Before sunrise on Tuesday, Candace Kaiser and her friends hurried out of their Airbnb and crammed into a van destined for the Cusco airport.
It was 5:15 a.m., and Peru’s curfew – imposed amid the coronavirus pandemic – had just lifted. The group of American travelers had a special government permit allowing them to make the one-hour trip, which under normal circumstances would be a picturesque drive through the lush Peruvian landscape.
But Kaiser’s heart was racing – so much that her Apple Watch recorded her as exercising – as she feared being stopped by Peru’s fearsome police and forced back to the little town where she and her friends had hunkered down amid the worldwide disease outbreak. They had been stuck in Peru for more two weeks and were racing to catch a flight specially arranged by the U.S. government to evacuate stranded Americans.
“I was so nervous and anxious in that car,” the 28-year-old marketing manager recounted in an interview Thursday. “My heart rate was skyrocketing, because at any given moment, even with the proper documentation, we could have been turned around.”
Thousands of Americans are either still stranded abroad, or have endured frustrating and harrowing journeys back to the U.S. From Honduras to Morocco, Americans’ vacations have been disrupted and family visits have been upended, as one country after another ordered lockdowns, travel bans, and quarantines.
“This has been so difficult, like trying to travel through a war zone,” said Imran Khan, an American from Atlanta who has spent two weeks trying to help his elderly parents get a flight home to the U.S. from Pakistan.
“I’m over 800 miles from Manila, where the U.S. embassy is,” said Mark Oania, who traveled to a Philippine island to recovery from bypass surgery. “No flights or ships are allowed to arrive.”
More than 30,000 Americans used State Department for help home
The State Department and American embassies around the world have been flooded with pleas for help. As of April 3, the agency had helped more than 37,000 stranded Americans return home from over 60 countries, according to Ian Brownlee, a top official in the State Department’s consular affairs bureau.
Brownlee said new requests were still coming in – from U.S. citizens stuck in South Asia, Central America, and other regions – and he urged Americans to find commercial flights if they could.
“There’s no guarantee the Department of State will be able to continue to provide repatriation assistance,” Brownlee told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.
“If you were on the beach when an earthquake struck, you wouldn’t just stand there waiting for the coming tsunami. You would head for higher ground immediately,” he said. “It’s time to seek higher ground now, and not hope for rescue later.”
Kaiser and her traveling companions – a group of 11 Charleston, S.C., friends who had hoped to spend eight days hiking and sightseeing in Peru – had only been in the country for about one day when Peru’s president announced a nationwide lockdown on March 16.
“Omg we’re trying to leave Cusco now. We have until tomorrow night to be out of the country. Packing now,” Kaiser wrote that evening in her travel log.
They searched for flights home, but everything was either booked or canceled. Finally they just went to the Cusco airport – only to find it closed.
They called and emailed the U.S. embassy, receiving one automated response that said “special flights do not reflect our standard practice and should not be relied upon” as a way to get home.
“Woke up in a haze – and fairly certain we aren’t getting out of Peru,” Kaiser recorded the next morning in her log. “My mind is in so many places right now. Didn’t sleep, lump in my throat. Nearly broke down when I had to call my boss, so I can only imagine my phone call with my dad.”
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She and her friends decided they had no choice but to ride out the crisis in place, so they rented an Airbnb in a small town near Cusco. They loaded up on groceries and cash and tried to brace for a different kind of adventure than their carefully planned itinerary had laid out.
“Thank God half of our group understands and speaks Spanish,” Kaiser wrote, as she reconciled herself to staying in Peru through the end of March.
But while the surroundings were beautiful and the house was comfortable, the situation quickly became untenable. Military forces patrolled outside their house, and the town’s residents seemed hostile to their presence.
“There was a lot of xenophobia,” Kaiser said. “They believe that Americans brought the virus to their country.”
The turning point came on March 25, when Kaiser and others in her group walked outside the house for a bit of fresh air. They were standing near the front door, which they thought was allowed under the country’s strict state-of-emergency rules.
But a half-dozen Peruvian soldiers quickly arrived, brandishing assault rifles, and began pushing them around. Kaiser ran back into the house, but they ordered her to come out and line up by the garage.
“I don’t speak Spanish … and I didn’t understand what they were saying,” she recalled. “They were yelling. They had a reporter with them, and he was taking pictures and videos.”
The soldiers left after about 15 minutes, Kaiser said, and their message got through even to the non-Spanish speakers; they were not allowed to step outside the house.
“The most terrifying day of my life,” Kaiser wrote later in her travel log.
An urgent email to the State Department from a desperate father
Kaiser’s dad found out about the incident from another parent, and he immediately sent her a Facebook message. She reassured him that she was safe, but he was not convinced.
That evening, Jeff Kaiser shot off an email to the State Department, sent at 8:55 p.m. with the subject line: “11 hikers abandoned near Cusco Peru.”
“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!!!!” he typed in the missive, shared with USA TODAY. Up until that moment, he wrote, “I had been relatively patient and understanding” with the efforts to get his daughter and her friends home.
“All of that patience and understanding is now GONE!!!!!” he wrote. “I was informed tonight that the group was harassed, intimidated, threatened with being arrested, and threatened to have their house searched!!!!!! Oh and just so you know the police/military unit was heavily armed with AUTOMATIC WEAPONS!!!!!!!!”
Within an hour, Candace Kaiser received an email from a top official in the U.S. embassy. She was told the State Department could arrange a flight for her group but they had to get themselves to the Cusco airport.
The next day, they scrambled to find a driver who would take them – and to get the paperwork that would allow them to travel. The military forces continued to drive by their house, honking their horns but not getting out of their vehicles.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘we’re here and we’re watching you’,” Kaiser wrote in her travel log. “Any time I hear a truck through the window my heart rate spikes and I get nervous … I’m worried at any given time they’re going to raid our house – seize our passports, money and personal items. I have an incredibly difficult time sleeping. I try to think of places to hide my passport so just in case they come, they won’t find it.”
On the morning of March 31, they had all the arrangements made to get out – 17 days into a trip that was supposed to last eight.
Kaiser’s alarm rang at 4:15 a.m. It was dark and rainy when she squeezed into the van with her friends an hour later. Nauseous and on edge, she was surprised when they sailed through the security checkpoint and arrived at the airport without incident.
Lined up outside, they signed promissory notes to reimburse the U.S. government for the flight, which could cost them as much as $1,200, and began to check in for the flight.
More than 20 hours later, Kaiser was back in the United States, a wave of relief and exhaustion washing over her.
Her first trip out of the country – a blur of canceled flights, border closures, martial law, and diplomatic jujitsu – had ended. At home in Charleston, she collapsed into bed.
“I probably had the best night of sleep in my life. I was at peace, and I felt safe,” she said Thursday.
She’s now in self-quarantine and catching up with her work. “I’m very, very happy and thankful right now,” she said Thursday, while she enjoyed a bit of fresh air and freedom in her backyard.