A graduate of Homer High School is among several Alaskans and more than 1,400 U.S. citizens stuck in limbo in Peru after the country closed its borders on March 16 in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Brenna McCarron, 19, graduated from Homer High School last spring and made traveling abroad part of her gap year before attending college. She had been volunteering in Cusco through an organization called United Planet since Jan. 5. McCarron lived in Cusco for about two months, working in a school summer program for children before moving on to travel the country on her own. Her parents visited her for two weeks, leaving on March 4.
Now, she’s one of about 13,500 Americans stranded overseas as more countries close their borders to international travel in an effort to get a handle on the COVID-19 virus. Homer residents Ann Agosti-Hackett and Eric Knudtson are also stuck in Peru in a town about an hour and a half outside of Cusco, according to McCarron’s mother, Julie. The Anchorage Daily News also reported that the couple is there.
So is Indira Mukambetova, the owner of The Better Sweater on the Homer Spit. She travels every year to find inventory for the shop, and got caught in Lima when she arrived there on March 14 to find product for The Better Sweater. Mukambetova didn’t find out about the Peru border, which closed at 11:59 p.m. on March 16, until that morning. She went to the airport in Lima to try to get a flight out for that day, but to no avail.
McCarron, too, was caught by surprise by the border closure. She had been going on excursions around the country and had plans to meet up with a friend from Homer in Ecuador before returning to Alaska on April 17. McCarron said the coronavirus situation in Peru didn’t seem too extreme when she hiked out of cellphone reception and into Colca Canyon for a three-day trek. The very first positive COVID-19 case had just been announced in the country about a week prior, she said.
By the time she emerged from the canyon on March 15 and turned on her phone, however, things had escalated quickly.
“Sunday the 15th was the longest day of my life,” McCarron said.
She turned on her phone and found texts from the friend she’d meant to meet in Ecuador, saying she was canceling her trip. Other texts were from McCarron’s mother warning her that the Ecuador border was closing and asking her to come home early.
“I still had five weeks of plans and five weeks of places that I still really wanted to see,” McCarron said.
Riding back to the city of Arequipa where she was staying in a hostel, however, McCarron made the decision to cut the trip short. The guide shuttling the group of hikers back from the canyon relayed that he had heard the Peruvian border was closing, but he didn’t have any specific details, McCarron said.
That’s when she and her family started planning in earnest. McCarron’s mom worked to get her a flight out of Arequipa that night, March 15. McCarron got back to her hostel, packed and took off for the airport.
She was greeted with crowds and panic.
“The airport was crazy,” she said. “It was really crowded.”
While McCarron was at the airport expecting to board her flight out, the official announcement from Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra played out on the televisions, announcing that foreigners had until 11:59 p.m. the following day to make it out and that Peru was entering a state of emergency with a 15-day mandatory quarantine.
When she checked in for her flight, McCarron was told there was a good chance it would be canceled due to poor weather. And, sure enough, it was. McCarron returned to her hostel while her family worked to get her another flight out before the deadline.
Every time she tried to book and pay for a flight, Julie McCarron said a message would pop up announcing that the flight was no longer available. Brenna McCarron returned to the airport the morning of March 16 in hopes of getting another flight, but was stopped at the doors. Only people who already had tickets were being allowed to enter.
“There were police barricading the doors and not letting anyone in,” she said. “… So at that point I kind of accepted my fate that I was going to be stuck here.”
McCarron said it’s been frustrating to see other guests at the hostel from the UK or Canada getting regular communications from their embassies, while she got only one email on March 16 and nothing again until March 20.
“I tried calling the (U.S. Embassy) every single day for the first four days I think, and I never got through to them,” she said.
Now, McCarron is back in her hostel in Arequipa, allowed out only to go the the grocery store or pharmacy, and is playing the waiting game.
“It’s a lot of killing time,” she said.
McCarron is now getting regular emails from the U.S. Embassy, but she said it’s mostly repetition of the same information.
“I know it’s a big country,” said her mother, Julie. “I know that there’s so many logistics in terms of getting information out.”
At the same time, Julie McCarron said the lack of communication from the U.S. government and Alaska’s U.S. senators in the initial days following Peru’s border closure was frustrating.
Last Thursday, President Donald Trump addressed the number of Americans stranded in Peru, stating that the U.S. is “trying to get them out.”
The Hill reported on Sunday that the State Department has so far evacuated 439 Americans from Peru.
Both of Alaska’s U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, have taken to social media to address the fact that several Alaskans are stuck overseas, notably in Peru.
“We’ve been hearing from families all over the state concerned about loved ones that may be in other parts of the world and not being able to get back home,” Murkowski said in the video. “Most notably, some 19 Alaskans that are still in Peru with very hard situations in terms of gaining access out.”
Murkowski said both she and Sullivan have been “working diligently” with the U.S. Department of State to address this. She had been given information by the state department about some commercial and charter flights that would be leaving Peru, as early as Monday, Murkowski said.
“We are working aggressively on it,” she said. “I urge you to stay in close touch with my staff as we move forward.”
In a post on his Facebook page on March 21, Sullivan also acknowledged the many Alaskans and Americans stuck overseas amid border closures.
“These are difficult and frightening times and I am working hard to do what I can to get you home,” he wrote. “I have spoken with the Deputy Secretary at the Department of State this morning advocating for you.”
Sullivan urged Alaskans to “stay attuned” to messages coming from the U.S. Embassy in Peru “as we continue to work on potential flights over the coming days.”
McCarron said she technically has a flight booked for April 3, but she expects it will be canceled.
“My hope is that I get repatriated as soon as possible,” McCarron said.
Mukambetova bought three flights out of Lima, and the first two have been canceled. Her last flight is scheduled for April 2. It hasn’t been canceled yet, but Mukambetova said that could change.
“It’s getting every day very strict here,” she said.
Mukambetova is staying in a small hotel in Lima. She said locals are adhering to the 15-day quarantine well and are not going out and about. There are distance enforcements in place in the stores, she said. At her hotel, breakfast service has been stopped and guests are barred from mingling in communal spaces.
Mukambetova said she is safe and is waiting to hear from the government about a way to get home.
“But who knows,” she said. “Every day it’s changing.”
McCarron said she’s anxious to get home but is nervous to see what the spreading coronavirus has done to her hometown.
“I think it’s going to be alarming going home and realizing that my own country, my own state and my own town are all being affected by this,” she said.