Head pounding and muscles aching from her 30-hour trip, Brooke Sample looked out the window of her Canadair regional jet as it approached the runway at Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell the evening of March 31. She had never been so happy to be home.
For nearly two weeks, the 21-year old from Columbia Falls, a communications major at Walla Walla University in Washington, had been stuck in Pucallpa, Peru, not knowing when she would see her home and family again. Since November, Sample had been working as a student missionary/journalist at a small nonprofit medical clinic in the Amazonian city of 326,000, but when Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra declared a state of emergency March 15, he gave foreign citizens roughly 24 hours to return home before the border was to close.
Sample’s one and only chance to get out of the country quickly seemed to be to fly from Pucallpa to the Peruvian capital of Lima and hope she would be able to find a flight home from there. With this plan in mind, she spent half that restless night packing and the other half worrying. Early the following morning, Henry Camacho, the head of the family with whom she was staying, gave her a ride to town as she attempted to quickly prepare for the rushed flight. A clerical error with Western Union left her unable to claim the money her family had sent. After securing travel paperwork for her orange tabby cat, Mr. Bingley, Sample made her way to what was usually a sleepy rural airport. Not that day. The line reached far outside the front doors — with armed policeman guarding the entrance.
Still determined, Sample left her Peruvian family behind as she passed into the airport. It was then she began to doubt her plan. With two overstuffed suitcases, a carry-on bag and a nervous cat, she did not even speak enough Spanish to have her original flight changed. There was no guarantee she would be able to find a flight home from Lima. It was only then the full weight of the situation hit.
“I’d like to say I’m a calm and collected person, but truth is, sometimes I lose it. This was one of those moments,” Sample confided. “Tears erupted from my eyes, and I didn’t even care that everyone was staring at me.”
When she looked up, somehow Camacho had made it past the police guards. Through her tears, Sample told him she would like to stay. Camacho agreed. After a quick call home to inform her mother, Sample left with Camacho to prepare for the national quarantine.
THOUSANDS OF miles from home and with no one else to turn to, Sample tried desperately to get in contact with the U.S Embassy in Lima in an effort to find a way home. The response, or lack thereof, only added to her anxiety.
“We tried to call the embassy for the first couple of days, but they either wouldn’t respond or they wouldn’t let us leave a message. We found an email address and tried to get in contact with them that way, but they never responded,” Sample said. A week and a half into quarantine, I had only received one email from them and all it said was for everyone to stay in place until further notice. They basically told us we were on our own.”
Though safe with locals she had been living with for months, Sample’s anxiety level only continued to rise as the rumors started circulating. Stories came of the embassy attempting to organize flights out of the country for American citizens. Other stories told of those flights leaving some people behind. Hard facts were few and far between.
Back in Columbia Falls, Sample’s family was also trying to deal with the uncertainty. Unhappy with the embassy’s lack of response, Brooke’s mother Nanette took matters into her own hands.
“The worst part was the embassy issuing a statement that basically said all the Americans were on their own. My momma bear kind of kicked in right there and I started contacting our senators,” she said.
The response was immediate.
Wally Hsueh from Sen. Steve Daines’ office set to work making calls and working feverishly to get Sample home, just as he was with dozens of other U.S. citizens stranded across the globe.
“I was blown away by how quickly Senator Daines’ office jumped on this,” Nanette said. “They had her paperwork processed in three hours. They did their best, but the situation was obviously tricky and they could only do so much.”
THINGS WERE in motion, but Brooke was still stuck waiting in Pucallpa as Hsueh and the staff at Daines’ office tried to find a way to get her home. Quarantined and struggling to learn the popular Peruvian pastime of volleyball, Brooke continued to collect her thoughts on her online blog, just as she had since first arriving in the country.
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed about living through a legit, honest-to-goodness quarantine. But, I always pictured it in a warm house in a cold climate, surrounded by piles of books, mugs of hot chocolate, and family game nights. I hadn’t ever pictured it looking like Amazonian humidity, dust, grime, and food/water shortages,” she wrote. “This week has continued like fierce waves of an ocean. Hitting and receding. ‘The charter plane will leave tomorrow.’ ‘Nope! There’s no point. You first need a flight out of Lima.’ I’m safe. Why do I want to come home so badly? I love the people I’m with. Why do I long to weather this storm out in a country that has it worse? All I know is that I want home,” she put in another post.
Keeping in touch with her family and friends through Facebook and even a few Zoom prayer sessions, Brooke was safely sequestered with her Peruvian family. Unfortunately, that was not the case for many others in Pucallpa and across the country.
In a region where many survive by selling goods in the market on a daily basis, a stay-at-home order can be devastating. Again, Brooke chronicled the situation on her blog.
“Peru is dealing with a unique mix of troubles. We have two options. Allow people to come out of their houses, ensuring everyone can earn and spend money for food, thus allowing coronavirus to spread across a vulnerable country at breakneck speed. Or, lock everyone in their houses, prevent them from earning a daily living, and therefore allow some to starve or die from lack of water. Whether from coronavirus or starvation, Peruvians are in a time of crises,” she wrote.
THE GOOD news came in the evening of March 29 — Brooke was going home. The hard work of Hsueh and others had paid off and Brooke was booked on a series of flights that would get her back to Kalispell. It would be a long journey, though, and despite having up-to-date immunization records and a certified health certificate, Mr. Bingley would have to stay behind. After boarding a plane in Pucallpa at 10 a.m. on a Monday, Brooke made the quick flight to Lima before taking another plane five and a half hours to Miami. After an overnight, seven-hour layover there, she flew to Minneapolis, then Salt Lake City and eventually arrived in Kalispell Tuesday evening.
Despite the long flight, Brooke said the trip was easy.
“I have never had such an easy time traveling in my life,” she said. “It was incredibly smooth the whole way and I didn’t have any problems whatsoever. There were so few people in the airports.”
While managing the flights was easy, managing the health checks was even easier, because Brooke said she encountered none. Not one on the entire trip home.
“I did not have one health check on the entire trip. Not one, which is a bit disturbing. Not even in Miami. We were told many times to wash our hands, but that was about it.”
Brooke and her family are now quarantined in their home for 14 days, but they all say it is a small price to pay to have Brooke home.
All that remains for Brooke now is to pay back the government for the flight home (she is nervously awaiting the bill), spend time with her family and thank those who worked to get her home.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet that I am back. It is a huge relief, but quite an adjustment from hot and humid weather to landing in a snowstorm. It’s good to be home.”
To read more about Brooke and her adventures in Peru, check out her blog at https://atbsofspice.com/.