We have all underestimated this.
And all of us are currently going through a very stressful phase. Still, I want to share some thoughts and experiences from my recent stay in Peru as a participant of the 5th Plant Functional Traits Course, and especially from the trip back to Europe. The purpose is not to make you feel sorry for me or what I’ve gone through, it is to tell a story of a wonderful social experience and cohesion, and I do actually consider myself very lucky. So maybe this piece can brighten up everybody’s challenging everyday life a little bit.
So let’s go back to the 8 March – it feels like years ago, but it has just been 12 days as I write these lines. Coming straight to Peru from a conference in Iceland, I’m overwhelmed with the warmth and moisture of the local climate, even in Cusco, the country’s second largest city at 3100 m. In this tourist hub close to Peru’s most famous Inca settlement Machu Picchu, 34 students and 11 instructors gather, looking forward to the lectures, fieldwork, and analyses during the coming two weeks. The atmosphere is busy but relaxed and peaceful during the first three days, and also still when we head to Cloud Forest Biological Station at Wayqecha on the Northeastern slope of the Andes. Over the next two days, we enjoy the views onto Amazonia, the food and the quiet at the Station (no mobile and very limited internet coverage), a great day in the field, and each others’ company and collaboration in the Trait Wheel, a congenial workflow to collectively process our leaf samples, alongside monitoring the increasing numbers of corona infections worldwide as well and in Peru.
By midday on Friday, things go crazy.
The Peruvian government announces to ban all travel to and from Europe as of next Monday, 16 March. We had planned to stay in Wayqecha until Wednesday, but that won’t be possible anymore. Our course leaders Vigdis and Brian transform into crisis managers, trying everything to arrange travels home for the Europeans on the course through the organising University of Bergen, Norway – which is especially challenging given the time difference and the limitations in communication channels to the outside world. We others try hard to stay focused and keep the Trait Wheel as well as data collection going, since there is not much we can do with our limited communication capacities. Processing leaf samples is indeed a great way to keep your thoughts away from other problems, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make the problems disappear. As we are obviously not the only people trying to leave the country before Monday, and despite Vigdis’, Brian’s and Uni Bergen’s amazing efforts, we still have no connections by Saturday morning. If it was just for me, I wouldn’t mind staying with these awesome group, but I want to be close to my family in case someone gets into trouble. I decide to ask my advisor for help, but she is not successful either. Other people from the course reach out to their institutions and families, and Ragnhild’s dad digs up a connection via Lima and Toronto into Copenhagen for her and two colleagues from Bergen – and to my surprise, when I look it up, I still find a ticket available for the same connection. Eventually, I choose to go for it, even though it makes me truly sad to leave the course and many others behind. I could certainly imagine worse things than getting stuck with these great people, but I also want to be close to home if something happens within my family. Still, isn’t that the case for everyone, and maybe even more so if they are actually closer to their loved ones than me? So it is definitely an awkward feeling being in the ‘priority line’ on this issue, but at the same time, it does feel somewhat relieving to know that I will be going.
Sunday morning, 3am: after a very short night we get up to catch the early sunrise at Tres Cruces, an hour’s drive from the station. After all, a nice experience with everyone from the course to wrap up our great time together – at least, that is where we think we are going. Sleepy as we are we realise too late that there has been a miscommunication with the drivers, and that we are already too far on our way to Cusco to still turn around. No sleep, no sunrise, and no opportunity to thank and say goodbye to everyone – quite an upsetting way to close this memorable chapter. At least we can have breakfast at the hotel, time to stroll around the markets, have lunch, a shower, and a nap before leaving to the airport in the afternoon.
No one is saying a thing in the taxi. It’s a strange feeling to leave again, only seven days after arriving. We have just gotten used to the time difference, the altitude, the climate, and suddenly our time here comes to a very abrupt end. I realise that this is actually the first time that I could not decide freely when, how and where I travel. What an incredible privilege, but even more does it hurt to leave Peru and the course. Still, I am not alone on this trip, and I am so grateful for Ragnhild’s, Sonya’s and Dagmar’s company. Nervousness is rising when I enter my booking code into the self-check-in terminal, but everything seems fine. The first trip to Lima is safe. Time to breathe a bit and to enjoy the last rays of the Andean sun outside, and the last taste of well-ripened Peruvian mango, even if that doesn’t quite make it easier to leave either ;o)
The others’ flight to Lima is an hour before mine. While waiting, I go through my emails for the first time since Wednesday. Things have escalated very rapidly everywhere, it seems, also in Denmark and especially Aarhus, where schools and my home university closed on Friday and most of public life seems to be standing still. About 20 official emails on just that one day, I can imagine the chaos that my colleagues experienced. Speaking of chaos: when everybody has already boarded, we still cannot leave for Lima. The announcement is only given in Spanish, but a Mexican passenger translates for me: ‘We will be delayed by up to an hour, they are prioritising international flights.’ What does that mean? Even though I will still have 5 hours until my flight to Toronto, I’m getting nervous. In the end, it’s even only a half-hour delay, but it’s definitely a stressful time in the air. And it’s not getting better when I find out the reason after our landing.
