A Berkshire County resident is one of the thousands of Americans stranded overseas as the world grinds to a halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Jesse Carter has lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts for almost five years. But right now, with borders closing around the world to contain the coronavirus, he’s found himself confined to a hotel on a different continent, thousands of miles away from home, with no idea how or when he can return.
Carter’s story starts like so many others.
“Well, my cousin called me with a crazy idea, and asked if I wanted to go hike the Inca Trail with him and his son – and I said yes,” said Carter.
The Inca Trail is actually three overlapping trails in the Peruvian Andes leading to Machu Picchu. Carter, who is 34, is between jobs and had time for the trip.
“The original plan was to fly down," he told WAMC. "We were going be here for about 10 days and start the trek on a Monday and then hike for four days until we got to Machu Picchu, and then stay around for another night and then go on another local hike that day.”
They flew March 13th, but very quickly it became clear that any plans Carter and his family had would be scrapped. The night before the hike, the country began to shut down.
“There was a police car basically driving through the streets with a loudspeaker on, announcing that everyone had to be in their homes at 10 p.m.,” he said.
The next morning, the trek was canceled, and Carter and his party were ordered not to leave their hotel.
“It’s a beautiful hotel," said Carter. "It’s like an old monastery that was built in the 1600s, so it has all these intricately designed wooden doorways. Everything’s beautiful – this cobblestone courtyard and this old chapel. There are only seven of us here, though – so it usually has a capacity of about 100, and there’s just seven of us, so that piece of it feels a little strange.”
People are only allowed to leave the hotel to go to the pharmacy and grocery store.
“And we’re supposed to only go one person at a time, but we’ve been able to kind of make a case for going out in pairs or even threes just to maintain our sanity, to go for a little stroll through the streets," Carter told WAMC. "And you have to have a mask on, and everyone in the streets has a mask on. There are police around every public plaza and often around the central market. Those police typically have these big machine guns and full army garb.”
At this point, leaving the country is almost impossible.
“The borders were closed with about 24 hours’ notice on the 16th, I think," Carter said. "So people tried to scramble to the airport and get flights out of the country, but most of them were turned away. Everbody who didn't have a flight already was turned away from the airports.”
With limited internet access and little communication from the overwhelmed U.S. embassy in Cusco, Carter says the 1,600 Americans stranded in Peru have made a Facebook group to coordinate as they reach out for help. While they wait, the stranded Americans have kept busy with calls and messages to loved ones, daily workouts in the courtyard, and the recording of their own anthem dedicated to the situation – replete with music video – called “Powerless In Peru.”
“Well, the song came up because we’re ‘Powerless In Peru,’" explained Carter. "They have kind of been systematically been cutting back what we can do, so our space is becoming more and more limited and we were feeling this kind of grip. We started working on it, my cousin and I, and then the verses kind of developed over a few nights over some group collaboration sessions and just some working on it with different individuals.”
The song and video tell their story of disappointment, isolation, and paranoia.
“We've all kind of have the lyrics burned into our brains and we’re trying to figure out a way to either get a next song out or just get that earwig out,” Carter said.
As Carter and his family wait in a Peruvian purgatory while the pandemic expands back home, options are muddled.
“There was some confusion if it would even be better to even stay down here and kind of wait it out or to go home – because things seem like they’re escalating really fast, especially in our part of the country,” he told WAMC.
In contrast to the maligned, patchwork response of the American government to the outbreak, Carter says that Peru isn’t kidding around about containment.
“So they’re flying drones around to check that no one’s having parties after a certain hour in hotels and that lights aren’t on after 9 p.m.," he said. "And for instance, a few nights ago, at one of the local hostels there were 44 travelers that were detained for partying after 10 p.m. or something.”
Those increasingly early curfews are being strictly maintained.
“They’re not forgiving people for making a mistake or for being out after that time – I think they just take you away,” he said.
Carter says he’s come to be almost comforted by the severity.
“I think at first we were a little skeptical of the measures they’ve taken down here, but it’s also been working in some way to flatten the curve and keep it at an approachable level," he told WAMC. "And so on one level, I feel kind of grateful for having that truth exposed about how serious the situation it is and how important it is for people to self-quarantine and stay home and be conscientious about protecting other people as well as themselves.”
He says the hardest part has been coming to terms with what it’s like to be far from home in the chaos of a global crisis.
“I’ve kind of established a life and community in Great Barrington, which I’m really missing right now," said Carter. "And then my parents are in Connecticut, my brother is in Conway, Massachusetts, and then – yeah. There’s a lot that I feel left out of. It is hard. Each day is kind of its own challenge of stuff – I don’t even know how to describe it. Just emotional stuff that comes up unexpectedly. It’s almost like a forced retreat that we don’t really know the end date of, and there’s no facilitator.”
Carter was asked what he missed the most about the Berkshires.
“I miss seeing the people that I love, out on the street, at the store, and being able to go on runs in the woods and go to friends’ music shows and – yeah," said an emotional Carter. "Just – community.”