Nation & World

Close call in Peru

5 min read

I-SOS helps Harvard affiliates out of tight spot

While protestors lobbed rocks through the windows of their hotel, Andrew Krumholz ’09 and his brother Richard ’07 waited apprehensively to see if the police would be able to quell the disturbance. But when they saw the nearby bus station burst into flames, they knew it was time to call for help.

The protests occurred this past July throughout Peru, but the most violent of them took place in Juliaca, the town where the Krumholz brothers were staying. The disturbance followed a call by the national teachers’ union for a 48-hour strike to protest a new law requiring teachers to pass a competency test.

“We were stuck in a rapidly deteriorating situation with no means of transportation out of the city,” said Andrew Krumholz. “The roads could not be cleared for days, the airport would be closed for at least a week, and the train station was in the process of burning down.”

Andrew, an economics concentrator, was in Peru for the summer working for FINCA, an international organization that provides microloans to low-income entrepreneurs. Richard had joined him for a week of sightseeing in July. After their overnight stay in Juliaca, they planned to catch a flight back to Lima.

Fortunately, the brothers had a number to call in case of just such an emergency — International SOS (I-SOS), an organization that provides medical assistance and security services to travelers in 70 countries. Harvard contracted with I-SOS in 2005 to protect its increasingly peripatetic students, faculty, and staff. The connection has already paid off, most notably during Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006, when I-SOS evacuated 20 Harvard affiliates to safer locations.

The organization proved just as effective in a South American context. After informing I-SOS about their situation, the brothers were told to take precautionary measures such as filling their bathtub with water in case flaming objects were thrown through their window and planning an escape route from the hotel in case it was attacked or set on fire.

Several hours later, two detectives associated with Peru’s anti-corruption program arrived in town and made contact with the brothers. Because they are part of a national program, the anti-corruption detectives are in the best position to assess the security situation throughout the country. In this case, their contacts with local police departments proved a valuable asset.

“If it weren’t for the advice of the anti-corruption detectives, we probably would have traveled to Arequipa, which has the closest airport to Juliaca,” Krumholz said. “On the day we would have tried to get to Arequipa, nine police officers were kidnapped by protesters on the same route.”

Instead, acting on the detectives’ advice, I-SOS personnel were able to plan a route that would take the brothers overland to the shores of nearby Lake Titicaca and from there by hydrofoil to Bolivia. As it turned out, the trip across the lake was unnecessary. The detectives found a safe land route across the border and managed to get the brothers to La Paz the next day.

Soon afterward, Krumholz received a call from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Assistant Dean Todd Washburn who was anxious to find out if the brothers were safe. He assured him they were and told Washburn he wanted to go back and complete his work with FINCA. After determining that the violent protests were confined to the Juliaca area, Washburn agreed that returning to Lima would be a reasonable course of action.

“I think Andrew made a sober and realistic assessment of the situation,” Washburn said.

Looking back on his experience, Krumholz realized that his brush with civil unrest had made him more sensitive to the needs of the people he was serving as a FINCA volunteer.

“Even though my life was in danger, the firsthand experience gave me the opportunity to witness the Peruvians’ desire for change,” Krumholz said. “Through the work at the microfinance bank, I hope to provide a productive outlet for these people to channel their restlessness foward as they use their entrepreneurial ability to lift themselves out of abject poverty.”

Would Krumholz have been able to view his experience in such a positive light if I-SOS had not provided him with a smooth escape route out of Juliaca? The answer to that question remains unknown, but what is known is that for Harvard affiliates traveling abroad, I-SOS provides an indispensable emergency backup.

“The organization’s level of professionalism, thoroughness, and responsiveness is top-notch,” said Washburn. “It’s a pleasure to be able to rely on them.”

For more information:

International SOS coverage is automatic for Harvard students, faculty, and staff traveling on University business, but travelers are encouraged to register their itinerary and contact information with I-SOS. For personal travel, Harvard affiliates can obtain coverage at a 20 percent discount. Please call the University Insurance department at (617) 495-7971 for more information.