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Sonoma County families stranded abroad recount struggles to return home amid coronavirus pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic cost a free-roaming Sebastopol family of four a trek to Machu Picchu, and they are now among hundreds of Americans stranded high in the Andes mountains of Peru.

It’s been nine days since Peru shut down in response to the pandemic, leaving Carmen and Brian Sinigiani and their two teenage sons cooped up in a comfortable apartment in Cusco, where they say about 900 Americans are also unable to move, much to Rep. Jared Huffman’s dismay.

“We’re no closer to getting home,” Carmen Sinigiani, 40, said by telephone Monday, admitting their outlook was not bleak. “We have food and wifi, which is pretty much all you need today.”

A pair of Sebastopol retirees, meanwhile, are under tight lockdown in Amman, Jordan, and a Santa Rosa nurse got some unusual help getting home from a diving trip to the Solomon Islands.

The Sinigianis and their sons, Anthony, 15, and Joey, 14, both Analy High School students, were primed for their hike to the ancient Inca citadel a mile and a half high in the Andes when they woke up March 16, the morning after their local tour guide had said everything was fine

But that was the day Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra’s order took effect, closing the borders, grounding all flights and imposing a nationwide quarantine.

“We had until that night to get out,” Carmen Sinigiani said in an email, and their frantic effort to get on a plane failed as crowds swarmed the airport and the American consulate.

The Sinigianis are among 13 of Huffman’s North Coast constituents stuck in Peru — which has reported 395 cases of coronavirus infection, including one in Cusco, and five deaths. Huffman is peeved about the Trump administration’s inaction.

“We’ve got to get these Americans home,” said Huffman, D-San Rafael. “I am not at all satisfied with the response we’ve gotten.”

The White House released a guidance Monday that said officials were collaborating with the Peruvian government on getting Americans home, but added: “For those in Cusco, be reassured that we know large numbers of U.S. citizens are there, and we are working on options.”

That amounts to telling the Americans to “fend for themselves,” Huffman said.

He and three other California House Democrats — Reps. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Ro Khanna of Santa Clara — said in a letter Friday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo they had been “inundated with frantic calls from constituents” stuck far from home.

“This is a crisis that could last for a week, making it even more dangerous for these travelers who had only planned for a short-term vacation,” the letter said, asking Pompeo to “do everything in your power” to protect and serve the stranded citizens.

Several of his constituents were expected to fly out of Guatemala on Monday, while his office got word of five more stranded in undetermined countries, Huffman said.

Rep. Mike Thompson’s Santa Rosa office is currently assisting a constituent from Sonoma stuck in Iraq and received word of a constituent from the Sonoma Valley stranded in New Zealand, an aide said.

Many of the Americans in Cusco have established an online connection, Carmen Sinigiani said.

The family, which left home March 13, flew to Lima and took a connecting flight to Cusco, at 11,000 feet in the Andes. The famed city is known for its Spanish colonial architecture and Incan ruins.

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They enjoyed two days there before the trek to Machu Picchu was put off. The heavy police presence since the shutdown is “nerve-racking,” they reported. Brian Sinigiani, 44, is a Santa Rosa police officer.

When the couple first went out for food they were stopped by five cops and ordered off the street, Carmen Sinigiani said. Brian got the food, complying with the limit of one person stepping outside.

“We love to travel,” she said. “We never expected anything like this to happen.”

The family went hiking last year in the mountains of Vietnam, but Machu Picchu is now likely off the list.

“We got all the way there, but we’re never going to see it,” Carmen Sinigiani said. “We’re not inclined to return.”

Susan Lehr, 60, a critical care nurse in Santa Rosa, counted herself lucky to be home Tuesday following a dive boat vacation in the Solomon Islands, 6,000 miles from California.

“The diving was fabulous,” she said, but the voyage ended with a shock after 10 days on a dive boat with no internet. “I came out of the water to find the world had closed down.”

Unable to use her airline ticket to Fiji, Lehr’s zigzag way home began when some Australians who gave her the phone number for the head of the U.S. Consulate in the Solomon Islands, who called the Australian prime minister, who in turn gave Lehr permission to fly into the country that closed its borders late last week.

From Australia, Lehr caught a flight to Singapore, then another to San Francisco, where she landed Monday morning, picked up her car and drove to Santa Rosa.

Lehr said she was surprised that no one at SFO checked her for COVID-19 symptoms or advised her to quarantine herself, which she is now doing at home, continuing to practice “meticulous hygiene.”

Her risk of infection was low, Lehr said, since there are no cases in the Solomon Islands, but she had passed through three airports on the way home.

Rosanna and Don Morse of Sebastopol, who travel on their own every winter, left Sebastopol on March 8 for Amman, Jordan, a modern city of 4 million residents with Neolithic roots.

They rented a car and headed out to see the sites, including Petra, famous for its rock-cut architecture featured in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

At a Bedouin camp in the desert called Wadi Run, the couple, both 66, learned on March 15 that all flights in and out of the country were to be suspended the next day. With hotels closing down in numerous cities, Rosanna Morse drove through the night for six hours, making it back to Amman on March 17. Two days later, a countrywide, round-the-clock curfew was announced and a siren at 7:30 a.m. March 20 marked its start.

On Monday, the Morses said in an email they were confined to an Airbnb studio apartment.

“Nobody is in the street,” they said, noting they sometimes see neighbors on the rooftops of their homes.

Jordan’s lockdown closed all businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, and banned vehicle traffic while thousands of soldiers were deployed in cities and on highways and nearly 400 people had been arrested for curfew violations, according to a report by The Guardian on Saturday.

The country, which has a Syrian refugee population of about 656,000 straining its resources, has confirmed 85 coronavirus cases.

The Morses said they have food and feel safer in Jordan, with its “drastic measures,” than they would back home.

The couple is in touch with friends and relatives, and Rosanna Morse said she is rereading “The Decameron,” a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccachio set during the Black Plague, the most devastating pandemic in human history.

It killed as many as 200 million people in Eurasia and it took two centuries for Europe’s population to recover its previous level.

The coronavirus has taken 18,246 lives worldwide, according to a Johns Hopkins University report Tuesday.

Staff Writer Guy Kovner can be reached at guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you’re experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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