On Monday, Canada’s foreign affairs minister had successfully arranged for three repatriation planes to arrive in Peru this week, but it won’t be enough to get local residents Scott Robinson and Chelsea Widdicombe home.
Both 23 years old, the life-long friends are stuck in Peru due to a country-wide quarantine that has closed the borders. Amid the world-wide spread of the COVID-19 virus, they sit and wait, with no idea when they might be able to return to Canada.
The problem for Robinson and Widdicombe is that the planes are to arrive, and depart from, Lima. They, however, are holed up under a country-wide quarantine in an Airbnb in the city of Cusco, a 20-plus hour bus ride away.
Peru’s minister of defence announced last week 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 said it must do more to contain the spread of the virus. As of Monday, that number had risen to 395.
Positive news came Sunday afternoon. That’s when Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced via Twitter that he had received a guarantee from Peruvian authorities that they would allow humanitarian evacuation flights of Canadian citizens to depart Peru. And on Monday, Champagne gave details for the three flights leaving this week.
Those flights, though, are only to accommodate those travellers already in the Lima region.
At press time, it seemed to leave the pair, along with as many as 2,000 other Canadians, indefinitely stranded in the South American country.
To make things even more uncertain for Widdicombe and Robinson, in a Saturday morning address, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted that it would not be possible to rescue all stranded travellers.
Reached Monday evening, Chelsea’s father Doug was resigned to the realization that his daughter would not be on her way home this week. He had been holding out faint hope that she and Scott could be on one of those three flights, but he admitted the long trip from Cusco would make it nearly impossible.
This trip was supposed to be a different kind of 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 Inca 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, including witnessing a vicious fight between a pack of stray dogs, they finally boarded a train and were enroute 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 checked into an Airbnb and got to work trying 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 guarantee that the Cusco airport will even be open by then. If they make it to Lima, they still have to find a flight to Canada.
Widdicombe and Robinson, along with their respective parents, have been in contact with Niagara Falls MP Tony Baldinelli and MPP Wayne Gates, who have both assured the pair that they are actively working on the situation.
As the pair’s stay in Peru becomes indefinitely extended, their costs continue to rise. The Airbnb in which they are staying is costing them $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 accommodations. With both a quarantine and curfew in place, they can only leave for medical reasons or to get food. And they have to be able to prove to the police who are patrolling the city that their reason to leave is valid.
Their two-bedroom rental also has a kitchenette and a small living area, so it’s not as cramped as it would be had they been stuck in a hostel. But after 6 p.m., Chelsea 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.”
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.