Monday, January 20, 2014

My Visit to Peru in the Early 80s

article from August 10, 2011
By Jamie Douglas

Fortunately for me, Peru is a changed place. It has taken me 30 years to overcome my last experience there, where I was kidnapped out of the Sheraton Hotel in Lima as I stepped outside the hotel bar where I was drinking pisco sours with an American who befriended me in the lobby.

We had got to talking, and his questions seemed perfectly harmless, such as where have you been and what part of the country do you like the best. He made it appear as if he had just arrived and was looking for guidance. Now, about that pisco. The only thing missing in the name is the second “s,” so I excused myself after a couple of them and then stepped out of the bar to the entranceway of the hotel to smoke my last Cuban cigar before heading to the airport.

Now to explain a little about why I was there: I had formed a small business with a friend in Aspen, Colorado, to import and sell warm Alpaca sweaters, socks, gloves and rugs of Alpaca skin as well as hand woven floor and wall coverings. Our shop in Aspen was a spacious, well arranged store, where we turned over a large quantity of merchandise during the season but kept it closed in the summer, as the summer season was not really what Aspen was about yet. So it was my job to utilize my country knowledge and go to Peru to make the purchases. I knew where the artisan market was and had some good connections there who always offered me the top-quality items at great prices because they knew by then that I was a very good, cash-paying customer who always came back. But whenever I came back, I would also bring back badly made items we discovered after shipment, and I always insisted on double the merchandise in exchange to cover the shipping. That, in turn, led to my Peruvian partners making doubly sure that I was not going to receive crappy merchandise, and in the end we all made out.

So I am sitting on a concrete post in the driveway of the Sheraton, admiring the architecture of the “Palacio de Injusticia” across the wide boulevard, when two guys in tourist police uniforms approached me and told me that their jefe wanted to see me.

They seemed friendly enough, and the tourist police were thought of very highly by tourism officials, so I thought nothing of getting into their marked police car. Off we went, but not to where I knew the prefecture to be. Before I knew it, the guy in the back seat had his pistol to my head, and in very good English he told me that they were going to take me to be interrogated for “crimes against the people of Peru.” I was starting to get the picture. I was a yanqui being kidnapped for political purposes! In vain, I told them that I was Swiss, only to be told to “Shaddapp!”

I kind of knew my way around Lima, a place I referred to as “Slima” for reasons obvious to all visitors to that dreary metropolis in the 70s and early 80s. I soon realized we were in Miraflores, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the entire country, where my friend Ivan and his family resided like royalty, with about 20 servants, gardeners and drivers. We went down a dead-end street, and the gate at the end opened to admit us. I figured I was best off just cooperating, as they were all heavily armed. The house itself was quite lavish, which came as no surprise to me, being in this neighborhood of wealth and power. I was taken to a basement room and left to ponder my fate in the dark for a few hours, with a relatively comfortable couch to sit on but handcuffed to a water pipe on the wall. After what seemed like an eternity in the dark, I heard someone coming down the stairs, and in walked two masked people. I was able to make out soon enough that the one with bumpy bits was a female. And the interrogation began. The questions were repetitive and always came back to one thing: “Why was I having drinks with the CIA guy from the embassy around the corner from the hotel?”

I expressed my profound surprise to them, but to me it was that he was neither a BND (Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) man nor FBI. He had too many directed questions, which was actually why I went to have my cigar in the first place. I tried to explain that over and over, pulling out my red Swiss passport, explaining that I was a traveler from a neutral country, but the pull-out pages filled with stamps from over 90 countries did not do much to convince them. It seemed hopeless, and I was getting a little worried about my immediate future. I started addressing them as “compañeros,” and showed off my knowledge about the armed struggle of the Sendero Luninoso, the Shining Path Maoist Guerilla Movement, sympathizing with their struggle, and questioning why they were in the midst of the bourgeois burg here in Miraflores. We had some deeply intellectual conversations over the next few days, and I managed to convince them that the CIA guy had approached me out of the blue. The bartender obviously was the one to tip them off, because they referred to their inside man at the bar who was familiar with “Guy,” the same name the company man used to introduce himself to me.

On the eight day, they began to address me as compañero marinero, recognizing me as sailor, which was my explanation for all the stamps in my passport. I was given a decent meal, then I had a balaclava put on my head backward and was loaded into a big car and taken a ways out of the city. The thought did cross my mind that I would be shot, but I figured they would not have bothered with the head sock if they had that in mind. The car stopped, and believe it or not, they told me to just wait, and a taxi would pick me up to take me back to the hotel. Off they roared in a big Chevy, leaving me on a lonely dirt road in the gathering darkness. I could see the glow of the big city in the sky, as well as some lonely isolated lights from houses in the distance.

I started walking, as I had nothing else to do and it gets chilly quickly in the evening in Lima. Within about 20 minutes, I saw headlights coming my way, and I made sure to be seen by the driver. He stopped and stuck his head out the window, asking simply, “Compañero marinero?” It was the promised taxi! I got in and he just asked, “Cheraton?”

“Sí, compañero,” I replied. Not another word was spoken until about an hour later, when we stopped in front of the Sheraton and he came around to open the door for me. “No charge for a friend of the lucha (struggle),” was all he said.

I went to the front desk, where I was warmly greeted like the old friend I was, as I stayed there often. “Your room is ready and your bags are already up there!” I got to the room, my usual one, and the message light was blinking. I checked and it was from Braniff Airlines, informing me that my reservation for the following evening to Miami and on to Denver was confirmed.

Overall, it was not such a horrific experience. I was treated well, and by applying reverse Stockholm Syndrome psychology, I was able to taxi away from a situation that easily could have turned out a lot worse.

Tomorrow I will deal with the more pleasant aspects of Peru: the incredible scenery, history and some places off the beaten path. Until then I remain

Jamie Douglas
San Rafael, Mendoza
Where I love that Fine Malbec Wine more every day!

[Image of Plaza de Armas, Lima, Peru, via Wikipedia]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.