Spitting Rain Stings My Face So I Hunker Down Behind the Cab of the Dump Truck
A Peruvian Travelogue by Ed Collins/January, 1990 (edited, January, 2002)
On December 20th, 1989, twenty thousand U.S. Marines invade Panama. Their goal: to overthrow the government of accused human rights abuser, drug trafficker and money launderer General Manuel Noriega. A week later I read that Noriega is offered asylum in Peru, who at the time was taking refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City. On December 31st Judy and I embark on a three-week vacation in Peru.
At 8:00am we’re greeted at the Lima airport by Jose Luis Noriega (no relation) and his son “Tato,” who plays on my USD tennis team. They take us to Naplo, a beach community approximately twenty miles south of Lima, where the Noriegas have a summer house. Driving through the city, we pass crumbling buildings and walls that are marked with political graffiti, including one that reads: YANKEE ASSASSINS: OUT OF PANAMA.
The Noriega family, all seven of them, plus Judy and I, are attended by Benita and Toby, the family’s hired help. At lunch Benita hands a red flag out of the dining room window, a sign that, for the next hour, lunch is being served. At this meal I commit the error of enjoying a lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad. I know better––I’ve made numerous trips to Tijuana and Baja, I’ve traveled throughout Mexico, and I know not to take ice cubes in my drink or eat lettuce that’s been washed with unpurified water. But my better sense fails me––the next morning I wake up with a mild but, as it turns out, persistent case of amoebic dysentery.
By mid-afternoon Naplo is jumping, with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Everyone, it seems, knows everyone. From the third-story den of the Noriega beach house, we watch an endless parade of cheerful vacationers: little toddlers walk clumsily up and down the boardwalk, each held by the hand of a woman wearing a long pastel-colored dress and white tennis shoes; meanwhile, on the beach, a close distance away, their mothers sit and talk. Husbands gather in front of a community clubhouse, while their teenage sons and daughters, all wearing a uniform of U.S. surf tee shirts and neon-colored baggy shorts, gather in separate groups to talk, each going to great lengths to act as though the other does not exist.
On the road back to Lima, Tato drives with his right foot firmly planted on the floor and his left hand poised above the horn. Anyone or thing that thinks about getting in his way is warned with a beep. Juan Carlos, Tato’s brother, expresses amusement that in the U.S., cars are built for speed but the laws discourage driving fast, while in Peru you can go as fast as you want but the cars aren’t up to it.
The Noriegas live in a gated community in an eastern suburb of Lima. Theirs is a sprawling, recently built country-style house situated in the middle of a spacious well-landscaped yard that includes a vegetable garden, swimming pool and a rabbit hutch. The greenery is a welcome relief to the typical Lima countryside, which is more or less barren. Unbelievably, it almost never rains here.
During our first night, just before dawn, I’m awakened by the groaning sound of a diesel generator, seemingly coming from right outside our bedroom window. I’ve been forewarned.
When the electricity goes out in Lima it means that terrorists have bombed another power pylon in the country.
Peru is in the midst of a civil war. Since 1978, Maoists calling themselves “Sendero Luminoso” (in English, “shining path”) have been trying to bring the Peruvian government to its knees. Working in cells, anonymously, the guerillas’ strategy, we’re told, is to take over the surrounding villages, and to create havoc in the city via occasional acts of terrorism.
Like indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, Peru’s have been treated as second class citizens, thus making them receptive to any ideology that promises change. They are desperately poor. It doesn’t help that the rate of inflation last year was 2775%. The contrast of life in the streets and the comfortable lifestyle of the Noriega family is, in a word, stark.
On a walking tour of downtown, many of the office buildings and businesses are guarded by solemn-faced men with rifles draped over their shoulders. (Even some of the homes in Noriega’s compound have guards.) Soldiers surround the government building and President’s palace. We stop to look but a guard motions for us to keep moving. In recent years, the U.S. Embassy was bombed, along with a number of U.S. businesses. During our visit the ex Minister of Defense was assassinated, and two French tourists were forced off a bus and shot. In the past ten years 17, 500 people, mostly peasants in the Northern Andes, have been killed.
I learn that as recently as four decades ago most of South America was prosperous. Argentina, I’m told, was richer than France. But in 1958, when Castro’s communist regime took power in Cuba, the Latin mentality changed. The shared sentiment: “We could lose everything.” Out of this was born the phonomena of capital flight––money made in South America was immediately taken to the United States.
