Nick Fitzgerald

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Robinson Crusoe and Jane Friday’s Lock-Down Adventure

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Introduction

For each of the past 15 years, we’ve escaped the European winters to revel in sun, sea and sand on a glorious beach in Northern Peru.
Our location at Colán, near the important port of Paita, is almost as far west as you can get in South America.  In a shallow bay, our house sits about 4kms from its Southern end. 
The cold Humboldt current sweeps North past the coasts of Chile and Southern Peru.  This renders the beaches in that part of Peru cold, with rough seas, dangerous for bathing.  However, the Northern half of Peru’s coast commences with a great bulge, serving to divert that cold current out into the Pacific.  Thus, the waters of the North, caressed by the Equatorial current, are calm and warm and the beaches broad and flat, safe and secure for leisure activities.

During the 1930’s some well-heeled Spanish and Italian immigrants (some Irish and Scots too) started to build summer houses along the beach at Colán.  Here, the Conquistadores of Francisco Pizarro had first landed in South America in 1531.  And here, at Colán, on a plateau well above high tide, the invaders built a church in the style of that time and which, known as La Iglesia de San Lucas, is still in use today.

church

The Conquistador, Pizarro, landed right here in Colán in 1529 and founded the first city in South America: none other than San Miguel de Piura.  He also built the first church here, on a raised plateau near the beach at Colán, which is still very much in use to this day.  The city of Piura was destroyed and rebuilt three times.  It’s present location is about 60 miles from the coast.

The hinterland between high tide and the escarpment roughly a mile back seems to have been regularly flooded as there are salt flats throughout the area.  Perhaps for this reason, these families built their houses elevated over a grid of piles driven into the sand of the beach at 2m centres.  The piles were of Algarrobo trees, which do not rot.  The superstructures were mainly of prefabricated wall partition and roof panels.  They were neither particularly robust nor well-insulated but were well-suited to the summer living for which the houses were intended.  Some 100 or more of these were built in due course.  Many more modern ones were built later, stretching all the way to the Southern end of the bay.  Many of the old houses had 10-15 bedrooms, complete with bunk-beds for extended families, their countless children and visiting pals.  The summer season commenced at Christmas and, regardless of weather, closed promptly at Easter.  

Those houses depicted below are older ones of traditional design located centrally in the Playa Esmeralda.

The name Colán is now generally used to describe a fairly large area but within this there are several distinct communities.  These are distinguished as: La Esmeralda, referring to the beach strip stretched along the Southern half of the bay; San Lucas de Colán, the traditional village near the church building, which contains the administrative buildings for the area; Pueblo Nuevo de Colán, a village given to agriculture rather than fishing, located a couple of miles to the North of San Lucas and, El Nuevo Paraiso, the name given to a sprawling new community being developed between the top of the escarpment and the main Paita to Sullana road.  Of these, El Pueblo Nuevo is administered quite separately from the other areas, having its own mayor, town hall, etc.  The others, although geographically slightly separate, are administered as one.  Perhaps for this reason, when there were some early reported Covid-19 outbreaks in Pueblo Nuevo, there was less concern than might have been expected, in contrast to the radical response to the single case in El Nuevo Paraiso just before we left the beach.

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Peru holidays 2020

Arriving at Lima airport on 18 February, we were amused to find immigration officials clad in gloves and facemasks as they solemnly vetted our documents.  Less that 4 months before our desperate escape from Peru, which had been overrun by the Covid-19 pandemic, the word Coronavirus merited hardly more than a sub-heading in news of China.

As usual, we spent a few days staying with friends and visiting others in Lima.  We like to spend some time there upon arrival and then later for a couple of nights prior to our departure.  As in many capital cities around the world, much of the best and also the worst of the country is to be found in Lima.  It is noisy, polluted, overcrowded and with the most disagreeable weather for much of the year.  It also deservedly sits atop the world league of culinary destinations.  World-class chefs have created diverse fusions of traditional Peruvian with Chinese and Japanese dishes brought by 19th century immigrants.  The best of these are unbeatable, anywhere – but at a price!   There are, naturally, a great many more modestly priced but nevertheless high-quality restaurants available.  All in all, Lima is an exciting place to spend a few days.

On the 21st, we flew North to the city of Piura, Marcela’s home town, to see the family.  Located on the edge of the Sechura Desert, Piura is hot, dry and sandy from Christmas to Easter, with not much change outside of those times.  Piura will never win a “beautiful city” pageant but the warmth of its people always makes the trip worthwhile for me.  Here, Marcela is in her element!

That weekend, we headed for Colán.  As usual, we occupied the family house.  This is one of the traditional beach houses, constructed for the most part over piles.  These were driven into the sand of the beach above what was at that time the high-water level.  Some parts, especially kitchens, were built over land at the back. 


Two for Dinner!
Nowadays, following years of erosion of beach sand, the Pacific waters course below the front part of the house twice every twenty-four hours.  The soporific effect of the waves lapping five feet below your face last for the first few days.  But later, at maybe four in the morning, it’s a mixed blessing – there’s no volume control!
Family members and friends came out from the city and joined us at weekends.  Otherwise, it was party-time with visiting friends and neighbours and those who spend the summer at their beach houses.  Bliss!

Party time

Chapter 2.

    Lockdown in Peru

On Sunday, 15 March our world changed forever! 

The President of Peru announced a quarantine similar to the lock-down of Spain and elsewhere, together with a curfew from 4:00pm until 4:00am commencing from the following morning. 
Family members and friends hastily gathered up kith, kin and kaboodle before joining the exodus convoy ahead of the curfew.

It had been our habit during the previous few weeks to walk to the end of the beach and back most days for exercise; about 90 minutes if we met nobody en route.  On Monday, the first day of ‘confinement’, we set off as usual, only to be stopped by armed policemen who sent us packing – no discussion!  We tried again the following day only to be swooped upon again by more masked police, who were less than sympathetic and promised arrest if they found us out and about again.  Marcela went to see the chief of the local police and explained that we, together with several other families, had been living on the beach all summer.  As such, we surely posed no danger to anybody in the wide-open spaces of Colán’s beach.  Should we therefore not be allowed to walk there?  A man of reason was this lieutenant of police and so we obtained “special permission” to go ‘walkies’.

