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Trapped in their hostel room for 23 hours a day, Canadians in Peru desperate to come home

Canadians stranded in Peru plead for help amid pandemic
WATCH: Scores of Canadians working and living abroad are trying in vain to return home, but travel restrictions and bans over COVID-19 have them fearing they'll be stranded indefinitely.

Coughing, a fever and shortness of breath — these are the symptoms of COVID-19 that Antoine Pouliot-Hamel has been experiencing for the last eight days. 

But Pouliot-Hamel isn’t recovering from his symptoms at home in Quebec City. The 33-year-old is stuck in a hostel in Cusco, Peru. 

He and many other Canadian tourists at the Parawina Hostel are currently not allowed to leave their rooms due to a mandatory quarantine that was imposed after two people at the hostel tested positive for COVID-19. 

The hostel has been following the instructions of the Peruvian Health Ministry and the hostel staff have been working to support all guests at this time, said Maritza Conde Toledo, marketing manger for the Parawina Hostel in an email to Global News.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Vancouver students relieved to catch flight out of locked-down Peru

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Known as the historic capital city of the Inca Empire, Cusco is a popular tourist destination filled with sweeping mountain views and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

But Cusco also sits more than 3,400 metres above sea level, making it difficult for some to breathe. Pouliot-Hamel says this alone has aggravated his condition. 

“We’re stuck in a corona-trap at 3,500 metres elevation. I have heart problems and I probably have the virus,” he said. 

However, Pouliot-Hamel says he did not get tested for COVID-19 by Peruvian officials, as he was fearful of giving out too much of his personal information. 

The Canadian Embassy in Peru is aware Pouliot-Hamel has COVID-19 symptoms, and now, he and many other Canadians trapped in Cusco are working with the embassy to find a way home.

Borders and airports in Peru were shut down on March 16, leaving thousands of Canadians stuck in the country due to a 14-day lockdown.

Canadian officials chartered flights back to Toronto from Lima last week, which transported more than 800 people out of the country. Three other flights out of Lima have been scheduled for this week.

Pouliot-Hamel and others in Cusco were unable to board the 90-minute flight to reach Lima. Due to the lockdown at his hostel, military officials in the region prevented them from leaving, he says.

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COVID-19: Canadians desperate to leave Peru
COVID-19: Canadians desperate to leave Peru

A week ago, Pouliot-Hamel says he sent emails to the Canadian Embassy about his symptoms, but the embassy did not respond. 

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“I know everyone is working very hard but I think it’s a little bit too late,” he said. 

The trip to Peru from Quebec began for Pouliot-Hamel, a lawyer, in early March, as he had planned his first vacation in 14 months. On March 15, he says he was told by the hostel manager that there were no more flights to Lima. However, he says he later found out flights were, in fact, leaving the city that evening. 

Global Affairs Canada told Global News in a statement that Canada is continuing to “co-ordinate the complex movement” of Canadians outside of Lima before new flights leave this week. Currently, 5,510 Canadians in Peru have registered voluntarily with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service and more than 390,000 have registered worldwide, according to the federal government. 

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Between March 15 and 22, the hostel continued with activities like Spanish lessons, yoga and salsa dancing, Pouliot-Hamel says. But as soon as someone tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the entire hostel went into quarantine mode, he says. According to Pouliot-Hamel, they’ve been allowed a 20-minute break outside per day but have otherwise been locked inside for at least 23 hours a day.

“You don’t keep 150 people together and organize activities while everyone is coughing in each other’s faces and touching each other. I don’t know what they were thinking,” he said.

Life in lockdown

In the first eight days of the lockdown, the hostel felt like a summer camp, says Pouliot-Hamel. After the two positive cases, things became more dire.

“We started to lack food, and some employees started to [get] sick. The situation got worse,” he said.

READ MORE: Stranded in South America as COVID-19 spreads, Canadian travellers anxiously await rescue

On March 29, the hostel allowed some guests to move into a nearby hotel, Pouliot-Hamel says. But again, they were quarantined. 

Pouliot-Hamel was not one of them, and he suspects it’s because of his symptoms — even though he says hostel staff were not clear on why some could leave but others had to stay.

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He says generally, he is feeling better and his mental health is clear, and he is now waiting for a COVID-19 test on April 7, according to Canadian officials. If the test is negative, he will be allowed to leave the hostel and fly back to Canada. 

“Will I test negative on the 7th? I don’t know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said.

He and other Canadians will be paying $1,400 for the rescue flight to Toronto, along with transport back to Quebec City, he says. Pouliot-Hamel says he’s lucky his insurance will cover those costs.

‘We were really hungry’

Another Canadian in a similar situation is William Fafard, a 23-year-old backpacker from Granby, Que. 

He and a friend were confined to the Parawina Hostel up until yesterday when they were allowed to leave. Fafard says he was told he could go to Hotel Jose Antonio because he appeared to be healthy.

Guests were moved to the hotel on March 29 because the Peruvian government told the hostel that some must move to another hotel to finish their quarantine period, said Conde Toledo. “This was communicated to each of our guests at that moment,” she said.

“For myself and my friend and other people in our room, we all looked good, we didn’t have any symptoms compared to other rooms in the hostel,” said Farfard.

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The hostel included only one cook and had to provide meals for more than 100 people, he says. 

“The cook was exhausted,” he said. “So we were eating crap, mostly oatmeal, quinoa and bread… we were really hungry.”

One meal provided to William Fafard during quarantine at the Parawina Hostel.
One meal provided to William Fafard during quarantine at the Parawina Hostel. Photo provided by William Fafard

“We tried to have a good mindset, but there were a lot of people who were not feeling good at all,” he said. “I didn’t feel that I was free and I wasn’t feeling safe because everyone was sick.”

When they had to leave the hostel for a hotel, they weren’t allowed to bring food provided for them by the Canadian Embassy, Fafard says. 

“We got out of the hostel, and there were like 10 people in white hazmat suits, like astronauts, and police officers with guns,” he said. 

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They were also all sprayed down with an unknown chemical that smelt like chlorine before they were allowed to go to the new hotel, he says. 

Fafard and other Canadians in the hotel are not permitted to leave their rooms, and he says he’s unsure if he will be charged for his stay.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Stranded Canadian travellers call on Trudeau for flights home

For myself, and my friend, we have a strong mindset and my family supports me, my friends support me, but the thing is just when we don’t know about food and we don’t have any control or power over the situation,” he said. 

The hotel staff are trying their best and are very kind, as they are following orders from the Peruvian government, says Fafard. Nor does he blame the Canadian government for the situation, as he says he believes they are trying their best.

While they are unsure when they will be able to set foot again on Canadian soil, Fafard says he is remaining hopeful that he will be on a flight soon.

“I know that if I start to be stressed about the situation, that won’t help me,” said Fafard. “So I force myself to stay focused to try my best to just get out and find solutions.”

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