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Michelle Kribel, a 51-year-old nurse from Windham, and her daughter Katelyn embarked last week on what they thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Amazon rainforest.
But on Monday, when Peru shut down its borders in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, that trip quickly became a nightmare as Kribel and her daughter became two of more than 1,000 Americans stranded in the South American country for at least two weeks.
“We are American citizens. While this country is wonderful and the people are kind, this is not where we belong,” Kribel said Thursday in a phone interview. “We are completely and totally prepared to stay for two weeks, although we don’t want to. We would rather quarantine in our own country.”
Peru’s president issued a nationwide state of emergency there on Sunday in response to the spread of COVID-19. The declaration forced the country into quarantine for 15 days and gave foreigners just 24 hours to leave the country before its borders closed at 11:59 p.m. on Monday
With a limited number of flights, and last-minute airfare starting at $3,500 for a coach seat back home, many Americans were unable to leave. They’re now forced to quarantine abroad.
The U.S. Embassy doesn’t track the exact number of Americans in Peru because they aren’t required to register trips with the agency, but about 1,400 are believed to be stuck there, according to a spreadsheet shared by Kribel that has been generated among those who are stranded. The spreadsheet — started by a Washington D.C. woman whose father is stuck in Peru — tracks the names and residences of the stranded Americans, and outlines steps they should take.
One of those steps is to contact the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Lima. But Kribel has done that, and says the response from the U.S. government has left much to be desired. There are no plans to bring Americans back to the states within the next two weeks.
Instead, the guidance issued on the U.S. Embassy’s website advised that, “American Citizens who remain in Peru should arrange lodging for the duration of the quarantine period and plan to limit their movements.”
Kribel and her daughter left Portland on Friday, March 13, for what they expected to be a one-week trip to a part of the Amazon rainforest located in Peru. When they left Maine, cases of the novel virus were just starting to be confirmed in Maine.
While Kribel considered cancelling the trip amid growing fears of the virus, she felt the jungle was a safe enough place to be — not anticipating they would have less than 24 hours to evacuate the country or be forced to stay because of the rapidly spreading pandemic that’s affected nearly every country in the world. Some countries with limited health care infrastructure still have not supplied data to the World Health Organization about the virus.
The Maine women arrived at their remote lodge in the Amazon on Saturday evening. On Sunday, they had a “glorious day … we began to experience what we came here for,” Kribel said.
But at 6 a.m. Monday morning, their guide was knocking on their door telling them that they had to evacuate immediately and be out of the country at midnight.
After a three-and-a-half hour boat ride to the city of Iquitos, they were able to get plane tickets to the capital city of Lima, where they would try to catch a flight back to the U.S..
“It was panic. We were in the jungle. Our wifi was very sketchy. Everyone was trying to book flights out of the country,” Kribel said.
By the time their flight landed in Lima it was 11:20 p.m. They had 40 minutes to try to catch a flight to the U.S. before Peru shut its borders. But the prices of flights to the U.S. were staggering so they were forced to stay.
“I’m angry that [airlines] were giving away tickets practically in the states to get people to use airlines within [the United States]. But then to do this to people who just needed to get back,” Kribel said fighting back tears.
While she was attempting to book a flight home, her partner who was at home in Maine booked them a hotel room in Lima for two weeks.
As the women left the airport, in a panicked and surreal state, they stood on the taxi corner trying to get a ride to their hotel. The distinction between which cars were taxis and which were not was unclear. Neither of them speak Spanish, the primary language in Peru.
“Many people were just jumping into vehicles. And we did too. We were driving to our destination and I was thinking ‘Dear God, I just need to get my daughter there. I hope that this guy has good intentions.’ And he did,” Kribel said.
Since Tuesday, Kribel and her daughter have been staying in a two-bedroom hotel room in Lima.
Movement in the country is incredibly limited. Kribel said people are only allowed to go out if they need to go to grocery stores, pharmacies or hospitals. Between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. a national curfew has been imposed. People who are out during this time will be arrested, Kribel said.
Military and police officers are patrolling the streets with guns to enforce the quarantine and curfew.
“It’s just insane,” Kribel said.
As of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Embassy, there were 145 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Peru.
Kribel and her daughter are fully prepared to stay in Peru for the duration of the 15-day quarantine, but she can’t help but worry they might be stranded for longer. When American Airlines canceled their return flight, scheduled for Saturday, they were automatically rebooked for a flight leaving on March 30. But as the airline industry is cutting back flights, Kribel worries her flight home might be one of them and she isn’t getting answers from the airline or the U.S. government.
Kribel reached out to the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, urging the government to help the stranded Americans get home. In an email response, an aide for Collins simply expressed apologies for the situation and reiterated the guidance from the U.S. Embassy.
“What I would hope is that they would come and get us. Just get us,” Kribel said. “I’m a healthcare provider who is not out there helping. The fear is that there is no end to this. We can’t stay here for an indefinite period of time.”
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease