From his experiences in Chiclayo, Peru, during
© Copyright 2007 by Eric Roman
Eric was the winner of the 2007 Travel Story Award
My sides hurt and my throat burned. It had been a long time since I had actually gotten physically sick and so I was resting, eyes closed with my hands on my knees, ready, just in case I had to be sick again. I began to be aware of the sweat on the palms of my hands and was glad for the tile floor cooling my shoeless feet. Then my eyes snapped open and I caught site of myself in the mirror when the meaning of the words from the alarmed voice on the other side of the door were processed by my sluggish brain. “Dad, are you OK?” I forced myself to smile, because it always sounds better if you are actually smiling. “I’m fine”, my way too chipper voice responded. “Be out in a second.” But I wasn’t really fine. In that “second”, I became the dad, the husband and the suburbanite who was working too hard at a job, wondering when the next service on the minivan in the driveway would be needed and if a load of “whites” had to be done before Monday. “This has to end” I whispered to myself. I had to finish what I started. That’s what I’m doing now.
I washed the bad taste out of my mouth and splashed cool water on my face. I opened the door to my real life, the life of today. But just a few moments ago I was back there. Four thousand miles and twenty years away, as if the time between then and now didn’t exist.
Just then, a moment ago, twenty years ago, I was 17 years-old and it had been almost two weeks since I left the City of Chiclayo, situated in Peru’s northwestern desert. I was exploring the country with a few other exchange students and some “chaperones” who were maybe five or six years older than us and were Peruvians that had been exchange students in the U.S. Some of the kids on the trip were Americans like me. Three were from Australia. One was from Austria and one was from Finland. Kai, from Finland was my best friend among the group. I knew him the best, since he had also been staying in Chiclayo before our trip. The others were staying with families from all over Peru, and I knew some of them from my short stay in Lima where we had trained before departing to live with host families. The kids at our high school in Chiclayo called Kai “popsicle” because his hair was as white as snow and his skin was so pale that you could almost see through it, like a piece of ice. He never seemed to mind, chalking it up as a kind of status symbol. He was different on the outside, but he told me that if he did nothing else in Peru, he wanted other people to learn that he was the same on the inside as everyone else.
Our mission in Peru, as we had all been briefed in our home countries during short but intensive training sessions (in my case at the University of Miami) was in two parts. The first part was to enable the young people of your host countries to see that you were just a person, like them, and when someone hears the name of your country, they should think about you and not a flag, a map, or a fat-cat political leader who wants something from them. So our job was simple. Be open, be yourself and learn what its like to live in another country while telling those around you what its like to live in yours. And in the process of sharing, both sides discover a human connection. Prejudices fall by the way-side and the brotherhood of man has just a little less sibling rivalry.
The second part was to tell people at home that the people of our host countries are special because of their culture and traditions, but fundamentally, they are the same as Americans, Australians, Austrians or Finns – just people.
At the time, for most Peruvians that I came into contact with, the only other American they could identify with was Ronald Regan, a rugged old Cowboy with a nuclear missile strapped to his hip ready to draw down on the evil communists anywhere they might pop-up, Latin America, Asia or Europe. But Kai and I, we were believers. We were going to make the World better, more human. We thought we could do that because, well, we were young. We weren’t hardened yet. And that was the key really. The people who sent us knew it too. They couldn’t do it. They had to send us. Our youth allowed us to connect with other, not yet hardened people, before they could really have a basis for hate. And the older people, well, they had to take pity on us. We were just kids. They would look after us; help integrate us into their schools, churches and even families so we could learn how it really was. And that was all part of the plan too. There was just no way that an adult would be allowed to get the access and inside coaching we got. Grown-ups just do not rate compassion and guidance the way young people do.
Kai and I had compared notes a lot. Though his home town was more than 6,000 miles from mine, in Chiclayo, to me, he was like the kid from a neighboring farm who happened to move to the same big city I did. He had also been in the country about three months longer than me and so his Spanish was better, and he knew who all the girls were. All the more reason to make sure he stayed my friend.
The trip was winding down. At its start, we had all gathered in Lima. Kai and I came by bus. It was a grueling 12-hour ride made into a twenty hour trip because of all the stops at military check-points. No one slept. But for a 17-year-old, that wasn’t such a big deal. After a few days in Lima, we went south to Ica, then flew to Arequipa, where we met more students we knew from orientation. Both cities were amazingly different from our coastal desert town in the north. In these towns you could feel the ancient tension between the Incan and Spanish Empires. You could see it in the buildings too. Often when the Conquistadors had attempted to topple buildings, the stone structure were too well put together to knock all the way down. So even today, the buildings have bases that feature the stones Incan builders laid out and wood framed and adobe walls and upper floors the Spanish tacked on. In these cities, the Spanish found that though, with effort, they could destroy Incan buildings, the strong earthquakes at the end of the Sixteenth Century flattened their “superior technology”, but left the ancient portions of the buildings alone.
Our trip also took us to Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian frontier. It was as close as I had come to the edge of civilization. Even as a kid going into the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I knew that once you came out of the woods, it was just a short car ride to the closest McDonald’s. Here though, the golden arches not only had never been seen, they could not even be explained. From there we took a train to Cuzco and then saw the might of the ancient world at Machu-Pichu. The trip ended back where it had started, in Lima. But for Kai and I, we had far to go until we would reach the homes of our host families back in Chiclayo. We had seen most of southern Peru, and we had lived in the northwest part. There was still the northeast, and the great Amazon jungle to see.
Our plan was simple. Head for Iquitos, in the northeast part of Peru, where the mighty Amazon is born. We had ten days before we had to be back in Chiclayo. Easy, we thought, three days to get from Lima to Iquitos, maybe four days to look around and figure another three days to find our way back to Chiclayo. Well, crossing the Andes Mountains and going from dry desert to snowy peaks and then into the jungle and once making it there, truing around and doing it backwards with no real idea of what we would find along the way, turned out to be just a bit more complicated than we had bargained for.
With a map, and lots of cash (in small denominations for negotiation purposes and easier bribing) we figured that we could do just about anything and go almost anywhere. More often then not, getting somewhere wasn’t a problem. It was the leaving where you were that seemed the challenge. On paper things looked feasible. You could take a bus from such and such a place to connect with a train and so on. But what wasn’t on any map, or time table was the real-world process. More than once we would show up at a bus station to find out that, yes the bus goes there, but there will not be another one for a week. Often when we would ask about when something was supposed to happen, the answer was, “maybe tomorrow”. But that was OK. We were on an adventure. We had ten days and had allowed for some “slippage”. Most of the trip ended up being made by boat. The rivers flowed from west to east, the direction we wanted to go and it was also the way to Brazil and Atlantic ports. So we didn’t have to worry too much. It took us four days to make it to Iquitos. Along the way, we drank the local moonshine and ate the smallest potatoes I had ever seen with people who were very tolerant of us and our accents.
