Alumni trip to return home after Peru border closure leaves group stranded

by Andrew Sasser | 3/21/20 11:04am

3-20-20-perutrip-courtestyjoejasinki
Source: Courtesy of Joe Jasinki

After six days quarantined in a hotel in Lima, Peru amid a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, 19 Dartmouth alumni and parents will return to the United States Saturday morning.

The group, which consisted of 38 Dartmouth and Smith College alumni and parents, was on a College-sponsored trip to the Peruvian Amazon when the Peruvian government announced a nationwide quarantine and the closure of its international borders on March 15.

The group is now set to return to Miami aboard a chartered aircraft, according to College spokesperson Diana Lawrence. The resolution comes after a miscommunication between the Alumni Relations office, the travel company and the travelers left many on the tour unaware of the College’s plans to fund their travel home. 

Win Rockwell ’70, a member of the group, said the tour was in Urubamba preparing to visit Machu Picchu when Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra issued the lockdown.

In an attempt to leave Peru before the lockdown took effect late on March 16, Rockwell said the group drove from Urubamba to Cusco and flew to Lima on the same day. Despite these efforts, the group was forced by the Peruvian government to remain at a Westin Hotel in Lima.

“By the time we got to Lima, it was too late,” Rockwell said. “We were swept up in [the quarantine] not because they knew who we were or cared, but simply because we were here.”

Despite Vizcarra authorizing foreign citizens to return home on March 17, the group remained stuck in the hotel until Saturday because they did not have a means of returning home, according to Donald Joralemon, a co-leader of the trip and retired Smith professor.

Rockwell said that the vast majority of the group members are at least 60 years old, and five members of the group have underlying health conditions, rendering many of them especially susceptible to COVID-19. He added that while no one in the group was exhibiting symptoms of the virus, confinement to their hotel could have left them vulnerable to infections.

“The hotel has not been the best at taking precautions; we’ve been served with communal utensils and there are a lot of different groups here,” Rockwell said.

He said that he would have liked the two colleges and Gohagan, the travel company responsible for trip arrangements, to have helped the group out of Peru sooner. He added that the group was frustrated to see many other foreigners leaving before they did, some on charter flights funded by their respective governments.

According to Joralemon, Gohagan did not initially commit to pay the costs of chartering the flight and was not forthcoming about the travel arrangements.

“This has been a very long and slow process, with inadequate communication from the travel agency in particular,” Joralemon said.

Rockwell said that while the group had contacted the alumni offices at both Dartmouth and Smith, they received no response until March 19.

Meanwhile, an email obtained by The Dartmouth sent from Dartmouth’s Alumni Relations office to two employees of Gohagan on March 14 indicated that “Dartmouth will cover flight change fees for anyone who wishes to return home today.”

However, Rockwell said that when he spoke with the Dartmouth group members on Friday, none were aware of this initial offer. He noted that Nathaniel Dominy, a Dartmouth anthropology professor accompanying the trip, may have received notice of the communication.

Dominy wrote in an email statement that he saw a Whatsapp message from one Gohagan employee following the COVID-19 task force’s recommendation on March 12 that “all faculty, staff, and students currently traveling internationally return to their homes as soon as possible.”

The message said that “[b]y no means is anyone being requested to terminate the program and return immediately,” and added that “[s]hould there be anyone who indeed wishes [to do so] please let us know so that we may determine necessary actions.”

Dominy wrote to The Dartmouth that he assumed the message pertained only to him, as the professor and lead, and said he “wondered if [he] should follow these recommendations and return to Dartmouth immediately,” but opted to remain with the group and informed Gohagan of his choice.

Rockwell also asked Gohagan’s tour leaders for the trip — two different employees than those who were sent the March 14 email from Alumni Relations — if they had forwarded the message to any Dartmouth members. They reported that they said they had not.

According to an email from Lawrence, members of the Alumni Relations office “were informed by the tour operator that the alumni had declined.”

Rockwell expressed frustration that Robin Albing TU’81, director of Lifelong Learning at the Dartmouth Alumni Relations office, failed to communicate the March 14 offer directly to the tour members, opting to go through the travel agency instead.

Rockwell wrote in an email that “the understanding of ‘crisis communication 101’ principles is so important at a time like this and so sorely lacking among the Dartmouth personnel we have worked with on this tour.” He added that although Dartmouth knew their situation was of serious concern — including the group’s age and the fast-moving travel restrictions — “[t]hey failed to communicate effectively and forthrightly to us.”

“All three institutions — Dartmouth, Smith, and Gohagan — should have coordinated their response to tell us what they knew and answer the questions we had,” Rockwell said.

“They put us at the unnecessary risks that we have been experiencing all week,” he added in an email on Friday. “We will continue to experience these risks until we reach our homes.”

The group is now scheduled to take a charter flight arranged by Gohagan from Lima to Miami on Saturday at 10 a.m. According to Lawrence, Dartmouth and Smith will pay the flight costs for their respective travelers.