After ten days of trekking and a couple of Cusqueña beers, I was spark out in my hotel room when the telephone rang. Nothing made much sense, as things don’t when you’re jerked from sound sleep. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, the lady on the other end – her English limited, my Spanish more so – kept asking: was I was ready for my flight before midnight the next day?
No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t supposed to be flying anywhere. Or so I thought. But somewhere between posing for cheesy photos on the terraces of Machu Picchu that mid-March morning and falling asleep in Cusco that night, the world had splintered. President Martín Vizcarra had issued a thunderbolt decree: due to the growing threat of coronavirus, his country would be closing its borders with almost immediate effect. I had around 24 hours to get out – or I’d be stuck, in lockdown, for at least 15 days.
Those 24 hours were frantic. My tour operator tried to get me on a flight out, to no avail. There was talk of an overland scramble to La Paz, but the potential of then being stranded afresh in the Bolivian unknown seemed worse than staying put Fruitless time was spent listening to the UK Foreign Office’s garbled on-hold ‘music’ – an underwater orchestra crossed with white noise.
The British Embassy in Peru was useless: following the president’s declaration, it closed its doors. A pinned tweet – the embassy’s only communication for several days – gave an emergency contact number that rang out to no-one; I imagined a blazing-red rotary dial trilling haplessly to the spiders in a dusty cupboard, down a corridor, in a bunker, on an island somewhere.
But from moments of crisis can spring the greatest kindness. By mid-afternoon, when it was clear I was properly stuck, I found myself at the Cusco house of expat Paul Cripps, a total stranger until I landed on his doorstep. He had troubles enough of his own: as founder of adventure tour operator Amazonas Explorer, he was now facing the start of peak season with cancellations pouring in and uncertainty swirling. But he welcomed me anyway, this unknown blow-in with a mound of laundry and a bewildered look in her eyes.
And so began my exile. A limbo-life, conﬁned to a house (only allowed out to get food), 10,000km from home. My new balcony looked over hummingbird-buzzed trees, past rooftops and apartment blocks to the green slopes of the Andes; on a clear day, 6,000m-odd Mount Ausangate was visible down the valley. It was scary and strange. But also comfortingly ordinary.