A Few More Days in Peru

As my friends and I gathered around ceviche and pisco sours, we cheered to our week long abroad experience.

Peruvian universities start in March, so my study abroad program began later than most. I watched my friends abroad in Italy return home even before I arrived in Peru. During my first few days in Lima, the remainder of study abroad programs across the world shut down and students were repatriated. With a slight sense of amusement, I felt like the last one standing. Most of us in Lima were clinging on to having a few more days abroad and anxiously chatted about the things we wanted to do before we left over dinner. But the next morning we woke up to frantic emails and texts breaking the news that our plans had been nothing more than wishful thinking. The Peruvian President, Martín Vizcarra, had declared a national emergency in response to COVID-19. He announced that Peru would be under a strict, mandatory 15 day quarantine with the border closing at 11:59 p.m. that very night. No one was getting in or out. An email from our study abroad directors let us know that our program had been cancelled and urged us to get out of the country immediately. Otherwise,we would be forced to stay in quarantine for the next 15 days. The entire day, we raced against the clock, scrambling to find plane tickets that would get us home before the borders shut. But we came up empty handed, caught in the reality that while we would be getting our few more days in Peru, we would be spending them in quarantine.

With this realization, my program, my friends, my parents home in D.C., and I urged the U.S. Embassy and local representatives to help U.S. nationals return home. They kept telling us to wait for news from the embassy and that, soon enough, flights would be organized to take us home. Despite words of reassurance it felt like there were no concrete actions actually being taken on their part. But during the first few days of quarantine we watched as Mexico and other nations swiftly evacuated their citizens while Trump spoke of a fictitious military rescue plan. The Peruvian government had set certain conditions in order for the American government to repatriate the thousands of stranded Americans. Our return home was contingent on the U.S.’s commitment to getting Peruvians back home too. No American flights would be let in unless they were returning Peruvian nationals. But in his press conferences, Trump made no mention of his plan to bring back U.S. nationals, instead blaming us for being “too late” to leave the country. In fact, the U.S. government had given us no formal warning of the travel suspension. By the time word finally spread, most airlines had cancelled their international flights out of Peru, and the few flights left cost thousands of dollars. The 15 days of mandatory quarantine were just the beginning, with the travel suspension likely to be extended. 

Quarantine was lonely and volatile at times. I had spent the past week creating relationships with people I was supposed to be spending four months with, and now we were separated indefinitely. The embassy told us to keep our bags packed and be prepared to leave at any moment. As a result, my sleep was often interrupted by anxious night sweats and the urge to check for updates. But the hardest part was the inability to go outside and stretch my legs, a luxury I had taken for granted. Government mandates in Peru were clear: anyone outside without previously registering to buy groceries would be detained—a stark contrast to stay at home orders in the States. The neighborhood I was staying in, Miraflores, used to be full of life. In the days before quarantine people were everywhere: lounging in parks, surfing at Playa Makaha, bustling through sidewalks, honking their horns, and laughing freely. But from photos I was shown by my host mom Carmen, the city was now empty and silent, with a heavy police and military presence. 

I was saved by Carmen’s rooftop (azotea in Spanish). Every day I went upstairs and laid my red blanket on the concrete roof, basking in the sun, letting its rays warm my skin. I’d lean against the cream colored wall, carefully observing the colorful buildings surrounding me, the linens drying on the clothesline, and the potted plants decorating the perimeter. Up on the azotea I lived vicariously through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, listened intently to the podcast Heavyweight, put BENEE’s EP FIRE ON MARZZ on repeat, binge watched Élite on Netflix, FaceTimed my friends and family, munched on chocolate chip cookies, and deciphered the clouds. When evening fell, I watched the sky fade to soft pinks and oranges while the sun crept down. I clapped and cheered along to the 8 p.m. applause for the city’s healthcare workers. It was on the azotea where I found my sanity. 

I am also beyond thankful for the care and kindness I received from Carmen. Every morning I woke up to a ham and cheese sandwich with vanilla yogurt on the side, a breakfast that she attentively prepared for me. In the afternoon we would make time for ourselves, but at night we sat down for dinner together. My favorite dish consisted of squash lentils with an egg on top that she had meticulously fried because she knew huevos fritos were my favorite. For a week, we were each other’s dinner company. Even when the food was gone, we stayed up for sobremesa, time spent in conversation after our meals. I am grateful for our late nights. Her crinkled green eyes wide open as we talked about the history of Peru, traded gossip, shared stories of love and heartbreak, laughed at memes, reminisced on travels and adventures, and filled out coloring books. She brought a warmth to my short time in Lima that is unparalleled. I miss her dearly.

On March 22nd, I woke up to yet more frantic texts and emails—but this time, they bore good news. The U.S. Embassy had finally secured us a humanitarian flight home for the next day. In the morning Carmen and I tearfully said our goodbyes and I promised her I’d come back to visit. Her parting gift to me was a Machu Picchu puzzle. I ate my sandwich and yogurt for the final time, and rolled my bags out of the metal gate. Soon after, I was greeted by a van full of my friends who I’d been away from for the past week. We had spent as much time together as apart by the time we reunited, yet I felt relieved to be going through this with them. Dripping in sweat from Lima’s scorching summer heat, we waited in the van parked outside of the walls of the Peruvian Military Base for an hour before being released to sit under tarps guarded by armed soldiers. Another hour passed and we were taken from bus to bus until we arrived at our destination. When I peered out of the bus’ window, I saw a plane emblazoned with giant United lettering—the confirmation of our evacuation. During the flight back, my friends and I talked through the memories we had created in the short, but beautiful time we had shared. When we landed in Dulles International Airport the whole plane burst into applause—but I didn’t quite feel the same as my fellow passengers clapping and shouting. While I was relieved and grateful to be home, my heart still dropped. Reality set in—my experience abroad was over, and I wasn’t going to get it back. 

The repatriation of students studying abroad was necessary, but it left thousands of college students across the country with a panging disappointment of how their semester turned out. I remind myself how lucky I am to be safe and healthy, to have a caring home in the U.S. to be returned to, and to have my family and friends be in good health. I know that not every college student shares these privileges, and I’m careful to not take them for granted. However, I’m also making the decision to allow myself to be sad. I am sad that I didn’t get to explore the different barrios of Lima, eat more ceviche and drink more pisco sours, have more late nights sprawled in the park with my friends, take classes at the local university, watch more sunsets at Playa Makaha, hike the Inca Trail and visit Machu Picchu, and fill in more coloring books with Carmen.

As a first generation American with all of my extended family spread across the globe, mainly in Mexico and Spain, I’ve grown up viewing travel and exploration as a way to recenter myself. Engaging with my own different cultures as well as new ones has taught me that everyone looks at the world differently and we can learn so much from each other. For me, traveling has opened my eyes to different perspectives that have shifted my world view and reshaped my priorities and values. I wanted my experiences in Lima to become a permanent part of me in the way that my previous times abroad have done for me, but even more so. I would get to settle down in a new place for an extended period of time and make it a home. For all of us abroad this semester, our time was cut short. We collectively mourn for a rite of passage—an adventure we were given a taste of before having it taken away.