As we were packing and preparing for our cruise holiday in South America, I had told my husband, Boon Ee, that maybe it wasn’t a good thing to leave on a vacation, what with the Covid 19 virus spreading so quickly across Asia. But because South America was the least affected then, we told ourselves we would go and if things took a turn for the worse, we would head back. Little did we know the serenity of the majestic Iglesia Virgen Milagrosa church in Miraflores beckoning our arrival was a prelude of more interesting days ahead! So we landed in Lima on the 9th of March 2020, and after two nights in Lima, we took a flight to Cusco and spent a few days taking in the sights and awe inspiring beauty of the Andean mountains, Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. The latter was a challenge especially for the silver hairs, what with an altitude that was 1 km higher than Mount Kinabalu. And although we had taken altitude sickness pills, nevertheless, we found the trek up taxing as we had to stop every 10 to 15 steps to gasp for oxygen. The sight of the native girls, with their iron lungs pumping effortlessly and their titanium-hinged like legs running past us was certainly amazing. While some simply gave up and settled for a horse ride up the hill, we encouraged each other to complete the task. What normally takes 2.5 hours for a 400 meters ascent in the end took us 4 hours up and down. We were the oldest in the group, and our guide encouraged us all the way. In the end we made it up and the sight was worth the effort. It was truly a magnificent vista of different colors. Awesome!!
In the evening back at the hotel, Boon Ee checked his phone on the whereabouts of the cruise ship and was shocked to see it sailing away from Peru ! We were scheduled to fly back to Lima the next morning and head to the port from there. Realizing something was amiss, he messaged the travel agent back in Malaysia and checked his email on any cruise updates, but there were none. The travel agent was equally puzzled with developments, and Boon Ee, upon further checking, uncovered that globally, all cruise liners had decided to suspend all activites the night before, in accordance with an advisory from US’s Center for Disease Control. (CDC). There was no advance notice, none whatsoever. Boon Ee spent the rest of the evening with the local agent arranging accommodation in Lima and planning for our return home. He was also in touch with the Malaysian agent on return flight possibilities. The following morning, we flew back to Lima as planned and checked into a hotel. Little did we know the Peruvian President was about to declare a state of emergency that night itself and announce closure of its borders the following day.
Our efforts to connect with our airline on 16th March was in vain, and we were informed by Cathay Pacific that the airport was closing down that same afternoon! With the help of the Malaysian agent, we quickly secured seats on a flight to Ecuador, as it was neighbouring Peru, We thought, we could then plan our return home from there using our existing return tickets. But the rush to the airport was torturous, and in the chaos, we ended up missing the flight as there were thousands of tourists and passengers in the same boat as us trying their level best to exit the country. In the days ahead, we believe it was divine intervention that we missed this flight and other subsequent flights as well. Shortly after, the other countries in South America closed their borders in rapid succession. If we had flown to any of them – Ecuador, Argentina, we would have ended up being stranded in worse- off conditions. We stayed at the airport for another few hours hoping for a miracle flight out but by 3pm the army had moved in and begun sealing off the airport.
We headed back to the same hotel we had rushed out of and this was to be our ‘home’ for the next 35 days. Upon arrival, we were fortunate that they allowed us back in as they were shuttering their entrance as well.We quickly registered with the Malaysian Embassy; spoke to Puan Laila, 3rd Secretary in the embassy who started a Whatsapp group of Malaysians stranded in Peru and updated us on daily developments, what-to-do and what-not-to-do in a lockdown environment. She provided all of us with a letter allowing us to wander to the shops for groceries and pharmaceutical supplies.
There were many other ‘God moments’ during our stay in Lima. One morning, we came down to see a front office staff in hysteria and in tears. All the other staff were trying to calm her down. We asked if we could pray for her and finally managed to calm her down (we found out later she was traumatized over the virus which was by then spreading like wildfire in Peru, and she feared for her family members who were living in another part of Peru). After that incident, the attitude of the hotel staff towards us changed – we were no longer viewed as possible virus vectors and were now their friends! They knew we were stranded and made our stay at the hotel as comfortable as possible, upgraded us to a bigger room, and allowed us use of the staff kitchenette. Another God moment was in our Whatsapp group when we became acquainted with an Italian married to a Penang girl who informed us of his loss of both his parents when they succumbed to the virus in Lombardy, Italy. Given the lockdown, they were unable to attend their funerals and felt utterly helpless and despondent. Again, we were able to share some hopeful and comforting words with them during the Easter Sunday weekend.
