“Just wait and see how the situation develops over there and make your decision. Don’t come back now, it’s a real mess. People are starting to understand that they have to stay at home, which is not that bad for us, because we still have a flu. Talk later baby, we love you.”
I hang up and leave Italy inside my smartphone to look at the jagged rock face of the canyon ahead of me. The Colca river, swelled with frothy waves, rushes ahead of me with a crashing sound that washes away the memory of my mother’s voice. I am in Peru for my first time, a place I have wanted to visit for well over a decade, and always postponed because my life and work as a Malaysia-based journalist and travel writer kept me busy elsewhere.
Unlike me, my mother, Tundra (whose name conjures images of far flung Arctic regions) never travelled as much as she dreamed. I left her in the spacious departure hall of Milan Malpensa airport on my way to Argentina in early December 2019. We had just spent three weeks together in my small hometown of Voghera in southwestern Lombardy, Italy.
Once upon a time, there was no virus
When I landed in Argentina with my Malaysian photographer wife Kit Yeng three months ago, the only bad news was riots in Santiago de Chile and an ousted Bolivian president.
“Why the hell do you want to go to South America now? It’s like a powder keg that’s about to explode,” my father, Maurizio, had asked. He hadn’t digested well the fact that I had an unstable job a 14 hour-flight away from home, and once again, was trying to put some sense into my “rotten head”. But in the end, he would always be the one driving me to the airport, clutching my shoulder with respect, and, on this occasion, sending me off with one of the few kisses he had ever given me throughout my whole adult life.
It turned out that my dad was partially right: as Kit and I trawled Argentinian deserts and Patagonian peaks throughout January, the riots were soon obscured by a much scarier threat. COVID-19, a deadly virus that, we were told, had started wreaking havoc in China.
By the time we left the Atacama Desert of Chile for the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the first coronavirus warnings started popping at most bus terminals across the region. “Cubrete al Toser”, cover yourself when you cough; a mantra that, after all, didn’t seem so dangerous.
A tough decision
But on the 14th of March, when president Martín Vizcarra declared that Peru would close its borders and airspace in the next 40 hours, we realised that things were about to take a wrong turn. Lima was a day away by bus, and Arequipa, the closest major town, seemed ripe for further contagion measures and stricter police control. We decided to hop on one last bus from the village of Chivay to 3280-meters-high Cabanaconde, where the Colca canyon really starts, to stay well isolated – and also ready to bunk down in a place with plenty of fresh produce and decent accommodation available. Maybe, I thought, we would even see the elusive Andean condors.
Going down the canyon in hopes of finding a route home was an appealing option, but I couldn’t: I needed to stay connected with my family. They had a fever – and even though the visiting doctor had said “it was just a flu”, I had a bad feeling. On the previous day, my father was too sick to even say hello on the phone.
A tragedy in two acts
On March 16th a mandatory curfew is enforced in Peru, officially turning our blissful village surrounded by a crown of snow-capped green mountains and a deep blue sky into a prison without bars. It's also the day my parents are admitted to the hospital.
“They are stable,” my brother Diego, a biologist in the town of Piacenza, Emilia Romagna, keeps telling me as I gulp down in fear. Due to Italy’s newfound interregional travel restrictions and risk of contagion in the ward, he's also unable to visit them – we are both powerless, me thousands of miles, and him, only 70 kilometers away.
For the next four days, it's a routine of sitting around and waiting, exercising on the rooftop whenever the high altitude sun decides to spare us the rain and cold, and warming up under thick blankets. Every few hours, my brother updates me on the situation.
They tested positive for COVID-19, of course. My parents have phones with them in the hospital, but all I get in response to my WhatsApp messages of love and encouragement are silent blue ticks – I guess it’s hard to type wearing a respiration-aid helmet. When my father finally sends a short answer, something like an ice tip breaks off inside of my gut. “Stay away from here, no more words”.
On the morning of March 20, my mother’s condition worsens. Running out of the hostel and breaking my confinement, I dash down the cobblestone streets to the local police station. A couple of men in face masks and green jackets look at me with pity as I stutter behind my own mask, begging them to help me get to Arequipa and on a flight to Lima to try and return home to see my sick mother. A cop stops my blabbering by lifting his hands to demand my silence. “We need permission from your embassy and a confirmed repatriation flight. Now, please go back to your accommodation.”
When the call arrives I am working on my laptop to keep busy and distracted. I don't even cry. My wife starts when she sees me shiver as my body jerks irregularly.
“Mum’s dead,” I manage to say, but Kit is already shedding the tears I can't even well.
Three days of numb monotony and hundreds of calls later, I wake up to another buzzing ringtone and my warm bed turns into cold quicksands. It's my brother again.
Hearing that even my father didn’t make it, it's like a gelid claw that strips the soundtrack from my life. I get up, wash myself robotically, as numb and deaf as a shell, and drag myself to the hostel’s terrace.
I sit on a chair and glance at the peaks all around me: they rise like shining thorns in an alien and cold light while the high-altitude sun burns my skin. In that moment, from the top of my prison, I realise that travel would never be the same, ever again.
Then I look up in the sky, and there it is, at last. The elusive Andean condor, circling high above my head, wings spread in the mountain wind. So weightless and so free.
We’re told that Peru’s national emergency is likely to be extended for at least another two weeks. I gulp down and smile, for that's a joke compared to the fact I can't feel my heart anymore.