It was to be an escape from a world fast becoming engulfed by a deadly virus.
But in the end, the south Redondo Beach couple found no escape, not even deep in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.
Now, Alison Clay-Duboff, 56, and her husband, Ken, 68, are stuck, quarantined on a river cruise boat in the middle of Peru. Neither have tested positive for the newly emergent coronavirus. They are among Americans who are stranded all across the world — 1,400 in Peru alone — this week, desperately trying to make their way home as entire continents begin to shut down.
Conditions could be worse, said Clay-Duboff, a REMAX estate Realtor who works out of Manhattan Beach.
The 26-passenger Cruceros Amazonas river boat offers a full complement of luxury accommodations most of which are still in place despite the quarantine status.
There are white linens and white wine for dinner. A masseuse is onboard and the air-conditioning still works. The screening of a Clint Eastwood movie on the main deck provided some much-needed escape from dreary news reports the other night.
“We are well cared for and we are all fed,” Clay-Duboff said by telephone on Friday, March 19. There are test kits for coronavirus onboard and while most are now coughing, she said, there are still no signs of fever in the regular temperature checks.
The captain and two other crew members left the boat for “emergency reasons” not shared with the passengers once they were docked, Clay-Duboff said. They were told it was protocol now that the boat was docked. Eighteen crew members remain on board to serve the five passengers. The other three passengers are Jodi and John Clarke and his father, Lloyd Clarke, 90, from Del Rey and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“As far as we know, we are quarantined on the boat and at this spot (at Iquitos) until March 31st,” she said. “All five of us have booked flights, we’re leaving on the 31st for Lima and then we’re booked on a flight (on April 2) to LAX. But that’s 11 days away and who knows what will happen.”
On Saturday morning, March 21, she said by phone that getting out sooner is their goal.
“Whether the airport will be open at that point (March 31), we don’t know,” she said.
Escape down the Amazon
When their cruise launched on March 14 — following flights to Peru that weren’t, at that time, being screened for the virus, she said — only five of the 15 cruise goers who signed up remained a go for the exotic adventure. The others had all canceled as the virus scare began to decimate the travel industry.
The escape down the Amazon River, at first, felt like just that — a successful run from COVID-19.
“Family and friends urged us to come home, to come to our senses, but quite honestly, we felt safer on the Amazon for the next seven days,” Clay-Duboff wrote in a journal entry emailed to the Southern California News Group.
“I felt flippant, too nonchalant with my feelings of being one step ahead of the wave,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to be home, quarantined, obsessed with the news, the hoarding, the lack of food, the deaths.”
As they cruised the river, the passengers took skiff side-adventures into the jungles inhabited by indigenous peoples. They visited native tribes, “warrior” women and hunters. They learned about botanical medicines and toured a baby monkey refuge, she wrote.
“I got to hold my first sloth,” she said.
Mosquitoes and nighttime pirate raids were the primary threats.
But here and there — there is no escaping technology completely, even in the jungle — news from the outside began to seep in.
“Here we were, on a luxury boat in the middle of the Amazon feeling removed, displaced, yet safe, albeit looking over our shoulders when a trace of Internet would slip into our purview,” she wrote. “The news back home is grave … “
Beyond the wide, quiet stretches of water and lush vegetation in the jungle, she wrote, the world appeared to be “spinning off its axis in slow motion.”
A knock on the door
At midnight on Day 4, the passengers were awakened with a loud knock on their doors.
Pirates? Clay-Duboff wondered.
Their guide gathered the sleepy guests onto the main deck to give them an urgent update.
Peru was in a state of “total lockdown,” they were told. “No domestic or international travel of any kind,” she wrote. “At an unknown point our ship could be grounded. No way in or out until March 30.”
They had three options.
Risk a nighttime pirate attack by turning the ship around and racing back to Iquitos in the dark, with the tenuous hope of catching a flight out before the 12-hour deadline.
Take a small skiff in the night that would reach Iquitos in about five or six hours.
Stay on board and continue through the remaining three days of the journey, then return to Iquitos as planned and hope to catch a plane, train or car “to anywhere.”
The five passengers all agreed — stay the course.
“Who knows what mayhem was transpiring” in Iquitos, she wrote.
As the passengers mulled their plight, many began counting their supply of medicine and other necessities. They retrieved copies of their travel insurance documents to read the fine print. They began dwelling on the ramifications of the viral pandemic for their families and themselves.
Sleep went from peaceful to fitful.
Eventually, the cruise returned to its homeport of Iquitos on schedule, greeted by the Peruvian military that now patrolled the vacated streets and river waters.
Since then, the passengers have remained on board as they work the phones and Internet, with intermittent service, to try to find help.
Supplies are beginning to take a modest hit. The boat’s fresh-squeezed juices are now diluted with water. When Clay-Duboff had to cut off a phone call, she said it was because lunch was being served and no one was taking the food supplies for granted right now.
“I am not petty,” Clay-Duboff wrote. “I’m more easy-going and adaptable than most, but this is a tiny peek in perhaps what’s yet to come.”
Her husband’s edema has kicked up and a staff nurse is trying to find the needed meds. Clay-Duboff is on antibiotics for her cough. They worry about security risks outside of the boat.
Still, they dine on tables draped with white linens. She has nothing but praise for the cruise company which she said has been their “lifeline.”
“it’s a very surreal experience,” she said in a telephone call Saturday, March 20.
They watched on a boat television screen as the Peruvian president announced the nation’s first death from the virus on Thursday, March 19.
On March 15, Peru’s president, Martin Vizcarra, had already issued a 15-day nationwide state of emergency and border closure.
The army continues to patrol the area, Clay-Duboff said, and all travel has ceased.
So far, no one’s come up with a way to bring them home before the 31st — when Clay-Duboff fears the situation may be only worse and their flights for home canceled.
In an emailed response, a State Department official said U.S. citizens abroad are a top priority and efforts were taken on March 20 to bring some “medically vulnerable” citizens in Peru home; others have been provided online help via the “Alerts and Messages for U.S. Citizens” at the U.S. Embassy website.
For now, the Duboffs wait.
“It’s just a day by day situation,” she said.