What It’s Like to Be a Canadian Stranded Abroad Because of COVID-19
"Four months ago, I quit my job in Halifax to travel the world with my boyfriend. We never imagined the world would soon shut down around us."
My favourite time of day is around 8 p.m., after the sun has already set but the air is still warm in Lima, Peru. This is when the clapping begins, first as a quiet patter, and soon as loud applause with cheers and sometimes music, as more people in the nearby apartments throw open windows and stand out on their balconies to salute those in essential services who have gone to work today. It is the only time of day we experience any real kind of social connection. It lasts for about ten minutes.
Four months ago, I quit my job as a magazine editor in Halifax to travel the world. It was something I had wanted to do since I finished university, but never had the money for. After years of saving, my boyfriend Luke and I finally decided the time was right to spend a few months exploring South America. We had travel insurance, vaccines, First-Aid kits, hiking boots and registration with our embassies. We thought we had done everything we could to prepare. We never imagined the world would soon shut down around us.
We left Canada during the first week of January. Coronavirus was something happening in a province in China, but the threat felt distant, forgettable. I grew up in Toronto during SARS, while my mother was an ER nurse on the frontlines. I was warned not to share water bottles as a teen throughout the spread of H1N1. During those epidemics, schools and flights had never been cancelled, “social distancing” never enforced. I thought the coronavirus would be like that. I think most of us did.
As we moved from Argentina’s bustling cities to Chile’s southern mountains and up to the watery salt flats of Bolivia, news of coronavirus filtered through our weak Wi-Fi and cheap SIM cards. But there were little to no cases of coronavirus in South America. Peru didn’t even have a confirmed case until March 6. In some ways, we felt South America might even be safer than going back to Canada. The real change didn’t come until March 11, when the World Health Organization named coronavirus a pandemic. We happened to be crossing a border that day, from Bolivia into Peru. Before we could enter the customs office, our temperature was taken by two men in lab coats and face masks. One man with a bad sunburn on his face was pulled aside, as his temperature registered too high.
It was clear things were getting serious, but life continued around us business as usual. Busses were still running, hostels were still partying and tourist attractions were open to all. We sat by the pool and went sand-boarding in the desert, and no one told us to come home or think twice. I know how that sounds to some people—careless, childish, as if somehow I could have foreseen the predicament I would soon find myself in. But how could I have? Prime Minister Trudeau had yet to declare a state of emergency. Premier Doug Ford told Ontario families to keep their March break travel plans.
By the time the President of Peru Martín Vizcarra announced the total shutdown of the country, he gave 24 hours notice. Not only would all sea, air and land borders be closed but all domestic travel would also come to a halt, meaning no one could travel from one city to the next. At the time, we were in a fishing village four hours outside of Lima, a town with one main strip and a bustling, although not entirely picturesque, beach, best known for being the jumping off point to what many backpackers call “the poor man’s Galapagos.” We caught a midnight bus straight to the airport, desperately trying to find flights we could afford. At one point, a ticket to Mexico City would have cost us $4,000 each.
Everything was happening so fast. My emotions were being forced to adapt so quickly—from shock at the announcement, to anger at the ticket prices, to disbelief we wouldn’t get home—that I felt myself slide into a strange, flat place of calm. I couldn’t control anything around me, but at the very least, I could keep myself breaking out into tears in the airport, like many others around me were doing.
Even after almost ten hours at the airport, we were unable to secure passage out of the country. We took an Uber to a hostel we had booked the night before, but after we arrived, they kicked all of the guests out due to the impending two weeks of quarantine.
We are now in a small, private apartment in the upscale neighbourhood of Miraflores. It costs much more than we have previously been spending on accommodation, but worth it for the peace of mind it provides. This is a neighbourhood that would usually be bustling with tourists and locals alike, a place with trendy restaurants and four-star hotels and gorgeous Instagram-worthy haunts, but now the streets are barren. I watch from my balcony as people walk towards the grocery store one at a time, often with masks over their mouths.
Peru’s measures against coronavirus are more stringent than Canada’s at the time of this writing. You cannot leave the house to go for a morning jog, or visit family, or order take-out. We can only go outside to visit grocery stores or pharmacies, the only places that are open. Between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., there is a strict curfew. The other night, I watched in awe from my window as a helicopter cut through the night sky with a searchlight, presumably looking for those who were still out on the street.
If you are caught breaking curfew—or leaving the house for some reason other than to buy essentials—you face arrest.
When we go to the grocery store, we line up outside the building, leaving a metre of space between each person, even the person you have come to the grocery store with. The woman at the door counts how many people come out, then allows that many to go in. She sprays our hands with sanitizer as we enter. The shelves are well-stocked, but the energy is frantic; customers pile their carts with loaves of bread, tins of tuna, cases of beer. Interactions with staff are quick and to the point. I speak Spanish, and used to enjoy chatting with locals about the little things. But there is no time for friendly chatter now. The President has promised this will go on for two weeks, but the truth is that no one knows for sure how long this quarantine will last.
We are in a Facebook group with other Canadians who also find themselves stranded in Peru. Many report worse situations than we are in: hostels that won’t let them leave their dorms, hotels that won’t let them grocery shop. Some people are in the Amazon rainforest, a boat, bus and plane away from even making it to Lima. Others need medication they are in danger of running out of. Compared to them, we’re the lucky ones.
Within this group, rumours and misinformation circulate. Until a couple of days ago, Air Canada continued to offer tickets and some people commented happily to say they had bought flights home to later post that those flights had been cancelled. My own Air Canada flight that I had booked for when this lockdown is meant to lift at the beginning of April has also been cancelled. I now have a $1,200 travel voucher for a future flight, but I have no idea whether this can be put towards the Air Canada flight the government is reportedly arranging to get us home. I can’t even begin to consider what this is doing to my finances; at this point, Air Canada could ask for my kidney and I would have no choice but to agree.
From the beginning of this misadventure, contact with the embassy has been patchy at best. They sent us an email instructing us to leave Peru as quickly as possible, but that was after we had already been at the airport for six hours, trying to buy a ticket to anywhere. We have now filled out every form the Minister of Foreign Affairs has urged us to, and all the emails we receive are at least six hours behind the daily news cycle. With the embassy largely unresponsive, there is little way for us to verify any of the information that comes our way. On March 23, Prime Minister Trudeau confirmed three planes would be sent to those in Peru, but as of this writing, no one from the embassy has emailed us about that decision. It often feels the onus is on us to rescue ourselves.
I spend most of the day on my phone, writing tweets and emails. I reach out to the embassy, to my MP, to Air Canada. Most of these go unanswered. I take a break to make lunch, or do jumping jacks, or FaceTime with my sister back home in Toronto. Sometimes Luke and I will watch Netflix on our phones or play cards, but most of our energy is focused on getting back to Canada. I am grateful for my health and my security—as far as bad situations go, I know Luke and I are in the best, worst situation possible. But like everyone else currently stranded abroad, I long for home.
I wait for answers. I wait for a flight home. I wait, every night, for the applause to begin, so that I can wave at a stranger and feel part of something again.