Time seemed to stretch out as we lay face down in the desert, miles off the Pan-American highway, somewhere between Chiclayo and Piura. I had managed to turn my head to one side, and I could see some of the gunmen getting everybody down and quiet in the sand, while others were unloading the suitcases and boxes from the underbelly of the bus.
I was hoping that this guy was serious when he said they were just collecting funds and nobody was gonna get hurt. Kidnapping had not yet become as fashionable or routine as the Colombian Mafia would make it in the 90’s, and the Tupak Amaru guerillas were not known for showy violence, as were their Andean counterparts, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).
Those Senderistas were know for deadly little bits of political theater like rolling into an isolated mountain village at midnight, assembling the entire population in the main square, and in a sort of bizarre torch-lit revolutionary pep rally and training session, systematically assassinating the mayor, the policemen, all of the teachers, and anyone else who worked for the government. They would usually take a few of the village’s crazier teenagers with them when they left and call it recruitment.
These were the disquieting thoughts that roiled my brain as I lay there in the hot desert night. All of my senses were hyper-alert. I could smell the fear in the air. It radiated off the gunmen, who seemed to be hyped up teenagers, in waves. The passengers were mostly whimpering or crying quietly, although one woman was complaining loudly that she couldn’t breath.
They were letting families stay together, which probably kept the panic level down, and after a few minutes one of them led Joey over and he lay down next to Allan and me. I wanted to ask him if they had brought him over on their own initiative, or if he had asked them to, but when I whispered his name one of the gunmen kicked my leg and hissed, “Silencio!”
Slowly, when it became apparent that they had us under unchallenged control and no one was going to “try anything funny”, the whole scene calmed down, and the bandits got down to the serious business of plundering. They were going through the bags and boxes and removing anything electrical or shiny, throwing the rest in a heap.
They were taking more care going through the passengers and searching them one by one. This was for two reasons; first people always keep their most valuable possessions close at hand, and in Peru putting your suitcase into the cargo bay of a bus is always a speculative proposition. In this case, additionally, most of these folks had their investment dinero stashed in their skivvies and brassieres. On the way back to their costal cities of origin the next day (or so they had thought) the bus would be laden with boom boxes, liquor, cartons of canned goods, hair dryers, Levis, perfume, watches, and TVs.
This was capitalism at work, third world style. Peru at that time had imposed high import tariffs on manufactured and luxury goods in a misguided and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to build up local industry, while Ecuador was, and still is, a wide open, free market kleptocracy in tight with Uncle Sam.
Suddenly we noticed a commotion by the rear motor compartment of the bus. The gunmen got all alert and aggressive again and started swinging their guns around, looking for something to aim at. Alerted by the persistent crying of an unseen child, they had poked around in the back, and discovered a secret compartment behind the engine and above the wheel well. When they opened it and ordered the occupants out, a sheepish and sleepy family of five emerged. Paying a package fee straight to the driver, who was making some extra money out of sight of line management, they had slept through the whole kidnapping up til then.
Eventually, they got back to searching, and soon it was our turn. They had evidently noticed that the three of us were different than the rest of the passengers, because the leader had come over to search and question us. They got us to our feet and started out with a quick pat-down, which got them my wallet and our airline tickets. They also took Joey’s walkie-talkies (a Christmas present). Although obviously toys to our eyes, I was more than a little worried that they would take them as evidence that we were CIA.
After a cursory examination of the objects his minions had taken from us, the leader walked directly up to me and looked me in the eyes. He was about my age, and about my height, which is tall for a Peruvian. He seemed nervous, like he wanted to finish his business and get out of there as quickly as possible. I shared the sentiment, only hoping that when he left we could stay behind.
“Que haces?” he asked me (What do you do?), pushing me slightly in the chest.
Before I could answer in my terrible Gringo Spanish, my 8 year-old son Joey piped up, “Don’t hurt my Dad! He’s just a teacher!” The leader looked in surprise at this curly-headed Gringo kid speaking accentless Peruvian Spanish. Despite being born in Albany, NY, Joey, whose mother is Peruvian, moved back to Peru with us when he was 11 days old, and lived there until he was 7.
The gunman forgot about me and hunched down to look Joey in the eye. I could see a slight softening in the muscles in the corner of his eye. I guess he liked kids. Maybe he had some.
“Oh yeah?,” he asked, “And where does he teach?”
“In the Universidad Nacional,” – the public State University, like a good proletariat, where I HAD taught for 7 years and where the conference we were returning from had been held. I still marvel that Joey had the instinct or luck to tell them I worked for the state university, where from what I had read many of the leaders of Tupak Amaru had been students or even professors, rather than imperialist havens Harvard and BU, where I actually worked at that time. Even if they had been Senderistas, saying that I worked for the State would probably have gotten me killed, but with these guys it was the right answer.
“What does he teach?”
“English!” yelled Joey, with a slight note of scorn in his voice, like, what a stupid question. This was one of the few moments in my professional life when I thanked my lucky stars for choosing ESL as a career. We are know worldwide as harmless eccentrics.