Wear Your Backpack on Your Chest
A forty-five minute flight takes us from the Pacific Ocean to the Andean Mountains, where we land at Cuzco, the Archeological Capital of the Americas, and former center of the Incan Empire, an empire that once stretched from Columbia to Chile. (We’ve been reassured that, for whatever reason, this region has been spared of terrorist activity.)
A representative from a tour agency greets us at the airport and takes us to a downtown hotel that is situated in a centuries-old building. Before we go to our room, we’re given a cup of coca tea (complete with floating leaf). We’re told that it will help us acclimatize to the 12,000 foot altitude, and that we can expect nausea, aching joints, dizziness and/or headache. Personally I get it all.
The next morning I awake with a headache and a blood-soaked pillow, caused by a nosebleed. In the afternoon, when my headache regresses from splitting to dull, we take a taxi tour of local ruin sites, including an Incan fortress named Sacsayhuaman. While Herbert, our guide, lectures, in Spanish, about the history of the site, I try to translate what I understand for Judy. At one point she asks, “Why does he keep saying ‘sexy woman?’”
A relaxing walk in Cuzco is nearly impossible. We’ve been told, and retold, to protect our belongings. Backpacks are to be worn against the chest, to defend against the sneak-up-from-behind, slit-the-bag, grab-the-contents, then bolt tactic. Vendors are like pesky flies. In the space of one block, I’m asked ten times to buy the same thing. On Avenida del Sol, at least fifty money exchangers push calculators in my face, each showing the number of Intis, the Peruvian currency, they will exchange for one U.S. dollar. 14,150 was the most offered. For a $100 bill they’ll count out more than one million Intis, mostly in 50,000 denominations.
An hour minibus ride takes us to Ollaytaytambo, an historical Incan town and ruin site. Our plan is to spend the evening here, then take the train to Machu Piccu, a focal point of the so-called Lost Civilization of the Incas. Since its discovery in the early 1900s, this remote and secluded 15th century city was perched atop a mountain. It’s one of the world’s most wondrous ruin sites, sometimes even referred to as an “eighth wonder of the world”.
We had hoped to find a modestly priced but comfortable hotel, but no luck. The only one with private rooms is filled, so our only choice is the Hostal Tambo, a colectivo, with four beds per room and no lock on the door––all for ninety cents per person. Our simple but clean room is amusingly adorned with crude crayon wall drawings of Bugs Bunny and a smiley face–– “petroglyphs,” I call them. Once situated, we walk the town, which was made more interesting because there had been some kind of festival that afternoon, and many people were still very tipsy. Included was this upper-middle-aged handsome Indian lady dressed in typical costume, who surprised us by squatting down in the middle of the street to pee. That she didn’t relieve herself on the side of the street, I believe, was because that’s where an above-ground canal brings potable water to homes and businesses. The ingenious system, I learn, was built by the Indians in the 1500s, and has stood the test of time. As much as anything I see, these four-inch wide stone canals are most impressive.
With concerns that strangers will join us in our dormitory-style room, we endure a fitful night’s sleep. In the morning, after taking a photo of Judy and Bugs, I wonder aloud why I didn’t pay for all of the beds.
With no running water in the hotel, we go out on the balcony and, with our hands, gather some rainwater runoff to wash our face and hands. There we meet our neighbors, a group of three Peruvians: Pilar, the aunt, Amelia, the sister, and Carlos, the brother, who was celebrating his college graduation.
Complaining that the first class tourist train fare to Machu Piccu was $50, Carlos, who had hired a guide, invited us to join them, and via the “mordida” system, pay as a nacional to take the second-class train.
Just as the train begins to move a man hands Judy a two-year-old baby
Waiting for the train to arrive, we pass the time in a restaurant across from the train tracks, eating cheese sandwiches and drinking coca tea. There we meet a miserable looking Dutch couple who were suffering from a bad evening meal. They too are trying to figure a way to avoid the hefty tourist fare. Now we’re a party of seven.
When the train finally approaches, I’m startled to see everyone running to board. Before it comes to a complete stop, hundreds of people, including Judy and I, are fighting to climb aboard. Right away I notice that each of the cars is already full. Survival instincts take over as everyone, young and old, pushes and elbows their way onto the platform between the cars, each desperately trying to jockey for a standing position. This frenzy is accompanied by frantic shouting. Judy tries to hang onto the Dutch girl, but loses her in the mad scramble. “Where’s your girl?” she screams at the boyfriend. He points to Judy’s left shoulder, where she is pressed against her, so close but somehow lost in the chaos. After ten minutes of trying to keep my feet flat on the floor, I reach down to check that my wallet is still in my front pocket. It’s not. Fortunately, all it holds is 30,000 Intis (about $2.25) for the fare, along with my drivers license. In my right pocket is approximately $40 in change and some bills. Stupid thief picked the wrong pocket. Not as stupid as me, though. We had been warned many times to be careful. In my fear of being left at the station, my sense of caution abandons me.
