Sofia Arthurs-Schoppe, senior chemistry and communication major, describes a chaotic two days in Peru before her trip was cut short and she was obliged to either return to the United States or risk being stranded for an indefinite amount of time.
On March 12 I departed Kansas City for Lima, Peru on the trip of a lifetime to conduct research on electricity access in rural communities. This project was both the culmination of nearly three years of research I have completed in the field of electrification – the first two years through research for my chemistry major and the third through an independent study in business – and my Journey Grant.
I spent months preparing for this trip – developing relationships with contacts on the ground, training for the high altitude villages I would be spending time in and learning absolutely everything I could about electricity access throughout Latin America.
Yet when the day of my departure arrived, I was nervous.
On the eve of my flight the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic and, seemingly in response, President Trump announced a new policy barring individuals from European countries to travel to the United States.
I took these announcements seriously, but I was healthy, and I judged the risks of my trip to be minimal. At the time there were only five known cases of the virus in Peru, and each of these was far from where I would be staying. I had no idea how quickly things would change.
Things were seemingly fine when I boarded my flight. Yet during the approximately 12 hours that I was traveling – and offline – chaos erupted. When my flight touched down in Lima we were told that “new regulations” had been implemented “a few hours ago.” Without explanation we were whisked off the plane and greeted by a crowd of individuals covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) who promptly recorded the temperatures of every person departing the plane.
It wasn’t until after this experience that I managed to reconnect to Wi-Fi and learned that in the time I was on the flight a state of emergency had been issued over Kansas City, several countries around the world had closed their borders and the number of recorded COVID-19 cases and deaths had increased dramatically.
Despite the news, after exiting the airport things were eerily normal. The streets were busy and people were calm, there was not a single mask in sight. However, the next day when I began exploring Lima it became clear that people were concerned about the threat of the coronavirus. Many of the touristic areas were empty and store owners expressed concerns about rapidly decreasing sales volumes.
On my second day in Peru I heard rumors that the airports were going to close in 30 hours. Though I couldn’t find anything official to corroborate these claims, locals I interacted with were warning me that if I didn’t leave soon I could get stuck in Lima – according to their friend’s cousin’s brother who works at the airport and was told to prepare for a few months of unemployment.
At first I dismissed these rumors, but after hearing the same claim a dozen times from a dozen different people I started to believe that there might be some truth to them. The next morning I was scheduled to fly to Cusco and meet a guide who would travel with me to several rural communities on, and around, Machu Picchu. I decided to catch that flight and hear from that guide before deciding whether to return to the United States or continue with my trip.
However, the pandemonium increased overnight. When I arrived back at Lima airport it was apparent that people were panicked, and I could see large groups of airline staff in full PPE outfits walking through every terminal.
I called my travel agent who advised me to be cautious but agreed that I could go to Cusco and reevaluate the situation from there. I had a bad feeling but went through security and boarded the flight regardless. After sitting on the tarmac for 40 minutes we received word that the flight had been canceled, much like many other domestic flights that day.
Again I called my travel agent, unsure whether to reboard onto the new flight we were being offered later that day. Frantically she advised me that if I wanted to leave Peru I would have to do it “NOW.” Every single flight before the rumored airport closures was filling up, and the opportunity to return to the states was rapidly shrinking.
I was shocked, I had no idea how quickly the situation would devolve, but I was also very fortunate to have a travel agent who was diligently monitoring the flights available for me. With a lot of luck I was able to secure the second-to-last available seat on the last flight out of Peru that evening.
I spent my final few hours on the ground exploring downtown Lima, and was struck by how quickly the city seemed to be emptying out. When I returned to the airport that evening it was startling how many people seemed to be desperately trying to leave Peru. The lines to check-in for flights were extending out of the doors, and people were frantically scrambling to be the first in the queue at the ticketing counters. Luckily I boarded my flight without any issues.
Within a few hours of my flight departing the Peruvian government announced that all flights in, and out, of the country would be immediately halted, and domestic travel would be greatly restricted. Dozens of families were stranded, including tourists from Ireland and Japan, and the United States is currently sparring with the national government over repatriation flights.
If I had not secured a seat on the flight that I did, it is unlikely I would have been able to return from Peru for at least several weeks.
At the end of the day, I was extremely lucky. I was able to leave and I had a safe place to return to. I am immensely grateful for those things, but at the same time I am filled with regret for the people I left behind. The rural communities I was set to conduct research in are extremely reliant on income from tourism, and the loss of revenue they are facing will be devastating.
The work that I was doing was in a genuine effort to help communities which do not share in the luxuries we – in more developed nations – largely take for granted, like electricity. And yet, ironically, it was that same privilege that allowed me leave while so many others were forced to stay.
This pandemic is exposing vast inequities in our institutional structures, internationally and domestically. I hope we use this time to reevaluate these systems and, when this is all over, we are able to establish new normals and rebuild our societies to be more fair, even and equitable for every person in every place.