It’s COVID-19 in Peru Day 24.
And we’re outta here. But the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.
Early in the Mornin’
I’m up at 2:30. I have a feeling I’m not going to sleep again. I get up while Steve snoozes peacefully.
The sky is a dull, dusky peach, the way big city skies get when light pollution meets haze. I realize that I may never again be in the middle of a big city where it is so completely still.
I have an email in my mailbox time-stamped 1:30 a.m. The email says it would be best if we spent the night at the hotel. Well. Noted. We also need to be there by 7.
At 6, I’ll need to contact our host. He has planned to send a taxi to pick up the key; I figured if we left at 7:30—the hotel is less than 15 minutes by taxi—we’d be fine. Now he’ll need to have someone here asap, or I guess we can try sending the key once we get to the Mariott. It’s kind of a pain, honestly, but normally one leaves the key with the front desk, and there is no one at the front desk.
Oh well, we’ll work it out. But I’m not going back to sleep.
I send a text to Leo, our host, at 5:30 with 3 options: leave the keys in the flat, hide the keys at the front desk—they’re not tagged and I think they’ll be safe—or leave the keys at the front desk of the Marriott.
Steve is up and I tell him about the new plan. We have coffee, we’re ready. We just have to hear from Leo.
By 6, he hasn’t responded. I do what I hate to do, which is call someone at 6 a.m.
He hasn’t seen the message, so I reiterate. “We have to leave at 6:30,” I say, “and I don’t want to miss a guy you send to pick up the keys, but I can’t wait for him.”
He’s on it. 10 minutes later, I have a confirmation text. The key picker-upper is on his way.
Steve and I head downstairs to wait. At 6:25, Leo’s guy comes by, gets the keys, and, well, that’s done. Meanwhile, the driver I requested by email still hasn’t shown, so I try Uber.
16 minutes, says the little Uber geographic sweeper of uncertainty. Hey, I saw this movie on Day 3! Didn’t like it then. Not in the mood for a rerun. I cancel the ride.
One cab company on our list doesn’t answer. The other says there’s nothing available. Steve lopes over to Casa Vea.
Waiting for him is agony, even as I tell myself everything is fine. The Marriott is close, a 5-minute drive given the lack of traffic. The 5 minutes Steve is gone, I breathe instead of panicking. This seems logical, but it is difficult. I realize I am back to super anxious, high-strung, everything-that-can-go-wrong-will me. I have worked hard to leave that me behind.
She just keeps coming back when the going gets tough.
Then a car appears, heading for the building. I can’t see if Steve’s in it, til he opens the back door for just a second, either as a signal to me or because he wants to get out. Patience is not his strong suit.
Our driver is short and stocky, and acts with urgency. Maybe it’s just the way he is, maybe Steve’s told him we’re in a rush.
We’re at the Marriott 5 minutes later. It’s 6:40. Our bus leaves in an hour.
Waiting for the World to Change (or the Bus to Show Up)
There are about 10 people waiting, all in masks. No one talks, and I think this is one of those casualties of COVID that I’m surprised I miss: small talk. You’re waiting for the charter to Miami, right? Where’ve you been holing up? What’s your story?
I normally hate small talk, considering it a necessary chore to maintain social order. I recognize and appreciate that for some folks, it’s a true art form.
Now, I crave it. But. Not on the table.
The Crowd Thickens
People begin arriving, and from what I see, they pretty much get there no later than 7:10. No one wants to miss Freedom Bus. I mean, it isn’t that. But. It gets us home.
There’s little to do but sit and wait. I don’t read. We’re right across from where I was yesterday. Steve sees the Paddington Bear picture on my blog post from the day before. “Where’s this?” he asks. I point over my shoulder.
“There are more than 30 people here,” says Steve. “We’d better not get arrested.”
We watch for buses. There are many, but they’re all city buses. Then we see two big white ones that look like they’re all set to carry a bunch of tourists.
