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A traveller in Peru.

I hadn't even heard of the Sendero Luminoso until our flight to Peru was booked and paid for. From that moment on every acquaintance had a story to regale us with. Each story was a catalogue of atrocities committed by the Senderos on innocent tourists. Each day the stories grew more gory, more fabulous. We received the worst of them the morning before our departure. This one was bad because it came directly from the Foreign Office, straight from the mouth of a friend of a friend.

The Sendero situation was as bad as it had ever been and was worsening daily. It was affecting tourism badly. The train to Macchu Picchu, Peru's best preserved Inca city, had already been blown up three times that year. Don't travel overland. Take flights everywhere. Only last week a young British couple travelling through Peru had walked into a village for the night. The Senderos happened to be in town. The bloke got cudgeled to death. What happened to the girl the chap was too polite to say. At home, on the other end of the telephone, this story merely irritated me. Typical armchair over-reaction. I could guarantee that when we actually arrived there would be nothing to it. I was more likely to get blown up on the London Underground. Secretly, I despised those older, fatter, lesser tourists who hadn't the nerve to go. The Senderos meant no more to me than all the other unknowns I was about to embrace. After all, it was precisely for adventure that I was leaving London.

Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital rebuilt by the Spanish, was sleepier than even I had expected. We arrived on a Sunday morning to a small, empty colonial town. There was no traffic, only wide cobbled streets still lined by perfect Inca masonry. On the benches round the central square sat huddles of brightly dressed Quecha Indians. Women, rich in their woven blankets, flared skirts and pork-pie hats stood around in groups, each with a baby strapped squarely to her back. Inside a church we oggled gold altars and teenage-doll effigies of the Virgin draped in ribbons, satin dresses and flowers both real and fake. To the right of the altar there loomed another statue, its plastic face darker than an Indian's. The figure stood on a pedestal, against a background of coloured paper. It wore rough Indian leggings, its wings were of silver foil, and on its head there shone a Conquistador's helmet. Later that afternoon we saw these two figures paraded round the Plaza de Armas. Their escorts were a convoy of 'priests' and 'priestesses' moving demurely and dressed in white. Around these gliding men and women Indians danced, bright in their traditional dress. Cuzco's inhabitants followed on behind, clapping to the music provided by a motley band of musicians dressed in mackintoshes, anoraks and woolly jumpers.

It wasn't until the following day that we realised we had seen no other Westerners. The fact only struck us when we spotted a couple of backpackers on the opposite side of the square. The four of us stopped in our tracks and stared suspiciously at each other across the throng of locals, too surprised to even smile a salutation. That night we drank Pisco Sours together in a bar full of friendly Peruvian faces. Yet Peru, these two strangers were telling us, was dangerous and getting worse. The Senderos killed tourists to gain publicity for their cause. That was why all Cuzco's hotels were empty.

I wanted to get into the Jungle. I wanted to spend a few days suffering the mosquitoes, the humidity, the bursting life of a primary rainforest. Pongo de Maiqinisa appealed. It is reached from the town of Quillabamba which lies six hours by train from Cuzco. It is three hours further on from Macchu Picchu, along the same line the Senderos like blowing up. From Quillabamba you take a lorry and then a boat out to the Pongo. We decided to go. Quillabamba is wide, dusty, hot and empty, A town full of closed banks and derelict cafes. I found it almost impossible to make even my Spanish understood. We bought enough food from the marketplace to feed ourselves for the next five days. 'Pongo!' says the rice and pasta lady. 'Wah. Muy aventurado!'. The people are helpful if we approach them, otherwise they leave us alone, perhaps following us with half an eye. Gringoes. Nowadays, there aren't too many of them around.

That evening we eat in the tin-shack cafe taking pot-luck at an undecipherable menu. Deep fried chicken and chips arrive. A little boy comes up to the table begging for food. I give him two chips and then irritated by his presence, I dismiss him. Instantly I am guilt stricken. I have treated him no better than a dog. Penitent, I wander onto the dark, dusty road. He has gone, but I pick up another small boy loitering in the doorway. He sits before my plate and wipes it clean. With slow, meticulous movements, his hands keep up a constant motion from plate to mouth. He eats with his fingers, first the chips, and then he picks the chicken bones clean. Occasionally I look at him. He never raises his head or acknowledges me but the roll of white in the tail of his eye shows he sees my glance. As we leave, the restauranteur loiters in the doorway. 'A donde viaja?' he asks. 'Where are you travelling to?'. 'Pongo.' 'Pongo?'. He widens his eyes and shakes his head. 'Pongo es muy peligroso.' Pongo is very dangerous. 'Por que?' Why? He describes vividly how the boat capsizes especially after rains. It is always over-loaded and there are crocodiles in the river. This, curiously, I do not take too seriously. But I have another query. 'Senderos?' 'Si, tambien.' Yes, those too.

We arrive at Paradero de Ricardo by seven the next morning. The pick-ups to Pongo are already lined up, loaded high with humans and other cargo. But we never got to Pongo. We sat cooking in the back of our pick-up for five hours, crawling down the same streets, picking up odd crates from different shops, our departure always declared to be imminent. By 12.15 it was too much. Made cowardly by delay we would wait no longer. Discovering a 2 p.m. train back to Cuzco we opted for that. We thought of the close calls narrowly escaped, of thwarted Senderos waiting along the road to Pachiri, deprived of their first Western victims for months. Compared to this the possibility of the railway being blown up a fourth time seemed an unreal prospect, something that didn't warrant a moment's concern. At four minutes past two the local train to Cuzco pulled out. Eight carriages of sweating humanity ground their way from the heat of the jungle to the coolness of the hills. Vast, perspiring women struggled on board with impossible quantities of produce. Sacks of papayas, pineapples, mandarins, oranges and chickens were shoved into every available space. From each straining woman's back, a wide-eyed baby peered, tightly wrapped to its mother by a handwoven blanket.

