened by not getting good news. Embassy emails kept touting how many Americans were getting out but our age and medical condition seemed not to matter while 20- and 30-somethings were joyously home.

Finally, we got an email about departure, on March 30. Ten seconds of joy were ended when we saw that the departure was from Cusco, not Lima, and we couldn’t travel there.

The next day was even more ludicrous. We got notice at 1 a.m. of a repatriation flight but leaving by bus from Trujillo to Lima that afternoon and then on by air. Again, not for us, and Congress and the embassy were contacted. We waited.

March 31 was fraught for us at our longtime hotel. On the night of March 30, a group of about 100 Peruvians were repatriated but they, by government fiat, would be quarantined for 14 days in our hotel. Now, we had about 10 foreigners in our hotel, all planning to leave as soon as possible, but these new Peruvian guests posed an existential problem: If any of them caught the bug, we could all be quarantined with no hope of seeing the U.S. for a month or more. The Peruvians had invoked such measures at a hostel in Cusco with great hardship. We worked with our agent again who got us into a high-priced hotel just across from the Embassy. Perfect.

The problem was how to get to the new hotel with the ever-tightening travel ban.  We had no required travel papers but we feigned a trip to our embassy with a cab driver and we were off. He talked his way through three full battle-dress roadblocks for us. We made it.

That afternoon we received a Facebook message from the embassy that we had been mentioned. Then came the email we had been waiting for, evacuation on the next day, April 1. We lined up outside the embassy and within 45 minutes the staff graciously and efficiently dealt with us. Some worked there, some were spouses.  There were all great.

Buses took us from the embassy to an air base at the northwest end of the Lima airport. All international flights were going through the base, and that meant only a total of eight flights a day for all the world. We had lots of waiting. There was an eight-bus caravan with police escort.

At the airport we were addressed by a Marine colonel and he was a sight for sore eyes. Our processing in a hangar that the Americans had been using was relatively fast. The Marines, Army and Navy knew what they were doing. We each got a seat and were called by rows from the hangar to board the United 777 from the ramp.  That’s a tall aircraft and some with movement disabilities had severe problems. Our embassy and military personnel helped them out. 

The crew on our 777 was special. They came inbound from Houston with many returning Peruvians as passengers. They brought their own baggage handlers and mechanics in case the airplane crumped. They were self-contained. One way would have been a normal day for the crews. They doubled it for us. When we left them in Dulles, they were dead tired.

Once onboard and airborne, our meal came immediately and it was very good indeed. The cabin crew was professional and welcoming. They were fine people to see at a time like that. We made it a point to thank them, and the flight crew, on leaving.

We landed at Dulles at 11:30 p.m. local time. Customs was quick with Global Entry and we were on our way to the hotel before traveling onward to home the next day and 14 more days of voluntary quarantine.

There were lots of lessons here and the experience paints a worrisome picture about future international air travel. But the Peruvian people were first rate with us the whole way. The humanity was noticed and appreciated. Same with the folks who helped us at the embassy once we were in line and thereafter. The military people were superb. Peru did us a hardship, but on balance did it right for the Peruvian people.

Now, we’re just glad to be home albeit in an environment more dangerous than Peru. But we’re home.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. “The COVID-19 pandemic has struck no industry harder than aviation and the airlines.”

    I think the bar and restaurant industry would disagree.

    Clothing retailers as well – Macys, Nordstrom, etc. are bleeding massive red ink (on-line sales don’t come close to making up the difference) and have laid off most of their employees. The women’s shoe company DSW furloughed over 80% of its workforce in one day.

  2. I can sympathize. My wife and I were in Buenos Aires at the end of March. It was supposed to be a couple of days visit on route to Ushuaia to join a ship for a cruise in Antarctica. This was a bucket list event for us.

    It was unbelievable how fast things changed. In 3 days it went from “the cruise is still on you have nothing to worry about“ to everything is cancelled get back ASAP. We waited 5 days in Buenos Aires before we were able to get a seat on the second to last scheduled flight out.

    Some personal take always

    1) A good travel agent is worth their weight in gold when the poo hits the rotary oscillator. The people who figured they can save a bit of money by
    booking on line were totally screwed when they tried to rebook.

    2) The embassy folks were awesome. This is why IMHO having competent people in an adequately funded government matters. I hope some of the people screaming loudest about how the government had to save them might also think about whether they want to support politicians that so fervently proclaim to “drown the last bit of government in the bathtub”

    • Indeed, we were fortunate to have a good travel agent in Lima even though we were travelling individually on a trip they set up. We knew they were good from last year’s trip but this performance was incredible. The Embassy? Those who remained and organized our departure, and the US military involved in getting us out, were awesome. Many left on the first flight out, before the rest of us. Some of that makes sense but the Embassy was terribly short-staffed with nearly 10,000 US remaining in-country. The US response (perhaps mostly from senior officials in State and above) was slow and the selecting of people and filling of flights was poorly administered. We were grateful for the chartered UAL flight out. Sorry to hear your trip got truncated!

  3. It is no secret that the current Republican administration has actively worked to defund, shrink and marginalize the State Department. With almost half of all senior State appointments either empty or run by an acting administrator I don’t think it should be surprising that the response to repatriating stranded citizens was shambolic

    On my flight home I ended up chatting with a cruise relief pilot who was dead heading home after operating the trip down. He was a new hire on a reserve bid. Looking where things are going his furlough is guaranteed, and there now seems to real questions as to whether a near permanent reset of the airline industry to a smaller footprint is happening.

