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Alaskans stranded in Peru by coronavirus border closures unsure when they can return home

Brenna McCarron hiked out of Colca Canyon at 6:30 a.m. on March 15. Later that day, she would learn that the border was being closed. Despite frantically trying to find a flight home, McCarron remains in Peru, unsure of when she will get home. (Photo courtesy of Brenna McCarron)

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Brenna McCarron walked out of Colca Canyon on March 15 and turned on her phone. Instantly, it started buzzing.

McCarron, a 19-year-old Homer resident, had spent the past three days hiking the canyon in southern Peru with a group. She was traveling abroad for the first time, doing volunteer work with the United Planet organization.

McCarron was supposed to meet up in neighboring Ecuador with a friend from Homer, but her friend was canceling. Ecuador was closing its borders due to the coronavirus, the friend told her.

After three days disconnected from news, McCarron was blindsided. She had heard about the coronavirus entering Peru only a couple days before her trek through the canyon. Over the next several hours, reality set in.

In one day, McCarron went from embracing her first trip abroad to realizing she was stuck in a foreign country as a pandemic spread around the world. It was the longest day of her life, she said.

“All of the sudden, I am stuck in Peru, stranded, for an indefinite amount of time," she said.

Over the coming hours and days, South American governments moved more quickly than tourists could. Nations closed their borders on short notice, causing travelers to frantically book flights home. Many were unable to get out before countries were locked down.

It’s estimated that around 1,600 Americans are stuck in Peru. According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, some 19 are Alaskans. The U.S. Embassy there has ignored pleas for help, they say, and the U.S. State Department has been slow in its response, despite the European and Canadian governments working quickly to get their citizens home.

The stranded Americans have made Facebook and WhatsApp groups to share information, and have created a spreadsheet to list everyone stuck in the country.

On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Lima sent an email to those stuck, saying it was coordinating with the Peruvian government to charter planes to get Americans home. On Friday, 264 Americans were flown from Lima to Washington, D.C. On Saturday, 175 were flown to Miami. More flights are expected in the coming days, it said.

It gave McCarron hope, even though she didn’t know how to get a seat on one of the planes. On Sunday, she hoped to get on a bus to Lima so she can be ready if there is a spot for her on a plane, but wasn’t able.

But on Saturday night, Politico reported that U.S. citizens remained stuck in Peru as the two governments negotiate. In order to grant landing privileges to U.S. planes, Peru wants its citizens in the United States to be flown back. Such a return is not yet organized.

“The government of Peru is basically holding these Americans hostage,” a U.S. official told Politico.

Back on Sunday, March 15, as she headed from the canyon back to the city of Arequipa, McCarron thought if the Ecuador border was closing, maybe she could travel to Chile or Bolivia instead. She had been in Peru since Jan. 5 and had five weeks left on the trip, but was starting to worry she might have to return to Homer a couple weeks early.

She called her mom, Julie McCarron. Maybe she needed to get home soon, actually. Maybe immediately.

Julie booked a flight for her daughter that night. McCarron rushed back to her hostel to gather her things. Meanwhile, she was getting updates on the situation. Rumors were flying, and she didn’t know what to believe.

When she got to the airport, she learned her flight was canceled due to weather. She wouldn’t make the connecting flight in Lima, bound for the U.S.

As McCarron was standing at the gate, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra appeared on the airport televisions. The country would close its borders, including all international flights, at midnight the next day, he said.

With no other options, McCarron went back to her hostel and went to bed.

She returned to the airport the next day, but armed guards kept her out. Only people with plane tickets could enter. So she tried to buy one on her phone, but they were sold out.

“So I just went back to the hostel and accepted that I was not going to get out of Arequipa,” she said.

In the week since, McCarron has settled in at her hostel. She’s the only American, but has made friends with Canadians and Europeans. Sometimes they play board games. Other times, it’s movie nights that help pass the time.

She feels relatively safe. Arequipa, a city of about 1 million, has less military presence than Lima and Cusco, she said. But the city has completely changed. Once bustling, the streets were empty now, except near markets. She isn’t getting information from the U.S. government. People in Lima, the capital, will get home first, she suspects.

After the borders were closed, McCarron saw armed military personnel going to nonessential businesses to make sure they were closed. She tries to go out as little as possible for fear of being picked up by police. She’s worried about civil unrest growing the longer the country is shut down.

When she walks to the market, people stare at her. She tries to talk with her mom as much as she can.

“It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the world is going through this global pandemic, that the world is shutting down, but also being stuck in this foreign country and not being able to get home," she said.

Brenna McCarron of Homer, 19, is stranded in Peru after the country shut down its borders March 16. Here, McCarron is at Machu Picchu. (Photo courtesy of Brenna McCarron)

McCarron and her mother have tried to reach out to government officials. They’ve reached out to the embassy and Alaska’s congressional delegation. They haven’t heard much back. Travelers from other countries staying at her hostel have seen a much better response from their governments, she said.

“It’s really disheartening to hear about other governments making moves to get their citizens out, and the U.S. is not," she said.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump addressed the U.S. citizens in Peru. He’s working to get them out, he said.

But the president said, “they got caught, they were late with their flights, we gave them a period of time, they didn’t make it, but we’re looking to get them out, probably through the military.”

The statement was baffling to Ann Agosti-Hackett, 63, and her partner, Eric Knudtson, 65. They’re also Homer residents trapped in Peru. They had been there for about a month and had return flights booked for Tuesday.

They first heard about the border closing in the middle of the night, early on the 16th. Agosti-Hackett heard they would still be let out. They were scrambling to find whatever information they could, but they were locked in the country “without warning,” she said.

She reached out to Sen. Murkowski. With the prodding of a nephew who used to intern for the senator, she has been able to have some correspondence, but nothing significant has come of it.

McCarron and her mom, Julie, have also reached out to Murkowski as well as Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.

They said they didn’t hear much other than some emails confirming the office received their communication.

Spokespersons for Murkowski and Sullivan issued statements saying they are aware of the situation and working to resolve it. On Sunday night, Murkowski released a video updating her progress, saying she’s working with the State Department to get Alaskans home.

Julie McCarron said the lawmakers didn’t seem to know much about what was going on.

“There’s no coordination,” she said. “No one across our country has the same information.”

Agosti-Hackett and Knudtson said when the initial border closure was 15 days, they figured they would just wait it out. But now it’s getting longer. Recently, they heard it would be in place for 90 days.

In the meantime, they’re enjoying the small town of Ollantaytambo, staying in a nice hotel. It’s a beautiful place to endure the pandemic, Agosti-Hackett said. But they want out, and are trying to find private flights.

Knudtson said the worst part is the uncertainty. It’s driven him to search for answers, though he worries if that’s taken too much of a hold on his life.

“It’s about where I go with fear,” he said. "How much time I spend on the internet. Finding some sort of balance between obsessing over this stuff and being informed.”

The uncertainty of what the future holds, and the lack of information in the present, is also eating away at McCarron, 350 miles to the south.

She also longs for Homer.

“You wonder, if things get worse, what is going to happen?" she said. "I definitely am scared of that. I am scared of things getting worse, I am scared of not getting home.”

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