As we made our way over the Andes, the people we encountered spoke less and less Spanish and more and more Quchua. This is a dialect of the ancient Incan language. Needless to say, no one spoke English or even knew where Finland was. Even our Peruvian money was regarded as an outsider’s thing, the locals preferring to trade in commodities, especially cigarettes. This made for more gesturing on our part and was usually met with toothy (oftentimes gapped) grins. Kai and I were novelties to the people we came across, and our mission in Peru spread. Getting around here was much more difficult with a new and unlearned set of rules, but we managed to put our frustrations aside and live the adventure. We were young. The path wasn’t paved yet, and we told ourselves that we could shape it as we went.
As the sun rose on the fourth day we saw Iquitos in the distance. At first it looked disappointing. When the sun comes up in the jungle and you are under the tree canopy, it is hardly an event at all. The trees and plant growth are so thick that little light filters to the ground. But the sounds let you know that something has changed. The birds awaken; the insect sounds are different too. As the nocturnal animals find shelter, the more dominant animals and reptiles slowly come to life. The whole place moves. Even the rain soaked plants seem to be animated with large leaves swaying in a breeze or branches springing as a reaction to a monkey’s jump. The jungle even has “walking trees”. This variety grows new roots towards the sun and lets the ones in the shade die, enabling it to actually “walk around”.
Iquitos isn’t a huge city, but it is a center of activity, with trucks and industry and people doing the things they do everywhere. It has pollution, crime, and a powerful elite. Everyone speaks Spanish and cash is accepted everywhere. Three-wheeled jitney-like motor bikes streak passengers in hurried directions bending the laws of physics, as is the requirement of taxi drivers everywhere, but Iquitos also happens to be in the Amazon Jungle. So, there are some things that make it unlike anywhere else in the World. One thing the city is known for is its medicine. While it is true that many of the prescription drugs we have today contain ingredients only found, or at least first used in the Amazon, the medicine market here is not so much medicine as it is ingredients. There is a huge open air market where you can buy everything that Shakespeare’s three witches boiled in their caldron and much more. But there is no FDA and defiantly no labeling, so who’s to say if what you are buying is really the eye of a horned frog or not.
Since it sits in a rain forest, well, it rains almost all the time in Iquitos. This makes the place one big mud pit. The sidewalks, what there were of them, are all planked well above ground-level to avoid pedestrians being covered in mud by the trucks that slosh through the streets. In general, the city kind of reminded me of Virginia City in Nevada. Here, almost in the middle of the South American continent, settlers from Europe tried to create the refinement of the “civilized” world just as they did in barren Virginia City. If you have ever been to this isolated silver town in the Nevada mountains, or any frontier area really, and felt the rough, just barely law abiding pioneer mentality that represents the balancing act of thrusting caution about risks and hardships right in the face of hard, determined work towards the unproven faith in a better future, then I have saved you a trip to Iquitos. Because these people were just like the immigrant miners who sought a fortune from silver in Nevada, or those who went to Alaska to lay pipe or even the contractors who drive trucks across Iraqi deserts to supply troops. Just as it happened in Virginia City and in Alaska, some even brought pre-fabricated housing with them to make it more like home. One, known as the Iron house, still stands as a symbol of Victorian order and over the years it has been a house, office building, restaurant and market. The people who thrive in these places, then and now, are like-minded people who, as the core of our mission in Peru professed, are more similar than different.
There are some places and even one resort that are actually built into trees in the outer parts of town. To visit these places is like living in the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. Only, unlike the one at Disneyland, these tree dwellings are not made out of cement and the bugs are the biggest I have ever seen, even compared to the focalized ones at the various museums of Natural History I have visited. Don’t get me wrong. I never will claim to be a naturalist, but it doesn’t take a doctorate in zoology to realize the Amazon is a special place. Everything is alive and it all moves. If you are one of those people who are afraid of spiders, don’t go. We spent two nights in one of these hotels living in the trees and blessing the nameless person who invented mosquito netting. The mosquitoes in the Amazon are not the natty little things we have on the West Coast, or even the fighter jet like creatures that grace the Great Lakes. The Mosquitoes they have in the Amazon are the four-engine, nuclear equipped, titanium shelled bomber variety who are tasked with seeking out and transforming pasty white people like Kai and me into walking red, pocked-shaped creatures that kind of resemble people. They are good at what they do.
By the time we had found our tree house, our bags were a lot lighter from trading and gifting our way across the mountains and the few things we still clung to, not to mention the clothes we wore (nearly the same ones every day), our hair, and every exposed part of our body were covered in a rich sticky grime. It was the middle of winter, but it was warm and sometimes hot. But what got to me was the humidity. The air practically steams. We stunk. The jungle stunk and the air around town stunk. The jungle in places had been burned over and over to keep it clear. I guess it is a lot easier to burn something down than to chop it down. This added to the particular smell. If you have ever been to the tropics, you know this smell. For me it will always bring back pictures in my mind of Peru.
Climbing up to our “room” was really fun. As we rose off the jungle floor, it was like passing through the layers of a cake. The bottom, as I described, is dark and muddy. The leaves are really big to capture what little light and rain trickles down. As you go up, it gets lighter, and it actually seemed a bit dryer. The leaves get smaller and you can make out a network of branches that form almost a net over the area below. Though we never got above what they call “the canopy” or the upper most layer of the jungle, we could see the sky and since we were on a little rise, we could see the top of the canopy in places that had a lower elevation. The hotel we stayed in had a series of platforms, decks and bridges that interconnected the trees, hillside and conventional buildings that were adjacent to the complex.
Besides the novelty of sleeping in what amounted to a giant tree house, there were two things that stick out in my memory after nearly 20 years. The first is standing on the deck near our room and taking a shower that God himself provided, just using the heavy downpour rain and wondering how biodegradable the shampoo was. The feeling of being clean, finally and if only for a few hours was really great. It reminded me of coming home from one of the long backpacking trips I took with the Scouts and having a good soak as soon as I dumped my gear. The second thing I hope to carry with me for the rest of my days is seeing the dawn of our last day there break. Because of the limited development around the area the nights are really black, and if you can see the sky, it is completely filled with stars. Shooting stars are commonly seen. And then the sun comes. You know its coming because the squadron of mosquitoes crank up their engines and go into search and destroy mode. But then, accompanied by the quire of birds and the chatter of monkeys who have been silent until just this moment when there comes an explosion of light. It’s not the soft warm glow that turns into daylight. It’s an attack of purple, and an orange that seems to set the jungle on fire. The light picks up the green of the jungle life and then the sun’s warmth raises a blanket of fog and rainbows form wherever a clear spot appears. All of the bug bites, wet socks and mildewed cloths are worth it just to see this one moment. And then as if there had been no night and no dawn at all, the day begins.