With nothing to hang onto except a leg, I fear for her safety
Just as the train starts to move a young man hands Judy a two-year-old baby, grabs a door handle with each hand, then balances two twenty-five pound sacks of potatoes between the steps of the car and his knees. During the hour and a half trip the baby sleeps at Judy’s feet.
An Indian standing directly in front of me, literally face-to-face, searches casually, then desperately, for his money. He too has been robbed. When our eyes meet, without saying a word, I try to express my sympathy.
With no room to breathe, let alone turn around, the conductor somehow squeezes through to collect fares. Amelia asks for seven tickets to Quillabampa, the next stop beyond Machu Picchu. This brilliant move allows us to avoid the tourist charge. Instead of $25, the fare is .85 cents.
Women vendors, with baskets of food balanced on their heads, are more than nuisances. To get from car to car, they literally push, shove and squeeze though the masses. I’m lodged smack-dab in the middle between the cars; to pass they have to push me aside, which puts pressure on others closer to the outside. It seems that one more body will force someone out and into the churning, muddy Urubabmba river.
The Dutch girl can’t handle it anymore––she sits down. With nothing to hang onto except a leg, I fear for her safety.
The next passing vendor is turned back. Refusing to take no for an answer, she continues to push forward. Amelia yells at her: “There’s a baby down here!” Judy pushes her basket back once, then twice. For a moment she stands there, seething, before finally giving up.
Mercifully, we detrain at Puente Ruinas, then board a shuttle bus that zigzags up a dirt road, stopping in front of the Hotel Ruinas, adjacent to the site’s entrance.
About Machu Picchu I know little, I expect little. Thought to be a sanctuary or temple inhabited by high priests and virgins of the sun god (135 skeletons were found, of which 109 were women), it was built in the mid-15th century. For some mysterious reason, it was abandoned long before the Conquest, and its memory lost even to the Incas themselves, which protected it from being destroyed by the Spaniards.
Photographs, even film, cannot capture the essence of Machu Picchu. Perched on a mountain top with expansive views in each direction, words such as mythical, mystical, supernatural and spiritual are used in an effort to describe it. One thing I do know: never will I be more impressed with a place.
We enter the site sometime after noon. Shortly thereafter the tourist train arrives, bringing with it dozens of boorish tourists. I say boorish because at similar places I’ve been to, many people make their observations both public and loud: “Oh my God, Elizabeth, look at the size of these rocks! How in the living hell did they get these up this mountain?” (a good question).
An hour later it starts to rain, at first lightly, then hard enough so that everyone scrambles for cover. Some return to the hotel, others, including Judy and I, seek shelter at the site.
When the rain stops Judy and I separate. By then the remaining day tourists have descended to catch the train back to Cusco.
On a stone ledge overlooking a distant valley below, I sit quietly and stare, inhaling the damp air, allowing the spirit of the place to envelop me. From time to time I change venues; each is as remarkable as the other. I wonder if this is how Tato’s uncle got his calling, which is a story that is hard to believe, yet true. As a thirty-something playboy bachelor, he brought his girlfriend-of-the-month on a weekend vacation to Machu Picchu, during which time he experienced some kind of spiritual enlightening. He sent his girlfriend back to Lima, then spent a week by himself in the area. After returning to Lima he announced to his family that he was entering the seminary. Now he’s a Catholic priest in Brazil.
Machu Picchu is a place of great physical beauty, and harmony––a harmony between what nature and man has made. Located 1,640 vertical feet from the river, it is surrounded by mountains. Each part of the city is connected by dozens of staircases, and over 3000 steps, I read in our travel guide. Hillsides are terraced in perfect symmetry, for agriculture purposes. Another Incan canal system carries water throughout the city. Dwellings, fountains, plazas, temples, courtyards––all are built with stones that are so finely chiseled that they fit perfectly together, so perfectly that you couldn’t fit a knife blade between them. What’s most amazing is that they used no mortar. Many of the rocks are enormous, some, I read, as large as 130 tons. (How did they get up here?)