We were indeed safe, for the authorities erected barriers on the main road at the entrance to the beach area and refused entry to all who had not been there during the summer, save for delivery drivers and the like.  The exit was likewise controlled.

It’s hot in Colán in March.  The first (of many) shocks came when I went to the fridge for a cool beer after that foreshortened Monday walk.  A single beer bottle jeered at me from within; a relic of the vast stocks we’d gone through over the weekend with my three brothers-in-law.  Greedy sods!
Like all marooned and practically useless people, we took stock of what tools, equipment and other assets were available to keep body and soul together for the next week, or maybe two?, by which time the world would surely come to its senses.  As with the beer, so also had disappeared a mountain of good, non-nourishing but delicious grub, fetched out from the city the previous weekend.
We had a “daily” cook and a cleaner.  These were promptly despatched to gather in food and provisions for a fortnight’s lock-down - lots of rice and stuff - but no beer!
Our only early problems seemed likely to be boredom. 

I was wrong again.  The lockdown and curfew were extended as Covid infection numbers grew.  Anxious phone calls from relatives and friends demanded we get rid of the local cook and cleaner.  We offered Virginia, the cook, food and lodgings for herself and her three children on the basis they’d be confined within our rather large garden.  Eventually, she declined and so thereafter visited 4-days a week for a few hours to do the laundry (no washing machines here) and clean the patios, etc.  On entry, Virginia was made to shower and change clothes - and shoes; showering and re-changing before leaving again.  That seemed to work fine for the moment although, initially at any rate, she was bemused by all the fuss.  This is a woman who lives in a hut with no running water or electricity and who is largely unconcerned with the weighty issues of world health and suchlike.  She’s neither alone nor in the minority here.

We had an abundance of fruit and vegetables available locally.  Besides, our neighbours own a plantation and provided us with more than we needed in that regard. 

But now cooking ain’t easy here!

Firstly, and for a reason I couldn’t fathom, there was a dearth of fish, whereas we were used to an abundance of fresh fish, bought daily off the beach.  Meat hadn’t been a problem because the family usually brought out what we needed at weekends.  But on this beach the most popular meat is kid – as in goat (cabrito).  Well-butchered, it makes a wonderful stew or asado.  But we haven’t got any good butchers in Colán.  As a result, we get some nice meat interspersed with splintered shin and thigh bones.  Nasty!

Marcela sent a WhatsApp to a local shop with our grocery requirements a couple of times a week.  The shop sent the stuff out on a “moto-taxi”, a three-wheeled motorbike-based vehicle, ubiquitous in Peru.  These are pressed into service as taxis, workshops, pick-up trucks and other ingenious devices. 

mot-taxi
Mostly, the system worked fine but “quantities” were sometimes a problem.  Marcela’s shopping list once requested prunes.  She was told they only sold them in sacks of 10kgs; raisins likewise.  Sugar came in 5kg bags – 1kg would do us for a year in Javea!  Another day she requested “a piece of fillet steak”, as we hadn’t had any beef for a month.  No problem – out came a beef fillet the length of your arm weighing about 5kgs, clearly having been wrested from the bowels of a 2 ton Brahma.  Never mind, I thought, I’ll grill a couple of nice steaks and freeze the rest.  Well, tough as old boots they were!  I think they’d killed that bullock earlier that morning.  Nobody heard about hanging carcasses in a fridge for a few weeks.  See what I mean about butchers?

Despite the unexplained scarcity of fish, we were presented one day with the grand-daddy of all fishes.  A few days earlier, our wonderful neighbours the Chau Chong Shing family had given us a few smaller ones, which I thought I could easily fillet (having seen it done hundreds of times on the beach) and fry them on the ‘plancha’.  But you need a sharp knife to fillet a fish and I had nothing of the kind.  Having cruelly butchered the first one, I steamed them all and they were really great.  But, as to the “grand-daddy”, I considered him at length, taking in his sheer size, those scales and the huge head on the one hand and my best available ‘knife’ on the other.  All the while, with those big bright eyes and its sickle mouth, the thing seemed to regard me with a degree of cynicism.  I decided, very wisely I think: “freezer for you until we get really hungry”.  As I packed him back into his bag, I felt he was leering at me, with a satisfied smirk.  Two months later, he still languished in the freezer, while we proceeded to get fat on other stuff.

Happily, after the first week, boredom left us and we settled down like happy campers.  Our first Red Cross parcel from Piura contained a large jigsaw puzzle.  That kept me quiet for a week or more.  I was very proud of the finished article.  I couldn’t understand why Marcela wanted her table back.  It remained on display for all to see, but unadmired by any, until the day before we left.

Years ago, I used to bring six or eight books to read in Colán because, in those days, luggage weight wasn’t a problem.  Also, Colán beach could be boring if you were neither a granny nor a 5-year-old.  Most men shunned the place on weekdays.  In recent years I’ve had a Kindle; a godsend.  Happily, we have an internet connection; feeble but enough to rustle up more and more books from Amazon every few days.  I hadn’t read so much in years!

What about domestic strife during lock-down?  We read a lot in the news of several countries about this issue.  Happily, I’m like putty in my wife’s hands and do everything she says, complying with all the rules - so we got on fine.  Marcela proved adept at negotiating with the natives.  She dealt with the shops and the various tradesmen who inevitably had to come by – plumbers, carpenters and electricians are indispensable here, lock-down or no lockdown.  But Marcela handled them all flawlessly and the work got done cheerfully, well up to the local standard, rarely needing to be re-done more than once.  I make a point of admiring the work and congratulate myself on having such a clever wife.  I did all of the cooking.  Happily, Marcela is completely non-fussed about food.  She’ll eat anything – and did! 