    I am afraid that for all practical purposes his airline career is over before it had barely started…..

    • hmm, what parts of the State Department are you referring to that are supposedly defunded and actually impacted this writer’s experience in any way.
      I am looking at State’s data for both headcount and budget for the Consular Affairs Overseas Support areas from FY16-19 and don’t see any delta. Those areas are basically flat. What numbers are you looking at?
      I get it, you hate Trump and assume this has something to do with it. My experience at a sub-agency of State is that our headcount grew under the supposed hiring freeze in this administration.

      In my experience, during most crisis , the SOP is to rely on TDYs from other posts to help in these kind of over-stretched situations at post . I was in Indonesia and they had a ton of people help out from other posts temporally during a tsunami. That model of flexing manpower obviously doesn’t work in a world-wide crisis. not sure how this has anything to do with this administration in particular, this is how embassies have worked since 2001 that I know of. Again, if you hate Trump, this is his fault I guess. But again, I can’t find these defunds in this area in publicly available data.

      I would not agree with this president on much but knowing these people, I am not going to try and say cutting the State department is the worst thing I ever heard. I’ll spare you the stories of my colleagues shipping cargo containers of Honey Nut Cherios and Tide for their wife and kids as essential goods to post on a C130 at $23k and hour billed back to DoD during a crisis. Truth me told, none of us could find a real job. I’m sorry my fellow FS1s and GS15s, but your PhD in International Affairs from American university is only valid at the gov’t.

      Not sure what level of services this writer was expecting. I like to travel (40 odd countries on Uncle Sam’s dime and another 20 on mine) but when I am in Mongolia or PNG on my own nickel, I don’t write a sad story about the embassy not helping me when there’s a crisis, which there occasionally is in life. If you can’t deal with, stay home

      • Just to add some numbers and comments on State staffing and competence….

        “The number of foreign service officers declined from 14,029 in early 2017 to 13,592 by the end of 2019, according to State Department data published by the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents foreign service officers.”
        https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/coronavirus-state-department-blocks-new-diplomats-foreign-service-officer-classes/

        -And-

        “The State Department’s mission is compromised by “staff shortages, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained staff,” the department’s inspector general warned in a new report.
        “Workforce management issues are pervasive, affecting programs and operations domestically and overseas and across functional areas and geographic regions,” the watchdog reported Wednesday.
        The 16-month hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration in early 2017 continues to affect operations and morale, the IG found, noting that department officials anticipate it will take until 2021 to fully recover from its impact.
        All 38 bureaus and offices that responded to the IG’s survey and 97% of the embassies and consulates reported that the hiring freeze had either a somewhat negative or very negative effect on employee morale and welfare. “Employees told OIG that the hiring freeze contributed to excessive workloads, and the lack of transparency about the objectives intended to be achieved by the hiring freeze caused some to be concerned about losing their jobs,” the IG reported.” Published January 2020
        https://www.govexec.com/oversight/2020/01/watchdog-finds-serious-staffing-and-leadership-problems-state-department/162621/

        I’ll note that the Ambassador was caught out of Peru when the country was closed, he traveled out of Peru to the US in February for a medical procedure. Experience and top-of-mission presence suffered. Most of the Embassy staff and dependents were airlifted out on the very first flight, what remained was a skeleton crew and I was particularly moved by the male spouse of an Embassy employee who I talked with as we waiting on the bus for evac….he did it because it was right, for no compensation. There was a disconnect between public statements by the Secretary (you should come home commercially and we’re going to end any help) and the Embassy staff (trying to do a good job in getting us home) for most of the second half of March and into April. Commercial flights are still forbidden, today, as is intra-country travel. Fortunately, the US government realized that getting US citizens and permanent residents out of Peru was in our national interest. I suspect that the competence to do so was lacking and so it took longer…and the job still isn’t done.

  4. Geez…this whole thing reads like some over-privileged whiner, whining. Maybe a few more sentences about “world-class” Lima and the ability to “pay for it in advance” will bring comfort to the 20 million people here in the U.S. that have lost their jobs, untold millions that have lost their dreams, and the tens of thousands that lost their lives.

    100% out of touch.

  5. You have to be out of your mind to rely on anyone to come running to your rescue while outside of the U.S. for any reason whatsoever. Nothing short of plain brain dead. You travel outside of the U.S., you deal with the consequences. Don’t ever think, just because you’re a U.S. citizen that affords you some sort of privilege. It doesn’t.

  6. I read this entire article waiting for some sort of twist or something to make this a worthwhile read but no, our writer remained self-absorbed and quite spoiled throughout the entire duration. I’ve worked hard to be where I am and do what I love and have always remained humble but also aware that I’m blessed. This article makes me want to gag. Escape from Peru? Give me a break! Do you even think about how that may sound to someone from Peru? Of course you don’t Scott. You should be grateful to have even had the opportunity bud. Why is this even posted? Avweb you guys need to proofread your content!

  7. “All went to hell in a handcart…” all things considered, You guys were pretty lucky and fortunate. I’m sorry that this global pandemic caused the finale of your wonderful vacation to go off the rails, but this read is such utter garbage. It’s almost as if the rest of the world doesn’t literally have people dying over the same exact thing you decided to write an entire personal blog about. How self-indulgent and tone deaf this author is. Thankfully I know that this is not the norm for this wonderful website and it’s community. There’s probably a reason the author only has this one article. Stay safe everyone!