I decided to post this story after a Twitter chat in which the question was asked, "What has been your scariest moment in travel?" Well, besides doing a lot of independent travel, I've also worked on boats and airplanes, so there have been a few: storms at sea, scary landings, and others episodes. But hands down, the following account was one of the scariest moments.
Peru was a very different country back in 1991 when I first visited. I made my way overland from Ecuador by bus. I was traveling alone, on an extended journey, backpacking on a shoestring budget around South America. Yet, as often happens when you’re solo traveling, I was rarely alone.
During this time, I had been traveling with Dave, a Brit with a great sense of humor who had recently left the military—good to have around if you run into trouble, I figured! He taught me how to properly kick someone where it counts, something that came in handy, later in my travels. Then, while in Northern Peru, Dave and I met Morten and Bjarne, two Danes also on the South American ‘Gringo Trail.’ Dave nicknamed them, “The Vikings”—they didn’t seem to mind.
"I'm not very good with left and right and Bjarne has problems with numbers, so he (Bjarne) gives directions and I exchange money," Morten explained the compatibility of their friendship.
Lunch led to a beer, which led to some more beers and conversation, which finally led to nightfall. The Vikings were going to Lima that night. We were headed the same way in the morning and made plans to meet up in Lima.
In 1991, Lima was a city in which you always had to be on guard. We took precautions such as taking a taxi from the bus station to our hotel, rather than a cheaper ‘colectivo’ which you share with others.
"Can you drop us off at the Plaza de Armas?" I asked the driver in my Portuguese accented Spanish (I was born in Portugal, so I speak Portuguese, and my Spanish is heavily peppered with my native language)!
The hotel in which we had planned to stay, was near the Plaza. As we were passing in front of the Presidential Palace, Dave suggested, "This is good, right here."
"NO, not right here," the driver forcefully advised, "they will shoot you!"
It was then that I noticed that armed police surrounded the Palace, not just holding their guns nonchalantly, like many South American Military Police, but with their guns pointed and fingers on the triggers. Armored Personnel Carriers patrolled the city; four protected the palace. This was a city prepared for anti-government, Sandero Luminoso (Shining Path) attacks, bombings, and blackouts.
The Sandero Luminoso was a leftist, Maoist organization which had been at odds with the government since its beginnings in the Andean city of Ayacucho in the mid 1970's. Also known as the PCP, an acronym for Partido Communista Peruano (Peruvian Communist Party), the guerrilla group had the reputation of being the most militant terrorist organization in the Western Hemisphere.
The objective of the Sandero Luminoso was to create a revolution like that of Mao Tsetung's failed Cultural Revolution in China. They wanted to redistribute the wealth and create a peasant agricultural society. The problem with achieving this proletariat paradise was that those who stood in the way of the dream were eliminated. This included any one who was viewed as assisting the government in any way.
On the opposing side, Amnesty International accused Peruvian security forces of massacring civilians. They also reported that the government forces had already killed or abducted more than two hundred people just in the past year. Amnesty International said that Peru had repeatedly broken promises that they would curb their human rights violations. Government officials responded by saying that sometimes innocent people were killed when the armed forces were pursuing the terrorists. As usual the villagers paid the heaviest price.
Our fate was intertwined with that of the Danes for the next 24 hours. By chance we saw Morten and Bjarne in the morning and all shared a taxi to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). The collection was impressive, however its authenticity has, since then, been called into question, but that’s another story.
The memorable evening in question started with all of us meeting up at the Plaza. We then waited for a Peruvian man who had befriended Morten and Bjarne during the days activities. Juan Carlos, who spoke English, invited us to go to a Peña (a bar which plays folkloric music) with him to meet some of his friends: a Peruvian woman and a Bolivian man. They were all very friendly and the beer and conversation flowed.
"How do most Peruvians feel about Alberto Fujimori (the President)?" I asked.
"They didn't like him at all when he first got in, but he's becoming more popular now," answered Juan Carlos. "He's trying to fight inflation. Our inflation is 7000 percent...7000 percent...The government has introduced a new currency it's called the Sol, have you seen it?"
To put things in perspective, $1 US was worth about one million Intis at this time. A beer cost about 875,000 Intis. The government had just introduced the sol which would equal $1 US and made for a lot of confusion during the transition period.
"Not yet,” I responded. “But, tell me more about the Sandero Luminoso."
"They've been fairly active lately.” Juan Carlos said, “I think the government's losing the battle. I wish people could just learn to live in peace without regard to politics." Amen to that!
Juan Carlos seemed like a decent, well-educated gentleman. He gave us advise regarding the village of Tarma, one of our possible destinations.
"We wanted to go by train though, but they've suspended service." Dave said.
"Do you know why they suspended service?” Juan Carlos asked rhetorically, “Because the terrorists blew up the railway tracks."