We were also blessed with our next-door neighbours the Chau Chong Shings.  We didn’t visit each other but communicated across the 4m. gap between our terraces by shouting at each other over the noise of the surf as it washed in between our houses.  They sent in cooked food several times each week.  They’re of Chinese extraction and had 2 live-in cooks, so they knew what they’re about when it came to cooking.  They declined all my offerings in reciprocation – except for some figs from the tree in our garden.  These, they stew for some reason.

I have a particular medical condition, which is chronic and needs special although not unusual medication.  Normally, when I come to Peru, I take enough for an extra few weeks.  This habit has its origin in Marcela’s tendency many years ago to ‘sneak’ an extra week or so onto the end of the holiday.  These days, of course, that’s not possible, as ‘flexible’ airline tickets cost a fortune.  Anyway, as usual, I had plenty of medication to keep me going for a while.  But it became clear that we’d be stuck in Peru long after the medication ran out.  We sourced the Peruvian equivalents but the feeling was that they ‘might not be the same’.
Marcela explained the situation to Sylvia, her sister in Berlin.  Sylvia, in her turn, embarked on her networking regime, sourcing the proper medication through a doctor, a member of the wider-family.  She then lobbied the Peruvian Embassy about the possibilities of sending urgent medication to Lima in the diplomatic bag.  No sooner said than done.  We have a friend in Lima who works in the appropriate government department but of course she was ‘confined’ at home.  But she knew the man who would receive the bags, who would arrange to locate the package and have it sent round to her flat. 

dip-bag

From there it went by secure taxi to the son of another friend who, the following week, was due to drive to Sullana, a city near Colán.  He agreed to carry the package and deliver it to us. It took a few weeks for one reason or another but in the end we had all the medication I’d need, even should I contemplate spending Christmas in Peru!.  Included in the package made up by my wonderful and ever thoughtful sister-in-law were two high-quality medical face-masks, which we should use whenever we managed to catch a flight out of the country.

Chapter 3.

Lockdown extension to 30 June – the upshot

The extension of the quarantine and the curfew to 30 June served to strengthen the rumour that there would be no internal flights until August and, further, that commercial flights to Europe would not resume before October.  In those circumstances, our best option seemed to be to take matters into our own hands to secure our exit from Peru at the earliest possible date.

For the previous week or so, news and speculation was mounting regarding repatriation flights.  I looked into the first one, which appeared to carry the imprimatur of the Spanish Consulate in Lima.  However, the booking/payment arrangement looked wide open to abuse and so we dismissed it.  Nevertheless, we registered our requirements with the both the British and Spanish Consulates, who thereafter were really great. 
As with many things in Peru, it greatly helps getting things done if you have some ‘connections’ to assist with the arrangement.  This is called having “vara” in Peru; “enchufe” in Spain.  Social networking is therefore elevated to something of an art form.  Marcela graduated Summa Cum Laude in the art, which she practices ceaselessly, constantly preening and caressing the strings of the mesh. 
Knowing that charter flights may be leaving Lima for Europe is one thing, registering with Consulates is helpful for establishing security but actually securing seats on an appropriate flight might require some “vara”.  So Marcela puts on her thinking cap and remembers a friend she works with in Caritas in Javea who has a friend near Alicante who has a son, Nacho, married to a Peruvian and who also happens to work in Lima.  That son had a friend who happened to be Spain’s Consul General in Peru.  Enquiries were made and the connection established without delay.  He turned out to be an exceptional ‘connection’, giving us excellent support, advice and direction for the remainder of our stay. 

Some friends, an English/Peruvian couple, living in Lima but wishing to get to London, gave Marcela the name of a girl, Ana Maria Franco, who was organising one of the flights.  The surname seemed familiar to Marcela, so she called her up.  It turned out that she lives in Albir, not far from Javea and was on a visit to her family in Lima.  Her own flight was due to leave on 1 June; too early for us but she ensured we got booked on her next one, set for 8 June.
Within days another flight, scheduled to leave on the 5th, was brought to our notice by the excellent Nacho.  We booked seats on that one too; no payment was required until the flights received Peruvian government approval.  With two options, it looked like we were sure to be able to leave the country on the 5th or the 8th June. 

So much for the flights.  News of others followed, set for later dates in June.  But still, we needed to get to Lima.  That would have to be by road.  There were no flights, of course.  In normal times, Peru’s major cities are linked daily to Lima by excellent ‘sleeper’ busses (“buscamas”).  For security, these run non-stop, although the journey from Piura takes some 16 hours.  Unfortunately, these did not run either.  The only practical option therefore was to hire a car and driver.   Several people we knew had been plucked out of Lima and brought to Piura but these were “unofficial”, illegal trips, fraught with danger as the drivers sought to take routes avoiding road blocks and police inspections.  These were not for us.  In due course, an excellent contact was recommended to us of a woman who owned a chain of filling stations up and down the Panamericana, highway that runs the length of the Americas, through Piura to Lima and beyond.  We agreed with her an arrangement whereby we’d travel in the guises of the Manager (Marcela) and Operations Manager (me) of her firm.  That got around the problem of the quarantine and also the curfew, for the journey normally took at least 14 hours, even by fast car.  Her driver was well-trusted, had worked for her for several years and was well-used to the route.  The car would be fully equipped for any emergency and would also have a special screen separating us in the back from the driver.  There would be no pauses or breaks along the way, save for three refuelling stops at their own filling stations.  Subject only to confirmation of the approval for the flight on 5th, we would leave after 4:00am on Tuesday, 2 June.  We could leave no earlier than that because we had some outstanding business in Piura.

Chapter 4. .


Colán to Piura

Manolo, Marcela’s youngest brother, obtained the necessary permission to fetch us from Colán on Thursday, 28 May.
That week, Colán had its first fatality officially attributed to the virus.  The elderly man didn’t actually live on the beach or close-by but rather up the escarpment in a new development: “El Nuevo Paraiso”.  Importantly, however, Nuevo Paraiso is located inside the barrier controlling access to Colán from the main Paita to Sullana road.  That established a Coronavirus security failure.  In consequence, a seven-day moratorium on movements, in and out, was declared. 
Such declarations are not uncommon in this part of the world.  The language of the formal notice implied rigid control of the control barrier.  However, it’s occasionally the case that such rigidity may be more apparent than actual.  Some deft footwork might create a pathway to an approved exit.  Appropriate steps having been taken, success ensued.  We were not intending to return to Colán, so an exception was made for us.  Our collection from the beach would be permitted and we could leave unmolested on Thursday.

