The din of the hundreds of voices surrounding us grew increasingly louder as the crowd around us grew thicker.
“You,” the gray-suited man flatly hissed in perfect English through a cloud of cigarette smoke, glancing at me before warily eyeing my companion from head to toe. “Where are you from?” He was met with silence as I made eye contact with my teammate and pursed my lips together.
“What are you doing in our country, eh? How many are here with you?” His piercing gaze was again met with silence as my friend and I said nothing.
The gray-suited man took another draw from his cigarette while pressing closer to us, his suited companion remaining expressionless and seemingly impassive to the questioning he was observing.
I glanced again at my friend who remained almost as expressionless, still saying nothing.
The crowd was swarming around us. Time to move.
But wait, there is far more to this story. Let us start from the beginning. A quick tale of Americans abroad.
I was doing some unofficial leave travel in South America, neighborhood of Peru to be exact.
The trip was scheduled for just under a month, and I was travelling with a small group of Americans. We were in Peru to assist the locals with community development, quality-of-life improvements, health and sanitation program implementation, and management of general health, hygiene, and welfare issues. The team was composed of various experts with regional or topical skills and knowledge, and all were motivated to be in-country. My friend and I were the only military members in the group, so we naturally gravitated to each other given our common backgrounds.
We were scheduled to spend some time in the bustling city of Lima before flying to the elevated city of Arequipa, which sat at just over 7,000 feet above sea level. From Arequipa we’d drive for nearly five hours back into the hard Ch’ila mountain range, which sat at just over 10,000 feet, to work with the indigenous peoples scattered throughout remote villages that dotted the region.
Our mission was logistically well-planned and funded, and also augmented by a hired local, Francisco, who coordinated the team’s travel throughout the country. Francisco’s expert local knowledge and connections eased us through the rigors of having to unilaterally operate in a complex and foreign social and physical environment.
However, that still didn’t stop nature from running its course throughout our travels. The untamed and wild nature of Lima’s crowded atmosphere first welcomed us on a dark and poorly lit city street, where we observed a fresh corpse lying in the middle of the road. Everyone knew the body was lifeless as it sprawled across the faint dashed paint in the middle of the busy roadway, impeding the flow of traffic around it.
Everyone saw it, but no one thought to move it or even cared.
We spent a week observing and working in the city’s massive slums that stretched out over the outskirts of Lima’s hills as far as the eye could see, which as it turns out, wasn’t far given the amount of smog and overcast weather typical during winters in Lima. We even made it to the coast for a PT session of pull-ups, push-ups, and dips on the beach followed by a quick venture into the frigid waters of the Pacific during some scheduled down time. I cherished the time at the beach, as it was a chance to escape the otherwise gray sea of poverty that enveloped the hills around the city.
Our time in Lima was enjoyable but short-lived, and we soon boarded our aircraft for the flight to Arequipa. The team was beginning to feel sluggish and fatigued, as no one had seen the sun in a week.
“Are all Americans like fragile flowers, who wilt without constant watering and sunshine?” Francisco had inquired as we boarded the aircraft.
I chuckled and shook my head as I followed him aboard the plane. The pale gray of the skies was reflected in our attitudes, and we knew it was time to move on anyway—the bulk of our journey lay ahead and Lima wouldn’t change during the rest of our time here. Our main line of effort was with the indigenous population of the Ch’ila anyway, and they arguably lived under harsher environmental conditions than those of their contemporary counterparts stuck in Lima’s slums.
Tempered by geographic isolation, slow economic progress, and the onslaught of cold winter nights spent at over 10,000 feet of elevation, the indigenous villagers were unsure of what to make of our team when we finally reached the cobblestone village square around midday after a day and a half of travel.
The team had flown into Arequipa, boarded a large bus, and travelled into the foothills, eventually having to offload onto two smaller ramshackle vehicles that were able to traverse the steep and winding grades of the mountain roads. That wasn’t before the large bus had broken down for four hours along a remote roadway, which had given us time to do some recce of the immediate area.