Yep, those are ours. Around 7:25, Steve notices a line busward beginning to form. “Let’s go,” he says.
We walk, not rushing, just wanting seats. We can’t find seats together by the time we board, but we do end up across the aisle from each other, near the front. I watch out the window as a digital clock counts down the minutes.
As I sit, I look across the street. I see a dapper official-looking guy in a uniform—he’s not a cop, they all have military gear on. But his car is painted in the same colors as the ambulances: white, French blue, and bright green, with flashing lights on top to match. He’s cleaning his car with a green chamois, buffing away. At times, he shakes out the cloth smartly, as if he angry with it. Whack. Whack. The move has elegant violence.
Of course we don’t leave at 7:50. My chamois guy across the street is still at it. I start to wonder if he’ll be there still, smacking his car as we drive off into our next adventure.
Nope. He leaves first.
We continue to sit. There’s a young guy, probably late 20s, in the front seat. His dog occupies the aisle next to him. The dog is beautiful, a gentle mix, I’m thinking golden lab (disposition, the stiff-yet-supple coat) and chow (curly tail, solid stance). It’s a patient beast. If I didn’t a) think he’s probably a service dog and b) not want to have to re-sterilize my already-peeling hands, I’d want to bury my hands in the fur.
I’m starting to feel the fact that I’ve been up since 2:30, tense for a few hours of that. I let my eyelids drop all the way down. I’m still awake. I don’t want to get to close to my seat partner. Obviously, we can’t do the full 6 feet, but I can give her a good 2 1/2. But also, I hate that thing when you’re in an upright seat on a plane or train or bus, and your neck sort of falls down and then jerks up. So I allow myself a sort of 2/3 snooze. But I’m still awake.
Finally, at 8:15, we start moving.
Do You Know the Way to Grupo 8?
I have no idea where Group 8, the military field from which the repatriation flights leave, is located. I do recognize landmarks on the first 20 or so blocks.
Our residential neighborhood has seemed peaceful, empty of people and cars. But here in the formerly bustling center, melancholy hangs over the shuttered shops. The MacDonald’s where we met before our epic mountain hike has brown paper over all the windows. I can’t be sad that a MacDonald’s is closed, but the desolation of a place that’s empty when it used to be teeming with life hits me.
After about half an hour, I recognize that we are indeed on our way to the airport; after all, we’ve done it before, when we left Lima for our dream trip to Cusco and beyond.
I’d tried to hit the bathroom at the Marriott, but it was locked up tight along with the rest of the hotel, in which case it’s a darn good thing Leo got his keys before we left. Now, I start planning the fastest possible route to the bathroom once we de-bus.
Meanwhile, I look at the lines on Man Day. The government has announced a lockdown on Thursday and Friday; as on Sunday, no one can go out. Lines stretch back beyond vision, making yesterday’s Lady Day look like a walk in Parco de Amor.
Our chariot drives through the entry to the commercial airport, then swings back around. We pull up outside a big gated official-looking…um…something. We’re behind a few other buses.
We Highly Recommend You Arrive 2 Hours Before…
It’s about 9:05. We sit, we wait. One man near the front stands up to show the woman who shepherded us onto the bus his watch. She tells him in Spanish not to worry. (One of the surprises of this particular leg of our trip is how many people on the bus appear to use Spanish as their first language, even though 90% of the passports I see are from the US; the others are Asian. We contain multitudes. Also, why are we not all fluent in Spanish?)
By 9:15, my full-bladder state has morphed from discomfort to low-level pain. There are no bathrooms nearby, though there’s a bus in front of trees. I’d rather the world see my ass than that I pee all over my Madewell jeans. (The jeans would be fine, but I don’t want to subject everyone around me to the smell.)
I see a WC sign on the back of the bus parked in front of us. I look back through our bus—if they got one, we must have one, too. But I see nothing resembling a relief station.
Finally, at 9:24, I ask the shepherdess if it’s possible that I use a bathroom on one of the other buses. She jumps right up and says, “Hold on, let me find out which one.”