The ever-helpful Manolo arrived without incident at the house at 6:30am.  By 7:00, we were packed and on our way.  The excellent road to Piura crosses a desert, with little to catch the eye.   Manolo is not the talkative type and so I had time to contemplate our lives and experiences over the past few months:

When the family left us on 15 March, we hardly thought it would be nearly 11 weeks before we saw them again.  As I recall, there had been just one case of Covid-19 up to then in Peru; a Peruvian flight crew member coming from Spain.
I thought that this was the class of person most likely to catch Covid in Peru.  If detected and isolated quickly, the disease would be confined to people who travel internationally; people like us, who are so sensible!

I was awakened before dawn on that Monday morning 16 March, by the noise of Carlos, my brother-in-law dragging open the gate to drive back to Piura.  He paused outside, shut and re-bolted the gate with a clang, exiting again through the wicket gate.  I had the weirdest feeling just then, with the final slamming of that gate.

Breakfast-time for us is a two hour session.  In all weathers, we prepare the porridge (my job), chop a huge bowl-full of fruit (Marcela’s) get the eggs and toast on (mine) together with the coffee and the milk for Marcela.  The avocado is as integral to our breakfast as the potato is to an Irish dinner - and they evoke equivalent observations as to quality, texture, etc.  Peruvians and Irish have more in common than is immediately apparent.  During all of the cooking, consumption and clearing, we discuss our plans, problems and prospects for the coming day(s). 
I do not recall that breakfast on Monday 16 March was different from normal.  We were taken aback an hour later, when we were stopped abruptly by those two heavily armed policemen that I referred to earlier, during our energetic walk on the beach.  Normally, the police in Peru are polite, diffident even; careful not to give offence.  These were different, dressed all in black and with black face-masks.  They stood tall: sure of their ground.  The one who spoke did so confidently, in a manner that did not brook argument.  Taking our only option, we slunk back home.  There, we regained our composure; what a cheek!  Tomorrow we’ll go again!  We did and this time the police swooped on us from behind the dunes in a large 4x4 jeep.  There were four in the vehicle, all with determined, belligerent expressions as they issued dire warnings.  Again, we skedaddled but, this time, Marcela was affronted.  She resolved to put matters right, which indeed she did that afternoon, as I mentioned above.  Although we were often stopped by the police thereafter, they adopted a different and more conciliatory tone and we always continued on our way, unmolested.
That first week was surreal and not a little worrying, considering we were in a remote and, if push came to shove, indefensible place in the event of civil disorder.  But the feeling subsided.  The weeks passed and we made the best of our situation, which, compared with most of the world at that time, was excellent. 
The weather was hot and sunny at first but, after April, morning and evening temperatures dropped somewhat and the humidity was more noticeable.  At that stage, Marcela felt we should go to Piura.  We’d had many offers of refuge there, all of which were gratefully received.  Each option we debated in terms of security but eventually we dismissed all.  Despite the isolation we got on very well together.  Sharing a house for an extended period in Piura might be a very different proposition.  However, we couldn’t stay in Colán for the winter; the house was simply not suitable.  In due course with the extension of the lock-down to 30 June, it was clear that we had to leave and Carlos’ house was our best option.  We were happy enough to leave at that stage.

My thoughts reawakened as we neared the city.  It soon became blindingly obvious to me or any other observer why Covid-19 was spreading, unconstrained, here.

No se juega con el COVID-19
Castilla, Piura y Veintiséis de Octubre con el mayor número de infectados


A broad avenue leads into the city.  On the left, is the city’s main wholesale market, a great hangar of a building.  This is flanked by a number of shopping centres and the like.  Pitched along the kerb at about 10m. centres were tables at which salespeople sat perched on stools, while their “helpers” oversaw the business of selling baked goods, soft drinks, sweets, cigarettes and suchlike.  Neat queues formed up with admirable spacing to make purchases. 
On the right, the avenue delimits an area of poorer housing.  From here, by 8:00am., many hundreds of people thronged the kerbsides to catch buses, whilst others sought to cross the avenue for business purposes.  A pedestrian bridge was erected some years ago where local people could safely cross the avenue to the market and shops.  I’ve yet to see it used for its intended purpose!.  People cross when and where it suits them, ducking and diving between speeding vehicles, oblivious to danger in the best of times.  Virtually all wore face-masks, as though these bestowed immunity to the virus, and thus they could congregate with impunity at bus-stops, stalls, shops or in the market.

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Soldiers lined this right-hand side of the road, posted at about 5m centres.  Each was armed with an assault rifle - although these were surely just for ‘show’.  I saw no interaction between them and the civilians, even where the soldiers stood almost touching the gathering clusters of people.
At the traffic lights, swarms of ‘ambulantes' offered their wares, windscreen cleaning or other services, as though this were a normal day.  Were these to be considered “essential workers” or people going to buy food or medical supplies?  The soldiers seemed unconcerned.
The government’s dictum: Confinement at Home was here clearly more honoured in the breach than the observance.  One had the feeling this was surely a fertile breeding ground for Covid-19 of the type that has propelled Peru to the unwanted status of the second hardest-hit South American country, after Brazil. .

One of Piura’s largest hospitals is located close to the family home.  As we passed by, there were orderly queues stretching into side streets, for as far as we could see.  With the best will in the world, it would not be humanly possible to separate adequately so many people on the rather narrow pavements.  I’m told they did not deal with Coronavirus patients there.  However, sick people within the catchment area of the hospital were obliged to queue up and register there in the first instance.  If they were found to have contracted Covid, then they’d be transferred to another hospital across the city. I offer no judgement on this arrangement.  My object as an observer is solely to highlight the potential for the passage of infection between patients standing in line, perhaps for hours on end.  In fairness, we passed by shortly after 8:00am.  It may well have been that some had come to visit or enquire about relatives.