I had come, seen all that there was to see (I thought) and having witnessed something magical, I suggested that we leave and try and make our way back to Chiclayo. It had been a hard trip in and it would be even harder to get to Chiclayo than the capital city, Lima, where all roads seem to lead. It is also up-river, meaning that to catch a ride, someone will either have to expend gas or even muscle power to haul us along. Given all that, I figured that it would take us much longer to go from Iquitos to Chiclayo than it did to get to Iquitos from Lima.
In the sunrise, we had found El Dorado and though we couldn’t take it home with us the sunrise would always remind me of this day and would be with me wherever I went and so it was time to go. Not in these words, I tried to explain this to Kai. He called me a sap, or something like that, and said I sounded like a girl. Then I asked him why he came to Peru. The textbook answer came back – to promote World Peace. I tilted my head and squinted at him and said, “Thank you, Miss Finland. How about you, Miss Denmark?” He said, “OK, we’re both saps”.
We packed what little we had. All my stuff fit into the backpack I had been using as a book bag for school. I rolled my other larger canvas bag that was empty and put it inside too with some room to spare. I was thinking that it would be better to buy a bunch of cigarettes and maybe chocolate for the trip back rather than the things we just happened to have on-hand on the way in. When we were checking out we asked about ways to get to Chiclayo. The same question kept coming back from the people we talked to, “do you want to go under the fence? Or go by road?” We had no idea what “under the fence” was. Kai said that he thought it was the way the coca dealers got around. Since you could get shot (by a number of interested parties) for just being near the movement of coca, the material that is eventually processed into cocaine, it didn’t sound like a good idea. The coca dealers were always being probed by the US DEA and others, so they were not likely to be too trusting of foreigners anyway. We always answered, “By road”.
We headed into town and for the first and only time in my life I bought cigarettes by the carton. A particularly good negotiating trick was to buy Marlboro Reds, readily available almost everywhere (thank you Philip Morris) and I told people that these are from the United States. Since I was American, most bought the idea. So my cigarettes that were the same as every Peruvian’s cigarettes who wanted that brand, traded at a premium because people thought they were from the United States, imported by me. I figured that maybe they would smoke less if it cost more. Hey, the California Legislature had been telling the public the same thing for years every time they raised the taxes on the smokers (I mean cigarettes), so it must be true, right? I couldn’t find any chocolate, but we did find the colectivo stand. A colectivo, or collective, is kind of half way between a bus and a taxi. It is usually a private car who’s driver may or may not have a city permit to take paying passengers. Typically it runs between just two places or stands for a fixed price. There is no schedule; it just leaves when the car fills up. Typically, you can ask to be dropped off anywhere between the stops if it is along the way, or you can negotiate a higher price with the driver (unofficially) to go out of his way. You can also pay more to have the driver leave early before the car fills up.
At the stand a colectivo was waiting with one passenger already in it. Not wanting to be left, we went for our ride, in this case a white Chevy King-Cab pickup truck. We were heading for a town, indirectly, to the west that had a bus that went to Trojillo, to the south, but on the same main highway that connects with Chiclayo. We figured that if we were lucky, it would only take 4 days for the whole thing. It was mid-morning, and the driver thought we could make it to our connection point by dinner, if all the bridges were still up. It was less than 50 miles, but with bad roads, we were lucky to be going in a truck and not a VW bug. I remember doing the math for the fair. It came out to almost $1.50. This was really a lot considering that most people in the area made around $500 a year. We tried to talk him down a little, but didn’t get anywhere. He knew he had us. All the seats were full. But the driver kept looking around and made no sign of wanting to leave soon. I asked when we were leaving and was told that we could get two more people in. No way was I going to be squished for up to five hours. I reached into a different pocket and extracted one single dollar bill and told the driver he could have it if we left right now.
I know you are doing the math. If he waited he could have had $3. But my $1 in U.S. cash, which by this time due to inflation and monetary control laws recently enacted, was illegal to possess, and worth more. The official exchange rate and the banking exchange rate were not real close to the rate you could get on the black market for cash. Not to mention that with inflation around 120%, by just keeping the cash in his pocket, he would be making money. The engine started and the money was snatched out of my hand.
We seemed to be making good time and I was proud that capitalism was alive and well. We roared out of town at about 40 mph. I thought this was great, until we ran out of pavement. It grew louder in the cab, but besides a bit of slipping here and there, it didn’t seem to be a big deal. The further we went though, the narrower the road became, until, I could hardily tell where the road was. We had crossed a few very shallow streams (like less than a foot deep), but then we came to a kind of big creek. There was a bridge, but there were warning signs on it. The sign said in Spanish, French and English “Mined – Danger” and it had a red triangle with a black skull on it. Even if you couldn’t read, you knew it was bad news. The Shining Path, a leftist gorilla movement, was active in the area. It was impossible to tell who had mined the bridge, or even if the mines were really still, or had ever been, there.
We started driving up and down the creek bank looking for a good place to cross. Though we saw easy ingress and egress sites, none were really close together. Meaning, it looked easy to get into the creek, but hard to get out, or the other way around. Finally we saw a wider spot that looked promising. Just then it started pouring. This made it really hard to see the other side. Slowly we nosed into the creek. Once we were level, the driver gunned the engine to try and get some speed to float us across if we lost traction. It didn’t work. The tires spun on some smooth rock and the rear end fishtailed a bit. That sideways movement did get us off the rock, but somehow we couldn’t get going straight. That’s when it started.
There was a loud clang. I thought that a rock got kicked up under the truck, connecting with the metal undercarriage, but that wasn’t it. The nose of the truck was pointing slightly downstream, so that water was now going up the tail pipe. The engine died and we began to drift. Another clang made me jump. “Is the engine going?” I asked. All I got was a wide-eyed look from the driver who was busy trying to figure out how to sail his truck. Another clang. This one seemed to move us a little. I don’t know why, but I looked out the back window. That’s when I saw it. The tail gate had a hole in it about the size of a grape with the metal peeled out towards us. Then I noticed another hole in the bed of the truck.
Someone was shooting at the truck. No, that’s not quite right. They were shooting at the people in the truck. Us. I said to Kai in English, “bullet holes that weren’t there before”. The blood drained from his face. If it had been anyone but “the popsicle”, I might have thought he got shot. At this point we were moving, but really slowly. Thinking that we were a rather large target and knowing that if the double walled tailgate wouldn’t stop a bullet, neither would the cab’s roof, I started to think that we needed to get out of the truck.
