Duluth couple trapped in Peru amid violent protests and national emergency

Duluth residents Matt Johnson and Hilary Buckwalter-Wilde had been completely off the grid in Peru’s Sacred Valley for 11 days when they discovered Monday morning that their journey home could be much more difficult than expected.

While the couple had been at their Peruvian friends’ plant medicine retreat in the Andes, participating in psychedelic plant medicine ceremonies that Johnson hoped would be a way to combat his recently diagnosed prostate cancer, Peru had come crashing down.

The president of Peru, Pedro Castillo, had announced that he would dissolve the congress, and then the congress removed him and replaced him with a new president. After Castillo was jailed, his rural supporters blocked roads and filled towns and cities in protests that soon turned violent. As of Friday morning, the death toll from the protests had risen to 15.

Johnson, a 46-year-old Duluth firefighter, and Buckwalter-Wilde, 45, a consulting business owner, were supposed to fly out of Cusco on Tuesday. But with airports closed, a nighttime curfew and a state of emergency across the country, most of them have been holed up in their hotel, two blocks from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, a center of protests.

Outside, they hear noises; sometimes it sounds like gunshots, other times like flash grenades. They stocked up on emergency supplies: ramen, fruit, and wine. They went out for burgers and beer, breaking their promise not to eat meat or alcohol after the retreat; most shops were closed and the streets were mostly quiet, though they avoided the center of the protests. They have a flight scheduled for Saturday, but they don’t know if it will take off.

“We have no idea if this is the beginning, the middle or the end of what we are doing here,” Johnson said via Zoom from his hotel room. “Things could get worse. The US embassy advised us to shelter in place. But we realize that we are privileged people who can be in this safe hotel, we have not run out of money or access to food. There is so many people in different situations.

For example, thousands of tourists remain stranded near Machu Picchu, Peru’s most popular tourist destination, after protesters shut down rail service earlier this week.

The Duluth couple had flown to Cusco, the regional center and former capital of the Inca Empire, a couple of weeks ago with one big goal: to correct themselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically. They also don’t believe in Western medicine, so Johnson felt that living her healthiest, most authentic life was key to fighting cancer. They read “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on the new science of psychedelics. Johnson changed his life routine; before his retirement, he says he has never felt healthier.

“Just put my head where it belongs as I embark on this journey against cancer,” he explained. “It goes beyond curing cancer and making it go away. It’s more like accepting whether I have one day to live or 50, time is not as important as making each day count.”

Their retreat in the Sacred Valley involved four plant medicine ceremonies with fasting and therapy sessions in between where they examined their insides.

After returning to Cusco on Monday, they received a WhatsApp message from the airlines, saying that their flight was cancelled.

As they holed up in their hotel this week, surfing the Internet for scant news about the protests and the political situation, anxiety began to build. His flight is scheduled for Saturday night: Cusco to Lima to Los Angeles to Minnesota.

“Everything seems to be 50-50 right now,” Johnson said.

“Thousands of people have been stranded at the airport for days,” Buckwalter-Wilde said. “We don’t know if this little airport will be chaos or order. We have no idea. We are a little scared to leave our safe hotel to go to who knows what, then who knows what in Lima.”

“Now it’s to the point where we’re making decisions whether to leave or not,” Johnson said. “We will plan to go there very early and hope for the best.”

Johnson framed their uncertainty as a perfect way to practice what they had learned in plant medicine ceremonies: surrender control.

“Medications really make you surrender to what’s going on,” he said. “And here it is like, okay, you can really practice it in real life. Accept what’s happening that you can’t change, you can’t control. You can be miserable or you can choose not to be. And we’re choosing not to be miserable.”

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