All they want is to come home. Or, at least, to know when they can get back to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Local residents Scott Robinson and Chelsea Widdicombe, both 23, are stuck in Peru, due to a country-wide quarantine that has closed the borders. Amid the world-wide spread of the coronavirus, they sit and wait, with no idea when they might be able to return to Canada.
And their parents back home are sitting on eggshells, trying to do everything in their power to ensure the two get home safely.
Robinson left Feb. 29 on what was to be a 10-month trek around the world, starting in the South American country. Various friends were to join him along the way for shorter stretches, beginning with Widdicombe, who arrived in Lima on March 12.
Their first few days were full of adventure, touring through various towns and taking in the beauty of South America.
On March 16, the pair were in Aguas Calientes, known as the gateway to Machu Picchu. They had tickets for the 5:20 a.m. bus to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. While waiting to board, an official from the Ministry of Culture stepped out to inform the crowd that the Inca ruins, and indeed, the entire town, had been closed.
At the time, Robinson and Widdicombe weren’t yet aware that the Peruvian government had closed the country’s borders, declaring a state of emergency. Scheduled to take a train as the first step in a three-plus hour trip back to the city of Cusco late that afternoon, they returned to their hostel, packed up their things, and high-tailed it to the station to arrange an earlier departure.
Their arrival at that train station was met by a massive crowd, all with the same idea.
“I think every traveller, and every worker and resident of the town, was trying to get out through the one train station, and it was quite a scene,” says Robinson.
That’s when they realized the borders had closed. Panic set in for the two. Misinformation abounded, and neither Widdicombe nor Robinson is fluent in Spanish. It didn’t help that a number of stray dogs who had been wandering around the station began a vicious fight that Widdicombe says lasted about 30 seconds, right in the middle of the crowd.
Four hours later, they finally boarded the train, only to be forced to wait another hour as PeruRail connected more cars to handle the large number of anxious passengers.
Once in Cusco, the plan was to get a flight to Lima, the site of Jorge Chávez International Airport. If they were to leave Peru that night, they would have had to be on a plane by midnight.
With help from their families back in NOTL, they tried to get flights from Cusco to Lima to Canada, but struck out in the end.
Widdicombe says the feeling of dread for her didn’t come at the airport, but instead at that train station at 5:00 a.m. “With the timeline, we pretty much knew it would be a miracle even if we just got a flight to Lima,” she says. “We were so far away from Cusco, and they were only letting people in if they had a ticket for that day.”
It was a bit of a miracle that they even got into Cusco, Robinson adds, with the police presence there. They met more police at the airport, and somehow worked their way in, but were unable to book a flight to the Chávez Airport.
Robinson and Widdicombe are now holed up with 12 other travellers, a number of them also Canadian, at their Airbnb in Cusco. The country has instituted a quarantine that confined the entire country to their homes or accommodations. On March 18, Peru imposed a country-wide curfew from 8 p.m to 5 a.m. Outside of those hours, police patrolling the city will stop anyone who can’t prove they are leaving for medical attention or food supplies.
They both have plane tickets for April 1, but there is no guarantee flights out of Peru will be authorized by that time. And they can’t get answers from the Canadian government — the Canadian Embassy in Lima is currently closed due to the 15-day quarantine.
Thanks to FaceTime and the internet, they’ve been able to communicate with their families back home. Their parents, of course, continue to worry, and to work to get them out of Peru.
Doug and Nancy Widdicombe were instrumental in helping to arrange those April 1 tickets for Scott and Chelsea to fly from Lima. They have helped them book and rebook flights, and have grown increasingly frustrated with the communication with Air Canada.
“I wrote a letter to Air Canada, and they put me through this email thing, and the response came back and said they would get back to us in 10 days,” says Doug. So he thought he would try phoning. “The website tells you if you phone, there is an 18-hour on-hold process. Their systems are heavily overloaded, obviously.”
Nancy says the biggest frustration for Chelsea and Scott is that they have seen Chile, Mexico and Israel send planes to get their people out of the country. Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for all Canadians to come home last Monday, to this point the federal government has done little to actually get stranded citizens back to the country.
The Widdicombes have communicated with local Conservative Party M.P. Tony Baldinelli, who says he has been working hard to urge the Trudeau government to take action. “We’re following it closely, and making sure the government is aware of Mr. Widdicombe’s daughter (and the other Canadians in Peru), and actively trying to see what can be done to facilitate getting them home.”
With the possibility of the House of Commons, in some form, returning to Parliament next week, Baldinelli says it will hopefully provide a forum in which the dilemma of the stranded travellers can take centre stage.
Anne Robinson says it’s been “a rollercoaster of emotions – one minute you’re very worried, the next you’re glad they’re settled somewhere safe, but then you realize they’re still a long way from coming home.”
When they FaceTime, she says, Scott is smiling, upbeat and calm about everything. That fits with Scott’s father, Ross Robinson’s positivity. He says his son has travelled to Africa, Australia, Greece, Portugal and all across Canada. He adds that both “Scott and Chelsea have good common sense, and they will figure it out.”
In the meantime, they all worry that with the police and military enforcing the curfew, the pair won’t have access to food and water in the mountain city. And of course, there’s the virus itself, which by March 19 had infected 234 people in the country.
Estimates vary as to exactly how many Canadians share the predicament faced by Chelsea and Scott. The pair stay connected with other travellers in the country through a closed Facebook group called Canadians Stranded in Peru. At press time, the group had grown to over 600 members.
For now, Widdicombe and Robinson spend their time sleeping in, eating dry cereal, watching shows, knitting (Chelsea only), and looking out their window at their stunning view of the mountain city. Periodically, they get together with the other stranded travellers in their complex to do yoga.
And of course, they wait for action from Ottawa.