Now in Spanish I said not wanting to cause too much panic, “my friends, someone with a rifle has something against Chevy’s. Perhaps we should let the two of them discuss it alone and leave the truck”. Kai was sitting in front of me. He rolled down the window. The water was just above the bottom of the truck, but not to the bottom of the door. It would open fast with out a problem. I guessed that the water was maybe knee deep or just a bit higher. The truck was drifting or being pushed in a slow (really slow) counter clockwise direction with the front of the truck becoming more perpendicular with the downstream direction of the creek and the passenger side closest to the bank. Not only would it be closer to the edge of the creek, but the current should be somewhat blocked on that side, I thought. On the driver’s side I asked my back seat fellow passenger what it looked like from over there. I was expecting a report on the creek. What he said was, “It looks like an AK-47”. It was hard to see through the rain and steamed up windows, but I saw him running to the creek bank. All right it was time to move!
“Vaminos, Let’s go!” I said. Kai had the door open and jumped out. As I was crouching through the doorway, the driver leaned forward, I thought it was to take cover. But from under the seat came a shiny, nickel plated pistol. I didn’t stop. I kept moving out of the truck and so did the other passenger. I wasn’t sure if it was better to keep the truck between us and the man in with the rifle or make a mad dash for the creek bank and cover. Our driver answered that question for me. He started shouting at the man with the rifle and waving the gun. The man with the rifle, smart fellow that he was, gave all of his attention to the gun. We made a dash for it. There was more shouting. Then our driver opened fire. I’m not sure if he was aiming at the man with the rifle or just showing him that he was serious. It didn’t matter. We were all on the other bank, and over a little grass covered knoll. From there I saw the man with the rifle go into a sitting position, level his rifle at the truck. Then three fire balls came out of the end of the rifle. No more shouting. The driver didn’t stand a chance. It was about 200 yards between the two people. The pistol might have been accurate in the hands of an expert at that range, but I don’t think our driver actually ever aimed it, and was firing out of fear. The rifle probably could have gotten us all in the water at that range, with one shot each, but for some unknown reason, we were able to escape.
It wasn’t the first time while I was in Peru that someone had been killed close to where I was, but that didn’t make it easier. I wanted to shout, to stand and knock some sense into in to these two people with guns. But it was too late for that. There was nothing I could do to bring back the dead man. And arguing with an armed person is usually not a smart thing to do. The only thing left to do was try to slink away and avoid more violence. None of us, the three who were hiding on the opposite side of the creek from the man with the rifle said anything. We were all flat on our stomachs like snakes looking for a rock to get under. We made our way to the trees, then crouched and then ran.
Out of breath and with wet pant legs (up to our pockets, not just knees) and soggy shoes we finally stopped. I asked the stranger who was sharing a ride with us which direction we should go. His response was not really cold, but it was more business like than I expected from a person who has just shared a near death experience with us. He told us in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t be good for him to be seen with us and that all of our chances were better if we didn’t stay together. He pointed over a hill and told us that he thought there was a village on the other side. He was going to head back down the “road” in the direction we had come from in hopes of finding a farmer or someone to give him a ride back to Iquitos.
I wasn’t real anxious to walk along the road anyway and it seemed reasonable. But I was a bit put off at his implications that Kai and I were some kind of spectacle that made him a target. I was mad, but he was right. We did look different. We did talk differently. We didn’t belong. We stood out. The reality was that we could be targets. We had no choice. We were who we were, two causations with accents from countries that saw all the people we would encounter as near worthless individuals living in inescapable poverty and with short life expectancies. Nevertheless, these “villagers”, who may or may not be over the hill, stood as our best chance of making it to somewhere that would lead to another somewhere and yet another somewhere and from there to the safety of our host families, who in-turn bridged a gap to home. Home - where the drive-through menu never included an AK-47 (unless it was in Texas, but even then it sill comes with fries), in other words, a safe, a predictable place.
Over the hill we went, just Kai and I and our wet stuff. We left our fellow passenger to go his own way. I wondered about our driver. Was he on another journey? If so, was it one that I would be taking soon? Was there something I should have done that I didn’t, something I should not have done? Mostly I wondered about the man with the rifle and why I was still alive. My feet kept moving through the mud, around the rocks and over the hill. The only thing we saw once we reached the top of the hill was more hills. I thought maybe we could find the road again. But I was worried about what else we would find besides the road if we went back in that direction. So there we stood at the top of the hill, not knowing which way to go. It seemed a crossroads in more ways than one. Could we go on acting as tourists like nothing had happened? Should we tell someone? If so, who? There where lots of questions. The hilltop didn’t answer any of them.
The other side of the hill had what looked like lower trees for some reason. Maybe harvesting had taken place here. Below us was a steep sided valley and yet another stream. The Boy Scout in me said to go to the steam and follow it. The kid from Finland beside me just punched me in the arm when I made the suggestion. “I’m not climbing down there. The only thing from down there is uphill.” he reasoned. So we walked a bit along the up and down bumps of the ridge line until it became too narrow. Now we were stuck. There was nowhere to go but down. In looking around for the least steep way to go, Kai saw some white puffy smoke. We had somewhere to go it seemed. Too bad it was on the steep side of the hill. I was ready to get dry. I was ready to find something warm to eat. I was ready to stop thinking about what I should do next. And I think Kai was too because we agreed to go down that steep bank. It was probably more than a 500 foot decent. We went down, slowly at times, but mostly in an only slightly controlled fall. I saw why the trees looked lower. They were growing out of deep groves in the ground where the soil had eroded away as water streamed off the hillside we were descending. In one of those trees, I saw the largest snake I have ever encountered, including trips to the zoo. I thought it was a tree branch at first. I guess that’s what nature intended its food to think. Except that part of it was thicker than the branch it was on. It was more than twice as thick as the fat end of a baseball bat, and looked like it would have no problem swallowing a whole raccoon. Seeing this monster and thinking about the size of a raccoon, I joked to myself that these snakes must be the reason that the jungle doesn’t have any raccoons. Although it never moved, we gave the thing a wide birth and finally reached the stream at the bottom of the valley. I wanted to take a drink, but having spent enough time emptying my guts from both ends since I had been in Peru, I resisted the temptation. We couldn’t see the smoke anymore, but we could see where we had been and used that to keep us going in the right direction.
Up we climbed. The other side of the narrow valley was just as steep as the way down was. We grasped leaves, small branches, anything to keep us from ending up a smashed heap at the bottom of the valley. Finally, with pounding hearts and no spit left, we made it to the top of the next hill. No smoke. The sun was going down. We were wet, tired, covered in dirt and we were done. As we rested, I began to get chilled. I took off my wet shirt. It was colder at first, but I knew that if I did not get dry, I’d never warm up. We decided to stay where we were for the night. It was relatively clear of trees near the top of the hill and we thought it was a good lookout for fires at night that might give us a direction to go or a good spot to wait until the day light came helping us at least see well enough to not trip over one of those big snakes.
