As the sun rose on the morning of March 13, when siblings Holly and Bryant Webb boarded a plane to Peru to hike the Inca Trail and celebrate Holly’s December graduation from K-State, they thought little of the impact the coronavirus pandemic could have on their trip.
Just two days prior, the World Health Organization had declared the virus a pandemic, but the two siblings harbored less concern over how Peru would handle the situation than how the United States would. They worried that leaving the U.S. might pose an issue, but if they could clear that hurdle, their vacation would continue as scheduled.
After all, when they left, Peru had reported only 38 confirmed cases.
So the Shawnee natives would make the four-day trek to Machu Picchu. See the sights. Enjoy a warm excursion to one of the most picturesque locations in the world.
“Obviously,” Holly said, “that was not the case.”
Not even a little bit.
Instead, while the two glided through the air toward Peru, the United States declared a state of emergency over coronavirus concerns, unleashing $50 billion in federal resources to combat the virus as cases approached 2,000 in the country.
Two days later, Peru president Martín Vizcarra did the same, but his announcement came with a condition that wiped out the Webbs’ plans: The nation was instituting a 15-day quarantine, halting all travel in and out of the country.
How the two siblings managed to return from a foreign country during an unprecedented global pandemic involves the way they navigated stress, coordinated with strangers, quarantined with new friends and waded through one logistical nightmare after another.
“It was a mix of being really worried about how you could get home, and trying to consume as much information as possible as to what your options of coming home were,” said Bryant, a 2014 K-State graduate.
His mother, Laura Webb, put it more bluntly.
“It was just a catastrophe,” she said, “all the way around.”
Holly and Bryant Webb hadn’t stayed more than two days at their hostel in Cusco, Peru, before disaster began to unfold.
Hostel officials woke up their residents during the night of March 15, alerting them of the new lockdown orders, which already figured to make leaving the country difficult — if not impossible. So the siblings stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to find flights back to the United States.
Instead, roughly two hours later, they traveled to the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco in an effort to find a flight — any flight — that would take them back home. Never happened. Most flights that day were canceled, Bryant said, preventing visitors who planned on staying in Peru for the next month from leaving.
“That,” Bryant said, “was extremely stressful.”
But at one point during their 10-hour day at the airport, they ran into a familiar face: An Australian native named James, who had reservations at the same hostel. Everyone involved figured staying in the hostel could become tricky — who knew how hostel operators would handle the circumstances or treat their guests, and besides, conditions in rooms were already less than ideal. So he told the Webbs that people from the hostel were organizing an Airbnb rental in Cusco. They had space for two more.
The Webbs accepted almost immediately. When afternoon approached evening and it became clear that nobody was leaving for the United States that day, the three headed back to the Airbnb house, which overlooked the city of 428,000.
Add in the fact that all this organizing happened via Google Sheets and Facebook groups, and it really becomes clear how disorganized this operation was.
For all three, though, the decision to change locations proved prescient. The next night, Bryant said, police raided the hostel and arrested anyone out of their rooms, throwing people with French and Italian passports onto the streets. Plus, by that time, the few Cusco hostels that remained open confined people to their rooms 23 hours a day.
In any case, Holly’s and Bryant’s new reality had arrived: Along with some 6,000 Americans, they were stuck in Peru, staying indoors at nearly all hours of the day, trying desperately to reach state representatives they hoped would work to bring them home — or deliver some sort of news about when they might be able to.
Before the lockdown set in, on March 15, the two did tour the Maras Salt Mines, Incan agriculture circles in mountains and even an alpaca farm.
But those days of freedom were long gone.
All the while, Peru implemented a curfew that barred citizens from being outside between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Military and police patrolled the streets. “We were pretty much under martial law there,” Holly said.
While they waited for news, Holly and Bryant passed the time the same way lots of others back home were: Reading books. Playing cards. Watching Netflix. “A lot of sitting,” Holly said with a laugh, “doing nothing.”
Ditto for the thousands of other Americans in the same situation.
“That was so helpful, because you’re like, ‘They can’t leave 6,000 of us down there,’” Holly said, “so it was definitely nice to know that there were a lot of people in the same boat.”
Nearly 4,000 miles away in Shawnee, Laura Webb worked to find a way for her kids to get home, mostly to few results.
She got in touch with several Kansas officials: U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids and her office, plus U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts. She contacted the State Department. Even, at one point, the Department of Defense.
“I was never able to talk to anybody there, so I just sent emails, and of course, that was not returned at all,” Laura said.
What frustrated Webb most was that these people, well-intentioned as some seemed, never appeared capable of helping.
“I didn’t feel like they had a voice,” Webb said. “Where it was great that they had a voice — and I truly think they cared — unless you were directly involved in the committee that was working on the USA repatriation, I felt like there wasn’t anything that really changed due to their involvement.
“They’re telling you the exact same things over and over, but absolutely nothing is changing.”
For awhile, nothing did. Holly and Bryant signed up multiple times for private charter flights cleared by the Peruvian government, but the United States government pulled its permission, preventing the flights from happening. Later, Peru wanted the U.S. to load planes with Peruvians in America and bring them to Peru — “which makes sense,” Holly said — but Peru didn’t want its citizens to pay for the flights, which triggered disagreement between the countries and shut down another batch of potential flights.
At one point, Holly said, they received word that a plane took off from Miami and flew within 30 minutes of Lima, Peru, before the Peruvian government pulled its landing clearance.
