HOW I SPENT MY CHRISTMAS VACATION
I first suspected that something was seriously wrong when I saw the ski masks.
Since we were in the middle of the desert, almost directly on the equator,
I realized the chances of snow were slim. I considered the possibility that
dreaming, but a million tiny details told me this was real. The air on the
ancient bus was fetid; too many people crammed into a space too small for
far too long.
It was 3 a.m. and the rustles, snores and tiny private groans of people trying
to sleep filled the close confines.
I glanced over at my eight-year-old son, sleeping peacefully on the seat beside
me. Joey had always slept well on moving vehicles. He clutched his battery-powered,
glow-in-the-dark He-Man sword tightly to his chest, lost in some martial dreamland.
When I looked back into the aisle the five shadowy figures in ski masks had
removed from below their ponchos dark, heavy objects, looking suspiciously
weapons. The weak yellow glow of the few unbroken ceiling lights gleamed off
of dull metal surfaces.
We were on our way home. The First (and last) Annual International Conference
on Teaching English as a Second Language at the National University in Trujillo,
Peru had ended a week earlier. After the conference we spent a delightful week
of rest and recreation on a nearby beach. Now, ten hours into the hot and dusty
fifteen-hour trek to the Ecuadorian border, something was seriously amiss.
Joey and I, along with my Harvard colleague Allan Hislop, who seemed to be
two rows back, were the only Gringos on the midnight Border Express. The bus,
as usual, was crammed with humanity and its accompanying flotsam and jetsam;
woven bags and vinyl suitcases; cardboard boxes and wooden crates; straps and
ropes hanging from packages jammed into overhead racks too small to hold them;
industrial machinery and automotive spare parts ostensibly hidden under seats
and oily blankets; four dogs and a trio of brilliantly colored Amazonian birds,
one of which was capable of speech and kept repeating a nasty sounding phrase
in a language with which I was completely unfamiliar, but which invariably
caused the passengers in its immediate vicinity to errupt in raucous laughter.
rear seat (also known as "Gringo seating") a hog-tied goat munched on the accumulated
refuse of ten hours of in-seat snacking.
After checking to make sure that I wasn’t asleep, I debated awakening my traveling
companions. No, I decided, if this is what I think it is, they’ll find out
soon enough. I lay my head back and pretended to sleep, as the venerable and
re-cycled Greyhound punched a hole in the thick South American night.
After ten interminable minutes the gunman I had tentatively identified as the
leader stepped to the door between the driver’s and passengers’ compartments
and addressed the sleeping multitude.
"Attention!", he barked. "We are from the M.R.T.A. Nobody move!" The
M.R.T.A. is the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the second-largest of Peru’s
indigenous terrorist armies. "At least they’re not from Sendero," I
thought. A few hours before departure we had heard the news that the previous
day guerillas from Sendero Luminoso, the number one local band of bloodthirsty
fanatics, had stopped a bus up in the highlands, pulled off two French tourists,
and immediately shot them each once through the back of the head. They left
the bloody bodies by the side of the road.
But that was Sendero, Maoist madmen from mountain redoubts so isolated they
hadn? yet seen the dawn of the 19th century. Sendero killed you first, interrogated
you later. This was the MRTA. The MRTA were supposedly educated, from the cosmopolitan
they could be reasoned with.
"If nobody tries anything funny, we won’t have to kill anyone." The
leader was short and stocky, and vibrated with a vicious energy which did not
well for our immediate future.
"Whaa?", little Joey started up, still groggy with sleep.
"We’re getting taken for a ride. Don’t worry. Go back to sleep." I
tried to keep the worry out of my voice.
"Where are we going?" he asked as his slowly widening eyes took in
the tense tableau.
"I don’t know. Please be quiet. Go back to sleep." Fat chance. I really
didn’t want to draw any attention. Joey lay back down, but I could see that
he was now
I looked back at Allan. All of the yelling had woken him up, but his eyes held
a confused, sleep-laden look that told me he wasn’t entirely aware of what
was going on around him, which all things considered was probably for the best.
The bus continued its voyage northward into the desert night, the hijackers
now firmly in control. Through the glass cabin window between the cockpit and
passengers, we could see another gunman with a pistol pointed at the driver’s
head. A disconcerting and dangerous feeling of unreality began developing around
me as the silent minutes began to accumulate, piling one upon another.
This can’t really be happening, I thought to myself. I knew that the legendary
Pan American highway, supposedly sweeping from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego,
was little more than a joke in that part of Peru, having been reduced to a
path through the desert by the devastating El Nino flooding five years earlier.
But the Panamerican was still the main north-south route on the Pacific coast
of South America, which was shy it was our route to the border. Someone, or
something, was bound to come along soon; another bus, a long-haul trucker,
a city, a town,
a lonely pit stop of a Peruvian restaurant. Maybe even a couple of cops or
a military patrol. But I knew they were afraid of the dark out here in the
and were probably holed up with a bottle or a woman or both.