Kai gathered up some leaves and sticks and tried to light a fire with his Zippo lighter that he carried. At the time he bought it, back in Cuzco, I told him he was stupid for carrying it since he didn’t smoke. Thinking ahead, like all good teenage boys, he said it was to light cigarettes for the ladies. Besides, it looked cool with its Deadhead symbol on it. He had practiced for what I though was annoyingly long periods, lighting the thing in different cool ways. I silently asked God for forgiveness for all those not so nice thoughts I had had towards Kai and his lighter. In spite of his best moves, Kai could not get his pile-style fire lighted. It was just too wet. Boy Scout to the rescue. I went around to the underside of the trees and looked for the dead ends of branches, little vines anything that looked dry, even if it was small. I cleared the ground where we wanted the fire and used some of Kai’s wood to make small wall against the wind. Then I did the unthinkable. I broke out a packet of cigarettes. Thank God for that annoying cellophane that they come wrapped in. The package and the smokes inside were bone dry. I took one and handed the rest of the loose ones to Kai. Using it as a match and the paper from the package ripped into little pieces for kindling, I got a fire going. It took lots of huffing and puffing and a few tense moments, but I managed to get a good sized flame. The trick was to sustain it. Some of the bigger, but wet sticks went in. They hissed and popped, but finally blazed also. And so it went. We weren’t that much warmer or dryer, but we did accomplish something. Neither of us slept except for a moment or two at a time. But we had some light and that made us feel better. Then sometime before dawn, it rained, and then it poured. With no more magic tricks left, we abandoned our fire and went under some trees only to stay just marginally dryer. Daylight, such that it was through the clouds, came. With it came a surprise.
While we were scanning to see if we could find any sign of that smoke from the day before, a rustling came from the opposite direction we were looking. It seems we weren’t the only ones to have seen smoke. Our fire had caught the attention and brought the presence of the people we were looking for. Each of the three men we saw was leveling an automatic rifle at us. They wanted to know where our gear was and what we were doing on top of the hill for anyone to see. We tried to explain that we were lost and wanted to go to Chiclayo. Why hadn’t we used the trail and where was our gear they demanded. I told them the only gear we had was cigarettes and hastily offered some. “Does the dead one speak?” they pointed at Kai. Kai smiled and said, “Yes, I was born looking dead, and thanks to your hill here, now I smell like it too. Where is the trail? We will walk down it and give you back your hill.”
Two more people came out of the trees. One had a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher and the other just had a backpack that I guessed was full of rounds for it. The one with the backpack was short and looked like he was about 12. He was the only one who looked really angry at us. “We should show them where it is” said the young one. The man who first spoke shouldered his rifle and said, “The trail is closed for maintenance. You can come with us we’ll show you the way down without breaking your neck.” I wasn’t sure if he meant a safe way down, or that he wouldn’t break our necks until we were down. But the lesson from the day before was clear in my mind. Don’t argue with people that have guns.
Just about 200 yards away was a mild switch-back that took us not directly down the hill but over to the base of the adjoining hill. It was, compared to the “hike” we had had the day before, like the difference between taking the stairs and riding in an elevator. It went slow, but it got us there. But the there wasn’t at the base of the trail, it was on the back side of that hill. We walked around the base of the hill and saw the little town. Maybe a town isn’t the best description. It was more like a camp, but permanent. There were just a few buildings made of wood and there were other areas that had little round houses made with mud and sticks. These were really small and probably just used for sleeping in, since there were no windows or chimneys to vent smoke from. Pits dug in the ground held glowing coals. There were metal grates and pots for cooking, but not much activity going on. A few people looked on from corners or just stopped and gawked. No smiles. No curiosity coming across from quizzical looks. There wasn’t any seething hatred, but most of the people looked like the baseball players in those shots of the dugout after the game is over and their team has lost.
“What’s going on?” I asked the man who seemed to be leading the group – his name was Pedro. He told me that they were hopping to found another group of people. We obviously were not the ones he was looking for. “Someone else is lost?” I offered with hope in my voice.
“Not exactly” was the only reply I got. What I did get is what I desperately wanted, but was afraid to ask for – a drink of water. Without asking Pedro volunteered, “Don’t worry. We boil the water for at least ten minutes. You never know what gets washed into the streams.” I was so happy I was smiling even as I held the cast-off Tupperware looking cup to my mouth and drank.
About an hour latter there was a huge commotion. People looked suddenly busy and many slipped out of site. Again Pedro came to us. He said, “You should stand in the trees for a while. It wouldn’t look good if you were seen here with us.” Now, twice in two days someone had said that it would be bad to be seen with us. I was curious. Kai and I went into the jungle a ways.
There was a thrashing mechanical churning kind of sound. It was a two and one-half ton truck accompanied by an old jeep. Both looked like they just drove off the set of MASH. The jeep was in the back. I guess that was to let the truck squish whatever might be in the way in front of them since there weren’t any real roads that I saw. The truck stopped and the uniformed man, an Army officer, in the passenger seat of the Jeep got out and walked to the front of the truck. He began talking to my new friend Pedro. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, except the man from the Jeep looked mad. On the side of the truck hands were reaching under the canvas and meeting up with people on the outside who had snuck up. Exchanges were being made. They were little things. I couldn’t see what.
Then there was some shouting. That, I could hear. The officer said, “You said they were not here, that you could find them. You have not found them? You have lied to me and maybe they are here. You know what I have to do.” He didn’t wait for a response. Spinning on his heals, he returned to the jeep. It didn’t turn around. It just backed up with the officer eyeing Pedro the whole time. Pedro said nothing. The jeep just kept going backwards as if expecting Pedro to cry, “Stop! I’ll tell you.”
Maybe it was giving Pedro a chance to stop him, or maybe the officer just was afraid to turn his back on Pedro. More likely, the driver was afraid to have the jeep tires go over anything that they had not before, like a land mine. I don’t know. But Pedro did not say a word. He just watched the officer and jeep and truck slink away. When I couldn’t hear the truck anymore, we came back to the clearing, by the fire pit and as we approached Pedro, he flicked his hands at us, using the back of his hand as to flick us away. I thought we blew it for a second, that maybe the village was being watched and we should not compromise Pedro by being seen with him. But then he came over to us. I was confused.
“Should we go back into the trees? Are they still here?” I asked Pedro when he got close enough that I didn’t have to raise my voice.
