Part 2: How 32 foreigners weathered the first Covid lockdown at a Vilcabamba eco-lodge
Author’s note: On the morning of March,16 2020, Ecuador closed its doors, forcing visitors to shelter in place. As a result, Peter Schramm, owner and manager of Izhcayluma Eco-Resort, near Vilcabamba, Ecuador, became the de-facto governor of an island state responsible for the lives of 32 strangers. This is the second of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.
Although Izhcayluma is charming, it was not the most desirable place for those who were marooned. Izhcayluma appeals to a sophisticated audience, not buffoons enticed by the possibility of cheap beer, booze or rivers of wine; these guests sought to uncover how best to survive. This lovely garden resort mirrored what countless other resorts, hotels, and cruise ships around the world were enduring, hosting a menagerie of folks frozen in place as if in amber, critters who were stuck while desperate to get home.
When the lockdown was announced on March 16, the resort was hosting over 30 people from 11 countries, many of them a continent away from family and friends, and all of them worried, shellshocked, and desperate to understand of their circumstances and chances of survival. Panic was pounding on the door.
People may scoff now, ignorant or forgetful of the past, but during the late days of March and deep into April, people were terrified because no one had an answer or even an understanding of the drama dominating the news. A virus was shutting down the world. This was all they knew. Peter’s job was to provide a degree of security to those who were afraid of the uncertainty that darkened the horizon.
The people isolated in Izhcayluma were alarmed and suspicious. Their neighbors were from every corner of the planet — the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Netherlands, Ireland, Estonia and Denmark, and all have ports capable of importing or exporting nearly everything, including disease. Who knew where these folks had been and what they carried? The guests were understandably quite fearful of one another, causing friction that would evolve over time if precautions were not implemented quickly. The first line of defense was established: social distancing was to be strictly enforced. Several guests were assigned new cabins to increase the distance between them and one couple was required to remain in their cabin for two weeks due to a fear that they had been exposed and perhaps contagious.
Although language and cultural differences made attending to long-term guests more complex, Peter believed things would calm down in a couple of weeks when the individual quarantine of guests he imposed would be over and trust could be restored. He was right. As the days passed, you could hear words of greeting increasing in frequency. It was then that Peter offered his first sage words of advice, “You do not need to become best friends but you do need to learn how to get along with one another.”
Schramm gathered the guests together every evening to report on the latest developments headlining the news. Although much of the reporting at the time was based on rumors, it was a crumb for folks to chew on and that was enough for many.
Of greater concern was the effort, or profound lack thereof, of the U.S. Consulate to arrange transportation from Vilcabamba to Guayaquil or Quito and a flight home. As officials in Quito claimed that there was nothing they could do, Peter was busy assisting two U.S. guests by securing transport to Guayaquil via an embassy vehicle driven by a staffer — courtesy of the German Consulate. They passed through more than nine checkpoints of varying intensity.
Prescription medicine became an immediate concern. Vilcabamba is a village of 4,000. It depends on the city of Loja, 25 miles away, to support it, but transportation was nonexistent, and several guests required specific medication they purchased at home — an ocean away. Finding a doctor willing to prescribe their medication was nearly impossible, as was finding a pharmacy to fill the order. Another immediate concern was food. The pantry was sufficiently stocked for only a few days, causing concern; figuring out the logistics of social distancing in the dining room and meal delivery was also tricky. But, above all else was the disquieting feeling of not knowing whether those bivouacked at Izhcayluma would be allowed to stay.
When word came down from a government official in Loja that the resort must close, Peter was both alarmed and perplexed. His response to this knee-jerk mandate was immediate: “When would you like me to have them packed up and ready?” he asked. “I have over 30 people, a few so fragile that they may need special medical attention at any time. One recent guest received end-of-life care here before dying of cancer. Please tell me what accommodations you have prepared for them and when you are coming to pick them up?” The decision came quickly; Izhcayluma was designated an oasis for the current guests stranded by the pandemic and arrangements were made to have food and medicine shuttled to them under particular conditions of safety. “That’s fine,” said Peter. “I will take them under my wings. Send toilet paper.”
Those familiar with Izhcayluma know that the yoga center is ranked among the best in South American and will continue to be a primary focus of future development. The Yoga Shala (home) is a nationally recognized testimonial to the art of woodwork produced by the region’s finest craftspeople. The traditional free morning classes were expanded to allow for social distancing and a second class in the afternoon was started shortly after the lockdown. The results were astonishing. Over half of the guests signed up for regular attendance. One guest, David Funkhouser, said, “My wife had been encouraging me to try yoga for 20 years, but I thought nothing of it until I saw the results at Izhcayluma. I’m happy to report that I remain a practitioner and an advocate a full year later.” He said that the camaraderie and stillness profoundly influenced all of the guests — even those who did not participate and that a higher level of awareness and patience carried the day.
Several guests were able to work remotely full-time on their jobs. Denise, the Chief Nursing Information Officer for a large hospital chain in the U.S., worked many more hours than that — all IT issues flowed through her desk making her a very busy person, indeed. She is a frontline warrior strategizing application use and uncovering new technology to combat the Covid-19 virus pandemic — and preparing for the next.
An older guest initiated beginner and intermediate Spanish lessons, others hiked what they dubbed “Quarantine Hill” behind the resort every morning. Most understood the importance of spending their time well and more than a few later remarked that those months at Izhcayluma housed some of the finest moments of clarity and peacefulness they felt in many years. I know of two couples who returned for extended stays this year, and at least one has decided to book a two-month stay every year.
However, there was one point that Peter made very clear, the seriousness of the pandemic was not to be ignored by mindless frivolity, thoughtless social media postings, or cocktail-in-hand photographs by the pool. He strongly advised everyone to refrain from any social media contact beyond family and close friends. He reminded them that the Ecuadorian staff live in a town with all of the dangers associated with urban life yet bravely came to work each day. He also reminded the guests repeatedly that the virus in Vilcabamba likely hitched a ride from Germany, England, or the U.S., and yet it is the indigenous population at the greatest risk to suffer the greatest losses. He advised everyone, “Be ever mindful of their fear, and act accordingly.”
The unexpected longevity of living at Izhcayluma was, for many, a life-altering experience. What for many began as a vacation became a period of education far more valuable than resting by a pool, or reading a long book. 32 people from 11 countries learned what it means to embrace cross-cultural norms, beliefs, and behavior while keeping in sight a future as yet unknown but certain to one day be again filled with promise.