As foreign countries suddenly seal their borders during the coronavirus, many Americans are finding themselves stranded. Wochit
When Barbara Land and Tia Flores ventured into Peru’s Amazon rainforest on March 13, they had grand plans to help the people living in the little remote river village of Ayacucho.
Land, founder and executive director of the Nevada Building Hope Foundation, and her team of volunteers recently helped to finish constructing the village’s first high school. The school was supposed to open in March.
“I wanted to be there when those kids walked into school for the very first time with their new uniforms and their backpacks,” Land said.
“I had to be there for that.”
Motherhood during coronavirus: Xbox bribes, separation, screaming into pillows
She also wanted to visit with all the families in the village, including her two friends suffering from cancer. She even packed stuffed toys, blankets, clothing, shoes, backpacks, and other school supplies to give to the children.
Meanwhile, Flores, program director for the Sierra Arts Foundation, hoped to teach the local women craft making, so they could have a new source of income. She said Land had invited her to travel with her to Peru.
“The arts have always been my North Star,” Flores said. “The arts play a significant role, not only in our lives but also in our economy.
“That’s why I was there.”
But then things changed as a new strain of coronavirus permeated the world, and their plans were derailed.
The disease was quickly spreading, eventually infecting more than 4 million and killing over 200,000 people. Several countries were already banning travel and shutting down businesses.
By the time they arrived to their destination in Peru, they learned President Martín Vizcarra had shut down the country—leaving Flores and Land stranded in the jungle.
The two women could not travel by boat, plane or on land.
The next several weeks became a harrowing journey to get home, eventually involving the help of both Peruvian and Nevadan politicians as well as family members and friends in Reno.
‘Everything was normal’
On March 13, they landed in Lima and then traveled to Iquitos, a small town in the center of Peru. The next day, they embarked on their three-hour journey into the jungle on a riverboat.
“We left thinking everything was going to be fine, and it was,” Flores said. “Everything was normal, a few people were wearing face masks.”
The two women were staying at the Curassow Amazon Lodge, which sat along the banks of the Amazon River.
“There was nothing unusual at this time,” Flores said. “People were traveling, and there were tourists there from all around the world.”
The only place they could access the Internet was at the nearby Grand Amazon Lodge. Flores and Land were visiting the owners there when they learned the Peruvian president banned all travel.
Then on March 19, they learned the U.S. Department of State had issued a travel warning.
“At that point, now we were concerned,” Flores said, adding her return flight was also canceled. “That’s when I called my family and made them aware of the situation.”
A harrowing journey
Flores knew she had to get out of the jungle first. At one point, the women headed to Iquitos on a riverboat but were turned back because they didn’t have printed versions of the proper paperwork.
“To get out of the jungle, we had to get permission from the government to be able to travel,” Flores said, adding they needed a travel document from the U.S. Embassy. “That was being orchestrated by a lot of the people we were working with in Peru.”
Land said the owners of both lodges convinced the country’s minister of tourism to safely accompany them back to Iquitos.
So, on March 27, the two women again hopped on a riverboat to the nearby port town of San Joaquín. There, they were greeted by the minister of tourism, the lieutenant of the national police, and an entire military brigade.
“When I say port town, I mean it’s just a beach,” Flores said. “It’s really primitive.”
They then drove to Iquitos and stayed at a five-star hotel.
“As we went on along the way, it was a much different scene than when we first left because there were barricades everywhere,” Flores said. “There were armed military police everywhere. Everybody you saw in Peru was wearing masks.”
At the hotel, Flores said she met several tourists who were in the same situation.
“Everybody had the same goal — to get to their home country,” she said.
Labor of love
Friends, family members, and even colleagues called every elected official they could reach.
Eventually, they started getting calls and emails back from U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s Office.
Land said she knew Cortez Masto would get her home. So, while she waited for instructions, she spent her time visiting with the villagers and playing with the children.
She even took foot measurements then so she could come back next time with a supply of new shoes.
A former professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, Land had devoted 13 years of her life to helping families in remote jungle villages.
“I was down there to do a job,” Land said. “I wasn’t down there as a vacationer. So, I did my job. In the midst of this crisis, I got everything done I needed to do.”
At the end of the day after her work, Land was usually either at a local bodega or sitting on the steps of someone’s hut drinking a cold beer and watching the villagers play soccer.
“There’s nothing like having a cold beer in the Amazon rainforest,” Land said. “I’d sit there in the middle of the jungle drinking beer, it’s awesome.”
Still, Land was worried that if the virus spread into the jungle, she would die.
“At that point, when this was beginning, you weren’t hearing about the people who were surviving this,” she said, adding the medical care in the U.S. is significantly better. “You were hearing about the people that were dying.”
It took a village
Land and Flores soon learned the only way out of the country was through repatriation flights and that the last one was scheduled to leave on April 5.
“We found out that everything was leaving out of Lima,” Flores said, adding they were still in Iquitos where the only way out was by plane or boat.
“Even though we knew we were safe there, we knew the clock was ticking and we needed to get out,” she said.
Flores said she then received an email from Cortez Masto’s office. One of her senior advisers told her that a plane would pick them up from Iquitos and fly them to Lima on April 6.
Early that morning, Flores and Land took a taxi to the airport in Iquitos. There was no one there except a few airport workers and a volunteer from the U.S. Embassy.
They were screened for any sign of infection and then boarded the plane. Flores said they both had to sign a whole harmless-agreement that they wouldn’t hold the government responsible if they contracted the virus. They also signed a promissory note agreeing to pay back the government for travel expenses.
Later that afternoon, they arrived in Lima where they boarded a plane to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.
“Nobody had to help, and they did,” Flores said. “I mean people went out of their way to help me.”
You are not alone: How a Reno artist is spreading messages of hope, healing
Flores described her journey as an “emotional rollercoaster.” But despite the ups and downs, she said she realized how dependent she was on other people’s good graces.
“Even the people who worked in the hotel, for our safety, they stayed there. They lived there, and they didn’t even get to go home to see their families.”
‘Nobody was taking this seriously’
Flores said several people kept asking her why she would risk going back home when the U.S. was emerging as the epicenter of the virus. But for the native Nevadan, Reno was her home.
“The scariest part of the trip was coming home and traveling across the country,” Flores said. She described the Dulles airport as “an empty movie set.” A few people were wandering around without wearing a mask.
It took three more flights to get to Reno. They landed late in the afternoon on Tuesday, April 7.
“That was the anxiety at that time, getting home safely,” she said. “It was shocking, shocking that people weren’t abiding by the distance rule or didn’t have masks.
“It was no wonder why the U.S. was the epicenter because nobody was taking this seriously.”
Home is where the heart is
When Land arrived at her home, she was greeted by her husband and four children. Both women had to self-isolate for two weeks.
Still, Land prepared her traditional Easter dinner and shared it with her friends and neighbors. She said she left packaged meals outside on her porch for pickup.
“As happy as I was to leave that country, I was equally sad,” Land said. “That’s how I am every time I go and come. A part of my heart is there.”
She said her organization has recently raised enough money to send a boat with supplies back to the villages she worked at in Peru.
Meanwhile, Flores was greeted by her friends and neighbors who had gathered around to applaud her safe return.
She said the warm welcome only validated why she needed to be home and in the state and community that she loves. She hopes her story will remind people to embrace human kindness.
“This epidemic is not just local,” Flores said. “It’s a crisis that’s around the world. Everybody is dealing with this.”
Read or Share this story: https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2020/05/14/coronavirus-reno-woman-journey-peru-home-covid-19-pandemic/3060777001/