By Dauna Ditson

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Cortney Pitts and Maxime Patenaude were in Peru nearly as long as they had planned, but their vacation was nothing like they had expected.

The couple left Canada on March 11 when there wasn’t a travel advisory in place for Peru. While they’d heard about COVID-19 on the news, it didn’t seem like it would have any impact on their trip.

“South America didn’t have COVID-19 really at the time. We thought it was just China and Italy and so we thought we were pretty safe going to South America,” Pitts said.

She had heard that there was one case of COVID-19 in Peru when they arrived, but the number had blown up to around 950 when they left.

The couple had only been in Peru for a few days when other travellers started mentioning prime minister Justin Trudeau’s call for Canadians abroad to come home.

“Life was just going on as normal,” she said, adding that some travellers were trying to book flights home.

In the evening of March 15, a few days into their vacation, she saw locals gathered around a TV where Peru’s president announced that the borders were closing and all local movement was going to be restricted.

Pitts couldn’t tell what he was saying but “it looked like quite a serious announcement because all the locals, everybody working, kind of stopped and was watching the TV.”

She and Patenaude looked online to figure out what was happening and found bits and pieces of information around the border closing. In the morning they found out more.

“The Peru president had declared a state of emergency for 15 days so it meant all local movement was limited to only essential activities so you could only go out for grocery shopping, pharmacy and banking. And he had closed all international borders as of midnight the following day, so as a traveller that gave us less than 28 hours (minus the time it took the couple to figure out what was happening) to get out before he basically locked down the borders and put the whole country on lockdown,” Pitts said.

At breakfast, a worker at their hostel said the facility was closing and that they would have to leave.

“You don’t have time to process. I was already in shock … and just started breaking down crying,” Pitts said.

They realized the first order of business was for them to get to Lima, a five-hour bus ride away, to be close to the international airport.

“Our predicament was: Do we go right to the airport and try to find a flight because we only have until midnight? Or do we go right to the embassy?” Pitts said. “It was like a nightmare that had come true.”

They opted for the Canadian embassy, where staff helped them find a hotel that was accepting Canadians, would let them stay for the duration of the lockdown and would offer a discounted rate. Feeling relieved with their most-pressing problem solved, they went to grab groceries.

“There was no canned food or anything,” she said. “We basically lived off crackers and cheese for a bit.”

The couple self-isolated in their hotel, where breakfast and other essentials were dropped off at their door, and kept trying to win a chance to come home as Peru’s military marched in the streets.

All flights were cancelled, she said, adding that the only way to get home would be if the Canadian government sent in a plane.

With limited seats on repatriation flights back to Canada, each attempt to buy a ticket felt like entering a lottery, Pitts said. “It was selling out withing minutes.”

Technological glitches also locked them out of a chance to come home. When they were finally able to secure their seats on a plane, Pitts said: “I was jumping for joy … It’s like winning the lottery.”

They arrived home on Thursday, April 2 and remain in lockdown for two more weeks. Pitts doesn’t mind. She’s just happy to be home and safe and to be able to throw her laundry in the wash.

She and Patenaude have been together for five years, and Pitts said being in such close quarters with each other hasn’t been an issue.

“In a point like that you can only get stronger,” she said. “We were like an old married couple in a room.”

Locking Peru down was “a drastic measure,” she said, but one worth taking despite the inconvenience she and others faced. “Seeing what’s going in the world, (Peru) is doing the right thing.”

Pitts, who is the District of Invermere events coordinator, is grateful for all those who offered help and is pleased to hear about the steps individuals, governments and businesses are taking at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“If it hits a small town, that could be devastating,” she said. “You need to take it seriously.”