“Yes. No. We all have to go.” I didn’t understand. Pedro and others were heading sort of in circles picking up stuff and not running, but walking with a purpose. He headed back in our direction. I had been standing still, and was still confused. That’s when I heard them. Two small jets streaked overhead. Actually I saw them and then I heard them. It was the normal roar of an airplane. And then, about five seconds latter, there was a pop and a whoosh sound. Over my left shoulder I felt an intense heat and then that lighter fluid like smell. I was looking in Pedro’s direction, the same way the planes were headed. He and everything around him lit up in a white, then yellow, then orange light. I turned. The jungle was on fire.
I punched Kai in the arm. Smiling, I said, “They missed”.
Pedro answered for him. “No they didn’t. And they will be back.” We, and everyone else too, now ran into the jungle. Pedro was right. The planes came in for another pass from the opposite direction. This time lower still and seemingly slower. Maybe they were trying to assess damage. This time I saw it clearly. They both dropped something. It seemed to break apart and then there was fire. It was like a dragon had shot its hot breath, a stream of rage. Except that, the fire was falling. Everything it touched in decent, it clung to and burned. The planes went almost straight up and it was impossible to see them any more. Each side of the clearing was on fire. But ironically, were we had been earlier, where the clearing itself and some wooden buildings were, remained untouched by disaster.
People now dropped what they were carrying and ran to where the first attack had been. Under the trees there were, what until two minutes earlier were more of the stick and mud houses. They weren’t empty. Though the fire hadn’t burnt everything to the ground, there were dead people, dead pigs and dead chickens littering the ground. I couldn’t understand it. Kai and I talked latter and reasoned that the fire ball had either sucked the air from their lungs or that the putrid fumes had poisoned them.
There was screaming. There was sobbing. And there were those so in shock that they stood just as motionless as the dead littering the ground. Some, then more, were knocking down the houses that were on fire trying to keep it from spreading. One boy, who looked like he was maybe eight or nine, was looking for his mother, shouting Mama, Mama. He examined some on the ground. I watched, not knowing what to do. He went into one of the houses/huts. It was still on fire and filled with smoke. I guess that is where his mother and maybe he slept. He went in and the roof collapsed on him. I could stand still no longer.
I dashed over to the house. The air was like acid and my chest hurt. The roof was made of grass and sticks and mud. I couldn’t really see. My eyes were burning and tearing. My nose was running and so I was gulping the toxic air just to try and keep going. Hunched over in the hut I stumbled around. Somehow I found an ankle. My back was to the door opening. I just pulled. I felt the kid wiggling and resisting this unknown force on him. I had to get air. But I couldn’t leave him, so I just kept pulling his leg. Whatever he was under, I dragged along too and then it got easier, so I guess it fell off. Out of the hut, I fell backwards onto the ground. I had dragged the poor kid face down. I coughed, spat, then flipped the kid onto his back, grabbed his arms this time and dragged him some more. I didn’t think I could pick him up and carry him without collapsing. I don’t know how far I went with him. It was far enough that I think there was no black smoke coming from the ground around us.
Kai found me just as I came to a stop. I was on my butt with the kid’s outstretched arms by my shoes. I coughed heavily and then I leaned to my left and threw up. I hadn’t eaten since the day before. So the only thing in me was the water I had earlier and it really hurt. I didn’t care. I wasn’t embarrassed. I was very passed that. Then I looked over at the kid. I could see the top of his head and, yes his chest was rising and falling. He was breathing! I hadn’t burned up my own lungs for nothing. I went back on my elbows.
Kai saw it first. He was kneeling at the boys left side and looking at his chest. The boy was unconscious now. I hadn’t thought of why, just content that he was breathing. Kai opened his shirt and when the one half came away from the other, I saw the gapping whole. But there was no blood. I moved down to the opposite side of him. On Kai’s side, I could see it. There was a sizzling (really bubbling) hole. I could see the white of bone. I put my hand on the boy. Kai grabbed my wrist. “Don’t touch it!” he hissed.
Now the boy’s father had found us. “Antoni! Antoni!,” he screamed. The boy moaned but never opened his eyes. Thank God for that. I want to believe that the burns were so bad that the nerve endings were gone and he felt no pain. The man, Tomas, had lost his wife and was watching his son die. At the time I was thinking about what to do for the boy, how to keep the dad from making it worse. As a husband and father now, I know there was no way to make it worse and when I worry about my kids, sometimes I see this man’s face, its brow wrinkled, eyes pleading and mouth twisting to from the name of his child, who will never be able speak to him again. The image reminds me to say a prayer of thanks for my blessings.
The sizzling did not stop. That jelly like substance kept burning, even without air. The wound was covered. It kept burning. It was washed. It kept burning. I said to Tomas, the boy’s dad, that I wanted to do something. How could I help?
“Go to the bigger wooden building. Inside on the wall is a metal First Aid kit. Please bring it back to me.” Tomas said this calmly, almost robotically.
I went and did as I had been asked. I thought it was weird. There were other people who were hurt. Why hadn’t we gotten this out before? It was a thick metal box with a handle like the lunch pale I used to carry to school, and it was heavy. I brought it to Tomas. He put it on the ground near Antoni’s hip, turned the latch and opened the lid. Inside there was no gauze, no tape, no alcohol. There was a green and yellow cardboard box and a .45 caliber handgun with the empty clip under it. Tomas took out three rounds from the box, carefully put them into the clip one at a time. He inserted the clip into the handle of the gun. He looked at me and said, “Thank you for your help. Thank you for helping Antoni.”
Then he removed the safety, cocked the gun and put it under Antoni’s chin, pointing slightly down. With his other hand, he brushed the hair off of Antoni’s forehead and then placed his fingertips on the boy’s lips. He let his hand lingerer there for a few seconds and then quickly pulled it away and fired. Antoni’s whole body moved backwards, and his head lifted off the ground as the bullet went into the dirt. Tomas repositioned the gun and did it again. Antoni got to see his mother.
Tomas pointed the gun up. Still stunned, my brain was working hard to remember that there was still one bullet left in the gun. The end of the barrel had blood on it and it steamed a little bit. Tomas eyed the end of the gun and lifted an eyebrow. Saying nothing, he put the gun back on “safe” and laid it on top of the metal box I had brought. He stood and walked into trees. I didn’t see him again before we left.
There were lots of people to burry. Kai and I helped. In a way, I’m glad we were there. I had never met any of these people before that day, and so with as much dignity as possible, I tried to help these people by moving their loved ones, so that they did not have to. Maybe it was easier that a stranger was there to do this so they would not have the memory of physically putting them to rest. Maybe it was better that they all went into the same pit, to be close to one another and for the living to be able to mourn at the same place. But maybe it was harder. Sometimes I wish I could ask Tomas.
