UPDATE: West Kootenay residents stranded in Peru seek a way home

Laurel Conley (left) of Nelson and Veronica Holman from the East Shore are stuck in Peru in the midst of the pandemic. They went to learn about the culture and language of the Indigenous people. “The Amazon is an incredible place full of knowledge and biodiversity,” Conley says. “We have many beloved friends here.” Photo submitted
Greg Smith of Nelson (left) is a veteran of backcountry travel in Peru. He’s the only Canadian he’s aware of in the city of Cajamarca (right). Photos: Greg Smith
The empty streets of Cajamarca, Peru. Photo: Greg Smith

Two West Kootenay residents received word Tuesday that a bus hired by the Canadian government will be sent to the remote town of Pucalpa, Peru, to take them to the international airport in Lima.

Laurel Conley and Veronica Holman are part of a group has been stranded in Pucalpa since the Peruvian government’s COVID-19 lockdown on March 15.

The bus will pick them up Thursday and make the two-day trip to Lima through high mountains and jungle. All Peruvian highways are closed to regular traffic.

In Pucalpa, as everywhere in Peru, going outside for anything other than food or medicine is punishable by five to 10 years in jail.

“I am very stressed out,” Conley told the Star by phone on Friday. “I am afraid of getting sick, afraid of how long I am going to be here. I have a family at home, I have a job, pets, a life. I have elderly parents who are very stressed out about this.”

Conley said one person in her group is a cancer patient. Another has heart disease for which he is running out of medication.

She says that in the past week the Canadian government sent three planes from Toronto to pick up Canadians. The passengers were triaged according to need, and the planes took about 1,200 Canadians home. But the passengers only included those who could get to Lima, and only a fraction of them.

She said many more Canadians are stuck in Peru in places outside Lima.

She’s relieved to hear the Canadian government will be evacuating her group. Over the past two weeks she’s seen military-permitted buses from the embassies of Israel, Russia, and other countries arrive to pick up their citizens.

Conley, who arrived in Peru almost a month before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, told the Star she came to work with Indigenous people and learn about their culture and language.

“The Amazon is an incredible place full of knowledge and biodiversity. We have many beloved friends here.”

She does not blame the government of Peru for locking the country down.

“They do not have the resources to sustain an outbreak here, so they are doing what they need to do to protect the country.”

There are also a number of people from Nelson waiting in Cuzco for flights out of the country including Louis Butterfield, who has posted this video online.

Diverse landscapes and mountain cultures

Nelson’s Greg Smith is stuck in a hostel in Cajamarca, a city 900 kilometres north of Lima. As of press time Tuesday, he still had no idea how he was going to get out of the lockdown there.

“They have suspended the constitution and there are military patrolling the streets as well as police,” he told the Star. “This seemed ridiculous at first but now seems very wise, given what we know [about the pandemic].”

He’s hoping to somehow get bused to Lima – or flown, since Cajamarca has a regional airport. But all civil aviation is shut down.

He is the only Canadian he knows of in the city.

“I am beyond the popular Machu Picchu route. You only get small handfuls of [foreigners] in places like this.”

Smith says he’s healthy.

“After days in quarantine I am not showing any symptoms. I have travelled through some pretty challenging circumstances, which is what I came here to do – buses, backroads. I am used to this kind of travel.”

He said the Canadian government is trying to get 2,600 Canadians out of Peru.

Asked if he is worried, he said it’s “not really part of my nature” and then switched to talking about Peru.

“This is a poor country. Poverty rates are substantial, and they have just extended quarantine to April 12.”

Smith lived in Peru for a year in 2014 and has “returned many times to continue exploring the diverse landscapes and mountain cultures where often only the ancient Quechua language is spoken.”

This time he arrived in Peru at the beginning of February, long before the WHO declared a global pandemic, to travel along the Andes and trek in some of the country’s more remote regions.

“Peru has one of the most diverse geographies on the planet from ocean to desert to high mountains and impenetrable jungle,” he said.

He said the government has just given every citizen the equivalent of about $150.

He thinks that is a good idea because “if this continues you can imagine pockets of civil unrest. That is a concern – that civil order could start breaking down.”

Both Conley and Smith said the office of MP Rob Morrison has been very helpful in keeping in touch with them and hearing their concerns, and Conley said the same about MLA Michelle Mungall.

Trudeau announces new flights to Peru, Americas to repatriate stranded Canadians

Canadian travellers trying to return trapped by border closures for COVID-19

Nelson and COVID-19: everything you need to know



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

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