When countries around the world (including the U.S.) began to shutter, not everyone was yet in the safety of their homes. Three Americans stuck abroad tell their stories here.
Self-isolation is bad enough in the comfort of your own home. Imagine being locked down in a house north of Quito, Ecuador, or having an enforced curfew at an Airbnb in Peru, or sleeping overnight in an airport in Munich. Governments worldwide are taking piecemeal approaches to what is and isn’t permissible in terms of travel, border closures, lockdown policies, and other coronavirus-blocking measures. But without coordinated efforts, there are travelers stranded all over the world. Both U.S. airlines and the government share blame in these difficulties, with shifting or unclear policies, everchanging flight coordination (if any), and overburdened resources.
I spoke to three different travelers who all have different stories to tell.
The U.S. Embassy in Ecuador: Here’s a Letter
Michael Jansma of Clearwater, Florida, was on a Spanish immersion school trip in Ecuador with his wife and son. While traveling through the Galapagos Islands, they received word that Ecuador was about to be locked down, and if they didn’t get on the last ferry, they’d be stuck in the islands until the country decided to re-open its borders.
“[Ecuadorian officials] gave us 48 hours, but unfortunately they didn’t add any additional ferries or planes to help all the people get out of the Galapagos,” said Jansma. “We were on Isabella Island without an airport. No additional ferries meant hundreds of people scrambling for one of two ferries, and one had already gone out that morning. So, it was tough.”
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At the time of writing, Jansma speculated that there were upwards of 6,000 Americans in Ecuador (some sources say as many as 7,000), and many in the Galapagos who weren’t able to get on that last ferry. One of the biggest obstacles for Jansma was simply getting proper information.
“What’s frustrating to us is that the U.S. government sent planes to Morocco, Peru, and Honduras and brought those people home … Why are Americans in Ecuador not getting the same treatment?”
“It wasn’t until the next morning that we understood that [officials] were closing the borders to Ecuadorians coming back from other places. The order said that no foreigners or citizens who visited other countries would be allowed to come back to Ecuador. Now, the airlines will tell you that Ecuador closed the airports and that they weren’t allowed to fly in. But the airlines didn’t want to come down here [with empty planes] because you can’t make money flying an empty airplane. So, what became apparent very quickly is that all U.S. airlines canceled outbound flights. They knew they couldn’t come here and make money with empty planes. So, this created a third and fourth level of chaos.”
Luckily, Jansma and his family were able to find an Airbnb about an hour and a half north of Quito. There, they waited for information to see if they’d be able to leave the country.
“The fog of war has taken over the embassy, the state department, the press, Facebook, the airlines, it’s like drinking from a firehose but it’s dirty water. You have to re-check and quadruple check and the moment you feel reasonably safe, it all changes. The place we ended up was divine intervention. There’s food here, there’s a garden. My wife is in another room and she’s ill. I started disaster planning and made arrangements to buy food. But we haven’t left this property for the last six days. In theory we’ll be okay for another week or two if need be.
One place the Jansma family turned to was the U.S. embassy in Quito, but unfortunately there wasn’t much help other than a letter.
“The ambassador wrote a general letter for travelers, but they tell you not to travel outside of curfew for any reason, and even within the time slots that we can be on the road, we need this letter from the ambassador because we’re foreigners.”
The Jansmas are not the only Americans in Ecuador stuck and looking for answers.
“What’s frustrating to us is that the U.S. government sent planes to Morocco and brought people home, they sent a military plane to Lima, Peru and brought those people home, they sent an ICE plane to Honduras and brought those people home. Why are Americans in Ecuador not getting the same treatment as those other countries?”
As of publication, the Jansma family was finally able to get a last-minute flight and made it back to the U.S.
“We’re in Houston and have a flight to Tampa. [It was] United airlines who got us home. My wife is okay, still on the mend, but her spirits are getting better.”
When I asked Jansma if the embassy had been any help, he stated, “Nope. But they were at the airport trying to take credit for it!”
The U.S. Embassy in Peru: No One to Take Your Call
Jesse Curry of Tampa, Florida was on a family vacation in Peru with his wife, mother, and two young kids when they got word the country was enforcing a shelter in place order.
“We found out that the president of Peru would be closing the borders until the 31st and if we didn’t get out now, we wouldn’t be able to get out,” said Curry. In addition to the thousands of Americans in Ecuador, Curry guessed around 5,000 Americans are still in Peru.
“We spent the first half of the day frantically trying to find a flight to anywhere in the U.S. We were unsuccessful there and continued to go through every airline and looked at flights to other countries that didn’t have lockdowns. Then we switched from finding a flight to finding supplies here just to get by. We loaded up on things from grocery stores and got an Airbnb. Early in the morning we reached out to the embassy but didn’t get any response from them. As the day progressed, we tried calling them and the emergency line at the embassy just rang and rang. Nobody was answering that. Since then we’ve been under quarantine and it’s been slowly tightening,” said Curry.
