Diary of a coronavirus castaway: 'After more than two weeks, it comes in a flash – I'm going home'

Peru has cancelled all flights from the country, leaving Sarah Baxter – and hundreds of other Britons – stranded 

Day 1: March 17

As of midnight last night, I’m stuck in Peru. I was spark out at the moment of my new semi-imprisoned status, having gotten precisely no sleep the night before, when the news broke that I had a little over 24 hours to get out of the country.

Yesterday – a frantic day of messaging, calls, stress, food buying and disbelief – ended with me still in Peru but floored by the power of community – within hours a ‘Little Britain SOS’ Whatsapp group formed for Brits stuck in Cusco – and with the kindness of strangers: a friend of a friend has taken me in, is offering me food, letting me use his washing machine and internet, and his sons have just made me the best banana split. In crazy times, humans can be quite brilliant.

Cusco, Peru

So I’m stranded. While it’s popular to bemoan social media and smartphones, they are my best friends right now. I call my boyfriend via Wi-Fi, a comfort to us both (I think he may be more worried than me); he puts my cat on the line – hearing Gizmo purr while I’m thousands of miles away, in the heights of the Andes, is when I really start to well up. I’m so far from home, from partner, animals, friends, gym, work, normal routine. Though according to all reports, the home I left two weeks ago is a very different place.

Actually, in any other circumstances, today would have been a nice day. A breakfast of fresh-baked bread, hummingbirds buzzing around the trees in the garden, views to the Andean hills, the company of new, lovely, generous people who have welcomed me into their home despite not knowing me from Adam. Only it soon becomes hours of screen time – researching and tweeting and trying to stay abreast of the local advice and #stuckinperu chat, which changes all the time. Bursts of optimism vie with tales of misery and concern – one British traveller stuck here relies on a weekly infusion of medication and has a limited amount left. There is also much needed camaraderie – Brianna, one solo traveller holed up in a hostel, types about how the Whatsapp group has made her feel less alone in this crappy situation. I whole-heartedly agree.

At lunchtime, a cause for mini-celebration? The Peruvian president has given permission for humanitarian rescue flights to land! Could this be a ticket out? Now we need to UK Government to respond, but it's amazing how quickly circumstance change - I've gone from being certain I'll be here a month to allowing myself to believe that maybe, just maybe, it might be days...

The view from Sarah's temporary home

It’s nighttime now and the streets are eerily quiet, traffic non-existent, though the dogs – eternally barking – fill the silence. The airport, not far from where I’m staying, lays dormant. We sneak out for a little walk, taking the back-street scenic route, free from patrolling police, to buy provisions, and I see the empty runway down below. Behind it are green foothills dotted with Inca ruins – I might want to get out of this place but it’s still spectacular. Two police do stop us briefly. We brandish the bread and (definitely essential) ice cream we’ve bought, to explain our presence out of doors. They’re wearing face masks and tell us we need to do the same, but thankfully let us pass without fuss.

Back inside, I check my phone again. Positive rumblings about salvation. We’ve been mentioned on the BBC, in parliament, on local radio, in print. A few hundred voices virtually banded together might be making a real difference. 

Passengers hoping to catch a flight out of Peru on Monday Credit: getty

Day 2: March 18

Woken this morning around 6am with a start. Loudspeakers yelling through the streets of Cusco. I bolt upright – is it the army? A riot? A new presidential decree? No, it’s the bin men, who turn up the volume of their steroes to move people out of the way. Only there aren’t any people to move. No snarled traffic or folks on their way to work. Empty.

I roll over and try to get back to sleep but it’s useless. The neighbourhood dogs, of which there are many, are barking and my phone – to which I am becoming increasingly addicted – is beckoning. What if there’s good news?

There isn’t. Yet. But plenty of action, from MPs responses to rumours of rescue flights for other nationalities. While the British Government has issued little but platitudes for the past three days, I learn that Israel is rescuing its 1,000-odd Peru-stuck citizens on Thursday, the French on Saturday; looks like the Mexicans, Poles and Americans are being repatriated by their governments too.

I speak to my parents, who seem remarkably chipper. Dad – who has heart and lung issues – is still playing golf (I demand he avoids the 19th hole); Mum has enough wine. She has always been funny about touching anyone else’s door handles – a foible I’ve always eye-rolled and mocked. But now she’s having the last laugh. I think they think they’re protected by geography – they live in Norfolk, and seem to believe the virus won’t find them there.

Mid-morning I chat to the BBC via Skype. I shudder at the state of me – I was in Peru on a trekking trip and didn’t think to pack the hair-and-make-up kit required for media appearances. But publicising the plight of the near-400 – yes, 400 – Brits abandoned here seems rather more important than worrying about my travel spots and cold sore. I say my piece. The story we’re trying to push out to everyone: we had 24 hours notice to get out; our dear leaders have done virtually bugger all.

