Thursday, 14 August 2014

Public enemy number one

Lima 1992.  A winter´s evening, just a couple of weeks after our arrival. I hear fireworks popping outside in the street. The sound intensifies. Suddenly Mama Mery is running through the house screaming "abre la boca, abre la boca".  I have no idea what this means. My sister in law scoops my two year old from his grandma´s bed in the front bedroom where he is watching cartoons. I am bemused and befuddled on the stairs. And then an almighty bang rocks the windows.

detail from a Paracas textile held in the MNAA Lima
taken from : La cultura Paracas - treinta siglos de arte textil

This was the night Sendero terrorists killed the local university´s night watchman. He used to sit in a plastic chair, two doors down from our home on Las Nazarenas. We, along with the neighbours, took it in turn to offer him the occasional sandwich or hot drink to keep the cold at bay.

Turns out it wasn´t fireworks after all, it was automatic gunfire.

Then they threw a grenade at him.

Later I find out abre la boca means open your mouth; the local civil defence advice to avoid ear drums splitting in an explosion.

My brother in law had been tinkering with his old VW outside the house at the time of the attack, a bullet hole in the bodywork testament to a lucky escape. The family was anxious  for days afterwards, fearful that the killers would think he had seen their faces as they ran past. This was the Peru I first knew. A people stunted by fear and suspicion.

I was strung out and frustrated. The initial delight at living in a house with humming birds in the garden was wearing thin, but getting to know this beautiful country seemed next to impossible. Travel to the more remote regions was blighted by those twin goons terrorism and crime, and violence and murder was commonplace. So I took refuge in armchair travel and read Tio Hernan´s stories. They transported me to a gentler time.

But even back then bandits were a thorn in the side of our intrepid travelers. As this story shows. 

Public enemy number one (and two)
In which our explorers have a narrow escape and find that a pistol comes in handy  

A battalion of army engineers was working on the extension of a landing strip in one of the northern coastal towns where Tello was studying some tombs. He had gotten to know some of the commanders and one day,seeing one of them with several pistols stuck into his belt, the archaeologist smiled and said to him: "You're certainly well armed there Commander. Can you believe it, I've travelled all over Peru, many times alone, and I've never carried so much as a small penknife". 

It was true. I never knew him carry any weapons with him on his travels. He did, however, once tell me of a rather swashbuckling incident that had happened many years before.

It was 1919. He was leader of an archaeological expedition to the province of Ancash, and they were travelling through the region of the Huaylas canyon.

 One day a small man of very humble appearance, with the copped coloured complexion of the indigenous inhabitants of the region, presented himself at the expedition's lodgings. Our young scientist was the talk of the area, and the man had heard he was looking for mummies, hiacos and monoliths. He claimed to have some important news for the archaeologist. He knew of a far off place, he said, which was home to several gigantic monoliths 'higher even than a house'

After a rambling but detailed conversation describing to Tello all the small villages, brooks, ravines and pre Colombian ruins of the surrounding area, it was agreed that the strange visitor should lead them all out to this location. But not before the man advised them to bring a revolver; the trail led through ‘bandit country’. Tello assured him good naturedly that they had no need of weapons since bandits only went after people who had money and not those who, like themselves, had little more than the clothes on their backs.

When he had gone, Tello was left pondering the curious information he had received. It seemed highly implausible that any monoliths of such extraordinary size should exist in this area. Nevertheless the man had been so clear in his description of the ‘stone Incas’ he had seen, and they fitted so precisely the Recuay or Huaylas style that the information seemed authentic. If it was true, they were on the verge of discovering something completely new for the archeology of the region.

Recuay, Ancash, by Inyucho is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The team at that time was made up of the medical student Dr Pedro Weiss, the sketch artist Pedro Ulloa, and Tello's assistant Angel Torres. "It's exactly in the Recuay style," he told them. "But this size mystifies me. I've never seen or heard anything like it before."

It took some time to organize the hiring of horses and supplies, but two or three days later, just after dawn, they all set off for the mysterious location deep in the distant gorges that the stranger had so eloquently described.  He himself headed up the line and led them off onto a small uneven track.

Rather bizarrely, their guide seemed strangely unnerved whenever they sighted cattle or farm houses along the way.  After almost half a day’s ride they reached the puna. The highland plateau was bathed in brilliant sunlight, but off in the distance, where the guide indicated their destination lay, the sky was darkening ominously. They would have to hurry; a storm was about to break.

“How much longer before we arrive?”  Tello asked.
“Oh not much further doctor, It’s just over there. You see where the ground slopes away? We just have to go down there and then climb that small rise. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”

The archeologist could tell by the contours of the land that there could not possibly be any ruins in the place that their strange little guide was indicating. What’s more the wind was rising and it would not be long before night fell.  Tello resigned himself to a long trek. The country peasants were used to walking miles and miles each day, and he knew all too well that this ‘just over there’ could turn out to be a matter for debate.

