Global Affairs Interviews

When study abroad turns into stuck abroad: one student’s journey home from Peru

Staring out the window of the coach bus across the monochromatic expanse of desert outside of Huacachina, Peru, Maeve Flaherty was shook from her contemplative stupor. Rumours began fluttering around her, later to be confirmed by the tour guides on the bus: the Peruvian border was closing in 24 hours in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There would be no flights allowed out.

The hours that followed devolved into panicked packing, cancelled flights, and frantic parents.

Flaherty, an undergraduate student at Columbia University in New York City, arrived in Lima, Peru on 8 March after traveling around South America for a few weeks before her study abroad program started. She had only just started familiarising herself with her new Lima life before the borders closed— getting to know her host family and neighbourhood, the best restaurants, and the most scenic running routes.

“It was a really good living situation at my home stay,” she said. “My host mom was lovely, the house was great, so it was looking good. The four months would have been quite nice.”

Two weeks after arriving, it all “started hitting the fan.”

As soon as Flaherty got off the bus from Huacachina, she and a friend started investigating potential paths back to the United States. It was a race against time, but they eventually found a flight back to Newark, outside of New York City scheduled to depart at 10:50 pm— an hour before the borders closed. She and her friend packed their bags quickly and felt grateful to have found an escape route.

Two hours after they purchased their tickets, however, the flight was cancelled by the airline. Flaherty went to the airport in hopes of getting on another flight or finding other options out of the country in the rapidly developing situation. The airport was in complete disarray when she arrived.

Videos courtesy of Maeve Flaherty

“I was in the airport for five hours and waited in so many lines that were crawling with police and military people. One of the lines I was in just abruptly closed down and the customer service desk said, ‘look there are no more flights. This is not an option.’ So, they sent people away with policemen even pushing the line away. They basically cleared the whole airport.”

Defeated and frustrated, she went back to her host family. She was quarantined for a week before there was any word about how she would get home. She had another flight scheduled but feared it would get cancelled, too. In the meantime, her university worked with their insurance company to arrange for a chartered flight home and to inform the U.S. Embassy about the unfolding situation. Although uncertainty about the situation hung over her path home, Flaherty continued to make the most of the unusual circumstances and emphasised she felt very comfortable and safe in her home if she did have to stay there for the foreseeable future. She got to know her host family through long discussions in Spanish and observed how Peruvians were overcoming the difficult times of prolonged self-isolation.

“Every night at eight o’clock everyone would come to the windows to applaud, sing songs, and wave phone flashlights. That was a very special experience to be in Lima with everyone cheering every night.”

Peru entered a state of martial law to enforce its national quarantine policy. Essential stores like grocery and pharmacies remain open, but Flaherty reports that this does not mean they are accessible. Members of the Peruvian military roamed the streets and stopped almost anyone walking and banned private citizens from driving. Hostels and hotels have reportedly quarantined residents inside to prevent any liability that would come from the coronavirus spreading within their walls. This has made the effort to repatriate citizens especially hard for consulates. The United States alone is dealing with 24,000 citizens reportedly stuck abroad.  

Beyond private measures, the military has showed extreme displays of authority. Flaherty was sent a video of a man and his dog being put into a military vehicle after being stopped for dog walking in their neighbourhood.

Her host mother’s uncle tried to leave his house for groceries when a military patrol was in the neighbourhood. They commanded that he stay in the house despite his protests that he just needed to get more food and essential supplies. Flaherty said one of the only times she felt alarmed by the situation was when she ventured to the grocery store. She had to keep her passport and address with her at all times and contemplated what it would be like to be questioned on the street.

“There was a part of me that pondered what it would be like if I am actually faced with discussing my situation with a soldier with a gun. I speak good enough Spanish, I could do it, but what if I got flustered in that moment? What will happen? If someone can get arrested for walking their dog, all bets are off.”

Her host family was also well prepared for times of uncertainty. The freezer was packed with extra food prepared by her host mother, who, Flaherty said, remained “unflustered” throughout her stay.

“They wanted me to go home because they knew my family was freaking out, but they said if it doesn’t go well you will be fine here, don’t worry about it,” she said. “But I was also living with a bunch of people in their seventies, so that was an added impetuous to stay in, although I would have been careful anyways. It didn’t seem feasible to be in quarantine forever there, but they were so kind. I miss them already.”

The strict rules enforced in Peru also made a prolonged stay less desirable.

“It was a bummer that I couldn’t go to the park and go for a run. It would’ve been nice along the cliff. You couldn’t leave even for exercise, so that was the real downside. Honestly, I could’ve been there indefinitely if I could’ve been able to go for runs. I could’ve stayed. But there was an element of being trapped in the house that was not really ideal.”

Communication from the U.S. Embassy was infrequent and unclear during the week in quarantine. Finally, there was movement. The Embassy began evacuating elderly Americans, those with health conditions, and embassy personnel. Flaherty received an email that she needed to keep her phone charged and turned on and her bags packed. A van was coming to pick her up the following day or the next.

“I felt like I was on the verge of being smuggled out of the country. It was quite a thrilling occasion.”

She was finally picked up at nine in the morning the next day. The streets were deserted except for sporadic military roadblocks. Because the airports were shut down, they were taken to the nearest Peruvian air force base. They were all dropped off outside the base for security reasons where they were greeted with police armed with riot shields who told them to sit on the street or gather under tents. They remained sitting outside the base for at least two hours until embassy officials came with “fun little vests and hats on” to read out names and bring them all to the airplane. Attempts to maintain social distancing during this process were not always apparent.

“Some of the policies were funny. They told us to sit on a separate row on the bus to the plane so we would be spread out and not touching each other but while we were on the side of the road they had set up tents for shade cover and, of course, everyone is standing close by each other to get shade for nearly two hours. So now they want to separate us for a minute ride?”

Once outside the plane, they were all instructed to pile their bags under a tent where a bomb-sniffing dog inspected them. No other usual security hurdles to jump through like metal detectors or fussy rules about liquids.

Finally, after a week of speculation and no clear way out of Peru, Flaherty boarded the plane and luxuriated in the row she had all to herself.

The flight charted by the U.S. government was a saving grace, but its cost is still ambiguous. Flaherty had to sign a paper once on board saying that she would commit to paying for it. Not doing so would prevent her from renewing her passport.

“They are making us pay for it, which is fair, I get it. It’s not the American taxpayers’ fault that we are on vacation in Peru so it shouldn’t be a burden to them. That being said, they didn’t tell us what it cost. They made us sign a promissory note, but I still don’t know what I signed. I do not know what I owe the U.S. government right now,” she said. “I believe Peru’s borders are closed indefinitely. Not taking this flight was not an option. I had to take this flight.”

Once she landed back on U.S. soil, Flaherty knew this was a story she would not soon forget. The journey back to her home in Norwalk, Connecticut, where she is now self-isolating with her dogs was not without uncertainty, but she explained that once the embassy was involved, she was just “along for the ride” and did not feel anxious.

Her views of the South Pacific Ocean are now traded for the forests of the Northeastern United States. Although she is happy to finally be home and appease her worried parents, she wistfully concluded that “Connecticut in the winter is no Lima.”