In less than a minute, she’s back, directing me to the bus in back of us. I gratefully and carefully walk there.
Oh, the Humanity
The bathroom smells hideous, even through a mask.
I do not care.
I pee and pee and pee and know that I shall indeed survive, handily, whatever else the day is going to bring.
Of course, in the aftermath, there’s no decent sink. But I’ve been careful to keep toilet paper between me and anything I have had to touch in the last 5 minutes; Steve had given me a roll back when I searched at the Marriott, saying, “just in case.”
Back in my seat, I use baby wipes to wash my hands, enough sterilizer to make my skin peel, and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, the woman next to me is increasingly agitated. It’s now about 9:30. “Please tell us what’s going on,” she says to the shepherdess. “The plane is leaving at 11!”
“No, no,” replies the shepherdess, calm, collected. “We ARE the plane. If we’re not there, the plane does not leave. Please trust me. We will be fine. There’s a plane from Iquitos”—a town in the Amazon—“and they have to get them out before they can let us in. Please be patient, we’ll be fine.”
She’s very nice about this, and clearly not in the least worried herself.
Neither am I, now that I know the people in the seats around me are safe from the torrent that formerly occupied my bladder.
But my seatmate continues to fret. “We have to get on a plane from Iquitos? I don’t like that! They’re not going to clean it.” She has a Spanish accent. She does not seem to have a high opinion of Those Who Come from Iquitos.
I laugh. It’s not mean, at least I hope not. I try not to sound like a bitch through my mask. But her conjecture on the state of the Iquitos-to-Lima passengers seems a tad farfetched.
“Of course they’ll clean the plane. It’s not going to be the same plane. We’re going to be fine,” I say, using my most reassuring-through-a-mask voice.
“I don’t like it!” says the woman, large-eyed and frightened above her mask.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” I say, in what I hope is a soothing though muffled tone. If she were a friend, I’d say, “Bitch, pleez.”
She looks out the window. Her leg, which has been jittering like a moth trapped in a screen window on a summer night, calms a bit, gets more frantic, calms a bit.
We enter the decidedly non-pearly gates. There is a big-ass eagle sitting atop a post.
We pass a big LATAM jet. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.
We sit on the bus for a while. One bus ahead of us unloads. All the people go into seats under one open-sided tent. Another one repeats.
We are the third bus. I’m cool. I peed.
Once we’re unloaded and in little white plastic chairs, the kind you pick up for a few bucks at the dollar store, two young women come by. One takes a picture of our IDs, the other stamps our passports. We wait some more, then two more young women come by. They look up our names on the list—ours appear to be easy to locate—and then take an empty boarding pass card and hand write our names on it.
About 10 minutes later, two cops come through with sniffer dogs, then people come through and tag the luggage. “It’s amazingly efficient,” says Steve, in awe. He’s always inspired by efficiency. He’s Dutch, he was married to a German for almost two decades, and he’s a Virgo. Math, people.
There’s a somewhat ominous medical-looking green tent with medical-looking people in it. I wonder if we’re all going to have to submit to temperature-taking. But I never see anyone go in it.
After about 45 minutes, we get directed to other buses. The bus that Steve and I seem to be about to get on fills up, and we’re sent around the corner. Our bus has a very chilled out driver with a stuffed monkey hanging from his rearview mirror and a giant crack in the windshield.
Two buses pull away.
Aw, hell no.
I stop myself. This is Former Me, worried over nothing, doing my impression of the woman who sat next to me.
Still, there’s one other guy on the bus. I can tell he’s thinking, shit. Are they leaving without us? I ask the driver in Spanish, “This is the LATAM bus, right?” He nods, good-naturedly. Silly gringa.
Steve says, “There are a whole bunch of people from our bus from the hotel, they still have to get on.”
Boarding Gate (sorta)
We get on the plane. It’s a 767 (I have to ask Steve), 7 seats across, a 2/3/2 configuration, and it’s a first-come-first-serve basis.