The next day, early, I asked Pedro how long it would take to get back to Iquitos. I was done walking in the jungle. I was done being an outsider, making those around me a potential target. I wanted out. I wanted to have the same problems my friends back in the States had. To worry about what college would accept me. To wonder if I would make it to the mall before it closed. I didn’t want to worry about counting bullets, where or if we would find clean water and the biggest thing, how many more people I would see die before it was time for me to get all the answers to these stupid questions from God himself.
The answer Pedro had for me was, maybe one-to-two-days walk. I didn’t want to wait around for the Army officer to come back, for me to make anyone else a target. I just wanted a shower and fries with that. I was ready to be the dumb Joe American tourist. I was ready to walk ten days straight to get out of this place. I asked Pedro to draw me a map. He scratched his head. Then he made a kind of wiggling motion with his fingerer. I had no idea what this meant. He turned around and walked off. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Nothing was new there. I just sat on the ground. My sides hurt. My eyes hurt and I had a pounding head ache, probably dehydrated I thought to myself.
Not too terribly long latter, Pedro came back and introduced me to Marco. Marco was in his early twenties and had a round flat face. He was going to Iquitos for work and said he would take us along. Wow! I was happy. He looked at the sun and then at us and said if we left before too long we could make it by dark to the outside of town and maybe to the actual City by 10:00 or 11:00. We got some water and some plantains and three of the biggest mangos I have ever seen and started walking.
It felt good to be going, even if it was in the wrong direction from Chiclayo. I remembered the 50-mile backpacking trips I had done in Scouts and thought how jealous the kids in my troop would be to have a pack as light as mine. Then I thought about having no tent, no sleeping bag, little water and hardly any food. It helped me keep my speed up to match at least Marco’s.
After walking about four hours we came to a bigger creek. I wondered if there was a truck somewhere in it. It was hard for me to think that only two days before, I was going the other way and looking forward to another adventure. Indiana Jones, I was not. Mother Theresa, I was not. I didn’t at the moment feel like traipsing anywhere I had not been before, nor did I have the energy to try and help anyone, even myself out of a jam. But then Marco, for no other reason than because Kai and I needed help, was taking care of us. We were like lost puppies or something. Well not that cute, but just as oblivious to the dangers around us. There I was, being faced with the stupid mission core again. Marco was proving to us through the strongest evidence possible, his actions, that there are good people, kind people, everywhere. Some even come from places where their own government kills their family and neighbors simply, in some cases, because its agents can.
There was some clear ground along the creek. Probably space that the water until recently had been. Down stream we saw a house on stilts. Many of the houses in the area are in places where the delta feeding into the Amazon shifts. So houses are on stilts and some are even designed to float and become like house boats in flood times, held in place by being tied to nearby trees. The whole area was deep mud. We walked along toward the house in a kind of gully. We didn’t sink as much that way. The gully snaked back by the tree-line and to the rear of the house. We kept going in the direction of the house, Marco silently in the lead, me in the middle and Kai behind me. We saw three people on the porch, all men with big rubber boots. That’s what I wish I had to walk through this gunk, not my never-to-be-white-again tennis shoes. They were eyeing us pretty good and we kept coming. When we got to about shouting distance, from the trees there came cracking and flashes. We were still in the gully and had it not been for the mud walls of that ditch like place, I’m sure you would never be reading this story.
Things had never been worse. OK, it is true that the town I was in got bombed the day before, and the day before that, we were shot at. And at the moment I was thinking, “All right they are not shooting at you. It will be fine.” But we were between the people being shot at that the shooters. The thing to do? Move. Easy, right?
Well the people in the house had other ideas. They were higher than us, and I guess could see us, but not the people in the trees. I guess they thought we were with the people in the trees. From the house came the angry answer of automatic weapons fire. I really didn’t expect anything different. We were smashed up along the muddy side of the ditch we had been walking along, as low as we could make ourselves. From the corner of my eye, I saw the red tracer fire. It took my brain a long moment to process that the people in the house were shooting at us now. Maybe they were shooting at the people in the trees at the same time. I don’t know and I wasn’t about to ask.
I kept low and eased myself centimeter by centimeter closer to the side of the gully and away from its center, to make it harder for the people above to hit me. I didn’t turn my head and moved just as few muscles as possible trying to keep myself low. My nose was pointed down and I moved only my eyes to see where I was going, or more accurately, where I was willing my body to be, since snails looked like they were formula-one cars compared to my speed. Then I heard not so much as a thump as a plop. Redirecting my eyes, about ten inches from my right hand, wet and shinny, was a hand-grenade. “Why aren’t I dead?” I thought. Strangely calm, surprising myself that way, I studied the thing that came into my comfort zone like a wet dog sneaking under your covers when you are fast asleep.
I knew what it was. I’m an American male after all. John Wayne, Rambo and Chuck Norris all taught me well. This one looked a bit odd though. It was more tube shaped than the “pineapple” Wayne incorporated into his Mud Marine uniform. Nonetheless it loomed up at me and all I could think about was that I was saved. From the stem, the handle lay flat along its side, a clear indication that the pin had not been pulled. Why I didn’t know. Maybe the person who threw it was panicked and just forgot. Maybe the people in the trees were passing it to us to use ourselves. I didn’t know. My hand encircled it and I drew it into my chest. I looked back at Kai, past my shoes. He was looking at me and shaking his head no. But what was I supposed to do. As I saw it, in that fleeting span of time, my choices seemed to be limited. Wait and grow old in that ditch, or to die there. Unless…
I thought about what I would do. I practiced slowly in my mind. I rehearsed it, made modifications and then rehearsed it again. I played it like a movie in my head three times after I decided what to do. Each time I made my imaginary actions go faster. Then keeping my eyes closed, I drew the grenade to the center of my chest. Carefully, I positioned it in my right hand (a modification from my first imaginary draft). I turned it so that the long handle edge rested along the inside of where my figures bent, like lining up the stitching of a baseball. Still centered at my chest, my left index fingerer found the ring to the pin. I pulled slowly. It was notched. I had to pull and twist at the same time. It came free. There was no going back.
I got to my knees, then to a squat. I pivoted
sideways and raised my head so that my left eye found the house and
the window opening. Kai was saying something. I tuned him
out. I only saw the window. Like the strike zone on those
nets used to teach kids how to pitch, I saw the square window frame.
Using my legs I rose. In a fluid motion, keeping my eyes on the
window frame, I uncoiled and silently reminded myself to follow
through even as I started to unwind. My arm extended and my
hand released. My forearm and even my fingers tingled as every
bit of kinetic energy in them was released. The grenade was
going straight for the window frame and a small trail of white (smoke
from its fuse) formed a tail.