When we reached the old family house, now home to Marcela’s middle brother, Carlos, his wife and their two youngest daughters, much discussion ensued on the medical facilities, etc.  “People with money”, and a lot of it!, who became ill would go to any one of a number of private clinics, which had available beds.
Whereas I believe the Peruvian President should get an “honours” mark for his management of the crisis, I suspect he may regret not having emulated Spain’s example in commandeering private clinics. 
Which of us would not somehow scrape together enough to have a loved one admitted to a private clinic?  The prognosis for patients in these clinics is hardly better than that in public wards.  They do not have oxygen generating plants with the gas piped to each bed.  Instead, they rely on bottled oxygen, which for the past couple of months has been at a premium in Peru.  It seems the shortages relate mostly to the actual cylinders rather than the gas itself.  Normally, these cylinders are recycled for recharging, just like butane cylinders.  But, the reported shortages of oxygen has had the knock-on effect that people ‘hoard’ the tanks – “just in case”.  This, in turn, drives up the cost of re-fills.  Cylinders, I was told, were selling for 5-10 times their normal cost whilst gas refills were proportionately more expensive.  The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are people who can, and will, pay exorbitant prices for what they need.  In the result, the most vulnerable, the most needy, those who have nothing, suffer most.

“Coronavirus en Piura: ‘Sin dinero y oxígeno, estás muerto’”

“without money and oxygen, you’re dead”

“No importa la distancia y el cansancio con tal de no dejar fallecer a tu familiar, todo sacrificio vale la pena”.

“Neither distance nor tiredness are relevant; any sacrifice is worthwhile if it means saving the life of a relative” 


The shortage of medication, prevalent everywhere in Peru, applies equally to hospitals and private clinics.  One wonders how many families now face financial distress having spent all, endeavouring in vain to save the life of a family member. 

An early objection to leaving Colán for Carlos’ house was that four people were already ‘confined’ there.  The house is fine, plenty big and the company excellent but six together 24/7, for who knew how long, would render us - all six of us - hostages to fortune.  We should not have worried; in the event, we stayed only five days, each of them in perfect harmony.
On the Monday we had a morning appointment at a local Notary’s office.  Carlos drove us into town and dropped us off as he went to his own office until we were ready.  Although closed for business, the Notary, acknowledging our urgency, had papers ready for us.  Our business was completed speedily, so I could spend a little time observing the streets outside.  There were several banks and various other offices nearby.  Each had queues stretching along the narrow pavements in all directions.  All wore masks and each maintained such distance as was practicable.  I saw no hint of impatience, irritation or aggression.  These are calm and patient people.  They congregated, moved, stopped or shuffled forward, as directed by some supposed authorities guarding entrances or openings; all this done, passively, languidly.  They passed along the pavements, stepping on and off, respectfully, appropriate to the proximity of queues or passers-by.  All was calm serenity - and silent as a funeral cortege. 

But one wondered just why they were there at all?  The answer, it seems, was to collect (or to enquire concerning collection of ) government subventions at the banks.  Otherwise, the queues were typically of people paying their utility bills. 
That posed a question that went to the government's strategy for keeping people off the streets.  The monetary income of a very large minority of Peruvians derives from day labour.  Continuity of employment is exceptional.  It follows, logically, that they cannot have bank accounts.  To pay their bills, they simply queue up at particular banks, on designated days, often for hours on end.  For all the excellent strategy of the government during this crisis, it was striking they did not suspend utility payments for such people.  Likewise, the strategy of paying subventions to poorer families without banking accounts forced them to form long queues at banks.  Often, through lamentable ignorance, people would come on the wrong days, thus necessitating additional queues, further delays and added risk of the spread of infection. 

Later that Monday, Ana Maria Franco told us that her second flight had been delayed to the 16th June and her own 5th.  We’d have liked to have flown with her but the flight was already sold out.  We therefore confirmed our other option and paid for our tickets.  We then re-confirmed the car-hire for the following morning at 4:30am.
The rest of the day saw Marcela and Anita, Carlos’ wife, busy packing only two suitcases (the surplus contents of our other two cases would await our next trip) and making sandwiches and other goodies for the road.  They also arranged for delivery of more groceries for the two days we expected to be in Lima before our flight left.  Marcela also borrowed from friends some winter clothing she felt we’d need in “polar Lima”.

All this while, Carlos and I discussed the more weighty issues of the day over a few well-earned beers.

We were up and about by 3:45am, making the porridge, brewing coffee, having breakfast and making last-minute checks and lists.  We were all ready to go by the agreed time of 4:30.  Then promptly at 5:15am a large pick-up truck pulled up in the dark street outside.  It was ours and we were off on our way within minutes.

Chapter 5.

    Piura to Lima

“It never rains in Piura”.  That was a refrain of my future in-laws when I first arrived nearly 40 years ago, enquiring, inevitably, as to the weather.  I could see the obvious truth in this, for none of the houses had roofs, recognisable as such to a European.  My late father-in-law made sage reference to the “El Niño” storms of yesteryear, a recurrence of which was by then well-overdue.  In 1982, the city was devastated by storms, the effects of which are still discernible.  But that was in summer time.  It never rains in June!
But it did in the pre-dawn of 2 June 2020!  What did that portend for the day and the journey before us?
In truth, it had rained lightly and briefly on each of the past two days.  It was, likewise, light on this occasion.  All the same, we really didn’t want rain on this of all journeys.

We had intended to leave as soon after curfew as possible.  This would help with the traffic as we left Piura but, more importantly, it was to avoid the curfew as we arrived in Lima.  In fact, the driver, Pacheco, overslept and Marcela’s call had dragged him out of bed!  Nevertheless, he was a cheerful enough chap and got on with his job throughout the day in a confidence-inspiring manner.