Several hours later, the team finally arrived at our destination. We carried packs of varying shapes, colors, and sizes, sported long hair and various hiking apparel, and wore wide-but-weary smiles. We later learned the local villagers had revealed in broken Spanish (a good portion only spoke their indigenous language) to Francisco that we were the first Caucasian people to visit the village in over 10 years, if not longer. Some of the younger villagers had never seen anyone outside the village until our team had arrived. With the foothills of the Ch’ila Mountains reaching into the outskirts of the village, it was no wonder that even the Peruvian government lacked a presence in the region. It was far too remote and therefore not worth their time to administer.
Upon hearing of our arrival, the local village elder quickly summoned his deputy and ushered the group to what appeared to be the nicest—and only hardened structure not made of mud and straw—building in the village (with exception to the worn but exceedingly beautiful Spanish-style mission church). The building was made of old brick, had no glass or panes in its windows and only a tattered wooden door, and was about the size of two shipping containers sitting side by side. There was no water and no electricity—only the brick shell.
The team would spend the remainder of the trip operating out of this building which served as our sleeping quarters, hygiene area (for baby-wipe ‘field’ showers, etc.), kitchen, exercise room, meeting place, and operations center. Many cold nights would be spent wrapped in heavy wool blankets provided by the locals as we sucked in the crisp mountain air and clenched steaming mugs of coca tea in an effort to prevent the cold from seeping into our bones.
We soon got to work compiling what resources we could to form a rudimentary dining table and meeting place (crafted from two street barriers, a piece of rotted plywood, and covered with a wool blanket). Here, the team leader would each day provide marching orders for us and where we would hotwash the day’s events. We unpacked the food and equipment we had toted with us from Lima. We would be entirely self-sustaining during our time in the villages, and had to carefully ration every food and beverage item, with the exception of the tea provided by the villagers. Thankfully, water was not scarce, as we had access to a well nearby from which we would draw water daily for boiling, cooking, and cleaning. Our communications with the world outside the village were very limited—we were in the village until our transportation arrived at a predetermined time and place to ferry us back to civilization.
Francisco quickly got to work making introductions with the village elder and his deputy, in turn introducing our team leader and the rest of the team. They were ecstatic to have white people—let alone English-speaking Americans—in their village, and didn’t hesitate to show it. Over the course of the next few weeks, we grew closer to the villagers and their seemingly esoteric ways, forming bonds with them as we worked to teach them about basic sanitation and hygiene, played soccer on the dirt pitch outside the village, and hiked up the steep and barren mountains of the Ch’ila they called home.
“Me llamo Charlie,” I would try to explain in my rudimentary Spanish. “No hablo Español, solidad un poco Aleman y Ingles.” But it fell on deaf ears.
Our days were spent interacting with the villagers and learning their ways, as they in turn observed and learned ours. Despite Francisco’s expert translations, verbal communication between the team and the villagers remained limited, given the language barriers that went deeper than English and Spanish. The local dialect was not known by Francisco or anyone in the group, so we were forced to rely more on gestures, actions, and lots of smiles to communicate.
Our nights were spent staving off the cold drafts of mountain air that swept through the windowless main room and sleeping area. In order to stay warm, we set stacks of wool blankets on the cold concrete floor, set our sleep systems on top of the blankets, and then set another stack of wool blankets over those. Winter hats at night were a necessity. For extra warmth, the team laid side by side—besides, there was little to no room to spare given our multipurpose accommodations.
As the days flew by, we reached deeper into the surrounding region, even trekking several kilometers to the next village in the valley, where we were fortunate to witness and attend a rare Catholic mass being held in another similarly-styled Spanish mission church. The road to the village was lined with a surprising amount of pedestrians, rickety wooden carts, and farm animals, the majority of traffic being comprised of migrant farmers and day laborers in search of work in surrounding villages.
