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News >  Spokane

‘Very surreal’: Spokane couple confronts coronavirus in Ecuador

A crew built a roadblock out of sand on Thursday to block one of the main entrances to the town of Puerto Cayo, Ecuador. The intent is to direct traffic to the other main road into town where the primary checkpoint for travelers has been established. (David Oriard / The Spokesman-Review)
A crew built a roadblock out of sand on Thursday to block one of the main entrances to the town of Puerto Cayo, Ecuador. The intent is to direct traffic to the other main road into town where the primary checkpoint for travelers has been established. (David Oriard / The Spokesman-Review)

PUERTO CAYO, Ecuador – When my wife, Alane, and I left Spokane on Feb. 29, we were full of anticipation, even wonderment, for the life that awaited us in Puerto Cayo, a town of about 4,000 residents.

We fell in love with the town and its quiet beaches last year when we took a vacation to Ecuador looking for a place to retire. After 24 years working on the sports desk at The Spokesman-Review, I felt it was time for a change. Alane had Ecuador on her mind ever since her parents considered moving here several years ago.

When our flight arrived at the major port city of Guayaquil, months of preparation and occasional exasperation were behind us. Coronavirus concerns were minimal.

Friends and relatives in the states were happy for us, even a bit jealous when the virus started spreading noticeably back home and restrictions were first being implemented.

We were often told “we got out just in time.” Early on, we even laughed at the run on toilet paper so frequently mentioned on social media.

If jealousy back home was the fitting term, it subsided within about a day.

The struggle against COVID-19, we have learned, affects Americans around the globe.

Many American travelers are stranded beyond U.S. borders, and expats are coping with government-mandated restrictions.

Even in the small coastal town of Puerto Cayo, many U.S. citizens have been adversely affected by restrictions.

Surgery and a wild ride

As restrictions expand in the U.S. the response has been stronger in Ecuador.

President Lenin Moreno issued orders March 15 that beginning in two days “citizens must stay at home and can only go out if they go to work, medical appointments, pharmacies, supermarkets or to care for older adults,” a report in EcuadorTimes.net stated.

Additional restrictions have established a curfew, ceased air traffic and halted transportation between provinces.

The timing couldn’t have been much worse for long-time expats Janet Iontosca and Ron Stewart, who live in Puerto Cayo. Iontosca had scheduled knee-replacement surgery March 13 in Cuenca, a large mountain city several hours’ drive away in Azuay province.

“I was operated on on a Friday. By Monday they closed the city,” Iontosca said.

With the city being shut down, the physical therapy she needed to begin rehabilitating the knee was not available, and supermarkets were not allowing customers 65 and older.

“That’s when my surgeon said there’s no reason to stay,” Iontosca said. “I had an idea, so I called our first and best Ecuador friend, Washington. He found a private ambulance to take us back for $420.”

The cost of the ambulance wasn’t all that much more than hiring a taxi to travel that far. Since taxi drivers were having trouble acquiring the special paperwork required to travel between provinces, they decided to go by ambulance. Still, their friend Washington had to tell the driver by phone how to circumvent Guayaquil, which was already closed to traffic.

The ride was comfortable for Iontosca, who was strapped to a gurney. For Stewart? Not so much.

“I can tell you that there’s no two places in the back of an ambulance that are comfortable,” he said. “The knee replacement won out.”

They left Cuenca at 4 a.m. and were at their home in Puerto Cayo by 11:15 a.m. They made good time, especially considering the unusual route. Typically, the drive takes about 6 hours.

Once back in Puerto Cayo, they quickly chose to self-quarantine, Iontosca recovering from surgery and Stewart, 77, with a lifelong bronchial problem.

“Definitely our decision,” he said. “We are trying to get out of this alive.

“Being this age, it’s best to stay away from people the best you can, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Stranded

Another citizen of Puerto Cayo was thrown back by the ban on air travel.

Bonnie Gelley, from High Point, North Carolina, was to fly home for her son’s wedding, scheduled for April 10. She was devastated to learn she could not attend.

She had planned to travel Thursday for the wedding in Pasadena, Maryland, near Baltimore. The wedding was about a year and a half in planning, and the plane reservation was made in January. She hadn’t seen several family members, including her mother and the groom-to-be, since she and her husband Mark moved to Ecuador in 2018.

“Under these circumstances I really didn’t think it would bother me to either miss or not be able to get back until it happened; and when it happened it was emotional, I cried,” Gelley said.

Eventually, the wedding was postponed for a year, but the disappointment lingers.

“I know it was the right thing to do, so stiff upper lip and carry on. I wasn’t angry, it was just the emotion of not seeing anyone,” she said.

As days have passed, President Moreno has implemented even more stringent regulations. There is now a daily 2 p.m. curfew, and transit police set up a daily checkpoint to enforce restrictions on traveling by car.

The Gelleys had an interesting experience when they drove to Manta, the largest city in Manabi province, to buy groceries and medicine.

They first had to convince the transit officers at the local checkpoint that they were within their rights to travel to Manta. When they arrived in Manta, there was another checkpoint at which vehicles entering the city had to have their interiors disinfected.

“Ten seconds and we were done. You get in the car and it smelled like Clorox, and I don’t mind that at all,” Mark said.

As they continued into the city to buy groceries and medicine, they saw the streets of a vibrant city mostly deserted.

“Very surreal,” Bonnie said. “It was like that Armageddon feeling almost.”

A ship at sea

As for Alane and me, we have been waiting for our personal belongings to arrive by ship at the port of Guayaquil. When the cargo arrived Friday, however, we could not travel to get it.

The restrictions, when first announced, were to be lifted by April 5. We hope that proves to be the case, although there have been many new restrictions and adjustments to those already in place.

Coronavirus is becoming a challenge, not just as a major health concern, but in the other ways it is affecting our lives. Friends and family in the U.S., too, are well aware of these residual effects.

In the meantime, dozens of birds still greet us every morning, and the sun drops beyond the ocean every evening with the promise it will return to light another day in our little piece of paradise.

As for how that paradise might continue to change due to coronavirus, we can only wait and see.

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