Americas

Stuck in Peru: Coronavirus strands Gainesville woman far from home

March has not been a good month for Jessica Brar. It’s the month her father died, the month that she and her husband divorced.

This March brought the coronavirus.

Monday was Brar’s seventh day stranded in Peru after the government in Lima enforced a mandatory countrywide quarantine to help stave the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 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.

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“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 of 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 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, Florida, yoga instructor, flew to Buenos Aires on March 9, when the United States was still waking up to the seriousness of COVID-19. It was supposed to be another adventure for Brar, who keeps track of her travels on a map of the world at her home. She had scratched off the 56 countries she has already visited; this trip inched her to her goal of 100.

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Everything seemed fine on her first day in Argentina. But by March 12, when she was 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.”

She traveled to the famed Iguazu Falls on the Argentine-Brazilian border March 14. That’s where the seriousness of the situation began to set in. After several attempts at leaving Argentina, she booked a flight to Miami that went through Lima. But after landing in Lima, the flight to Miami was canceled.

On March 16, Peru closed its borders for 15 days, leaving a chaotic scene at the Lima airport with thousands of travelers stranded.

Brar isn’t worried about her safety. What she worries about is how long she will have to stay in her hostel room. She booked the hostel for two weeks, and would have to find a new place to stay if she can’t get home.

In her isolation, Brar talks to her best friend, Andrea Tyler, daily. The two met 20 years ago in high school when they were polar opposites. Tyler remembered being intimidated at first by Brar’s assertiveness, witnessing it 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 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 stranded on the top of a mountain in Fiji while waiting out a tsunami warning. A trip to Alaska led them to mimic a wolf’s howl in Denali National Park to draw one near.

Tyler admits her friend handles stressful situations better than she does. She attributed Brar’s coolness to her training as an attorney — she earned a law degree in 2008 at the University of Florida.

The coronavirus has reversed the friends’ roles.

“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.”

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. She hadn’t.

“The hardest part of the whole ordeal is remaining in the dark, getting no information from the embassy,” Brar said. “I have no problem with leaving us here. Just inform us each step of the way.”

The State Department has said it has established a “repatriation task force” to try to bring back the thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad.

Brar began asking friends to contact lawmakers — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and Rep. Ted Yoho, her congressman.

“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.”

By Thursday, Scott and Rubio had contacted Brar through friends. She filled out paperwork.

By Friday, her fourth day of quarantine, she learned the commercial 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. 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.

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,” 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.”

On Saturday, day five of her hostel confinement, Brar 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 members 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.”

Brar prepared herself. She knew her wait could be long. She has her yoga mat, her books and her friend’s Netflix password.

She had planned to add Argentina to her world map at home in Gainesville. She will now 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 atadimichele@freshtakeflorida.com

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