I meander in total peace and quiet. Just before dusk there are a total of four visitors at the site.
In one afternoon we’re treated to everything that the weather can create: drizzle, showers, white clouds that linger between the peaks, bright blue skies, warm sunshine, and finally, a double rainbow that began faintly, then grew in intensity. A surreal backdrop, it was almost like nature gave Judy and I a private showing. After spending a completely silent night at the hotel, we rise early to catch the first shuttle down to the train station. After a half-hour of waiting, I propose to Judy that we walk down the mountain. Little did I know that the narrow overgrown path descends through a tropical mountain forest. Half way down we pass a group of Brazilians whom we had met in Cusco. Winded and red-faced, one asks how much farther to the top. “If you started in Cusco, you’re almost there,” I joke. A full minute later a voice comes through the jungle. “And you’re a long way from the bottom too.”
Luck has a way of evening out: The next train is a first-class tourist. Incredibly, we have the first car all to ourselves, sitting in the front seat next to the conductor, with a huge window through which to view the spectacular countryside.
Each of us stare at the driver, silently persuading him to leave.
Back in Ollaytaytambo by noon, with no arranged transportation back to Cusco, we board the local camioneta (a Datsun pickup whose truck bed is fitted with shoulder-high guard rails). One by one, passengers climb aboard, making everyone squeeze together tighter. Five minutes. More people. Ten minutes. More people. Again, we’re packed in like sardines. Ok, let’s go, I hope against hope. But no, we sit and wait for more passengers. Each of us stare at the driver, silently persuading him to leave.
Just when my fellow travelers start to demonstrate their impatience, and discomfort, he starts his engine.
Instead of turning right on the road out of town, we turn left. There’s no way we can cram another body in here, I think to myself. “Where we going?” I ask the Peruvian pressed next to me. “To gather speed to make the hill,” he answers. And we needed it, as the overloaded pickup barely climbs the small grade.
All eyes are on Judy and me, the only tourists. Just outside of town, a short bespectacled Indian, wearing a pair of Levis and worn leather shoes, asks where we’re from, then follows with questions about university tuition, the difference between state and federal government, laws, taxes, and finally, about the U.S. invasion of Panama. In no uncertain terms, he expresses his belief that the U.S. should respect the sovereignty of South American countries. While we talked, everyone within earshot seemed to follow the conversation.
Just outside of Urubamba the pickup stops, the driver comes back and collects fares, not without a couple of arguments about the amount. Federico introduces himself, offers a warm handshake, then says “Que le vaya bien” (Have a good trip.) A few of the interested eavesdroppers nod or bid me farewell.
Connecting transportation doesn’t come for an hour and a half. We pass the time on the side of the road with a couple dozen Indian farm workers and their children. I amuse myself by playing eye games with a baby strapped to the back of his mother. A lady sits stoically by a mud and stone wall with her two children and a chicken, who is not tied or bound, at least not by a leash. Finally a half-ton dump truck stops, the driver climbs out, then lowers the tailgate. I look at Judy, she looks at me. “Why not,” I say.
First on, I reach down to pull up bags, boxes and babies, then lend a hand to the women and children. Everyone climbs up onto the truck bed except Judy, who is invited by the driver to sit in the cab between him and a guy, who, after a few minutes, falls asleep, resting his head on her shoulder.
I try, unsuccessfully, to follow the infrequent conversations in the back of the truck. They must be speaking Quechuan, the language of the Andes. These are uneducated farmers and field hands. Faces are dark, sun-baked brown, eyes are deep set, clear and piercing. With the exception of their teeth and feet, the people are pictures of health. Most wear sandals, and, apparently, never bother to wash their feet. The more calluses the better protection, I guess. What I don’t understand is how they become immune to the nasty looking splits on their heels and toes.
We drive though twenty five miles of rich farm land. Fallow open fields, the color of dark chocolate, make an eye-pleasing contrast to the ones filled with lush green crops. Overhead, perfectly blue skies are giving way to dark gray clouds. As we enter Cusco it starts to rain, which puts an end to my standing position at the front of the truck bed. Each drop stings as it hits my face, so I hunker down behind the cab.
Addendum I: One week after returning home, I read in the newspaper about an American tourist found dead at Sacsayhuaman. He had been shot. His money and valuables had not been taken.
Addendum II: In 1992, Abimael Guzman, the leader of Sendero Luminoso, was arrested. Terrorist activity has all but stopped in Peru.