In order to return to our village before dark after making the long trek out of the valley, the team befriended a local farmer with one of the few motorized vehicles in the region, which happened to be an old jingle-style dump truck. Climbing into the truck bed, we quickly donned bandanas over our faces to ward off the copious amounts of dust that the dry mountain wind kicked into our faces. The sun was shining as we perched upon assortments of wooden crates, burlap sacks, and straw. Riding off with the sun setting behind the mountains before us, the sight spoke to the hard-yet-beautiful environment in which we worked.
Eventually it was time for the team to return to Lima. We were in need of resupply, a hot shower, and to trim our unkempt facial hair. Packing up our sleep systems and neatly folding the heavy wool blankets the villagers had loaned us, we took apart our dining table, did a final check for gear and trash, and left the building just as barren and lifeless as it was found. Our time in the villages had come to an end as quickly as it had started, and although we were going to miss our gracious and curious hosts, we longed for a taste of the comforts we had left behind.
The return to Lima
After spending a night decompressing at a quiet location tucked away in the (much warmer) countryside of Arequipa, the team returned to Lima just as the Peruvian Independence Day was being celebrated.
The already overcrowded city streets soon surged with even more Peruvians, Lima’s population of millions rushing around with an excited air of celebration. Francisco did his best to usher us through the busy streets to our next staging location, working deals with local busses to transport us in a timely manner to our gated and secured lodging area. There was an excited energy in the air, and everyone could feel the pulse of the city gearing up for the night’s pending celebration.
While on foot after stopping at a nice restaurant near the city center for some local cuisine following our return, the team set off to navigate our way away from the growing crowds that were forming on the cobblestone streets around the government buildings. We wound our way through countless groups of tourists, Peruvians, and armed soldiers, the latter who were clearly not present to partake in the celebrations.
The din of the crowd was but a dull roar as we sifted through the countless mass of bodies. When nearing our transportation, our team was split in two as a series of riot police suddenly emerged from a nearby gate and moved with purpose towards the city center from where we had just come.
As I lingered behind with one other team member, a gruff man wearing a gray suit suddenly appeared, eyeing us warily as he fiddled with a cigarette in his left hand. At his side was a similarly clad man of slightly shorter stature. Approaching us, the man with the cigarette looked us up and down, and then glanced over his shoulder at three more suited men, who appeared not to be watching the confrontation, but the immediate area. I noticed that the rest of our team had pressed on, catching glimpses of them through the sea of black-clad riot police and armored vehicles that pressed towards the city center.
The crowd was swarming around us. Time to move.
I stole a quick glance over the man’s shoulder and noticed the riot police had completely passed through the area. A sea of people had now engulfed the open space they had just created. Still refraining from answering the suited man or his companion, my friend also noted the absence of riot police and tactfully stepped slightly towards the two men while maneuvering slightly to their side.
“You’re Americans, aren’t you? I know this. How many Americans are in your group? You have a large group, no?”
I finally responded in a measured tone. “There are 20 of us, thereabouts,” I lied while subtly moving away from the three suited individuals watching the area behind us. My friend nodded discreetly as my message was received.
The crowd around us was growing substantially thicker, so we had to act.
“And yes,” I replied while aggressively stepping away from the two men before pausing for a brief moment to look them both in the eyes, “We are Americans.”
My friend and I swiftly backed up two steps, turned into the massive crowd, and disappeared into the sea of bodies pouring through the space we had just occupied. Glancing over our shoulders, we could no longer see the suited men, and moved quickly to increase the gap between ourselves and the suited individuals. Our next priority was to rendezvous with the rest of our team, who we quickly located a few hundred meters away from our encounter. They had noticed our absence and remained in place until we had caught up and reestablished contact.
The team moved expeditiously toward our staged transportation and quickly boarded while Francisco navigated the driver away from the city center. We soon became lost in the sea of vehicles pouring throughout the maze of city streets, and were back in our gated sleeping quarters within the hour.
The next day we packed and did a final gear check before leaving Peru without incident on a LAN Airline flight for the continental United States. We never learned what became of our gray-suited friend and his companions, nor do we know who they were. We can guess what they wanted, and who they worked for, but why they chose us remains unknown to this day. We were simply Americans abroad in the Gray City and beyond.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.