US tourists stranded abroad desperate as they try to return
By MITCH WEISS and HOLBROOK MOHR Associated Press
Linda Scruggs and Mike Rustici trained for months to hike the winding trails leading to Machu Picchu’s complex of Inca ruins. So they were thrilled when their flight landed earlier this month in the Peruvian capital.
They did part of their trek but wound up trapped in a Lima hotel room for days, not knowing how or when they would get back to the U.S. — like thousands of tourists and people living abroad as nations closed borders to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Scruggs texted Saturday that they were finally boarding a chartered flight from Lima back to the U.S. and their plight illustrates the desperation people stuck abroad experienced as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
Peru confirmed its first case of the virus on March 6. By the time Scruggs and Rustici arrived a week later, it was spreading. Days after the hikers landed, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra declared an emergency, ordering the country’s borders closed and for Peruvians to stay home.
Scruggs and Rustici, both in their 40s and from Nashville, Tennessee, told The Associated Press in telephone interviews they were given about 24 hours notice to leave Peru, but couldn’t find a flight.
Since they couldn’t leave, they were ordered to stay in their hotel room for at least 15 days. Other than to get food or supplies, they can’t leave the hotel in the city’s financial district.
The couple said they got little help or information from the U.S. State Department. One tourist, they said, walked to the U.S. Embassy only to be turned away and told to send an email and register for an online notification system.
Scruggs and Rustici felt like the world had closed in on them.
“There’s heavily-armed guards on the streets patrolling,” Scruggs said.
The virus has caused more than 11,000 deaths around the world, but the figure goes up every day and Americans in Morocco, Ecuador and other nations also told the AP that they feel abandoned by the State Department.
They said embassies did not initially help them or return their phone calls and emails and that they were finally told to check embassy websites for updates and try to charter flights out of the countries on their own.
Dora Figueiredo, 37, an American from Newark, New Jersey, was trying Friday to determine whether her flight from Argentina to the U.S. would leave as scheduled on Sunday.
She had traveled to Buenos Aires to marry her now-new Argentine husband who cannot yet move to the U.S. because he doesn’t have U.S. residency, a process she said could take more than a year.
“I’m feeling a bit stressed out about how to get home now that the Argentinian president announced a lockdown as of midnight last night,” she said. “I have been tweeting at my airline, my embassy at travel.gov about how to get back home.”
As of Friday, her flight had not been cancelled but she wasn’t sure if that would still be the case Sunday and did not know how she would get to the airport.
“I really need to get home to check on my parents, who are elderly,” she said.
Catherine Ferguson, a 77-year-old artist from Omaha, Nebraska, is holed up in a hotel in Rabat, Morocco, with her husband and 10 other Americans, most over age 60.
Ferguson and her husband were traveling for the past month with three other friends on a trip that started in France when the coronavirus cases began to increase.
Now they are trying to get permission from the Moroccan government to charter a flight to take them directly to the U.S.
“We really don’t want to be here when things get worse in Morocco,” Ferguson said.
Their small hotel is one of the few still open in the city, she said. The family that runs it has been feeding the 12 Americans there and they can walk around its garden, but it’s too cold to swim in the pool.
They are prohibited from leaving the hotel and have been in contact with the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, where officials told the travelers that they are working on a plan. The travelers spend their days using their iPads trying to find flights to book.
Some are running low on blood pressure pills and other medication. Ferguson said Nebraska’s governor and state lawmakers have been in touch and are trying to help.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that he is working to bring home Americans stranded in countries around the world with little or no warning as nations closed their borders to stop the spread of the virus.
And the U.S. military’s Southern Command said Friday that it was flying 89 U.S. citizens from Honduras to Charleston, South Carolina, after they could not to return home, in the second Air Force Mission to bring people from Honduras. But it’s unclear how the State Department plans to repatriate Americans stuck in other countries.
Desperate to get home from Peru, Scruggs and Rustici used social media to connect with hundreds of other tourists who were trapped in the country, trying to draw attention to their plight by reaching out to elected officials and reporters.
Scruggs, a nurse, said some tourists in Peru are running low on life-sustaining medications like insulin and that some foreign college students trapped in the country were running out of money for food.
“I think everyone has been shocked at the lack of communication from the U.S.,” Scruggs said.
Scruggs and Rustici used a flight tracking website and found that a United Airlines Boeing 777 was traveling from Houston, on Friday to Lima. But they couldn’t find out if the plane was there for them or others. Some disillusioned tourists discussed “storming the airport,” Scruggs said.
When the flight arrived at 3:37 p.m., there was a group of about 50 people outside the airport, including Americans, but they were not allowed inside. A few hours later, the plane departed for Washington D.C. It’s unclear how many Americans — if any — were on the flight.
The State Department and United Airlines did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Scruggs and Rustici were stuck in the hotel room again until Saturday, when they received an email from a local tour operator saying there might be seats on a flight from Lima to Miami. Scruggs and Rustici paid $800 each and took a bus to the airport with other Americans trying to catch the same plane.
There were about 200 people waiting outside the airport when they arrived and a security guard took them inside, where they faced what Scruggs described as a “tense and chaotic” scene with long lines. Some Americans were accompanied by babies and children.
Shortly before noon, the couple was walking toward the plane.
“We are finally boarding,” Scruggs texted.
Associated Press writers Anita Snow in Phoenix and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.