One American’s quest to come home during a COVID-19 lockdown

Read part 1 of Joseph DeAcetis’ coronavirus shipment from Peru.

On Sunday March 15, Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra declared a national emergency, including a strict 15-day quarantine and other severe travel restrictions due to COVID-19. I had flown to Lima earlier in the month for a series of meetings about a new clothing business I was finally launching with my partners, but it was immediately clear that we had to leave the country and return to the United States.

That evening, when Lima airport was due to close in two days, I logged on to the US State Department website to get my name put on a list for a flight back to America. I soon received an email from United States Embassy in Peru who gave me a list of phone numbers for commercial airlines that might be able to get us home. I called all the airlines – multiple times – but we weren’t lucky enough to catch a flight and were confined to the Miraflores district of Lima for two weeks.

Even American citizens who were lucky enough to board a plane, including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, described the process as chaotic. “It was a real pandemonium at the airport”, Rodgers told a radio interviewer of his ordeal in Peru.

As of March 28, there were still some 2,300 Americans stranded in Peru, and at this point I have little confidence that we will be able to return home soon. After speaking with other Americans here, as well as with US officials, I feel that the US Embassy in Peru was unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude.

After spending over two weeks at Hotel Casa Suyay, my business partner, Juan Benson, and I decided to move into a two-bedroom Airbnb near Miraflores. We weren’t the only ones leaving the property. Most of the other guests – with whom we formed a crisis camaraderie – left about a day after we left. The reason for the exodus was largely due to the new restrictions imposed on the hotel, including confinement to our rooms 24 hours a day. Since the state of emergency has been extended until April 12, this type of quarantine was more like a prison sentence.

The staff was very nice and tried to make the most of this extraordinary situation, but in the end the hotel had to comply with the Peruvian government. It was a bittersweet departure as the director informed us when we left: “After 17 days of enduring the pandemic together,” he said, “you feel like family.” He was right, but there was still time to leave.

Moving into Airbnb felt like a fresh start in Lima. Like people around the world, we take social distancing very seriously. We arrived in Peru for business, not for pleasure, but being locked up all day in a room in a foreign country is scary. A short walk to get food or just look out at the Pacific Ocean has become an essential part of maintaining our sanity. Even being free to walk around in a spacious apartment brought back a little sense of normalcy.

Among the expatriates who have left Casa Suyay, there is a small group of us who remain in contact with each other. We exchange information on repatriation and share war stories of our time in Peru.

A woman I got to know here, Ellen, traveled to Peru to hike Machu Picchu with her daughter, Isabel. When news about COVID-19 started coming out, they immediately called it quits. Just coming back to Lima seemed heartbreaking. After waiting more than six hours to board a train to nearby Cusco, they were lucky enough to buy bus tickets to Lima. That trip, Ellen said, took 28 hours to reach Lima, on a bus packed with so many passengers they were crawling out of the windows to board and stowing themselves in the overhead compartment below.

As if this trip didn’t seem taxing enough, Ellen recounted that there were no working toilets on the bus and that a pregnant woman was among those crammed into that overhead compartment.

Stories like Ellen’s help keep my own plight in perspective. Yes, it’s scary to be stuck in a foreign country during a pandemic. And, yes, it is inconceivable to imagine being confined to a small hotel room for two more weeks. But right now we feel safe and healthy, and that’s what matters most.

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