Caroline Overstreet, who caught the last flight out of Peru before that country closed its borders, is happy she’s home in Everett. Peace Corps volunteer Cooper James wishes he weren’t back, but still in his host country of Mozambique.
Both 2015 graduates of Everett High School, they are among young people who’ve traveled the world to help others but are now home, ahead of schedule. They’re hunkered down like many of the rest of us as coronavirus prevention measures take hold.
Overstreet’s recent saga sounds like a movie title: Last flight out of Peru.
“I was in an internship in Peru, volunteering with Awamaki,” she said. The Seattle-based organization works to help indigenous women in the South American country. “They’re artisans, they weave. The goal is financial independence,” said Overstreet, 22, who graduated from the University of Washington last June.
Since Jan. 21, she’d been based in Ollantaytambo. High in the Andes, the village is in the Sacred Valley outside Machu Picchu, a 15th century Incan citadel. She had expected to stay there working with Peruvian women and other interns through mid-April. That changed as news of the COVID-19 crisis started coming from home.
Talking a couple weeks back with her mom, North Middle School teacher Jenny Overstreet, and with the U.S. travel ban on European countries in mind, she booked a United Airlines ticket to leave earlier than planned. By the night of March 15, Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra declared a state of emergency. Peru was about to close its borders, and she knew her Lima-to-Houston flight — four days away — would be too late.
She frantically searched online for a flight out before the deadline the next day at midnight, and found a seat. The ticket change cost her $2,500. “You could see it shooting up, $400 to $1,000 to $2,500,” she said.
At the Cusco Airport, where she had to take a flight to Lima, there were police with riot shields as people were panicked not only about getting out of Peru but making their way to other parts of the country. The emergency order included a quarantine. Peruvians were racing to get home to their families.
“It was tense the whole time,” Overstreet said. “Just after midnight, we were the last flight out of Peru.”
By 6 a.m. March 17, she’d made it to Houston, where she said “the place was empty” during her nearly four-hour layover before boarding her last flight — to Sea-Tac International Airport.
“I can’t see my friends or go anywhere,” said Overstreet, who’s in Everett heeding the statewide stay-home order. “It’s so weird — but I could be stuck in Peru.”
Cooper James, a friend of Overstreet’s who also graduated from UW last year, took to social media to express his disappointment over his Peace Corps service being cut short. On March 15, Peace Corps director Jody Olsen announced that the agency would temporarily suspend volunteer operations. Volunteers were being evacuated from all posts due to the pandemic.
Now housed in an Everett hotel during a 14-day quarantine to protect his parents from any virus he might have, James posted Tuesday on Facebook:
“I left my 500 students behind in the middle of the school year without any warning. I left friends and my host family, and I left a vibrant community that I was so happy to be a part of. I’ll be forever grateful for the 7 months I had in Mozambique, I just wish it could have been the 27 I planned on.”
A microbiology and chemistry major at UW, James was teaching high school physics — in Portuguese, the official language of Mozambique — while serving in the country on Africa’s southeast coast. “It was a regular secondary school with about 4,000 students,” said James, who taught five classes with about 100 pupils in each.
“My province, Niassa, is the most rural, it’s like the Wyoming of Mozambique,” James said.
His house there had a tin roof and no running water, just a tank to catch rainwater.
The departure might have happened even without the pandemic. His group, he said, had “an interesting situation, problems with visas.” Because of that, he was packed and ready to go before the Peace Corps director announced that volunteers — about 7,000 of them, James said — would be evacuated from their service sites.
Little more than a week ago, in Ethiopia, he boarded one of two planes chartered by the U.S. government to bring Peace Corps volunteers home. With a stop in West Africa, he was flown to Washington, D.C, where he stayed a night before flying on to Sea-Tac.
“I was on a plane for 20 hours,” James said.
And soon after he left, James said Mozambique closed its borders due to COVID-19.
Now, James is spending long hours in an Everett hotel room, paid for by the U.S. government. He said another temporary resident of the hotel is Katie Eastin, a Peace Corps volunteer from Everett who’s just back from Paraguay.
Since returning, James has been to his parents’ home only briefly to pick up groceries and do laundry. At the hotel, he said, “I’m not doing much — watching TV, getting delivered food.”
Overstreet, whose parents Jenny and Bruce Overstreet are both teachers, is considering a career in education. She’s grateful to be back in the United States. Where she was in Peru, “there was definitely no hospital in town,” she said. Adding her concerns about coronavirus there, she said, “I don’t know how they would handle it.”
“I don’t want to travel alone anymore,” Overstreet said. “And I didn’t even get to see Machu Picchu.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.