As the train pulled out, the sales began. The aisle rolled with the constant traffic and call of food for sale. 'Pina, Pina.' 'Manzana, manzana'. 'Naranja, naranja.' 'Mate, mate.' 'Cafe, cafe.' 'Postres.' Each passenger doubles as a vendor offering hot meals, fruits, drinks and ice-creams. Everyone feeds each other. At every stop yet more produce is pushed through the windows and above, onto or underneath seats. The heat swelled and from the latrine at the end of our carriage drifted a pungent stench. But the heat, the smell and even the lack of space could not inhibit the flow of business. Women unwrapped baskets wherein rice dishes were kept hot, boxes in which home-made ice-creams were kept cold. They untied and tied their babies onto their backs. It was a steam train and travelled at perhaps thirty miles an hour. For every twenty miles forward it moved five miles backwards, reversing into tiny townships off the main line. Three hours later we had not even reached Macchu Picchu.

Two armed policemen moved down the aisle, checking all bags for bombs. It was an impossible task. Systematically they worked their way through the train as it stopped, shunted, started and stopped again for no reason at all. By six in the evening it was dark. The tropical heat had thinned to a highland chill. Now the gangways too were full. In the aisle next to me there sat a large Indian woman who clutched two live chickens. Like the children, the chickens stared docile, wide-eyed and silent. Her son perched himself onto my seat, and, spine curved, he encroached further into my space. On the seat opposite me, swaddled in blankets, a baby slept. The stench from the toilet raked through the carriage again. The train stopped suddenly and the baby rolled off her seat and onto the floor. Like lightning her father was beside her, but she hardly whimpered and fell asleep again.

We shunted on. Then a stop was so abrupt that baggage as well as babies fell. The carriage lights went out. Through the sudden silence we heard the fierceness of the wind outside. It whipped the odd shadow of a tree and almost drowned the roar of a fast-flowing river that ran cold and bleak beside the train. Why were the lights off? Suddenly, to the right of the train, there were shadows moving fast. Men were running, crouched and low, down the hill towards the engine. Why were the lights off? The shadows still came, two or three men, thick, each one stooping, moving fast. I heard the whisper come first from behind me. 'Senderos'. The taste of fear. We were the only whites on the train. We sat bunched, faces down, our packs huge as beacons beside us. Round us the locals talked in hushed voices. We were silent.

Washing over everything flooded an unbearable feeling of isolation, a burning need to know. Everybody understood but us. We were alienated by language. It may be the worst, but at least we must 'know'. Through the window we watched the dark outlines of men running. There seemed to be so many of them. Arms round each other we sat in silence, every sense strained to understand more. Through the growing ache in my throat I felt guilt, an expanding void in my gut. He didn't want to come here. I made him come here. And then my only need was that I shouldn't be separated from him. It's all right as long as they don't separate us.

High above the bedrock of fossilised certainty, my mind rang, I heard the echo fill my ears. Through the shrill I worked out the words and turning, directed them at the youth beside me. 'Quienes son esos hombres?' He doesn't turn. His reply is flat and monotone. 'No se'. He doesn't know. The sickness grew. We sat immersed in silence, clutching hands. The dual truths slid irreconcilably against each other. The knowledge that it was impossible that this should happen to the two of us, and yet, not only was it completely possible, but it was happening. It was not even a surprise. Every tragedy that ever happened, happened to real people, just like us. Harsh voices came now from the carriage in front of us. I turned behind me. 'Que es el problema?' I asked anyone who would take the trouble to reply. I knew the answer, but even to hear it spoken would have brought a kind of relief. The answer was long and complicated. By torchlight I consulted our dictionary. I tested a sentence and then turned and delivered it. 'El locomotora no funciona?' The engine is broken? 'Si.' He smiled to reassure me, reading my face.

Si. The nausea subsided but there was no relief yet. The fear went too deep to be so easily removed. Was it true? Then what were those shadows? Why were the lights off? Why were the people about me so tense and unsmiling? Then a new fear. If the engine had broken and we were here all night, it was only a matter of time before the Senderos did arrive. When we did pull out the relief was almost hysterical. We laughed together. 'The whole carriage joined us. We chortled and mocked ourselves and clapped one another on the back. The train crawled on, but it could take all night now for all we cared, because for a moment we had believed it would never arrive at all. In our relief we could not believe that we had let such a little thing as a slow train bother us so. The next morning came as we always knew it would, and we had breakfast and a shower as we always knew we would and we went shopping in the afternoon. I knew then that I was simply the victim of a self-inflicted con, duped by the very hype of which I had been so scornful. In leaving Quillabamba we ran away from the prospect of adventure. Instead we sat amid a train of bustling locals and for all the terror we felt we did not even hear so much as the distant shot of a Sendero's gun. The threat after all was as unreal as I had first insisted. There was nothing but our own fear. Nothing happened to us at all. But then again I too had read some faces. And that whisper was real. Senderos.
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Title Annotation:account of an encounter with the Sendero Luminoso
Author:Jackson, Sara
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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