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Canadians in Peru Rejoice — ‘We’re Coming Home!’

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The sun appears to be setting on the stranded Canadians’ time in Peru. Thousands of Canadians are expected to be repatriated this week after they were caught behind closed borders in South America. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca occasionally features content from outside of Canada. Our Managing Editor, Adrian Brijbassi, is residing in Peru as it endures a national lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. This is his latest report on stranded Canadians struggling to get home.

“We’re coming home!” exulted Piero Boggio Pacheco on Friday night. He wrote those words to a Facebook group page that is followed by more than 1,100 Canadians stranded in Peru — myself included.

Pacheco’s post came after he received notice from the Canadian Embassy to Peru and Bolivia alerting him he was assigned a spot on a bus travelling from Ollantaytambo, a village in the South American country’s famed Sacred Valley, to Cusco, the gateway city to Machu Picchu.

It was a message Pacheco had been waiting to hear since last Monday, after Peru’s president Martin Vizcarra declared a 15-day state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic. Peru barred all flights and put strict limits on bus and automobile transportation, among other aggressive measures, establishing a national lockdown in hopes of stopping the spread of the COVID-19 disease. It’s possible the lockdown will continue well into April as Peru fights to stay ahead of the virus’s invasion.

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A map uses blue pins to point out where Canadians are located throughout Peru. Nearly 5,000 Canadians are in the South American nation during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Embassy to Peru and Bolivia)

Caught in the aftermath of Vizcarra’s aggressive moves were tens of thousands of foreign travellers. The Canadians among them have been trying breathlessly to get word out about their plight. They’ve flooded media, and the inboxes of federal and provincial politicians.

Having contended with as volatile a week as any Canadian prime minister has faced since perhaps his own father during the October Crisis of 1970, Justin Trudeau and his government have gotten around to the Peru group. Early Saturday morning, Pacheco was among the Canadians who were bused from remote locations to larger centres. From places like Cusco, they will be brought to Lima, the Peru capital.

Read More: Canadian in Lockdown in Peru

On Monday, flights are planned to depart, say multiple members of the Facebook group. But the Canadian embassy in Peru, which is coordinating efforts on the repatriation mission with the Department of Global Affairs in Ottawa, says it cannot confirm when flights will leave. The repatriation is a step-by-step process wrought with diplomatic land mines because of Peru’s state of emergency. The Canadians awoke to news on Saturday that Peru’s minister of defence had ordered a complete shutdown of Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport. (During the previous five days, some flights bringing Peruvians back from abroad and a few taking foreigners home had been cleared.) That decision appeared briefly to scuttle any hope of a speedy return for the Canadians.

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A group of ecstatic Israelis let their feelings be known as they depart Peru on Friday to return home on a specially arranged El Al flight. Canadians hope they will be able to strike a similar pose this week (though, perhaps, with some more social distancing). (Photo courtesy of El Al Airlines)

But assurances came throughout the day from Global Affairs and the embassy that the mission remained a go. Late on Saturday night, Canadians would have gone to sleep hoping to wake up with word of the next phase in their journey home. It would be the opportunity to purchase a coveted ticket out of Lima, though the timeline for departure (and the price of the airfare) has yet to be established.

“Due to the state of emergency, a reduced Embassy staff is working 24/7 trying to reach every Canadian in Peru and provide them with official information. We are aware that many Canadians are not currently in Lima and are taking this into account in our planning,” the Canadian embassy said during a Facebook Messenger exchange. “There are approximately 5,000 Canadians spread across Peru at the moment.”

Meanwhile, the embassy officials themselves have been under unprecedented duress in trying to navigate a foreign nation’s state of emergency and the harrowing notion that any one of Canada’s citizens could contract the COVID-19 disease while abroad. Although Peru, as of Saturday morning, only has 318 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, it is a nation that is not positioned to deal with the medical burden. Vizcarra is well aware of his country’s limitations and has acted boldly to contain the virus, causing diplomatic entanglements.

Canada’s embassies help with consular services and in developing trade relationships with other nations, but do not rescue citizens in crisis and return them home. But that’s what Canadians called on the embassy in Peru to do this week, especially after they saw other nations bringing back citizens.

Mexico and Brazil, key trading partners with Peru, repatriated their nationals while also bringing Peruvians home. Israel sent four planes to recover their citizens, but all of those flights were paid for by wealthy Israelis, speeding up the operation. Germany, which is further along on the COVID-19 battle than Canada, spent 50 million euros on an effort to repatriate its citizens. As their international peers left Peru, Canadians grew frustrated by what was perceived as a lack of progress. But if the mission does not suffer any more obstacles and goes off as it currently appears, then in retrospect, given the calamity happening at home, Canadians in Peru might be awed that it took their government just one week to bring them back from a nation under a state of emergency during the health and economic crisis of a lifetime.

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Police officers don masks to protect against contracting the coronavirus as they walk the empty streets of Miraflores in Lima. Peru is in a strict lockdown. Residents are allowed outside only to shop for groceries or pharmaceutical products, visit doctors, or take care of family members. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

My family will likely be on a flight. We had left Canada on February 16, travelling to Ecuador for 10 days before making our way to Lima. Initially, we intended to stay for multiple months, enjoying Lima’s beautiful scenery in its Miraflores district and the cuisine of a nation that has been dubbed the gastronomy capital of the world before embarking south to visit Machu Picchu.

I have been impressed by how Peru has handled the crisis and there is a real temptation to stay. The temperature in Lima is 28 Celsius degrees (82 Fahrenheit) daily and the salt air from the Pacific Ocean feels nourishing. But Peru is not a wealthy nation and may need to stay in lockdown for months in order to contain the coronavirus. We decided with a young child we could not take the chance of waiting it out. As well, our network has been struck by the virus. A friend in Abbotsford, British Columbia is on life support, fighting desperately against COVID-19. The call to be closer to the ones we care most about during the darkest time we’ve known has become urgent.

And urgency is a state of mind every Canadian, no matter where, has become familiar with in the past week.

“The Pandemics” Poem

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“The Pandemics” is a poem by Adrian Brijbassi about the COVID-19 crisis. (Vacay.ca photo illustration)

The Pandemics

Revelry will be ours,
In Tiber too,
When madness ebbs and the hunger game ends
With a dance that tests your bravery to embrace
A future not so grim
It will be yours and hers,
Theirs and his,
All of ours, made to exist in a metre’s length Inferno
of I-Can’t-Take-Any-More-of-This

We are The Pandemics,
Providers of history’s next chapter on Who’d-a-Guessed?
The Hoaxsters and The Immortals
whose fearlessness against fact enshrines them
as eternity’s dopey jests
The Soothsayers and OCD DoomsDayers
who will forever have this hollow win
The Sirens of Science and Heroes of Medicine
a battalion of goodness semaphoring the blind

The Dead, The Dead, The Dead,
buried, too many, without adulation, nor grace, nor light

We are the victims of hubris and Trump,
Textbook fools who could’ve and should’ve
To avoid disgrace

In the distance, the torment stems,
and we rejoice again,
Speaking words of wisdom
while stomping a microscopic fiend to the beat,
Arms in link, we are a circle of backs
still bristling from the chill

In the dawn, here and there,
New Rochelle and Bergamo,
Wuhan and Washing-tons,
our hands clap, at last,
it is gone,
yet we cling in silence,
each of us wary
of what one cool water droplet, a splash
from a neighbour’s pore, might again cause

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.