Everyone has grabbed the aisle/window seat combos or an outside seat in one of the middle sets. Steve settles me next to a guy in a window seat. A minute later, he calls me. He’s manage to nab a center seat in the exit row with a ton of leg room. The guy next to him has seen that he’s with his wife, and offers me his seat.
The guy on Steve’s other side is from Los Angeles. He’s young, undaunted. He had a great time in Lima, he said, getting out to walk for an hour every day, appreciating the beauty of the empty city. “These exit seats are so great when you’re over 6 feet tall,” he says.
I’m scraping 5’11”, so I feel I can nod with impunity. And of course, Steve is 11 feet tall, most of it legs.
Then a ghastly thing happens. Our friend is told he must sacrifice his seat to a disabled person. Our friend is so bummed. I contemplate giving up my seat to him.
But. I don’t.
We never do figure out the man’s disability. He seems to need to stand frequently. But he’s very short. We see our former seatmate a few times over the course of the flight, trudging up from steering to grab something. Despite moving his seat, his stuff is still in the same overhead bin.
I pretend not to see him.
We sit on the runway for a while. Around 12:30, I doze; I’m sort of awake, sort of dreaming. Around 1, I think I feel the plane begin to move. I open one eye. Yep, we’re moving.
It’s stop/start for a long while. But suddenly, at 1:30, I hear the jets start up.
I feel a terrible tearing sadness. Loss, like a friend is dying and I can’t say goodbye.
I lived through AIDS. The feeling is familiar, if decades-old.
Today, it’s loss for the trip we were supposed to have, scaling mountains, soaring across Lake Titicaca in a dragon boat, giggling over Malbec with Alberto in Buenos Aires.
But it’s more. I left on March 4th and the world was one thing.
Suddenly, it became someplace else.
And I processed this heartbreak, this world that slipped through my fingers like a family Christmas ornament that shattered on the floor, in Lima. A place where we were told, we’re keeping you safe, and that means this particular thing. It’s hard, it sucks, and you can deal with it. A place where, again and again, I heard “we’re in this together. You’re not usually one of us, but you’re one of us now. And one more time: we’re in this together. It’s 8 o’clock. Get on your damn balcony and cheer.”
Now I’m coming back to—well, I realize, I’m not coming back. I’m going to a different “United” States. Everything that happened while we’ve been away—this is a completely different world, a completely different country.
I see the crowded mountains I have looked at so many times from our rooftop. I know them as well as I know my own neighborhood at this point.
I want to wail. Instead I close my eyes against the hard, crystal Peruvian sun.
I don’t shed a tear. They’re already dry from the plane air.
The flight is uneventful. I realize about half an hour in that the energy is different from any other flight I’ve ever been on.
Always, you have grouchy people who don’t want to come home, and you have people who can’t wait to get back. But everyone on this plane has been waiting for weeks for a flight. We’re all so exhausted, as muffled as our voices behind the masks.
At 5 hours, the flight feels short, especially given how much we’ve already waited the whole day. I watch the Judy movie; I’m a Judy fan, and not a Renee fan, but she’s brilliant. I watch some of Chernobyl, and it’s good but I read the book. I watch a Spanish TV show about food. I watch most of The Favourite and love it even more than I loved Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract a million years ago.
We land. No one claps.
At passport control, a fine-boned Nordic blond, unmasked, asks us how we are. Steve says, “We just came out of a very pleasant 24-day quarantine.” The agent does not smile or show any interest whatsoever.
Steve goes to retrieve our luggage while I wait with our backpacks.
As I watch the bags come off the carousel, I realize the one voice I want to hear is the one lost to me, my mother’s. Much as we have disagreed about things in the last few years, I know she would have been reading every blog post at least twice. Whenever we returned from overseas, she was the one person I would call; I would text everyone else. She’d say, “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re home.”
Oh, Mom. I don’t even know what home is.
But we are here.
Tears flow. They’re gone by the time Steve gets the bags.