COVID in the rearview mirror

Student remembers evacuating Peru when COVID-19 began

Coronavirus Still a Novelty

I stood at the whiteboard in the small Sabbath School room at one of the local Seventh-day Adventist churches in Pucallpa, Peru. My main position as student missionary was as a journalist for a small non-profit clinic called AMOR Projects, but on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I taught basic English vocabulary to the children. 

“Hermana Brooke? Is coronavirus in your country too?”

I turned around to see Michael looking up at me with his almost black eyes. It took me a moment to understand his question. It sounded like he had used the Spanish word for “crown”, and thought it was an unusual question to ask me if crowns were in my country. I just did not understand how that related to our discussion. 

“Oh, coronavirus!” I repeated with an English accent. 

I had heard a lot about this COVID-19, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how big its effect was or could be. I had read about its impact on Europe and North America, but now the news was hitting the small ears of little boys in the dusty streets of Amazonian Peru. Pucallpa often felt so distant from the rest of the world, but I guess it wasn’t distant enough. 

“Yes, Michael. There’s coronavirus in my country too.”

Realization of what was happening to the world hit us student missionaries like a spanking. One moment we’d heard murmurings of a worldwide virus, the next moment those murmurings had turned into a roar we couldn’t hear normalcy over. 

We talked of returning home, but no one wanted to leave their posts. We heard that Europe had stopped travel, but in South America travel restrictions were minimal or non-existent. If the borders did close, we expected to be notified with ample time to fly home. 

Twenty-four Hours to Get Out

Once Peru had its first case, the virus spread like wildfire. 

On March 16, 2020, the news announced, “Peru’s president declares mandatory quarantine. Travel in and out of the country to cease.” The news smacked. We had hardly over 24 hours to get out, and the mission directors from our various schools, Walla Walla University, Southern University, and Pacific Union College all strongly recommended that we come home.  All six of us student missionaries booked emergency flights home, packed our bags, and prepared to say goodbye.

But by morning our main flight out of the country was cancelled. 

Again, we had a choice to make. Either we could fly to Lima with the hope of finding another flight out, or we could stay and weather the strict Peruvian quarantine with the community we had already developed. 

Most of my fellow missionaries chose the first option, however, due to a list of complications I didn’t make my flight out of Pucallpa. I went back to my dorm room and unpacked my bags. A mix of emotions churned within me. I felt incredible relief for not having to say goodbye to my Peruvian friends so soon, but I had also been longing to see my family. Life felt daunting, and all I really wanted was to be in my own home. 

Peruvian Quarantine 

For the next few weeks, life felt strange. Due to the country-wide mandatory quarantine the clinic closed down, we weren’t allowed to hold church services, and my English students stopped coming. The produce markets were open for a short time every day, but only one or two people were designated to leave the clinic compound. Police roamed the streets from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to ensure everyone stayed in their houses. The tension was thick. 

I soon learned that I was one of over 5,000 U.S. citizens trapped in Peru. A handful of flights were evacuating people through Lima, but there was no way for me to get to Lima. All domestic flights had been cancelled, cars weren’t allowed to leave their individual cities, and all boats had stopped. The U.S. Embassy in Peru had essentially told us we were on our own. 

For the next two weeks life felt like a seesaw. I booked a flight for after quarantine, but that was cancelled when quarantine was extended. A small group of Americans worked together to charter a flight to Lima, but every time we thought details were smoothed out, our plan formed new wrinkles.

I finally understood what it meant to live through “historical times.” I struggled to find my bravery. 

Home Sweet Home

On March 29, 2020 the news I wanted finally came. I was officially going home. When I gave my mom the news she said, “I’m scared to believe it. The last couple of times we thought that, it fell through.” Mixed emotions still churned in my stomach. 

The next day I flew from Pucallpa to Lima on a small plane with 14 seats. We were searched by German Shepherds in an airplane hanger before being loaded on the flight that would take us to Miami. 

“Welcome aboard everyone,” the captain called out. The muffled breathing of 300 or so passengers wearing facemasks became quiet. The snap-click of hand sanitizers sounded from around the aircraft. “You have all been waiting a long time to get to this point. I wanted to announce that this airplane is the property of the United States which technically means you are already on home territory. Welcome home everyone!” A round of clapping flooded the plane. 

I lifted off from the hot humidity of Peru. Two days later I landed at home in a snowstorm. Getting used to COVID-19 in the United States is a different story all its own. 

Posted July 27, 2021

Brooke looks over the jungle neighborhood in Pucallpa, Peru.
Pucallpa is located in the Amazonian jungle region of Peru.
A photo of the Andes Mountains from the airplane.
“Hermana Brooke? Is coronavirus in your country too?” “Yes, Michael. There’s coronavirus in my country too.”
A photo of Brooke in the airport with her dad when she arrived home.
I lifted off from the hot humidity of Peru. Two days later I landed at home in a snowstorm. Getting used to COVID-19 in the United States is a different story all its own.