There was no doubt about it, something was up. Angel Torres who, like Tello, was from Huarochirí couldn’t fail to notice that the guide’s constant reassuring smiles seemed to mask an obvious and, to his mind, ominous preoccupation. Just to be sure, he never let the man fall behind the main group and kept him always in his sights.  The rest of the group continued meanwhile along the track, oblivious to Torres’ uneasy vigilance.

Suddenly the guide spurred his horse on to the head of the column, stopped and dismounted from his horse, signaling that he needed to answer a call of nature. But before he could make another move, he froze on the spot.

“Hands up or I'll shoot.”  Torres  had ridden up behind him.

The rest of the group pulled up short. They had no idea what their colleague was doing. Was this another of the practical jokes that he was well known for on the expedition? Not for one minute did they suspect the truth. The guide, harbouring the mistaken belief that they were carrying money and valuables, had in fact dismounted precisely at this advantageous spot in order to turn on them and pick them off one by one. He had chosen the moment to show his hand and spring his carefully prepared trap, but unexpectedly now he found himself with no other alternative but to raise his hands.

Torres ‘gun’ was aimed in such a way as that only the hint of the barrel’s outline could be seen under the coarse material of his poncho. At the same time he put on a peculiarly menacing cat like expression, as if ready to pounce at any moment on the bandit and barked out an order: “Restrain him.”
The criminal – for it turned out that indeed he was a notorious outlaw, wanted for assault on travelers all over the region – stood pale, his arms in the air.

Two of the expedition got down from their horses whilst Torres continued to hold him at gunpoint ready to shoot him if he so much as moved a muscle. They searched his pockets and sure enough, from his back pocket they withdrew a fully loaded revolver, whilst from the other pocket came a small grimy packet of  thirty eight caliber bullets.  If it hadn’t been for Torres’ suspicions, the bandit could’ve easily taken care of all of them, sending them off each and every one to an early appointment in the land of the bald.

Torres, kept his aim focused intensely on the bandit, dismounted and grabbed both the revolver and the ammunition. Only then did he relax, and reveal what the deadly criminal had been terrified of … a strategically placed index finger. 

His weapon and ammunition now confiscated and safely in the hands of Torres, the crook made to escape but Torres had anticipated his next move. He floored him with a single punch and began to give him such a thrashing that, if it hadn’t been for the intervention of the archeologist, the man would have been half beaten to death.

As it was, Torres’ day was not yet over. It was almost dark and this far out in the wilds there was nowhere to stay. Luckily they had spotted some buildings not too far away and that is where they now headed. Reaching the buildings, they were relieved to find a hacienda. Being part of an archeological expedition they assumed that they would be welcomed. To their dismay, when they roused the hacienda´s caretaker this was not the case. Quite to the contrary, this new, somewhat minor, character in the increasingly long saga of the day put on such airs as you would’ve thought he was the lord and master of all he surveyed. And he refused point blank to give them any lodging, claiming disdainfully that he had no ‘orders’ to do so. 

Faced with this new dilemma Tello’s tactic, in response to the objectionable fellow, was to become the epitome of courtesy. He generously offered him a large remuneration for any trouble caused if they may only just stay for one night, but the great man was not to be persuaded and continued to treat them with scornful condescension. 

The archeologist tried pointing out  politely who they were but that also failed to achieve any success.  

He explained that they had been sent by the government … nothing.

He described how their valuable work shed light on the grandeur and wisdom of our ancestors, so that our children could study them and be proud of their heritage … not a thing.

He tried appealing to his sense of civic duty … even worse!

It was no good. Even when the others joined in with their various entreaties, the man stubbornly refused to let them in. He puffed himself up like a turkey.  “I can’t do it I tell you. So don’t keep insisting. Just go away and find yourselves somewhere else to stay. ”

The situation was becoming farcical. Torres let it go on for some moments but, knowing that they had no chance of finding even a shack for miles around,  he began to insinuate in jest that if the good fellow wouldn’t let them in they would just have to take the hacienda ‘manu militare’

Finally when all their appeals failed to make even the smallest dent in the caretaker’s offensive demeanour, Torres snapped. “Very well doctor,” he said removing his poncho, “this is where the expedition will stay the night and if this gentleman does not wish to offer his hospitality voluntarily …”

The caretaker’s attitude changed in a trice. All his arrogance and pomposity melted away into nothing at the sight of the newly acquired gleaming revolver tucked into the visitor’s belt.

“Now, let’s see, what rooms do you have for us."

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