After Covid-19 hit Peru, hundreds of miles walked

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Tambo and her daughters first came from the remote village in the Amazon rainforest to the Peruvian capital, so the eldest Amelie could be the family’s first member of college.

17-year-old Lima won a prestigious scholarship to study in the Universidad Científica del Sur city of Lima, and the family had big dreams. They would rent a small room, help Amelie get started, and Maria would dig some money working in a restaurant.

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But when Covid-19 hit Peru, the nation stopped. More than 70 percent of people work in the informal economy, and Tambo watched as business opportunities disappeared when the country’s government began to tightly lock on.

After about two months of quarantine, they had no money to pay for their rented rooms or food. Tambo decided to return to their village in the Ucayali region, 350 km away.

When public transport was closed, the only option was to travel on foot. “I know the danger I’m putting my kids in, but I have no choice,” he said. “Either I’m dying trying to get out of here, or I’m starving in my room.”

Escaping from the city

I met 40-year-old Tambo through a WhatsApp group where thousands of Peruvians told how to leave Lima to return home. “I haven’t left my house since the government declared quarantine,” he said. “But I have no money anymore.”

He agreed to let me follow him on the dangerous journey, tell me his story, not sure what the outcome would be.

Tambo and his daughters left Lima at the beginning of May. He wore a face mask and carried baby Melec on his back, along with a large multi-colored backpack sprinkled with little Melec. Amelie and seven-year-old Yacira tucked next to her and collected her own packages. A pink bear is hanging from Yacira’s backpack.

From the left, Maria Tambo took a break with her children Melec, Amelie and Yacira.
Their families were not alone. Thousands of Peruvians were on their way, desperate to escape from the pandemic and loss of income.

Epic journeys along dusty highways, railroad tracks, and dark village roads would pass Tambos through the high altitude Andes region before reaching the Amazon rainforest, a dangerous route for a woman traveling alone with three kids.

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As we walked in the hourly heat, we watched them push forward. Water and food were scarce, Tambo’s feelings were raw. He cried, sang his baby Melec lightly. “There’s no way, you walk your own way,” he muttered.

There were moments of courtesy and relaxation as they left the trip by taking a few rides along the way. A driver threw food at them while driving. But most often Tambo and his daughters walked.

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On the third day, we saw a truck driver pity the family, travel to the next city and share some of his food, while fighting in the fine weather near Andes, at an altitude of 15,000 meters above sea level. “I walked a lot,” said the driver, trying to keep his tears of gratitude.

It was a short deadline for his feet. “My daughter’s hands were turning purple,” he said. “I thought you couldn’t.”

Checkpoints along the way

The path of the house involved more than endurance. Tambo also had to navigate through police checkpoints set up to prevent residents in the country’s coronavirus epicenter Lima from spreading the virus to rural areas.

Despite the difficult locking rules, Peru is among the worst hit countries in the world from the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 230,000 diagnosed cases and more than 6,800 deaths to date. Experts believe that the numbers can be higher and the hospital system has a hard time handling the epidemic.

In San Ramon, we watched a police officer question him just before Tambo entered the forest. “You can’t get here with the kids,” said the officer. Tambo negotiated with him. “I’m going back to my farm in Chaparnaranja, where I’ve only been for a week.”

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This was a lie. He couldn’t tell the clerk that he came from Lima, or he didn’t let him continue on his journey.

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But the exhausted mother persevered. He was doing what he had to do for us to survive. The virus wasn’t as scary as starving.

After crossing 300 miles after seven days and nights, Tambo and his children reached the hometown of Ucayali, where the local people of Ashaninka also lived.

A final obstacle lay on the road – entry into the area was prohibited due to the virus.

“What happens if an infected person comes in? How do we run away?” One of the local Ashaninka leaders told. “The only breathing air we have. Nothing to fight the virus in our health center.”

However, Tambo was determined. He negotiated with local leaders and was allowed to go home for 14 days, provided that they isolate themselves and children.

At night they came, Tambo was overwhelmed as the family dogs ran to greet them. He fell on his knees and cried, thanked God for handing over his house, the animals shook their tails and was astonished by the baby in his arms.

Her tears flowed, her husband Kafet and her father-in-law came out of the dark.

There was joy but distance. Nobody could touch it. Nobody hugs because of the virus.

“It was hard, we suffered a lot,” he said to them with tears.

“I don’t want to go to Lima again. I thought I’d die there with my daughters.”

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