One major point of contention for Americans trying to get home is that every country’s coronavirus travel restrictions vary. Curry found out the hard way what was happening in Lima.
“The biggest thing I’d want to hear is that ‘Yes, we understand you’re in Peru right now, we have your information, you are on our lists, and we’re currently working.’ … We just want actionable info.”
“Anybody who is out after curfew will be arrested and detained. Even my wife who went out grocery shopping with our six-year-old son was stopped by the police. We don’t speak Spanish very well but thankfully we have some friends in the area. I had one situation with a police officer as I was moving from the last Airbnb to this new one and it started to get a little tense. I was able to FaceTime my friend and she spoke to the officer and got them to stop detaining me. I wanted to make sure our new Airbnb had an easy way in and out, so I walked by myself to the new Airbnb, and on that walk I was stopped by 12 different police officers. Each time they asked to see my passport, asked where I was going, and wanted proof to see that I had lodging here. So, even though it was about a mile walk, it took a couple hours.”
Like the Jansma family, the Currys had a similar experience with the embassy.
“I’ve still not gotten a real response from the embassy. They’ve sent some daily updates that started a couple days ago. They asked us to send information if we’re interested in a flight out and I responded in four minutes and we haven’t been notified that we’re on a flight. And the flight we had today was delayed and we have to shelter in place. The biggest thing I’d want to hear is that ‘Yes, we understand you’re in Peru right now, we have your information, you are on our lists, and we’re currently working.’ And if there were rough timelines, that would be good. If they don’t have timelines, clearly say that. If they have some understanding of when the quarantine would be lifted, tell us. Or any kind of assurance from the Peruvian president. Give us any kind of translations or recaps of the latest news coming from Peru. Thankfully we have a person translating the President’s addresses, but it’s not coming from any official source,” said Curry.
“We just want actionable info. We’ve received messages that have stated that ‘If you’ve emailed us, don’t email us again, we have your info.’ But that doesn’t really give us any confirmation that they actually have my info. So, a lot of uncertainty right now. If they just told us there was a plane on April 6th, we’d be fine to stay here. But we’re hearing about some countries talking about 18 months or 90-day quarantines and I don’t want to spend that much time here.”
The Currys remain in Ecuador, hoping the country will let American citizens leave within the week.
The U.S. Embassy in Austria: Use Google Flights
Brian Johnson of Land O Lakes, Florida was on a work trip in Austria when he got the word that Vienna was shutting down. He was one of the fortunate ones whose company was paying for him to stay in a hotel, but his journey out of the country wasn’t any easier.
“It seems like my interactions with the embassy are not an isolated incident. Even though at the federal level they’re saying they’re doing everything to bring everyone home, that’s not what I’m seeing.”
“All of a sudden I went out to get food and every restaurant was shut down. And I wasn’t just in Vienna, I was in the center of Vienna and I walked around for two hours and couldn’t find a single place to get food from,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s account had a similar refrain: the embassies and consulates were not there to help them.
“So, me being an American, I contact the U.S. embassy, naively thinking they would do something. So, I call them up and they said to send them an email with specifics. So, I gave them the lowdown and I’m starting to get worried and I need to get to Munich, can you guys help me? Their response to me, I kid you not, was ‘If I’m having problems getting a flight out, I should use Expedia or Google Flights to find an alternative.’ That was from the embassy! At that point I didn’t even argue and realized I was on my own and had to figure this out by myself. I’ve been doing my best to talk to whoever I can to get the word out. And it seems like my interactions with the embassy are not an isolated incident. Even though at the federal level they’re saying they’re doing everything to bring everyone home, that’s not what I’m seeing. And I want to let everybody know it’s not going down like they’re promising.”
Holed up at the Munich Airport, Johnson had a long wait to get home.
“I’m spending the night here tonight, and I have a 35-40-hour flight itinerary where they fly me from Vienna to Munich and then tomorrow morning to Newark, then Newark to Houston, and then Houston to Tampa when I’ll finally make it home. I was confident if I could just get to Munich without being quarantined by the government, I’d be okay. I thought about taking a train [to Munich] but then Germany announced they would put anyone who crosses the border who wasn’t a German citizen into quarantine..”
Johnson was one of the lucky ones though, he had the support of a company paying for hotels and flights, while many other Americans have been stranded to figure things out on their own. The financial hardships can be immense.
“The point I’m trying to make is that I’m not even all that furious about my position because I had the support structure from my company,” said Johnson. “But most people there vacationing, or something, wouldn’t have that support structure. I would just say this, what we’re hearing from the government, at least on the federal level, is not how things are actually playing out on the ground. People really aren’t getting the support they need, and not everyone is as fortunate as I am. I turned out okay because I have that support structure, but most Americans don’t. The government really isn’t following through like they’re claiming to in helping people who are stranded.”
Johnson endured his 40-hour itinerary and has made it back to Tampa, Florida. But for many Americans, including the Currys, there’s no timeline, no set plan to return safely home.