Few can say they were part of an “Americans Stuck in Peru” Facebook support group. But piano professor and assistant choral conductor Debbi Wyse, is now one of them.
It all started in Lima, Peru. After visiting her son, an English professor at a local college, Wyse and her husband felt sick just days before their flights home. “We both, lo and behold, got fevers and had a pretty bad cough. And then we thought, ‘Oh great, here we go, we’ve got COVID,’” she said.
Though it was a false alarm, the couple had already cancelled their flights home — right in time for the President to close the borders of the country by land, air, and sea.
“We had no idea when we were going to get out,” said Wyse. “It turns out that we stayed for an extra 23 days.”
So began their quarantine on the sixth floor of their son’s apartment complex. Because the apartment had two floors, Wyse and her husband shared the top floor while her son and daughter-in-law lived on the bottom.
“We actually had our own balcony so we could look out over the city, and we had sun, and fresh air,” she said.
To pass the time, Wyse and her husband read books and cleaned their son’s apartment. From scrubbing down their kitchen cabinets to cooking meals, Wyse describes that she was “basically their house maid because their regular one couldn’t come due to COVID.”
Time outside was sparse. For exercise, Wyse walked up and down the six flights of stairs in the apartment building, as nightly curfew allowed men to go outside on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays’, and women on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. But with hospital beds barely numbering 500, Wyse said, “You can imagine, with a huge city like Lima, if people start getting sick there is no place to put them, so we decided to stay in the apartment.”
With all commercial airports in Peru closed, Wyse and her husband were left unsure when they would be able to return to the US. Wyse said that following the international travel ban in Peru, she and her husband immediately registered with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program in order to receive updates from the US Embassy in Lima.
These updates included the Embassy’s advice for Americans out of country, such as the March 16 update which read, “American Citizens who remain in Peru should arrange lodging for the duration for the quarantine period and plan to limit their movements. Limited quarantine exemptions include movement to obtain food and medical care.”
In addition to signing up for daily updates from the US Embassy, Wyse says she and her husband joined a Facebook group called “Americans Stuck in Peru.” With more than six thousand members, the group provided the necessary information for Americans who needed to get home to the US.
As the State Department began arranging flights for citizens back to the United States, Wyse and her husband were told that they were a high priority because of their age. Every night, however, Wyse would get an update saying that more than 250 Americans had left that day. “About 6,600 people left Lima before we did,” Wyse said.
“Every night we kept thinking, ‘tomorrow’s going to be the day we leave,’” she continued. “Every night I said ‘we better pack up and have our stuff ready to go in case we get a last minute call.’”
But as the days passed, so did their certainty for a set departure date. An additional challenge to Wyse’s quarantine was that Hillsdale’s classes had resumed while she was in Peru.
“I only had a couple meltdowns,” she said.
Wyse continued to teach online, however, despite the technical difficulties — and not having a piano.
“She [Wyse] emailed her whole studio to figure out different lesson times and what technology she was going to use,” said senior Elyse Robidoux, one of Wyse’s students. “One of the things we ran into was audio-visual lag. Even though she could see my hands, she couldn’t hear what I was playing.”
Despite the challenges Wyse kept her lesson plans and lengths the same, something that her students celebrated.
“The fact that she persisted and kept going and doing her best as a teacher was incredible,” said Robidoux.
Finally, on April 7th, the Wyses’ were scheduled for a flight to go home. They left 24 hours later.
To begin their journey, Wyse and her husband were told to arrive at the US Embassy in Lima.
“We stood in line on the sidewalk with our bags for about a half an hour. Then we made it through that line to sign some paperwork that we would pay for our tickets…then we stood in another line.”
A few more lines later and the Wyses’ boarded a charter bus to their plane, which took off from the Peruvian Air Force base. From there, the couple landed in the Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. — where flights from Kenya and Central American arrived at the same time.
“There was hand sanitizer everywhere and people were wearing their masks, but it was still scary to be at such a central location with so many people coming in from all over the world. We had no idea if we were going to get COVID that night or what,” Wyse said.
COVID-19 worries aside, the Wyses’ came home and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“We were extremely happy to be back. All the passengers on the plain applauded when we got back to Dulles,” said Wyse.