Marco was up. Two steps latter he was to me. Kai was up. A pop, BANG!!! came from the house. No more gun fire. We were running hard away from the trees down the gully and to the creek. No stopping. Into the creek we went. No complaints. No hesitation. We were moving as fast and as far away as we could. We stayed in the creek, trying to swim some, trying to run some. We didn’t stop. Even when we weren’t going full out anymore, we didn’t stop.
We must have gone between eight and ten miles before anyone spoke. It was Kai. In contempt, he said. “How could you.” It wasn’t a question. It was an accusation. What had I done? Did I save three people? Did I kill three people? Was I a murderer? I couldn’t help but think about Tomas. What did he consider himself? Was it the same? No, clearly not. Was it the right thing to do? What should I have done? What if… What if… but what if… What was I now? I felt shame, remorse and self-loathing. I had no answer for Kai. I didn’t try to give him one. I still don’t have an answer to any of those questions. All I know is they stopped shooting at us and we got away.
I had come to Peru trying to make the World a more peaceful place, a better place. Kai made it clear. No matter what good I had done, it had all been erased the moment I pulled that pin. Was I like everyone else? Were they all like me? What could patch my heart? What could I do to fix things? Anything?
We made it back to Iquitos that night really late, or maybe it was very early the next day, I can’t remember. We were dead-dog tired and my sole was bankrupt. We pounded on a hotel door. Hesitantly, the proprietor opened the door a crack. I pushed a wad of bills at her. It was too much. I didn’t care. The room had its own bathroom with hot water, something even my host family’s house did not have. I had about $120, two t-shirts, one sweat-shirt, two-pairs of Levi’s, including the ones I was wearing and three packs of cigarettes, so available here they were now almost worthless. Past that material, all else was alien. Or I was alien to it.
We slept till almost ten the next day and were woken up by the hotel people who wanted to clean the room. The towels were a total write-off, I thought. Three guys who had crawled through the mud to reach the place were not kind to the furnishings. Though none of us had enough energy to actually get into bed, the bedspread, blankets and pillows all looked like they had been Samsonite tested using the same gorillas. It was time to start over. Leave again, and pretend to be an adventurer. Only I knew that, that was not me anymore. I was no longer a crusader for peace, I was potentially, likely, now a killer. How could I hold my head up again? Well, I was so tired maybe I didn’t have the luxury to care anymore. I was mentally reduced to the lowest level of survival. I told myself, I was alive and left it at that. It would have to do. I didn’t, couldn’t, think past that. There were too many questions, no answers.
Marco left us. We shook hands he smiled at me, patted my shoulder and left. Kai, looked like he always did, dead. That’s how I felt too. But we were alive. I knew it because it hurt. Everything hurt, every muscle, my bruised and bitten skin, and my crushed sense of self.
We left the hotel and went to a café to have some coffee and get some food. There again we asked the best way to Chiclayo. “Under the fence or by road?” the usual question came back. With no hesitation, I replied, “the fastest way”.
“Under the fence, then. You go three blocks to the left and get on the bus to the air-base. Wait until siesta time though, because there are not as many people you need to ‘pay a fee to’ during that time”, our helper smiled.
“The air-base?” I asked. Under the fence meant using the FAP (Forcas Airas Pruvanos – The Peruvian Air Force) as a domestic airline. I had heard that some people did that, but as a foreigner, I had been too afraid to try. Neither of us wanted to get a colectivo out of town, so this sounded like our ticket. We agreed to go under the fence.
We milled around for a few hours, even pretending to care about tourist stuff, then got on the bus. It stopped right across from the main gate. The soldier at the gate eyed us closely. Explaining that we were there to see a friend at the Chiclayo base and were hopping he was flying in today, but had to get back the same day. The delicate information exchange about flights to Chiclayo began. Then finally we could bring up the possibility of “saving him the trip, by going there instead”. As for a “proper fee” we were granted access to the base and given two flight times to Chiclayo connecting to Lima that day. It cost us about $5 total. Was this possible? One flight was in 20 minutes. We hurried to the flight line and asked if that was the plane to Lima via Chiclayo.
Hurrying to board, we rushed forward. “Stop!” cried the sentry by the low gate. Fearing the worst, we walked back to the gate. He looked annoyed and angry. “You forgot these”, he said handing us each a box containing a bottle of Pepsi, ear plugs and some crackers and cheese packets. Thanking him profusely, I tried to “tip” him for looking after us. He wouldn’t take the money. That was potentially the most remarkable thing about our trip.
The big cargo plane had a ramp that opened in the back. We walked up it and then found two empty rear-facing seats and strapped in. It seemed odd to be sitting backwards in the big plane, but then it was not the ordinary way to book air travel. The rear was raised, the props started and the plane lumbered along. As we rose and banked into a turn, I saw some fighters on the ground and couldn’t help but wonder if I hadn’t seen those same planes earlier. Anger rose. My hands balled into fists and then guilt washed over me for letting the same people who had done those horrors I had seen on the ground, fly me right over Tomas, Pedro and the rest, comfortably on my way to safety and the nurture of home.
Just over three hours latter, we landed in Chiclayo! I was a bit nervous about handling our exit, wondering if there would be more “fees” to pay or if we would get into trouble. We weren’t in the frontier anymore. We had arrived back to a place where carbon paper forms had some meaning. The plane came to a stop. The rear ramp lowered and we just unstrapped and walked off. We passed a three-foot high chain-link fence and crossed from the military to the civilian terminal. No one stopped us. No one said anything. We walked out the door got in separate cabs and in thirty minutes I was at the door of my host family’s house on La Avenida de Grau. I walked in, my host mother looked up and said. “Look at you! You’re home. Now I can take care of you. What happened to you? Your things? See what happens when you leave your mother at home?” This one time, I didn’t roll my eyes.
It was over, just like that, well, sort of. I learned a lot about myself, some of it not so pretty. It has all become a part of me. Every time I smell the lighter fluid in backyard barbecues Antoni and his dad, Tomas, and the people I helped to bury are right there. When I get muddy, or walk along the creek by my parent’s house, I wonder about the people in that house with their big rubber boots. I think about my time in Peru sometimes in the quiet spaces, sitting on a train, waiting at a traffic light, or lying in bed before the kids are awake. All those questions that had no answers so long ago, causing so many wounds, are still unanswered. But the wounds themselves are a little better. It is not the time that has cured them though. It is forgiveness. I had to forgive the pilots that dropped the bombs, the people that carry guns and most and hardest of all, I had to forgive myself. You can read this and hate me if you want, or hold me in contempt. But it is not worth it. Trust me. I know what that will do to you, because, we are more alike than different. For a long time, I have been silent about these events during my time in Peru. But I can’t be anymore. You see, I have a mission to finish.
in the subject line of the message.)
2007 Prize Winning Story By Eric