On March 12, my boyfriend and I decided that the looming anticipation of a pandemic wouldn’t be a factor in our travel plans to Peru. We thought the global impact would be minimal in the Americas. The following days ended up in an unprecedented global wake-up call and an experience the both of us will never forget.
Flying out of Pearson International airport, I had an almost deceptive lack of awareness of the evolving COVID situation. There was no signage, no mention of the virus and how to limit risk. There was no distancing of airport employees and travellers. Few and far between were the individuals equipped with masks or hand sanitizer. We continued to board our fated flight.
We arrived in Lima at midnight and were asked to fill out many forms on our travel details, including if we had symptoms of COVID-19. Our temperatures were taken as we disembarked, we were greeted by many gown and mask clad personnel, and there was COVID-19 signage everywhere; the difference was night and day. But somehow our trip went on and the impending pandemic faded into the background.
Things rapidly shifted overnight, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing that “if you’re abroad, it’s time to come home.” This announcement left many Canadians in Peru frustrated with few options to follow his advice.
This is because on March 16,, the Peruvian government announced the closure of their international borders for 15 days in the hopes of limiting the spread of the virus.
In less than 24 hours, hundreds of Canadians – along with thousands of other international travelers – needed an exit strategy. The scene at the Cusco airport could only be described as utter panic. The entrance to the airport was gated and heavily guarded by armed forces and police. Travelers scrambled onto the crowded, muddy streets out of taxis and joined a line outside the airport spanning two blocks. I was told because I did not have a valid boarding pass, I would not be allowed in – so we headed back to our hotel with our fingers crossed we could stay there for 15 extra days.
We were the lucky ones – our hotel was able to keep us, feed us, and the staff were working to accommodate us in any way during our stay. (We would worry about the giant bill for this later). But other Canadians were left on their own to find last minute accommodations and practice self-isolation.
Still, we were ignorant to the potential dangers this virus can cause and could not have anticipated the overwhelming power of panic and fear that overtook Peru overnight.
Being in a chain American hotel, the impact of the virus seemed to be minimal. People gathered within communal spaces in the hotel. All guests received written notices about measures being taken to prevent viral spread.
I spoke to Michael McDougal and his son Shawn from Arizona. Having heard very little from the American Government at the time, they were desperately reaching out hoping to learn more details. “The hardest part is not really knowing if we are going to go home tomorrow, if we can go home the 31st or if it would be May 5,” Michael told me.
Shawn stated, “I’m not super worried about getting an illness right now. I just want to be home.”
Canadians were making pleas to the Canadian government via social media, emailing the embassy and reaching out to media all over Canada hoping for any information about repatriation flights to Canada.
As the days went by, the dangers seemed to escalate.
Marina Fanous and Gregory Bestavros from Toronto were working desperately to get information about going home.
“Everyone seemed to be fine, but the other day two people were coughing so the hostel brought in a doctor to test them. We were then told the results would take three to five days and that if they came out positive, we would not be allowed to leave the hostel for 28 days…there are military outside of our hostel to make sure no one leaves,” Marina told me.
Back home, Premier Doug Ford then made the call to close all non-essential businesses and increase measures around social distancing.
We joined a Facebook group of Canadian citizens to stay in the loop. We followed all precautions and the instructions of the Canadian government with little response. Overextended with calls, the Canadian embassy was shut down and any email communication prompted responses with automated messages.
All the while, airlines released statements indicating stoppage of service until at least the summer.
On March 22, we finally received word that we may be getting help. The Canadian embassy directed Canadians seeking to return home to register online. And March 27 was reserved for those in Cusco to leave.
We had to wait for an email with detailed instructions and a code to be sent in order to purchase a $1400 one-way ticket home from Lima to Toronto. This was on a “first-come, first-serve” basis, and we secured tickets.
The next day, we made our way to a designated meeting point at 5:30am to get on an airport transfer bus
We crowded nervously in the lobby along with approximately 60 other Canadian citizens. When our buses arrived, our boarding pass served as our ‘golden ticket’ home.
All passengers were temperature checked upon entering the airport grounds. We stood two meters apart. We were required to wear face coverings. It all felt dystopian.
We were among the 500 passengers to secure a flight back home. We cheered for the airline staff who placed themselves at risk to get us back.
It felt very different than our inbound journey. Any cough, sniffle or sneeze warranted a hard glance or worried stare. We did not know what we were coming home to.
Walking through an eerily empty Pearson International Airport on March 28, we were welcomed by border security officers, provided handouts on COVID-19, and instructed to self isolate for the next 14 days. It was good to be home.