“It was a whole bunch of political stuff that, when you’re stuck in Peru, you don’t really care,” Holly said. “You’re like, ‘Just come get us.’”
Eventually, on March 29, respite came.
Just not without mixed signals and confused passengers.
“Clearly,” Bryant said, “nobody actually understood the breadth of the problem down there for the Americans.”
Even when help began to arrive, strings came attached.
On March 29, nearly two weeks after Holly and Bryant arrived in Cusco and several days after their scheduled return date, Bryant received an email: Since he had registered his travel plans with the State Department when the lockdown happened, he was on the manifest — the list of passengers — to fly home the next day.
Just one problem: Holly wasn’t.
Holly and Bryant had registered together, so they were confused. Why weren’t they both on the manifest? Holly was on the stand-by list, but she didn’t like her chances.
“You’re like, ‘Great,’” she said. ‘“What are the odds of that happening?’”
They had little choice, though. The U.S. Embassy in Peru was beginning to send daily charter flights from the U.S. for repatriation efforts, and the email Bryant received instructed him to walk to the Cusco city square — the Plaza de Armas — and board a shuttle to the airport by 8:30 a.m.
But Holly was far from guaranteed a seat on the plane, so instead, they joined fellow American and Airbnb guest Dan Farias and set off on foot at 4:50 a.m. — 10 minutes before the curfew lifted — to walk an hour to the airport.
Oh, and they were escorted by a pack of street dogs. Turns out, Cusco is home to between 14,000 and 40,000 of them.
When the trio arrived at the airport, though, Farias found himself at No. 36 in the stand-by line, Holly at No. 37. Determined to find a way for his sister to board, Bryant chatted with people at the embassy, trying to figure out how many people were on the manifest and how many seats were on the plane.
“They weren’t being very responsive,” Bryant said.
One airport employee told Bryant there were 120 seats on the plane, but the manifest had 140 people — so those in the standby line wouldn’t get to board. He recognized the disarray plaguing the situation, though, so he wasn’t sold.
After several hours passed, airport officials began to split up lines for passengers on the manifest and those on standby. Finally separated from Bryant, Holly began to count heads in each line.
The results: 85 in the manifest. She was now the 31st person in the standby line.
It began to add up: If there are only 85 people seats on the plane, and she’s the 31st person in standby, that’s 116. Four spots to spare.
That’s what Bryant told officials working at the U.S. consulate desk — which was so makeshift, he said, that he only recognized it because it featured the kind of small U.S. flag you celebrate with on the 4th of July — but this time, another problem arose.
Ten days earlier, the U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Krishna Urs, had quietly departed the country over medical concerns.
“Without telling the State Department that there were any Americans in Peru that weren’t able to get home,” Bryant said.
That forced the embassy to make do without its ambassador, which resulted in mass chaos. How many seats were on the plane? How many stand-by passengers would be let on? Nobody in charge seemed to know.
“I definitely thought I was getting left in Peru,” Holly said with a chuckle. “I told my brother that he could go, because the other American (Farias) and I were just going to get a hotel close to the airport and go to the standby line the next morning.”
“I could do arithmetic easily enough,” Bryant said, “and the fact that they just weren’t giving us any information was extremely frustrating.”
So much so, in fact, that Bryant began to take matters into his own hands.
“Basically,” he said, “I kind of tore into the consulate a little bit and told them that they had our groups split up. It was a huge safety issue.”
Evidently, that was enough to get both siblings on a plane. Airport officials admitted nearly 50 standby passengers, which was more than enough to account for Holly’s spot in line.
They weren’t out of the woods — they had to sign blank promissory notes, promising to pay back the government some amount of money at some point, and their nearly-empty flights out of Miami later got rebooked for the next day — but they were headed back to their country.
Just took a couple weeks.
“Landing in Kansas City was phenomenal,” Holly said. “Getting in a car and just driving home was great.”
Nothing is normal these days, but Holly and Bryant are back living something close to it. Holly is home in Shawnee, caring for a new puppy, Scoober, while Bryant is home in Denver catching up on work at Burns and McDonnell, a Kansas City-based consulting engineering firm, the same company that Holly is set to begin working at in June.
Their trip is behind them, but what sticks with them is the differences they saw firsthand in the United States’ and Peru’s approaches to slowing the virus.
For example: In Peru, Holly watched the daily news conferences from President Donald Trump and Vizcarra, the Peruvian president.
“The contrasts between those were incredible,” she said. “I mean, the Peruvian president shut down his country when they had maybe 80 cases in the entire country. He just shut it down and put a curfew and all these rules, and everyone just follows them. And then here, that’s obviously just not the case.”
Bryant said he saw similar differences.
“It was definitely crazy, though, because you could tell that the virus wasn’t being taken as seriously here,” Bryant said. “In Peru, it’s required that you wear masks out in public and all that jazz. Here, it’s just not. The airports were really, really empty, which was spooky, kind of. You could just tell that no one cared as much.”
The proof was in the procedures. In Peru, passengers had their temperatures taken before boarding the plane. Not so in the United States.
Even so, they’re just glad they’re back.
“I definitely was a little stressed about getting work done,” Bryant said, “but being home was a pretty palpable sense of relief, being able to kick back and not worry about being stuck in a country you don’t want to be in for an undetermined amount of time.”