Well, I guess we weren’t going to Tarma by train.
We moved on to a “discotheque” which featured a 12 men Cuban band playing Rumba music. The Peruvian woman and Bolivian man disappeared for about one half hour. We would later understand the significance of this.
Just before midnight we were preparing to leave and take a taxi home when our ‘friends’ insisted on walking us home. The streets were dark; Lima closed its doors early during those days. In fact, there was a curfew in effect. Few people were walking and there was little traffic on the road. We walked for a couple of blocks when two plain clothed police officers confronted us at a street corner. They swiftly showed us their badges.
"What have you been doing this evening?" They asked menacingly in Spanish.
"We just came from the club," the Peruvian woman explained. "We're walking home. What's the trouble?"
The 'police' asked to see our identification. One of them spoke English and addressed us directly. Because I had heard about false police officers stopping people on the streets, I showed him my passport but refused to hand it over, holding on to it firmly with both hands open to the appropriate page.
"Don't give them your passports," Dave yelled.
The police officer tugged at it several times and finally, giving up, let me return it to my leg pouch. They did the same with the others. However, they were successful in holding on to Morten's passport. During this time the locals were pleading with the police not to hassle us.
"You're going to have to come with me to the station." The police officer said to us.
"Why do we have to go with you, what's your accusation against us?" Dave asked.
"We've been following you tonight,” The officer accused, “we know what you've been doing."
"Then you must know we haven't done anything wrong or illegal." I stated, becoming angry rather than frightened.
Dave tried a more practical approach.
"I'm in the British military and I have a friend who is a military attaché here," he said.
"It's not YOU we're interested in anyway, it’s your friends, but you will have to come with us to the police station," said the officer in the sort of English one learns at a language school.
"We're not going with you. How are we to know that you are who you say you are?"I asked. I was quite feisty in those days.
"Find a uniformed policeman and then maybe we'll go with you," Dave insisted.
The English speaking policeman refused. Meanwhile, his friend was hassling the Danes. My thoughts were: There is no way that I'm going anywhere with these people. There is no way of knowing what they will do with us. I don't believe they are the real police. I’m scared.
Juan Carlos pulled me aside and said, "They found a little marijuana in my friend's pocket."
Oh shit, I thought. I didn't know what to make of this new development. I had read about police planting drugs on tourists in Lima, and it didn’t turn out well.
Dave said, “We should get out of here!”
"They've got my passport," Morten said.
"What do you want with us, just let us go, we haven't done anything," pleaded the Peruvian woman.”
Was she acting? I wondered. What was going on?
A taxi conveniently pulled up for them—not a small Volkswagon bug, which were ubiquitous in Lima, but a van capable of carrying eight passengers, comfortably. They ushered us towards the menacing vehicle. Again my thoughts: There is no way in hell that I'm getting into that van!! If I do, I lose control—they will have total control. If only they didn't have Morten's passport.
"I think we should get the hell out of here. I think we should run!" I yelled, not caring if they overheard.
"If you CAN, RUN!" Dave yelled at me.
Morten and Bjarne were now being manhandled into the van. The locals were still arguing. Yet, they were not hassling me, for some reason, probably because I’m a woman. I was now able to get away. What should I do? Should I leave my friends and make a getaway, or should I stay? If we all got in that van and they beat us up or worse, killed us, no one would know—no one. It would do absolutely no good if I got into that van with the others, I decided. I was convinced these were not authentic police officers. I thought: at least if one of us gets away we can contact the real police, or the embassies for help.
I slowly backed up moving away from the group, then I made my getaway: dashing across the street, running in and out of traffic, running like mad, faster than I had ever run in my life, running for my life. I didn't know if I was being chased. I turned around quickly and saw Dave running across the same street and I continued running. Dave was now running behind me. I hesitated for a moment, not knowing whether to find a place to hide, or to keep running. I had never been in this kind of situation. Dave saw my hesitation and yelled, "RUN, Anabela, RUN!"
I ran. We went a few blocks then intercepted a slightly heavier trafficked street. A taxi was just going through a streetlight. Dave jumped right in front of it, making it screech to a halt, as in movies.
"Don't ask, just get in!" I yelled.
While Dave was jumping into the baby blue VW bug he started bargaining, "Plaza de Armas, two mil."
I couldn't believe he was negotiating at a time like this! I got into the front seat and we both yelled at the poor taxi driver, "Rapido, Rapido!". Dave placed his hand on top of my head and forced it down urging, "Duck, duck!"
Finally at our hotel, we felt safe behind its rod iron gates. Upon arriving, we immediately spoke to the manager, reported the story, and requested assistance. We were extremely concerned for Morten and Bjarne's welfare. Furthermore, we were afraid they would be punished for our fleeing. We asked him to call the tourist police to ask whether they had picked up any foreigners tonight but they refused to give information over the telephone. There were two other helpful men in the lobby and they tried to assess the situation.