We cleared Piura and joined the good Panamericana highway going South towards Chiclayo as the dawn broke reluctantly through the low clouds.  Anybody who has travelled across this desert within a few days after rain will have marvelled at the “green” of the sand and the scrub.  That morning as I sat, cocooned behind the plastic screen that separated us from the driver, I gazed at the phenomenon of the sage green desert.

We arrived outside Chiclayo shortly after 7:30 by which time the sun was well up and the rain had desisted. Pacheco told us we had to stop to fill up at his firm’s filling station, which should take no more that 5 minutes. 

hilux

I took the opportunity to inspect this vehicle.  It was a Toyota HiLux Pick-up truck.  Complete with rollover crash-protection frame, it was also equipped with a fire extinguisher, a pick-axe and a shovel strapped to the frame.  The rollover frame inside the cabin was thoughtfully wrapped with 2” polystyrene pipe-lagging such that when I banged my head it didn’t hurt so much.  Slung in the back (along with our luggage) were some road cones.  The wheels were shod with the chunkiest of ‘mud-terrain’ tyres, with the tread extending half-way up the tyre walls. 
Surely, even the most exacting of Boy Scouts would have been chuffed with this toy!

Within the allocated 5 minutes we were tanked up and on the way again.  The Panamericana skirts the large cities like Chiclayo and Trujillo but still, in this Chiclayo suburb, queues were already forming outside the closed doors of the banks and other offices, just as we’d seen in Piura on the previous day.

panam

Marcela and I had done this journey once before, in about 1985.  We’d stopped overnight then in Trujillo; roughly half-way between Piura and Lima.  I liked the look of Trujillo on that occasion.  It’s situated right on the seafront and seemed to be a lot more elegant than Piura.  I was hoping to get another glimpse of it today but the road now swings round it so that one gets no appreciation of Peru’s third city from the road.  We had been told it would take seven to eight hours to get to Trujillo but actually we got there in hardly more than five.  To be fair, the traffic had been very light; only the huge slow-moving trucks posed any obstacle to our rapid progress.  We stopped again to re-fuel at the company’s filling station outside Trujillo.  Pacheco indicated here that he wanted to collect some breakfast but we said we had enough on board to feed us all.  And indeed we had.  He did not demur in accepting the proffered sandwiches and bottled water.  We were on our way again in minutes.

As we belted along the dual carriageway I began to feel a bit claustrophobic behind the plastic screen.  This was an effective “Coronavirus” isolator but it did inhibit the air-flow.  Normally, Marcela hates air conditioning but on this occasion, we needed some to clear both the air and the window panes.  The driver obliged, our condition improved and I could better observe the landscape - desert - as along the whole coast of Peru.  But, as I peered out I observed a “high-speed train” keeping pace with us about a mile or two to the right, the West.  It had many long sleek carriages in white and even appeared to have a caboose on the rear.  I looked and looked again and I could not persuade myself it was not a train.  Occasionally, it disappeared between sand dunes but reappeared again, sometimes converging and at other times moving away from the line of the road.  How strange, I thought, for there are no trains in this part of Peru!  In due course, some more “carriages” came into view positioned at right angles to the road and unmoving.  They were all sheds!  There were hundreds and hundreds of them, stretching for many miles.  I could not imagine what they were for and my brain seemed to be having ‘one of those days’.  Eventually, I asked the driver what they were about but by then we were nearing Chimbote and there were many industrial buildings all round.  He couldn’t solve the mystery at that stage and I was left to wrestle with my confused mind.

I remember Chimbote well!  We stopped here for lunch 35 years ago and I remember eating steak tasting of fish, while Marcela had chicken, which tasted likewise of fish. As we walked back to the car, the stifling smell of fish was overpowering.  We were driven on that occasion by some friends of ours, Nacho and Anita, from Piura.  We were going to stay with them in Lima for a few days before returning to London.  We were to stay at their same flat in Lima this time round.  I enquired delicately as to the smell.  Nacho laughed and said it was the special perfume of Chimbote, one of Peru’s massive fishing ports.  At that time, Peru was the world’s premier fishing nation.  Its fishing league position may have declined slightly but not the smell of Chimbote.
An hour or so later I started having some “doubts” about that lunch in Chimbote and wondered what I might do about it.  Eventually, I quietly mentioned it to Nacho (the girls being in the back) and he promptly swung his Jeep Cherokee off the road into the “Pampas” for a mile or so.  Here he swung round and stopped, called to Anita for the toilet roll, passed it to me and told me to take my time.  That is my indelible memory of Chimbote.  There was some satisfaction in the knowledge that the smell was undiminished by the passage of time.

As we drove through the outskirts of the town this time, the air-conditioning did its best to protect sensitive noses.  The driver wore his mask throughout and seemed unconcerned about any external factors.  In the back, we did not wear face-masks but visors, which I thought gave better protection to nose, mouth and eyes and had the added advantage of allowing normal breathing.

Having left Chimbote the “railway carriages” reappeared and this time Pacheco clarified that they were chicken farms.  It’s no wonder, I thought that chicken is the cheapest and most popular of Peruvian staples.

During the course of this journey there were a number of road blocks.  The police at these locations checked that all vehicles had proper authority to be on the road.  They also checked that the vehicle occupants carried proper ‘salvo cunductos’.  In principle, people were not permitted to move from one department to another without official permission.  Such permission was issued for essential workers or those travelling to work on specific dates.  Happily, our papers passed muster with little more than a glance. 

As we drove on, the land improved and there followed miles and miles of sugar cane.  No doubt much of this is used in sugar production but a great deal is also used in the production of ethanol.  Curiously, this ethanol is used as an additive to petrol in the department of Piura.  Piura has vast plantations of sugar cane used in ethanol production.  Only in Piura, I’m told is the ethanol added to the petrol.  Once, Manolo, my brother-in-law, had a problem with a fuel-injector on his car.  He’d only changed this part within the past year but the mechanic immediately diagnosed the fault, blaming the ethanol in the petrol. This only occured in Piura, he declared; in all other departments, vehicles run on unadulterated fuel. In Piura the tainted petrol had, for years, been ruining the fuel systems of modern cars.