While we were on the runway, the president has declared emergency state for the country and borders will apparently be closed from midnight. I’m waiting far too long for my backpack to turn up. The others are waiting at the exit, and now I’m even more relieved not to be on my own. No one knows if our flight is still going, no success in calling Air Canada or the German embassy, Norway and New Zealand don’t have other information either. On the booking website, the flight is listed ‘on time’ – but how reliable is this information right now? It seems like more and more security personnel is gathering in the airport. We try to contact Vigdis, our course leader – what if the flight is cancelled and we get indeed stuck her, should we go back to Cusco to join the others, or rather stay here, close to the international airport, to potentially still catch another flight out? – but she is apparently on the way to Cusco right now. We decide to book a hotel room close to the airport, just in case, but as there is still some activity in the check-in area, we try our luck to get into there as well, and it works. Still, our flight is not yet announced on the destination board. Our water bottles are almost empty, all of us are getting really tired after the short last night, and the clock is moving closer and closer to midnight.
The atmosphere in the terminal is surprisingly calm, even though you can feel the strain in the air. We watch the flights on the board move up, still all confirmed, even if they are scheduled for 4 in the morning. It looks like we are indeed lucky, but no one dares to celebrate yet. And then it shows up: flight CA 1472 to Toronto. What a relief! Still, we are not there yet. When check-in opens, the queue seems endless, and it’s moving waaay too slowly. But every step forward takes a load of increasing size off my mind. Visa check, bag drop. It’s really an exceptional situation, as well for the passengers as for the staff: the employee at the counter next to ours offers to set up a mobile hotspot his personal phone, so two girls can apply for their transit visa. It’s great to see such a gesture in these chaotic hours. Security check (weirdly empty), immigration control – we are through.
It turns out that the flight is overbooked, no wonder, as this is going to be the last direct flight to Canada. This is probably why they are calling many passengers by name, and every one could be one of ours, but luckily that’s not the case. Suddenly I feel I can think about other things again, and I realise how tired I am. Also, while waiting in the queue, it’s the first time that I really feel uncomfortable standing close to so many strangers. It’s still a pandemic that the world is dealing with. Even though Peru has only announced a few dozens of cases, even though I don’t want to think about it and I hate to feel that mistrust, I inevitably start wondering where and how careful these people have been in the past days. About one third are wearing facemasks, but to me it seems to be more a measure of protecting themselves than others, and the unusual sight still adds to my discomfort. Ragnhild, Sonya and Dagmar are already boarding while I’m still queuing, and it makes me feel a bit left behind. But then everything goes faster than suspected, and only five minutes later I am on my way to the airplane too. I am really going home.
As the plane is accelerating for take-off, I again feel this strange imbalance of relief and sadness, maybe guilt, to leave while others might get stuck here for who-knows-how-long. Even after just a week, haven’t we grown together to a real family? But then, also, us being stranded as well would make nothing easier, and we might actually be able to help the group from back home. Also, I’m probably way too tired to think about this after all the stress and just five hours of sleep in the last 47 hours. The nice chat with the Canadian lady in the seat next to me is a welcome distraction, before I can finally give into my exhaustion and fall asleep.
By far not recovered, but at least slightly more awake, I wake up before landing in Toronto. Unexpectedly, I get to set my foot onto North America for the first time in my life, albeit only the transit zone of Pearson International Airport. After the busy and stressed atmosphere in Lima, the calm, even peaceful surroundings and the bright daylight seem like an unreal background scenery to us to spend the next seven hours catching up on the international news and, more importantly, everybody else’s travel adventures. It seems like, after all, the situation was not as severe as it felt, and Peru just could not enforce a travel ban that suddenly. Most of the Europeans and also some of the North Americans have been lucky and made it out of Peru in time as well. Yet, a large group is likely going to stay behind for now, which gives us very mixed feelings and makes us aware of how lucky we are to be here together in this group. That feeling prevails throughout the afternoon, and still when we are boarding the next – and my final – flight to Copenhagen. Getting closer to home and eventually landing in Denmark, relaxation and gratefulness unfold more and more, but mingle with sadness about splitting our little travel group, after all that we have been through together during the last 48 hours. Thanks so much to you three, I’m glad I could travel with you.
Now, on the train back to Aarhus, being back feels so weird, and so for several reasons. First, from the health perspective, it does make sense – and at the same time not. For sure, Denmark’s health system is much better equipped than the Peruvian, which also makes me feel very lucky to be able to rely on this. Still, to minimise my personal risk of infection, I could hardly imagine a safer place than Wayqecha (given that nobody introduced the virus or had already done so), while densely populated Denmark is projected to face a massive increase of infection numbers over the next two weeks. So, while admitting that I’m also longing for the quiet and beauty of Wayqecha’s cloud forest, I feel quite a bit torn about being back home. Second, from the time perspective: only ten days ago, I boarded my flight to South America, looking forward to two intense and fun weeks in the course, while Peru had only just reported its very first case of COVID-19 infection. Well, it was certainly an intense time, with the first five days even going as planned, yet the second part of the trip turned out very intense in quite a different way than expected. All of the days were so full of great science, views, and social interaction that the week seems like a month to me. Especially, and that brings me to my third point, the connection within the group was so fantastic that the complete silence around me now on the almost abandoned train seems completely surreal to me, and even more do I miss the fantastic characters of the PFTC5 people.
I’m sure many people experience similar at the moment, as social isolation is in fact the most effective measure to limit the spread of the virus. But remember, isolation does not equal loneliness: use Skype or simply a phone call to connect with friends and family. Exchange emails or letters, maybe with someone you have wanted to write to for ages – now might be the time, and it feels great for both of you. And, if you are allowed to leave your apartment and you meet other people in the street, give them a smile to remind them: we are not alone in this situation, we can only get through it together, united, just as the 2020 PFTC5 course.
Stay strong, everyone at Royal Inka, I’m sure you will get home soon!