Stuck In Peru: Coronavirus Strands Gainesville Woman Far From Home
March has not always boded well for Jessica Brar. It’s the month her father died, the month that she divorced. The days are a seasonal reminder of life’s regrets.
This March brought coronavirus. And new woes for Brar.
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Monday was her seventh day stranded in Peru after the government there enforced a mandatory country-wide quarantine to help stave the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Peruvians are only allowed to leave their homes for essentials like food, medicine and doctor visits. Curfew begins every night at 8.
The U.S. Embassy has shuttered and Brar feels abandoned by her country. American officials, she said, failed to come through in her hour of need.
“All of our lives we are told if you are in trouble, contact the U.S. Embassy,” she said. “Yet truthfully, they left us stranded with no information.”
Brar’s life is now relegated to a room on the 13th floor of the Selina Miraflores hostel in Lima. It has two beds. One she sleeps in. One she uses as a closet. She does her laundry in the bathtub. The hostel closed all its public places, so she uses an electric kettle to boil gluten-free pasta and keeps other food items in a mini fridge. To keep calm, she bought a glass mason jar cup decorated with animals and topped with a bright green lid and straw. She picked up a patterned mug for tea and sometimes wine, too.
“I learned this a long time ago from traveling – when you’re in a place and you’re homesick or if you’re stuck like I am now, it’s important to have a few things that make you just feel better, like a more normal life. Mostly for me, it’s been dishware,” she joked.
Brar, a 34-year-old Gainesville yoga instructor, flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 9, when the United States was still just waking up to the seriousness of COVID-19. It was supposed to be another adventure for Brar, who loves to travel and keeps track of her adventures on a map of the world at her home. She had scratched off the 56 countries she has already visited. This trip was going to help her inch closer to her goal of 100.
Everything seemed fine on her first day in Argentina. But by March 12, when drinking with friends, the State Department had raised its warning to Level 3: reconsider traveling abroad.
“I fly to Argentina,” Brar said. “A day or two later, Argentina starts shutting down everything. They shut down the museums. They shut down the bars. They shut down the restaurants. They’re talking about quarantines.”
In retrospect, she said, “I probably should have acted sooner on that.”
But she laughed thinking about what she might have possibly done. She was already abroad.
She traveled to the famed Iguazu Falls on March 14. That’s where the seriousness of the situation began to set in. After several attempts at leaving, she booked a ticket to Miami that went through Lima. But the flight to Miami never took off. It was canceled. Armored police descended on the Lima airport to guard every check-in line. Crowds pushed. Chaos ensued.
Brar isn’t worried, she said, for her safety. What she worries about now is how long she will have to stay in her hostel room. When will she be able to get out? She only booked the hostel for two weeks. She will have to find a new place to stay if she can’t get home.
In her isolation, Brar talks to best friend Andrea Tyler every day. The two met 20 years ago in high school when they were polar opposites. Tyler remembered being intimidated at first by Brar’s assertiveness, her hardness the first day she saw Brar at volleyball tryouts.
“I remember seeing this tall, athletic, just Pocahontas,” Tyler said. “She was spiking the balls and just real intense. And I remember seeing her and thinking, ‘Oh OK. Steer clear because that’s the kind of girl who would probably bully me and put me in a locker.”
But the two soon grew close.
“I always say I softened her up and she toughened me up and we became the perfect person if you put us together,” Tyler said.
The two have been to hundreds of destinations together and have endured their share of sticky situations. They’ve been stranded on the top of a mountain in Fiji while waiting out a tsunami warning. A trip in Alaska wound them up in Denali National Park trying to mimic a wolf’s howl to draw one near.
The pair always seem to find a thrill, although Tyler admits her friend handles stressful situations better than she does. She attributed Brar’s cool and collected manner to her training as an attorney – Brar earned her law degree in 2008 at the University of Florida.
But coronavirus has managed to reverse roles for the two friends. Tyler is the one who has to maintain her composure while speaking with Brar.
“This is the first real hard emergency situation that she is truly alone,” Tyler said. “All the back and forth with what’s happening with the U.S. Embassy and getting her over — it’s just exhausting because we’re grasping onto hope and then boom! That rug is pulled out from underneath her.”
In the dark
By Brar’s count, 1,346 Americans were stranded in Peru in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. The return home became difficult after the government demanded assurance that Peruvian citizens would be able to come back from the United States, according to Politico.
On the second day of her quarantine, Brar met other international travelers in the hostel who told her they had heard from their governments about relief. But she never did.
“The hardest part of the whole ordeal is remaining in the dark, getting no information from the embassy,” Brar said.
And that has compounded the uncertainty of the outbreak for Brar.
“I have no problem with leaving us here,” she said. “Just inform us each step of the way.”
She began asking friends to contact lawmakers – Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and Ted Yoho, her congressman. She hoped for power in numbers.
“Throughout the night, our Irish friend got continuous updates from his embassy,” Brar wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday morning. “We also met a German girl whose embassy told her to sit tight because Germany would be bringing a plane to evacuate all German citizens soon. Citizens of Israel are being evacuated.”
When, she wondered, would America come for her?
By Thursday, Scott and Rubio had contacted Brar through friends. She filled out paperwork. She was hopeful.
By Friday, her fourth day of quarantine, she learned the commercial airline flight home she booked for April 3 was canceled. Scott’s staff directed her to complete a survey with Colombian air carrier Avianca Airlines about getting on a charter flight. But that went nowhere.
Rubio’s office informed her that the State Department had set up a global task force to bring the stranded Americans home. One of the first flights to Peru was to land in Lima.
She was “stuck in a bureaucratic loop” as she called one number and then the next, ending with her being directed to contact the U.S. Embassy in Lima.
Brar ran into two Americans from New Jersey on her way back from the pharmacy. They told her they had arranged to leave on one of the charter flights from Lima on Sunday.
An email from the embassy told her to keep contacting airlines.
“While planes seem to be coming for the Americans, I still have no information on when a plane is coming for me,” a frustrated Brar wrote on Facebook Friday night. “I come back to my room and half pack my bag. My signal to the universe. I’m ready to go home.”
‘A historic day indeed’
On Saturday, day five of her hostel confinement, Brar finally heard from the U.S. Embassy in Lima. It had sent out an alert: 264 Americans had been able to fly out of Lima for Washington. The embassy said it was working to get others out.
“Mark the calendar. Our first helpful notification from the U.S. Embassy, a historic day indeed,” Brar wrote in her Saturday post.
The next day, she received an email from the embassy: 500 Americans had been able to leave over the weekend.
“The U.S. Embassy in Lima is operating and is coordinating closely with the Peruvian government on all options for U.S. citizens to depart the country and are arranging charter aircraft.” the email said.
Rubio’s staff are also “actively working” on getting Floridians home.
“Our nation faces unprecedented challenges, including the repatriation of American citizens stuck abroad,” Rubio said in a prepared email statement. “Our constituent services team is tracking numerous cases in approximately a dozen different countries, and remains in daily contact with the State Department and relevant embassies and consulates.”
As of Sunday, Peru was reporting 318 cases of COVID-19 and the Peruvian defense minister announced Peru was closing its borders. No flights would be let in or out.
Brar prepared herself. She knew her wait could be long. She has her yoga mat, her books and her friend’s Netflix password. She is faking normal.
She had planned to add Argentina to her world map at home in Gainesville. Inadvertently, she will now also add Peru. She’s glad to be closer to her goal of 100 countries. But for now, she just wants to get home.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org