Our next and last re-fuelling stop was to be at Huacho, a small town on the coast a couple of hours north of Lima.  I’d never been there before but, curiously, we had an assistant Priest in Javea from there and the Bishop of Huacho came to visit his protege in our parrish shortly after we came to live in Javea.  Again, our stop here lasted no more than the obligatory five minutes before we were off again, heading through Huacho towards Lima.

At a crowded junction, we halted at a red light.  It was mid-afternoon and the place was full of movement; “ambulantes” wanting to clean windscreens, or sell drinks, cigarettes or sweets, whatever; anything to make a few soles.  All wore face-masks but otherwise rejected the whole notion of social distancing as they hugged eac other or wrestled in play-fights. One wondered what it was that made one happy in this world of ours- health? wealth? , surely not! But now youth and companionship, absence of responsibility and good weather seemed all to be contributing to instant contentment. if not actual happiness
Marcela dropped her window to get rid of a fly.  There, nearby and directly opposite the window, a young woman stood on the kerb.  Notably amongst the rest of the frenetic assemblage of youngsters, she neither moved nor spoke but stood alone and apart.
As the window dropped, she peered at us directly.  I should say: she looked through the car at me, for Marcela had not seen her immediately.  Again, she didn’t speak but clearly wished to engage with us.  With that, the driver lowered his window and beckoned to her, proffering a fillet steak sandwich.  This was one of several we'd given to him earlier in the day, each sealed in its cellophane bag, complete with paper napkin.  Briskly, she moved forward, accepted the sandwich, said nothing but resumed her position on the kerb and commenced to unwrap the sandwich.  Marcela then copped what had happened and searched for another sandwich to give her but . . the lights had changed and we lurched ahead: opportunity knocks but once, even in a good cause.

During the following hours as we passed through some uninteresting countryside, I had time enough to consider a woman who seemed slightly out of place among the “ambulances” that cavort at junctions all over Peru.  About 25 years old, she was clearly not part of the groups peddling their wares at the traffic lights.  She stood apart and alone.  Her posture also set her apart.  There was an uncommon dignity about her.  She was appropriately dressed for the coldish weather in a grey top with a kind of shawl collar, drawn close about her.  Her clothing, whilst well-worn, was by no means ragged.  Her face below the bridge of the nose was covered by a cloth mask. .  Only her dark eyes and eyebrows were visible , plus some hair below some kind of head-scarf.  Although dark haired, her skin was not ‘brown’ like a working-class Peruvian.  She was thin but not emaciated.  As I said, she never uttered a word but her eyes and eyebrows spoke volumes to anyone attuned to her.  They communicated everything she wished to say both before and after receiving the sandwich.  Clearly,she and Pacheco were on the same wavelength.  I was just ‘tuning-in’ but lagged behind the driver’s perspicacity.
My abiding impression was of a person recently brought low by the present state of affairs in Peru, where great numbers had lost their income and were obliged to turn to family or friends for support.  Peru offers little succour to the unemployed.  Of course many extended families were devastated by the closure of businesses, especially in Lima.  Few would have had savings that might last more than a few weeks of the lockdown.  But we were now almost three months into it.  No Unemployment Benefit is paid by the government to those who for any reason lose their jobs.  I had to conclude that this woman, not being as street-wise as her companions, was obliged to beg for what passers-by might be pleased to provide.
This brought into focus for me the many thousands, nay millions, in poorer countries, who have been thus victimised by the indiscriminate Coronavirus plague.  Only this one had come to my particular notice.

At 6:31, fractionally over 13 hours since we left Carlos’ house in Piura, we arrived outside Anita Castagnino’s flat in San Isidro, Lima.  I’ve had more comfortable journeys for sure but, as to arrivals, none were more savoured.

 


Chapter 6.

In Lima we wait, and wait …

 

Anita had remained in Colán together with Nacho and various members of their family.  Although they live in the countryside with lots of surrounding land outside of Piura, in the circumstances, they preferred the beach and the sea air.  That meant she couldn’t give us the keys of the Lima flat, which were locked away in a drawer at home.  Instead, she arranged for her cleaner in Lima to leave her keys with a neighbour in a flat a few floors higher up the building, who in turn would let us have them on arrival.
As we arrived in Lima, Marcela called up this neighbour who undertook to leave the keys on the windowsill beside the entrance door to the flat.  This worked a treat.

The flat had been cleaned and the bed changed that morning.  We had brought enough food for that evening and for the couple of days we expected to be there.  No potentially dangerous shopping to be done!
I checked the internet service with some trepidation.  This was as vital to our well-being as food.  Happily, it “remembered” both my computer and my phone from our last visit a few years earlier.
We had not watched television AT ALL since we left Lima on 21 February.  I think that must be some sort of record!  However, all we got to see was CNN and you can see all you want to see of that in 15 minutes flat!  As it happened, the TV stopped working within a few days.
We crashed out in bed at an unheard-of hour that first evening and slept the sleep of the just.
Soon after breakfast on the following morning, we heard that our flight would not leave on the 5th or (the indicated alternative) 6th but rather on 8th or maybe 9th.  We were not unduly disappointed; we’d half expected it as the rival flight organisers had assured us it would be delayed, as other, earlier, ones had been.
But that meant we’d certainly need to do some shopping.  This would be another ‘first’ since lockdown, for all the shopping in Colán was on the basis of a delivery service.  Happily, a branch of Vivanda, Lima’s top quality supermarket, is practically in the same building, having a basement entrance a few metres from our door.  Marcela got all wrapped up like Michelin Man for her excursion.  I, being of a delicate constitution and moreover thought to be careless and untrustworthy, was banned from leaving the flat until our final exit.

vivanda


Within half an hour, Marcela was back laden with plastic bags and dripping with spray-bottles of a bleach mixture, plus hand cleansers, etc.  She proceeded to polish the lift door handles with admirable vim and vigour; ditto, the flat door knob, keyhole, keys, etc.  If she was anything like right, then she was correct in that I was certainly not to be trusted to leave the building.  After all this, if we got infected then we’d have deserved it!