Lunch is lovely. I’m staying in the home of Paul Cripps, owner of tour operator Amazonas Explorers, and despite his own major concerns about the state of his business, he has welcomed me, a stranger, with open arms. We eat pasta in his sunny garden with his two sons, who defy all moody-teenager stereotypes. With their school closed, they’re studying at home, and are chatty and cheerful. One has just made me a delicious chocolate pudding, to follow yesterday’s banana split. With any form of outdoor exercise strictly forbidden, this foreign isolation might be deleterious to my waistline.

Pudding provides a little pick-me-up

Messages from home keep asking how I am, which is lovely. And I say I’m fine, because I am. It could be so much worse. But ask me again this time next week, if nothing has changed and I’m still here, with no news or prospect of imminent return, and I might not feel quite the same.

Day 3: March 19

A bad morning. First thing I do on waking is read an article in which the Foreign Secretary says Brits stranded overseas should expect to be stuck for some time... Just how long exactly? Feeling the farthest I’ve ever felt from home, I blub into a pillow that isn’t mine for a bit. Then give myself a virtual slap. Get up. Get dressed. And speak to a journo on the phone about our #ukstuckinperu campaign while stroking Neo, my host’s dog. Venting, publicising and patting an animal, I feel instantly better.

The big news is that airline Avianca has said it's considering running UK repatriation flights – but for a cool $3,000-$3,500 (£2,540-£2,970). Meanwhile the Israelis trapped here are being taken home for free. The French for around €700 (£635). The Germans around €1,000 (£910). It’s not nice to feel abandoned by your country and extorted by the airline that was supposed to take you home anyway. 

The local shop is out of bread. And venturing out seems to be becoming more restricted. But we try to make the most of things, and set up a circuit class in the garden. For a moment at least, the biggest challenges are burpees and not planking in Neo’s poo.

Day 4: March 20

Brushing my teeth, I wonder how long my tube of toothpaste will last... I packed for two weeks. Whch has already turned to three... Didn’t bring nail clippers. Maybe this is the time to grown long fashion talons? Hardly the most pressing issue when you’re umpteen miles from home but I have plenty of thinking time on my hands.

Once ablutions are done, it’s back to the rather more serious business of helping pen a press release about this whole crapshoot. It’s nice to have a purpose. It’s also nice to be so well looked after by my hosts. Lunch is paltas a la reina, a creamy concoction of avocado (they are amazing here), chicken (I was veggie, but, hey, I’m not going to be picky) and apple. Delicious.

Phone is going crazy with messages again, and I spend time pinging out pleas for people to sign our "Free the Peru Brits!" petition. Dear reader, would you please...?

Day 5: March 21

Sitting on the sofa with a nip of pisco, ah, what a day. 

Its opening was a sucker punch: news that a Peruvian government minister had gone on live TV to say even repatriation flights would be banned by the end of the day. Visions of an eternity spent up in the Andes, rage at the lack of official help in getting us home.

But then, glimmers of hope. Finally correspondence from the FCO: a rescue looking set for next week. 

And while this emotional rollercoaster plays out on my constantly flashing phone, I’m simultaneously sweeping out the wood fired oven, chopping tomatoes, grating cheese - it’s a lockdown Saturday and the family with whom I’m staying have decided to fill the day with from-scratch pizza making. Life goes on. And by the time our first slices are ready (it takes a good, fun while) the positive updates on our exile are rolling in.

Garden air, giggles, good news... Pizza never tasted so good.

Day 6: March 22

This time last week I was at Machu Picchu, the should-have-been grand finale to my Peru adventure. The last photos on my reel. I scroll back at the pictures now; it feels like eons ago. So much and so little has changed. The world has tilted; I’m still right here.

To occupy this sunny Cusco Sunday, I mix a BBC interview with a craft session very much of our times: DIY facemask making. The police and shopkeepers here like you to wear one if you venture out. 

My host Paul, his two sons and I google possible designs. We quickly dismiss those requiring rulers and sewing machines, and the Japanese YouTubers fashioning pretty ones covered in cats, and settle on a simple model requiring only kitchen roll, elastic bands, glue and staples. At the online tutorial‘s end, even the guy demonstrating admits the mask is useless, but it’s good for show and whiles away some hours. The dining table turned briefly Blue Peter.

Sarah with her DIY mask

I’m so grateful to Paul, Oliver and Charlie for providing such distraction. But my mind can’t move far from yesterday’s promise of repatriation, and from the logistical difficulties I know that will entail. There are 600+ UK and Irish stranded across this topographically awkward country – distanced by mountains, deserts and jungles. Getting us all together is not going to be a breeze, with overland and air transport banned right now, and journeys long. Cusco to Lima by bus is some 24 rough hours. It’s a worry, sure enough.