Just as I thought that, I felt the bus slowing down. With a sickening lurch,
following the terrorists’ direction, the bus swung ponderously off of the shattered
remnants of the Panamerican Highway, skirted a gigantic sand dune, and set
off into the pitch darkness of the trackless, empty desert.
We drove straight into the empty waste land for about twenty minutes, at which
point the bus swung into a small clearing surrounded by enormous sand dunes,
and came to a sudden stop. The inside lights came up as the leader addressed
the passengers once again.
"We are collecting a war tax. We don’t want to hurt anyone but if you don’t
do exactly as we say, you are all going to die."
A fat woman at the rear
of the bus had begun to sob. People around me were surreptitiously stuffing
between seats and bosoms, under cushions and into dirty diapers. With the lights
on I could get a better look at our captors. With the exception of the leader,
who as about my age, the gunmen were all in their teens or early twenties;
old enough to handle a gun, and young enough to handle it recklessly. They
heavily armed. I saw shotguns, semi-automatic rifles and an Uzi submachine
gun, as well as several pistols and revolvers. Observing this arsenal, I realized
that at this point discretion was the better part of valor.
The hijackers began ordering the passengers to get off the bus one by one,
beginning with the forward seats. As each passenger debarked he or she was
or strip searched, depending on the likelihood of his or her possessing hidden
Joey, who had been quiet a seemingly calm up to this point, began to panic
as we were separated and I was motioned off the bus. "Dad, I want to go
with you", he called in English as I stood before a masked gunman.
"Shut up and move," the gunman growled in guttural Spanish, motioning
with the muzzle of his machine gun.
"Please don’t hurt my son!" was all I could manage, in my gringo Spanish,as
was hustled towards the door. Descending into the darkened stairwell, I slipped
passports from my document holder into my underwear. Only later did I consider
the possible consequences had they been found there.
Luckily I was given a somewhat cursory hand-search by a sullen-faced teenager
who was at least as nervous as I. He emptied my pockets but I was not forced
to undress. However, it was at this point that the hijackers noticed that they
had several Gringos among their hostages, and they motioned me off slightly
to one side of the slowly exiting Peruvian captives. After being searched we
all told to lie face down in the sand with our hands behind our heads.
Joey was the next one off the bus, and he was searched more thoroughly than
I. It seems that hiding valuables on young children is a time-tested Peruvian
for eluding confiscation by terrorists or highwaymen. Obviously, less than
effective. When the searchers found nothing, he was allowed to assume the position
"Dad, what’s going on?" he rasped, trying his best to keep his voice
"No talking!" shouted a particularly nervous looking and heavily armed
individual, kicking sand in our direction. Off to one side, in front of the bus,
our driver being guarded by a kid in a mask who looked to be about 13 years
old. The barrel of his gun, however, was as steady as Manhattan bedrock. The
illuminated in the headlights of the bus, was bruised and bleeding from a cut
on his forehead and was clutching his side. He squinted in the light, looking
like a suspect in a police line-up, accused of "resisting arrest."
The hijackers had not chosen our bus at random. It was full of independent
businesspeople, also know as "black marketers", on their way to buy cheap manufactured
goods (appliances, clothes, etc.) at the Ecuadorian border for resale inside
of Peru. This was extremely good business at that time, given that legal importation
of these goods carried a heavy Peruvian tax of at least 100%, and in stores they
cost about three times their price in New York, Miami or, for that matter, in
Ecuador. The resulting hefty profit margin for smuggled goods provided plenty
of incentive to these "independent businesspeople" as well as sufficient
capital to payoff "legitimate" authorities. Going north, these busses
were cash-heavy and fat pickings for assorted bands of bandits and would-be
The MRTA guys were going over the bus and its occupants with a fine-toothed
comb, collecting an impressive pile of currency and small bundles. As the majority
of the miscreants continued to search the interior of the bus, the leader and
his nervous, excitable lieutenant began to interrogate selected passengers.
they approached us I realized it was going to be a long night.
As I lay there in the Peruvian desert, kissing sand, hundreds of miles from
the nearest human habitation, thousands of miles from home and loved ones,
at machine gun point by a band of vicious, unpredictable revolutionaries, who
for all I knew had recently sworn a blood oath to rid the earth of running
dog pig capitalists like myself, beneath a million stars suspended from a soft
sky, my mind began to wander.
No, my life was not passing before my eyes in some Technicolor synopsis of
my sins. Instead, it was scenes of the recently terminated ESL conference and
subsequent week on the beach that swam before my tightly shut eyes. I always
did have a short memory.
That is as far as I got when I originally penned these
notes, 15 years ago, shortlyy after the incident. I never finished it. If
anyone is interested in how it comes out (obviously we survived ( Joey is
the Peruvian highlands! ) please let me know and I will finish the story.
By Popular Demand