RENO, Nev. (AP) — When Barbara Land and Tia Flores ventured into Peru’s Amazon rainforest on March 13, they had grand plans to help the people living in the little remote river village of Ayacucho.
Land, founder and executive director of the Nevada Building Hope Foundation, and her team of volunteers recently helped to finish constructing the village’s first high school. The school was supposed to open in March.
“I wanted to be there when those kids walked into school for the very first time with their new uniforms and their backpacks,” Land said. “I had to be there for that.”
She also wanted to visit with all the families in the village, including her two friends suffering from cancer. She even packed stuffed toys, blankets, clothing, shoes, backpacks, and other school supplies to give to the children.
Meanwhile, Flores, program director for the Sierra Arts Foundation, hoped to teach the local women craft making, so they could have a new source of income. She said Land had invited her to travel with her to Peru.
“The arts have always been my North Star,” Flores said. “The arts play a significant role, not only in our lives but also in our economy. That’s why I was there.”
But then things changed as a new strain of coronavirus permeated the world, and their plans were derailed.
The disease was quickly spreading, eventually infecting more than 4 million and killing over 200,000 people. Several countries were already banning travel and shutting down businesses.
By the time they arrived at their destination in Peru, they learned President Martín Vizcarra had shut down the country —leaving Flores and Land stranded in the jungle. The two women could not travel by boat, plane or on land.
The next several weeks became a harrowing journey to get home, eventually involving the help of both Peruvian and Nevadan politicians as well as family members and friends in Reno.
On March 13, they landed in Lima and then traveled to Iquitos, a small town in the center of Peru. The next day, they embarked on their three-hour journey into the jungle on a riverboat.
“We left thinking everything was going to be fine, and it was,” Flores said. “Everything was normal, a few people were wearing face masks.”
Then on March 19, they learned the U.S. Department of State had issued a travel warning.
“At that point, now we were concerned,” Flores said, adding her return flight was also canceled. “That’s when I called my family and made them aware of the situation.”
Flores knew she had to get out of the jungle first. At one point, the women headed to Iquitos on a riverboat but were turned back because they didn’t have printed versions of the proper paperwork.
“To get out of the jungle, we had to get permission from the government to be able to travel,” Flores said, adding they needed a travel document from the U.S. Embassy. “That was being orchestrated by a lot of the people we were working with in Peru.”
Land said the owners of both lodges convinced the country’s minister of tourism to safely accompany them back to Iquitos.
So, on March 27, the two women again hopped on a riverboat to the nearby port town of San Joaquín. There, they were greeted by the minister of tourism, the lieutenant of the national police, and an entire military brigade.
“When I say port town, I mean it’s just a beach,” Flores said. “It’s really primitive.”
They then drove to Iquitos and stayed at a five-star hotel.
“As we went on along the way, it was a much different scene than when we first left because there were barricades everywhere,” Flores said. “There were armed military police everywhere. Everybody you saw in Peru was wearing masks.”
At the hotel, Flores said she met several tourists who were in the same situation.
“Everybody had the same goal — to get to their home country,” she said.
Friends, family members, and even colleagues called every elected official they could reach. Eventually, they started getting calls and emails back from U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s office.
Land said she knew Cortez Masto would get her home. So, while she waited for instructions, she spent her time visiting with the villagers and playing with the children.
She even took foot measurements then so she could come back next time with a supply of new shoes.
A former professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, Land had devoted 13 years of her life to helping families in remote jungle villages.
“I was down there to do a job,” Land said. “I wasn’t down there as a vacationer. So, I did my job. In the midst of this crisis, I got everything done I needed to do.”
At the end of the day after her work, Land was usually either at a local bodega or sitting on the steps of someone’s hut drinking a cold beer and watching the villagers play soccer.
“There’s nothing like having a cold beer in the Amazon rainforest,” Land said. “I’d sit there in the middle of the jungle drinking beer, it’s awesome.”
Still, Land was worried that if the virus spread into the jungle, she would die.
“At that point, when this was beginning, you weren’t hearing about the people who were surviving this,” she said, adding the medical care in the U.S. is significantly better. “You were hearing about the people that were dying.”
Land and Flores soon learned the only way out of the country was through repatriation flights and that the last one was scheduled to leave on April 5. They were screened for any sign of infection and then boarded the plane. Flores said they both had to sign a whole harmless-agreement that they wouldn’t hold the government responsible if they contracted the virus. They also signed a promissory note agreeing to pay back the government for travel expenses.
Later that afternoon, they arrived in Lima where they boarded a plane to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.
Flores described her journey as an “emotional rollercoaster.” But despite the ups and downs, she said she realized how dependent she was on other people’s good graces.
Flores said several people kept asking her why she would risk going back home when the U.S. was emerging as the epicenter of the virus. But for the native Nevadan, Reno was her home.
When Land arrived at her home, she was greeted by her husband and four children. Both women had to self-isolate for two weeks. Still, Land prepared her traditional Easter dinner and shared it with her friends and neighbors. She said she left packaged meals outside on her porch for pickup.
“As happy as I was to leave that country, I was equally sad,” Land said. “That’s how I am every time I go and come. A part of my heart is there.”
It took three more flights to get to Reno. They landed late in the afternoon on April 7.
Meanwhile, Flores was greeted by her friends and neighbors who had gathered around to applaud her safe return.
She said the warm welcome only validated why she needed to be home and in the state and community that she loves. She hopes her story will remind people to embrace human kindness.
“This epidemic is not just local,” Flores said. “It’s a crisis that’s around the world. Everybody is dealing with this.”