“Back down on the ground,” he barked and marched off. We dropped and tried to dissolve into the sand. So far, we were doing OK. I still had our passports in my underwear, and I had an emergency $100 bill in a secret compartment in my belt. If they would just be satisfied with the loot and skedaddle, we might get out of this unscathed. Not normally a religious man, I started to pray.
That got boring quick, though. The temperature had dropped as we got closer to dawn, although the crying and quiet complaints continued. The bus had been packed. There were probably almost a hundred people lying there.
The gunman had gone into a prolonged conference. They were standing and sitting around in the area illuminated by the headlights of the bus, gesticulating with their rifles, and arguing about something. I hoped it wasn’t us.
Suddenly I heard Joey whispering something. “Dad, Dad” he was trying urgently to get my attention.
“What?” I replied tersely. Although at this point there were only a couple of gunmen watching the prisoners while the rest were huddled in conference, I desperately wanted to avoid their attention. I felt that we had entered some temporary safety zone and that any change in the status quo could upset it.
“Dad, I don’t think those are real guns!” This from an eight-year-old whose exposure to guns was limited to TV and Rambo movies.
“Let’s not find out,” I hissed back, in a tone that implied lets not discuss it right now, either. I had seen enough real guns to know that these guys were serious.
Finally, after an interminable period, there was a lit of shouting and movement, and before we knew it the entire crew of guerillas had piled into their two Land Rovers and our bus, and drove away over the dunes as the rosy fingers of dawn scratched at the sky in the opposite direction.
Suddenly we were alone. Eighty-something people, mostly in their underwear, in the middle of the desert next to a pile of discarded clothes and discarded boxes. The whole thing had taken about four-and-a-half hours, and not a shot had been fired.
For a few minutes no one said anything, until we were sure the bad guys were really gone. Then excited and relived chatter broke out as little knots of family and acquaintances counted their losses and recounted their narrow escape. Secret stashes emerged from trashed suitcases and corporeal nooks and crannies. Relief turned to indignation and apprehension as we realized that no one knew where we were, exactly.
But it was easy to see the sun rising in the east, and we knew that the Pacific Ocean and the Pan-American highway lay due west, so if we started walking into our shadows we would hit one or the other eventually.
Joey and Allen seemed none worse for wear, although of course the reality of what had happened really didn’t set in until we were back in “civilization”. We started walking together with everyone else. I figured if we had driven half an hour into the desert, at about 30 miles an hour, so we might have to walk 15 miles. At least we didn’t have a lot left to carry.
We actually ended up walking just a couple of miles, as eventually the bus turned up looking for us. The driver said they had make him drive to an isolated area about 10 miles away, slugged him in the head, and left him lying in the sand, playing dead or at least unconscious. He got up after they disappeared in the Land Rovers, got the bus started, and came back for his passengers. I hope he got a bonus.
Back on the bus, I asked where we were going. It seems that the closest Police Station was in Chiclayo, two hours back the way we had come. There was a certain gaiety in the group, normal I guess after a narrow escape like that.
As we rode in exhausted relief, watching the sere brown dunes flash by, I noticed something stuffed down between the seat and the wall of the bus. Pulling it out, I discovered one of the ski masks. An authentic Peruvian guerilla ski mask! What a souvenir! I almost stuffed it into my pocket until I realized this could be construed as “withholding evidence” and the last thing I wanted at this stage of the games was to get tied up at the Chiclayo police station.
When he got there it was all frighteningly routine, as though this sort of thing happened all the time. Maybe it did, although I’d never heard of it. I guess the Peruvian tourist bureau decided not to feature it on their list of top attractions.
Incredibly, our driver was determined to push on to the border. The bus company was offering free rides in either direction, and the decisive factor for the other passengers seemed to be whether or not they had managed to save enough cash from the gunmen to salvage something from the run.
Allan had lost his passport , so he had to take the bus back south, to the capital, Lima, and the American Embassy, where they fixed him up with a hotel, a new passport and a plane ticket home.
But Joey and I still had our passports, and I had my secretly stashed hundred dollar bill. Frankly, I just wanted to get out of the country as fast as I could at that point and shuddered at the prospect of going back the way we had come. So we shook hands with Allan, and got back on the bus heading to the border.
24 hours later we were in the departure lounge of Simon Bolivar Airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador, waiting for our flight back to Miami and wondering if it had all been a dream. As the impression sank in I realized that this was more than just another adventure to brag about back on campus. I had not only endangered myself and my colleague, but more importantly my kid, who could have been killed, and had probably ended up saving my ass.
Needless to say, I was seriously spooked. In fact, for the next 13 years, until last year, I was too scared to go back.
And Joey? Was he scarred by the experience? Well, only he can say for sure, but to ask him these days you’ll have to go down to Peru – to Carhuaz, a little idyllic village in the Andes, where he is converting a piece of land I bought before he was born into an adventure tourism hotel. Go figure.