Time is quickly running out for Niagara-on-the-Lake residents Chelsea Widdicombe and Scott Robinson, who are trapped in Peru.
That country’s minister of defense announced that by midnight Sunday morning, March 22, Peru would no longer support any repatriation efforts by foreign governments. With 263 cases of COVID-19 reported in the country as of March 20, the Peruvian government says it must do more to contain the spread of the virus.
That potentially leaves the pair, along with more than 800 other Canadians, indefinitely stranded in the South American country. That is, unless the Canadian government could arrange a flight out of Peru Saturday, March 21.
The U.S. government has been desperately trying to arrange charter flights to bring its citizens in Peru back to American soil. There was no concrete plan forthcoming, however, from Canadian officials, even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced arrangements to send a plane to Morocco Saturday to rescue citizens stuck there.
Trudeau stepped to the microphone Saturday morning to address the dilemma of the thousands of Canadians stranded abroad due to the novel coronavirus.
After assuring Canadians that an Air Canada flight would bring travellers back from Morocco this weekend, he said he was also hoping to rescue citizens stranded in Spain and Peru in the coming days. Trudeau did not address Peru’s midnight deadline. He did acknowledge that he was working with officials in other countries to discuss their local situations and take into account their airspace closures.
In his address, the Prime Minister admitted that it would not be possible to rescue all stranded travellers, and that anyone displaying symptoms of the virus would not be allowed to board a plane.
At 3pm that same afternoon, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced via Twitter that he had received a guarantee that Peruvian authorities would still be allowing humanitarian evacuation flights of Canadian citizens to depart Peru.
Up to that point, Chelsea’s father Doug wasn’t very optimistic that his daughter would be on her way home soon. The news from Champagne, he said, was a little more encouraging, but there was still no guarantee.
He pointed out that Cusco itself, where the two are staying, may be currently hosting over 400 Canadians. “That’s more than could fit on a single plane for the one-and-a-half-hour trip (from Cusco to Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima)”, he said. “Alternatively, it’s a nine to 10 hour bus ride, and with that many Canadians, 10 buses would be needed.”
The stranded travellers will be on the hook, by the way, for the cost of the flight home, whenever it happens.
“We’re working with the airlines to make sure that the prices being paid by these passengers are responsible and appropriate,” said Trudeau. “We’re there to help the airline if necessary to cover their costs for these flights, but we do expect that those Canadians that have to come back pay for their own tickets.”
Doug and his wife, Nancy, say they’re more than happy to pay whatever it costs to fly their daughter home. At the same time, they are appalled by the stories of airlines gouging stranded travellers for flights home.
In Peru, to make matters worse for Chelsea and Scott, the police who are patrolling the town began knocking on the doors of hostels and hotels yesterday, asking travellers directly if they were exhibiting any symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
“From what I’ve heard, they’re just asking if you have any symptoms, and maybe checking your temperature. If you have any symptoms, we’ve heard you’re stuck here for another four weeks,” Chelsea says.
So far, the Airbnb in which she and Robinson are staying has not been visited by officials. She thinks they might escape the scrutiny, as it may be difficult for the police to know which residences are being rented out to travellers.
That Airbnb is still costing the pair $80 a night. Doug says they’re happy to pay the unexpected cost, but he’s also happy that the prime minister announced a $5,000 loan for travellers to help offset the cost of airlines and accommodations. Though he says they won’t apply for the loan, he’s sure many of the stranded Canadians may need it.
As the virus continues to spread and cause increased concern in Peru, Chelsea and Scott become more confined to their two-bedroom accommodations. Their rental also has a kitchenette and a small living area, but after 6 p.m., she says, it gets pretty cold in the mountains, and there is no heat in the building.
With a number of other travellers also in their complex, many of whom are Canadian, they had been finding ways to keep their spirits up. “Before we were doing yoga and stuff, but now we’re pretty much confined to our living quarters, because if people go out for groceries, we don’t know if they’ve come into contact, so we’re trying to be even more safe.”
With the morning’s bad news, Chelsea says the mood there changed quickly. The closed Facebook group Canadians stuck in Peru Covid19, which as of press time was up to 968 members, had been serving as a communication and bonding tool for Chelsea and the rest. But that changed, as well.
“I am trying to stay off of Facebook right now because everyone is so stressed. It sounded like we were going to be picked up Monday, and now, again, it’s an indefinite amount of time,” she says.
“I hope there is some way to override the system, but right now it doesn’t look like there is.”
It was supposed to be an adventure for the two 23-year-olds.
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 Peru on March 12.
Their first few days were spent taking in the beauty of the country. Cusco sits inland, in the middle of the Andes mountains. Once the capital of the Inca empire, its proximity to Incan ruins makes it a common travel destination for travellers like Robinson and Widdicombe.
On March 16, the pair had made their way to 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.
Not yet aware the Peruvian government had declared a state of emergency, closing its borders, they packed up their things and made their way to the train station. They hoped to move up their late-afternoon tickets for the start of their three-hour trip back to Cusco.
Their arrival at that train station was met by a massive crowd, who all had 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.
After four hours of panic at the station, they finally boarded a train and were en-route back to Cusco. Once there, they rushed to the airport and tried desperately to book a flight to Lima, in an effort to board a plane out of the country before the midnight deadline.
Unsuccessful, they returned to their Airbnb to try to arrange another flight home, with the help of their parents. Currently, they hold tickets from Cusco to Lima for April 1, but have no idea how soon they would be able to book a flight out of Lima after that.
Saturday afternoon, Widdicombe and Robinson had a chance to FaceTime both local Member of Parliament Tony Baldinelli and NDP MPP Wayne Gates. Robinson said Baldinelli again “expressed his regret, and told (them) that he has been working to communicate to the government the importance of getting Canadians home.”
Robertson added that he urged the MP to stress the importance of the situation in Peru to the Canadian Embassy in that country, as well.
As for Wayne Gates, he told Robinson that he is pressuring the premier’s office to extend its work past the King City students (whom Ford promised to get home in a speech Friday) to include all Canadians.
Doug and Nancy, along with Scott’s parents, Anne and Ross, all worry that with their kids basically confined to their accommodations, they won’t have access to food and water in the mountain city. And of course, there’s the virus itself.
Scott’s father, Ross Robinson, remains optimistic that the two will find their way home soon.
But to Chelsea, unable to leave her accommodations, “it’s getting more and more hopeless, it seems. The government didn’t act quickly enough, and we’re stuck here for at least another week.”
And with no guarantee that their flight to Lima on April 1 will take them any closer to getting home, or even if that flight is allowed to leave Cusco, the uncertainty continues.