Tambo and her daughters first came to the Peruvian capital from a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, so that her eldest, Amelie, could become the first family member to attend university.
The 17-year-old had won a prestigious scholarship to study at the University of Lima at Científica del Sur and the family had big dreams. They would rent a small room, help Amelie get started, and Maria would scratch some money together while working in a restaurant.
After almost two months of quarantine, they had no money left to pay for their rented room or food. Tambo decided to return to their village in the Ucayali area, 350 miles away.
With public transport, the only option was to take the trip on foot. “I know the danger I put my children in, but I have no choice,” he said. “I’m either dying to get out of here or I’m starving in my room.”
Escape the city
I met Tambo, 40, through a WhatsApp team where thousands of Peruvians talked about how to leave Lima to return home. “I have not left my home since the government declared quarantine,” he told me. “But I don’t have money anymore.”
She agreed to let me follow her on the perilous journey, to tell her her story, unsure of what the outcome would be.
Tambo and her daughters left Lima in early May. She was wearing a face mask and carrying the baby Melec on her back along with a large colorful backpack sprinkled with small hearts. Amelie and seven-year-old Yacira fell to her side, pulling their own packages. A pink bear hung from Yacira’s backpack.
Their epic journey, along dusty highways, railroads and dark country roads, would take the Tambos through the Andes to a high altitude before reaching the Amazon rainforest – a dangerous journey for a traveling woman. three children.
Walking in the heat, hour after hour, we watched them step forward. Water and food were scarce, and Tambo’s feelings were raw. She shouted as she sang softly to Melec’s baby. “There is no path, you make your own path by walking,” he looked.
There were moments of kindness and relief as they interrupted the journey by taking a few walks on the road. A driver threw food at them as he passed. But most of the time, Tambo and her daughters were walking.
On the third day, as they competed in the thin air near the Andes, 15,000 feet above sea level, we saw a truck mourn the family, giving them a ride to the next town and sharing some of its food. “I’ve walked so much,” he told the driver, trying to hold back tears of gratitude.
It was a short break for their feet. “My daughter’s hands are purple,” she told him. “I thought he wouldn’t make it.”
Checkpoints along the way
The way the house contained something more than endurance. Tambo also had to tour the police checkpoints set up to prevent residents from Lima, the country’s center of coronation, from transmitting the virus to rural areas.
In San Ramon, just before Tambo entered the jungle, we watched a police officer interrogate her. “You can’t go here with children,” the officer said. Tambo negotiated with him. “I’m just going back to my farm, Chaparnaranja, where I’ve been for a week.”
It was a lie. She could not tell the officer that she was coming from Lima, or she would not allow her to continue her journey.
But the exhausted mother insisted. He did what he had to do to survive, he told us. The virus was not as frightening as dying of hunger.
After seven days and nights and 300 miles traveled, Tambo and her children arrived in her hometown of Ucayali, where Ashaninka’s natives also live.
One last obstacle was in their way – entry into the territory was banned due to the virus.
“What would happen if an infected person came? How do we escape?” one of Ashaninka’s local leaders told us. “The only breathing apparatus we have is the air. Our health center has nothing to fight the virus.”
But Tambo was determined. She negotiated with local leaders and was allowed to go home – provided she and the children were isolated for 14 days.
Arriving at night, Tambo was shocked as the family dogs ran to greet them. She fell to her knees and bent down, thanking God for delivering her home, as the animals wagged their tails and bent over the baby in her arms.
As tears flowed, her husband, Cafet, and her father-in-law emerged from the darkness.
There was joy but distance. No one could touch. No one could hug because of the virus.
“It was so difficult, we suffered so much,” she told them with tears in her eyes.
“I never want to go to Lima again. I thought I would die there with my girls.”