We kept ourselves busy by ”Zooming” with our children, siblings, parents, friends and work colleagues. To us, this was what God had planned in our lives – to spend quality time with close ones. To pass our time we shopped for groceries, did laundry, read voraciously, prayed, did our devotion, worked out (Boon Ee walked up and down the emergency stairs while I did my own routine and a ballet barre), and I did some embroidery. In the early days, God helped us to navigate through the difficulties of flight scheduling with many airlines suspending their operations. There was an instance when British Airways wanted to charge us on a flight reroute for a non-existent, cancelled schedule. We became more wary of airlines, their agents under-delivering and over promising on refund of aborted flights and cancelled tickets.
We made the most of our stay in Lima – we got to know the staff who took care of us during our stay by listening to their life stories. Initially, there were four of them and this was subsequently reduced to two staff looking after the two of us in the entire hotel. One was a Cuban lawyer who ended up as a reception cum housekeeping staff and the other, a local. In our grocery shopping, we were introduced to a wide variety of delicious Peruvian fruits – especially custard apples! And we had the opportunity to sample locally made paté, South American beef and a variety of local fishes. Boon Ee was given quick access to the supermarket while other senior citizens had to queue up for their turn, and he declared this was God’s will! We had thought of moving to a self-service apartment as the Government kept extending the lockdown but in the end decided against it because the thought of these two hotel staff being laid off was unsettling.
There were in total three earlier repatriation flights put together by the governments of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan in which surplus seats were offered to Malaysians. All three flights would only disembark us in a foreign airport where we were then expected to find our own way home. The 1st flight was to Miami, and since we did not have our US visas at hand, we were excluded from this flight. The second was a flight to London, and not only were the fares expensive but later on, we found out five of the passengers were Covid 19 positive upon their arrival in Hong Kong. The third flight was to Mexico City, and from there one had to go through a convoluted passage through Amsterdam before Doha and Kuala Lumpur.
By this time, Puan Laila had privately informed Boon Ee that the Embassy was toying with the idea of chartering a plane to evacuate the remaining stranded Malaysians from both Bolivia and Peru by the 12th of April 2020, but this was contingent on a full fare paying flight. The 12th of April 2020 came and went, but the pace picked up dramatically soon after when the Peruvian President announced all humanitarian flights would cease on the 21st of April 2020.
On the 16th ofApril 2020, we were informed that approvals had been obtained from the relevant authorities in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil for a humanitarian flight to proceed, and soon after, on the 17th of April 2020, we received instructions to check into a staging hotel near the Malaysian embassy in San Isidro. In the morning of the 17th of April 2020, we shopped for provisions to take back with us as we knew we would be quarantined immediately on arrival at KLIA. In the afternoon of the 17th of April 2020, we bid farewell to our hotel caretakers, and Puan Laila herself came personally to pick us up and drop us off at the gated Swissotel Lima. We had a short briefing at the lobby, and for the first time, all the Malaysians in the Whatsapp group met. There were those who had travelled by road for 17 to 20 hours from the outskirts of Peru on Malaysian embassy hired vehicles, manned by two drivers who took turns driving non-stop except for short breaks. Puan Laila briefed us on the procedure and plans for the next day – what we could take onboard and what had to be left behind. The flight would takeoff from La Paz, Bolivia before picking us up at Lima and dropping us off at Sao Paulo, Brazil. Included in the flight were passengers of Japanese, Thai, Brazilian, Korean and Australian nationalities. Representatives from these foreign missions were at the same hotel to brief their own nationals.
In the early hours of the 18th of April 2020, we assembled, picked up our packed breakfast and headed out in two coaches to the military airport under heavy police escort. The ‘departure lounge’ was a tented area where we were seated apart and had our luggage tagged and checked before we were ushered out again to the awaiting plane on the tarmac.
The Malaysian Ambassador, Fenny Nuli and her counterparts from Japan and Thailand were there with their respective consular staff to ensure everything progressed smoothly. The ambassador admitted she had a sleepless month worrying what the host country would do next and also about our welfare during our ‘confinement’. The whole embassy had graciously turned up to bid us farewell! And finally we were on our way home! What a relief! The long layover at Sao Paulo airport before our connecting flight out was a minor inconvenience compared to our long Lima confinement. Over the previous 35 days, we had seen the toll inflicted by this beast of a viral scourge across a large swath of humanity and businesses across the globe. Everything seemed to have come to a standstill and I couldn’t help but keep reflecting on Psalm 46:10
Be still and know I am God
The quarantine days back in KL whizzed past speedily, and we were extremely spoilt by a friend in Sunway Pyramid hotel who arranged special meals for us daily. We put back the weight we had lost earlier. We believe we got a lot closer to God during our 35-days break, akin to a long silent meditation. We reflected on how God had guided us, placed ‘angels’ in front of us all the way, moved family members and church friends who prayed and encouraged us incessantly. And although both of us had no urgency to leave Lima as we were enjoying our stay there, the Lord finally prompted us to leave when the time was right. God had not forgotten us and He kept His word to return us home safely.