We ate very well that day and the next couple but on Friday, we were informed our flight would be further delayed.  The good news was that it would certainly leave on the 11th, all government approvals having been received.  That meant a re-donning of the Michelin Man gear and further shopping.  Marcela was not best pleased.

I saw nothing of life as it was in Lima after we’d arrived at the flat.  However, Marcela commented about what she’d seen and heard during her two excursions.  She thought the streets in the immediate San Isidro area and, especially the Vivanda supermarket next door, were very orderly.  The people here were quite conscious of the need for ‘distancing’, she said.  The sanitary arrangements were also well up to the required standard.  San Isidro is one of Lima’s better residential areas.  Those who live there belong in an entirely different socio-economic bracket from those in the poorer districts we’d driven through as we approached Lima from the north.  Nevertheless, it points to the fact that the threat from the spiteful Covid-19 was better appreciated and deal twith differently here than in some other areas – but then, they could afford to …

We had brought some face-masks with us.  Some useless ones to be used for ‘show’ and two more that Sylvia, my sister-in-law, had sent us from Berlin months earlier.  However, Marcela must have decided we needed some more face-masks.  On that Friday morning, Michael Alderson, my godson, living in Lima came over on his bike to deliver two more face-masks.  No sooner had he arrived than he was strong-armed into doing some shopping for us.  This, he cheerfully accomplished with no fuss at all.  How great it must be to be young, brave and to live without fear!

It was Saturday 6 June.  We were due to fly in 5 days.  We’d had tickets issued for the earlier flight but of course these were scrapped due to the flight cancellation and now we needed replacement tickets.  Our friends with whom we were due to travel had received theirs but . . there was no sign of ours.  Sunday passed, and Monday, with no result despite plaguing the travel agent, the otherwise excellent Viajes El Corte Inglés, Lima.  Air Europa in Madrid was to blame, it was said, but they did come by e-mail on Tuesday – correct in every detail.
We also received some forms to fill in, rather like those we used to have to fill in for immigration purposes years ago; the ones that obliged you to fumble for your passport and other stuff at the most inconvenient of times.  According to the e-mail, these were to be filled out with essential data without which we could not board the transport to the airport.  But we didn’t have a printer!
Michael Alderson was once more pressed into service.  We e-mailed the stuff to him - although he didn’t have a printer either, nor did his father, nor anybody else we knew locally.  I wondered how on earth some people manage without a printer.  Well, if Michael didn’t have a printer he got on his bike and sought one out.  Eventually he tracked one down to Miraflores, half an hour from here, got the stuff printed and hot-footed over here with the documents.  What a great chap to have on your side!

We now had everything in place, so Marcela contacted our trusted taxi firm, which arranged to collect us from the flat and take us to the point of transportation to the airport.

Chapter 7.

    We leave Peru for Madrid

Our three telephone alarms jerked us out of the bed at 5:00am.  Ablutions completed and all packed up, breakfast called.
We weren’t going to eat much for the next 24 hours so we tucked into an obscene breakfast: loads of fruit, the last of the porridge, eggs, bread rolls and cheese plus some ham we hadn’t finished the previous night.  Even I thought we’d overdone it!
All washed up and the place left tidy, we got downstairs by 6:45, just as our taxi pulled up.  It came equipped with a plastic screen, similar to that in the HiLux.  Again, one had the feeling that there really was an unexpected consciousness abroad about how to go about business with a degree of prudence.

marriott .navy .MARINA

We’d been told to arrive at the bus transportation point at opposite the Marriott Hotel  at Larco Mar in Miraflores at 7:30 “hora exacta”.  We got there shortly after 7:00 but about 250 passengers beat us to it.  All was orderly, however, and, with the minimum of fuss and admirable efficiency, all were loaded onto a fleet of buses.
The journey-time to the airport from Miraflores at 8:00am cannot be underestimated in normal times.  On this occasion, however, we scooted along in the sparse traffic.  There were a number of bottlenecks however as some of the major avenues were partly blocked to facilitate checks on vehicles and drivers.  Curiously, this was not a police operation but rather it seemed to be entirely under the Navy’s control.  They had many large Navy troop carrier lorries and even armoured cars stationed along the way.  There was no shortage of armed personnel - no protests, no arguments, no prisoners taken but all was impressively calm and orderly.  How strange that the Navy should have armoured cars?  Personnel carriers and all vehicles were painted a light sandy-colour - all designated : MARINA DE GUERRA PERUANA NAVY.  Whatever happened to navy blue, I wondered?

Here, we watched at first hand the logistics of checking in for flights that run so smoothly at airports throughout the world.  We were on one of the last buses to arrive at the Air Force base beside the airport.  7 or 8 buses preceded us and most of their passengers had been‘processed’.  Our processing took 3 hours in all, including waiting to be offloaded. 
All our luggage was lined up so that some dogs could check for, well . .whatever they do check for.  They did this multiple times - I suppose as much to keep the dogs on the go as to re-check.
Then we had passport control, checked against lists and stamped.  Then some questionnaires were checked out - one flight to Madrid a week earlier arrived with infected passengers on board.  This done, we were issued with our boarding passes and seat numbers.  All done by hand by a posse of airport workers, with a few Air Force people directing traffic.  The area allocated by the Air Force was not large, considering the number of buses involved, including those used for getting us out to the plane.
It took a long time, of course, but it was never unpleasant; the personnel were all friendly and cheerful.  Although the process was lengthy, it didn’t seem inefficient.  I heard not a single passenger complaint.
Our flight was due to leave at 12:00 and at one stage I even thought we might just make it on time, although we had  been told not to expect departure before 3:00.  In the event, we taxied away by 1:30, only 90 minutes late. 

On that unusually warm and sunny June afternoon the big silver Dreamliner took to the skies over Lima to end a rare peregrination.

dream

Madrid, here we come!

N.F.
15 June 2020

 

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