"What area of Lima was this?" One of them asked.
We showed him, on our city map, the area west of Avenida Alfonso Ugarte.
"OOOOH, we are Peruvian and we don't even go there at night. We are scared to walk there at night," said one of the men.
They asked us about the local people with whom we had gone out. Suddenly, it became clear that it was a set up. That’s why the Bolivian man and Peruvian woman had disappeared for so long. We had been duped.
"This happens all the time," the manager explained. "A Peruvian befriends you, then invites you to a party, then they walk home with you, maybe they plant drugs on you, then you get detained by the police..."
Ironically there was a warning sign about exactly this sort of thing up on the notice board of the hotel lobby. We hadn’t read it.
Dave and I quickly emptied out our pockets in front of the hotel manager, just in case they had slipped something into them.
Dave was worried about having 'assaulted' a police officer. When he was being manhandled into the vehicle, he had physically pushed one of the 'police officers' to get away.This was troubling him, in case they had in fact been real police officers.
The manager and the others at the hotel advised us that the best thing we could do was to go to our friends' hotel in the morning (their hotel did not have a phone and it was out of the question for us to walk there that night). If they weren't there, we would go to the tourist police and the Danish Embassy.
"Try not to worry. They should be all right," the hotel manager said, "they'll probably just take their money. They usually don't harm them. If they don't fight they'll be all right, just poorer.".
Dave and I figured that Morten and Bjarne were the sensible type so we hoped for the best.
It took a long while for our adrenalin to slow down, so we spent a good hour discussing the evening's events and concluded that we had made the right decisions. For example, before making his getaway, while the officer was manhandling him, Dave had frisked him to check if he was packing a gun, a technique he had learned in the reserves. I would never have thought of that, but then, Dave did have the training. There was no gun.
At dawn we immediately walked over to Morten and Bjarne's hotel and were elated to see them, with their backpacks, standing outside of their by the door. We all hugged each other with evident relief. This moment sewed our friendship.
"What happened?" Dave asked.
"We were just coming to see you. Too many people know that we’re staying in this hotel," Morten said.
"Did you tell anyone where you were staying?" Bjarne asked. We hadn't, so we would all be safe there.
What had transpired was that they had been taken in the van to a 'police station' about 20 minutes away. They had handcuffed the Bolivian man for carrying dope but released him when he complained that his wrists were hurting. In front of the building to which they were taken, there was a guard with a machine gun. The 'police' led them into a room (supposedly the station) which had a sign simply reading 'Police', and a typewriter on a desk, weak evidence to support its claim as a police station. The Peruvians and the Bolivian were taken into a separate room from that of Morten and Bjarne. However, they didn’t separate Morten and Bjarne. Then, they tried to make them admit that they had drugs.
"They told us that the Peruvians had told them, that we had some drugs," Bjarne explained.
The 'police' then strip searched them and quizzed them about the evening's activities. Morten said that the English speaking officer was quite decent and conversed with them about the drug problem. They tried to pressure Morten and Bjarne to tell them about our escape.
"They got really angry with us when you got away but we said, 'well, you're the police, why didn't you go after them then?'"Morten said. "We told them that we had just met you and had no idea what your names were, or where you were staying," Morten said.
"They asked us a few times so the last time we gave them two Danish names that we made up," Bjarne laughed.
The 'police' finally got to the point. They told Morten and Bjarne that the Bolivian had offered them $300 to go free. Ahhh, so that was the scam. Apparently they wanted the Danes to pay them a similar bribe. The police claimed that they had a vehicle that needed to be 'fixed.'
“We don’t know anything about fixing cars,” Morten told them.
The police suggested they make a ‘donation’. Much to their credit, Morten and Bjarne had the courage to say ‘no’ to them.
Bjarne reported, “we told them, ‘we haven't done anything wrong or dishonest so far and we feel it would be wrong and dishonest to give you money'.”
Surprisingly, the police let them go on that note. They even escorted them to a taxi; a move which proved to be one of the most intimidating moments.
"There were three of them (walking behind) following us,” Morten explained, “and we thought: this is where we were going to get beaten up, or shot at, for not paying the bribe.”
Everyone to whom we spoke with about the incident, said that we were incredibly lucky to have escaped with no injuries, and all of our money intact. The people at the hotel were now saying that it could have very well been a set up by the police themselves. They were known to do that sort of thing. The law was known to be lawless. I suppose that the crooks, whether they were real police officers or not, didn't really want any trouble or violence. Perhaps when they did this, they were usually able to quickly intimidate their victims into handing over their money. They would probably try again the following night.
Please note: The events in this story took place in 1991. I kept a very detailed journal throughout my entire South American journey. Since then, I have returned to Peru several times. The most recent visit was last year and Peru is a very different country. Please stay tuned for more stories about Peru and South America.