But then I see Charlie drawn a panda face onto his mask and the world gets a little bit better again.

Day 7: March 23 

Breakfast, emails, a Skype with ITV. But no further news of rescue. Just Boris Johnson announcing the lock down of the UK. 

At least he’s allowing people out for exercise. No such permission here. So once again, we turn the garden into a gym, sweating over burpees, lunges and ‘sprints uphill with dog’ to try to stay active in confinement. I might come home fitter than I left... 

Sarah Baxter and friends in exercise mode

At the session’s end, we discuss if we’ll do it again tomorrow. But Charlie says no, it’s a rest day. “Two days on, one day off - that’s what we do.” 

That’s what we do. I’ve been here a week – seven days ago we were strangers – and already we’ve slipped into some sort of a routine. A new, faraway normal.

Day 8: March 24

Getting dressed this morning, I wonder: have I got enough clean knickers to last my exile? This is an exciting prospect. News has come that the first rescue flight is landing in Lima today, to take around 200 Brits home tomorrow. Emails have gone out to the lucky ones. I’m not one of them – quite rightly, the old and vulnerable are off first, plus I’m in more complicated Cusco. But still... Four pairs... Will it, could it, be enough...?

Day 9: March 25

A good day. A dreadful day. 

After more than a week in Peruvian lockdown, comprising scant communication from anyone official, furious tweeting, a lot of burpees performed in my "prison" garden, and a confused jumble of rumour, news and fake news, today the first rescue flight took a batch of Brits (around 200) from Lima back home. I'm terribly jealous of course but also over the moon for them. And hope they mark the start of a mass, long-fought-for exodus.

But such positivity has just turned sour. Today two travellers in a hostel in Cusco have tested positive for covid 19. Which means the almost-150-odd others staying there – including nine Brits – are now under a quarantine that could last up to three months, locked in their rooms for 23 hours a day. I need to repeat that: three months, 23 hours. No longer a holiday but a sentence. I'm struggling to put the horror of that into words; can't imagine the fear and crushing sadness those in that hostel are feeling.

At the moment, I'm lucky. I'm staying elsewhere in Cusco. But as the clock ticks, how many more of us stranded travellers might find ourselves in indefinite corona quarantine, stuck in Peru even if the as-yet unconfirmed rescue flights do come? We have been flighting to get brought back from Peru since we were trapped here nine days ago. But the stakes have just been raised, the fight is in its most desperate round.

Day 10: March 26

Funny how we spend so much time wishing we could be more ZANY! More spontaneous! But plonked in a new situation, we quickly gravitate towards routine. My Peru life has settled into quite the pattern, and it's not so different to back home. I wake early, I exercise in the garden, I breakfast, I set to work. Only there are more hummingbirds flyng around as I stamp about on the cross trainer, and "work" includes pressing away at the campaign to get Peru-stuck Brits back home. Oh, and chat over the toast and cereal includes looking up the latest tally of covid deaths.

The first Lima-London rescue flight landed at Heathrow today. Reports from those lucky passengers onboard say there were a few delays but a lot of love and care from airline staff and officals. It's cockle-warming to hear. I look forward to when it's my turn...

Day 11: March 27

An end in sight? News – proper non-fake news – from the FCO that more planes are coming to take us home. This from a press release, and backed up by embassy tweets. But no official, personal, in-my-inbox, definite confirmation as yet... Or yet. Or yet. Refresh, refresh – a whole afternoon and evening pressing refresh, hoping that message will ping. 

Day 12: March 28

After almost two weeks, it comes in a flash: at around 6pm I get the news that at 6.30am tomorrow it’s time. Be at Avenida Parco for my bus to Cusco airport and home. It’s a little ambiguous. The email comes, followed by a retraction of that email, then the it arrives again, though not with the "salvoconducto" letter (which gives permission to walk to the bus) that is supposed to be attached. But soon, I have it. (And later learn I’m lucky. Some Brits got their good-to-go message in the early hours of Sunday morning, having to pack in minutes to claim their ticket out.)

Day 13: March 29

Queue follows queue follows queue... It’s the sort of travel day that’d normally leave you swearing but there’s none of that today. These are not ordinary times. Everything’s slow, for sure. But there’s no textbook for this. Peruvian police are militant about distancing and facemasks; the embassy staff are irreverent and brilliant, herding kindly, sarcasm always at the ready. Processes pass, patience is paramount.

Then the Cusco plane lifts for Lima and my eyes fill. It’s beautiful down there; there are beautiful people down there. I will never be able to adequately repay Paul and his family for the kindness and, well, unexpected fun of this strange adventure. I have the feeling that despite is all, one day I’ll come back, if the travel world can do the same. But now it’s northwards, eastwards, homewards.