Maria Tambo had reached a breaking point. She was scared and desperate. Her children were hungry. They had to leave Lima.
Tambo and her daughters had first came to the Peruvian capital from a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, so that her oldest, Amelie, could become the first member of the family to attend university.
The 17-year-old had won a prestigious scholarship to study at Lima’s Universidad Científica del Sur, and the family had big dreams. They would rent a small room, help Amelie get started and Maria would scrape together some money working in a restaurant.
But when Covid-19 hit Peru, the nation shuddered to a halt. More than 70 percent of people work in the informal economy, and as the country’s government began enforcing a strict lockdown, Tambo watched job opportunities vanish.
After nearly two months of quarantine, they had no money left to pay for their rented room or for food. Tambo decided to return to their village in the Ucayali region, 350 miles away.
With public transportation shut down the only option was to make the journey by foot. “I know the danger I am putting my children in, but I don’t have a choice,” she said. “I either die trying to get out of here or starve to death in my room.”
Escaping the city
I met Tambo, 40, through a WhatsApp group where thousands of Peruvians talked about how they would leave Lima to return to their homes. “I haven’t left my house since the government declared the quarantine,” she told me. “But I no longer have any money.”
She agreed to let me follow her on the dangerous journey, to tell her story, unsure of what the outcome would be.
Tambo and her daughters left Lima in early May. She wore a facemask and carried infant Melec on her back along with a large multi-colored backpack sprinkled with little hearts. Amelie and seven-year-old Yacira trudged by her side, lugging their own packs. A pink bear hung from Yacira’s backpack.
They family wasn’t alone. Thousands of other Peruvians were on the road, desperate to flee the pandemic and the loss of income.
Their epic journey, along dusty highways, railway tracks and dark country roads, would take the Tambos through the high-altitude Andes region before they would reach the Amazon rainforest – a perilous route for a woman traveling alone with three children.
Walking in the heat, hour after hour, we watched them press ahead. Water and food were scarce, Tambo’s emotions were raw. She cried as she sang softly to her baby Melec. “There is no path, you make your own path walking,” she hummed.
There were moments of kindness and relief as they broke up the journey by hitching a few rides along the way. One driver tossed them food as he drove by. But most of the time, Tambo and her daughters walked.
On the third day, as they struggled in the thin air near the Andes, 15,000 feet above sea-level, we saw one trucker take pity on the family, giving them a ride to the next town and sharing some of his food. “I have walked so much,” she told the driver, trying to hold back the tears of gratitude.
It was a brief respite for their feet. “My daughter’s hands were turning purple,” she told him. “I thought she wasn’t going to make it.”
Checkpoints along the way
The way home involved more than endurance. Tambo also had to navigate police checkpoints set up to prevent residents from Lima, the country’s coronavirus epicenter, from spreading the virus to rural areas.
Despite its tough lockdown rules, Peru is already among the worst-hit countries in the world from the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 230,000 diagnosed cases and more than 6,800 deaths to date. Experts believe the numbers could be higher, and the hospital system has strained to handle the pandemic.
In San Ramon, just before Tambo entered the jungle, we watched a police officer interrogate her. “You cannot pass here with children,” the officer said. Tambo negotiated with him. “I am only going back to my farm, in Chaparnaranja, where I have been for a week already.”
It was a lie. She could not tell the officer she was coming from Lima, or he wouldn’t allow her to continue on her journey.
But the exhausted mother persevered. She was doing what she had to do to survive, she told us. The virus was not as scary as dying from hunger.
After seven days and nights, and 300 miles traveled, Tambo and her children made it to her home province, the Ucayali region, where the indigenous Ashaninka people also live.
A final hurdle lay on their path – entry to the territory was prohibited because of the virus.
“What would happen if an infected person comes in? How do we escape?” one of the local Ashaninka leaders told us. “The only respirator we have is the air. Our health center does not have anything to combat the virus.”
But Tambo was determined. She negotiated with the local leaders and was permitted to go home – on the condition that she and the kids isolate themselves for 14 days.
They arrived at night, Tambo was overwhelmed as the family dogs ran to greet them. She dropped to her knees and sobbed, thanking God for delivering her home, as the animals wagged their tails and nuzzled against the infant in her arms.
As the tears flowed, her husband, Kafet, and her father-in-law emerged from the darkness.
There was joy but distance. Nobody could touch. Nobody could hug because of the virus.
“It was so difficult, we suffered so much,” she told them through her tears.
“I don’t ever want to go to Lima again. I thought I would die there with my girls.”
Guillermo Galdos reported from Peru and Gena Somra wrote from Atlanta.