The “Brighton Globetrotter,” Bruce has easily surpassed us all. As a foreign service officer, holding a PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina, B.K. has worked on four continents in: Washington D.C, Peru, Albania and Iraq, along with lengthy posts in Tunisia, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Republic of Georgia.
Many a Holiday season he has entertained and educated us with tales from abroad. This week, we looked backward to 1997 when I had the good fortune to visit Bruce in Peru. Bruce now lives in suburban Maryland with his wife and two children.
At the time, Bruce was completing a post-doc on Peruvian politics, having just finished his dissertation on the Shining Path, the Maoist guerilla organization that in 1980 began a long campaign to bring communist revolution to the people of Peru. In 1997, remnants of the Shining Path still operated in the Peruvian countryside.
Then living in Rhode Island, in August I left for Lima. A charming young Frenchwoman, Marianne Gillet joined us from graduate school in California. Amongst other things, she and I spent August 1997 walking amid the lagoons of the Cordillera Blanca talking about Flaubert and Madame Bovary and el amor.
While most of our time was spent in “tourist activities,” such as seeing the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, Bruce and I—leaving the group—also partially retraced the terrain of his research: the path of the Shining Path where three years earlier Bruce had witnessed government commandos “pacifying” territory in which Shining Path guerillas were active.
August 1997, deep Peru
I had the opportunity to literally retrace Bruce’s thesis starting with the Shining Path’s birthplace in the central Andes to the dark forested Amazon to the outskirts of the capital city, Lima.
First, we had to climb the Andes into deep Peru. I remember Bruce carefully inspecting the wear on the tires of each potential bus—like a master dentist probing teeth. One faulty tire and a bus could careen over the mountainside edge.
After a harrowing ride up the Andes on a night in which our bus driver played chicken with oncoming drivers, we arrived in the Andean city of Ayacucho where Shining Path militants in the 1980s strung dog carcasses from lamp posts, auguring the coming class war.
There we encountered a Holy Week procession. Bruce said participation was encouraged. So we took a place as pallbearers in the resurrection float, Bruce flanking the float amid an escort of campesinas (female peasants). I distinctly recall peering into the float at a spring-activated Christ figure. Bruce waved at me not to get too close. When the spring released and Jesus rose, I realized had I stayed put, a blow on my forehead surely would have knocked me cold. What an odd way to find God.
We moved into the Amazon where Shining Path was still present. Although there were checkpoints and garrisons, I was struck by how normal life seemed. Having been exposed to propaganda about the guerrillas’ viciousness, I expected the killing fields of Kampuchea.
Bruce explained that the Shining Path had settled down into making some serious cash protecting coca farmers, jettisoning their Maosim like an ugly sweater. Early on, the movement worked in indigenous communities with the aim of “strangulating the cities,” and did garner peasant support. Seventeen years later, however, its dream of revolution had evaporated in a cocaine fueled haze.
Given the Shining Path’s ideology that framed religion as the opiate of the masses, I didn’t anticipate such effusive Holy Week processions. As Bruce explained, the Shining Path rejected religion in favor of “scientific revolution,” and Peruvians had rejected them.In the small country town, we were free to wander. I did see a few armed men and women, but they were self-defense militia organized to fight guerrillas. (At some points, the Shining Path had recruited female soldiers.) The overall atmosphere was peaceful.
A local festival or carnival was taking place. I watched as Bruce mingled with the pueblo, speaking in Spanish or sometimes the indigenous language. I could see how Bruce was able to gain so many authentic stories as he collected fieldwork evidence for his thesis.
At one point, townspeople invited us to drink with them. Bruce said it would be impolite to refrain but warned me about their unusually strong fermented beverage made of roots. Apparently, for men, the drink was a staple (maybe for centuries), possibly having aphrodisiac effects. I only took a couple of sips but was overwhelmed by its power — as if hit by the spring-activated Christ figure–and astounded by how much those around me consumed.
On our way back to Lima, we ate in a restaurant where years earlier Bruce had been stranded during a nationwide “armed strike” called by Shining Path during the peak of the troubles. In these nationwide prohibitions against mass transit, working bus and taxi drivers were sentenced to death. He was sitting at an outside table when a taxi exploded on the other side of the square, sending fragments of glass and twisted metal everywhere. That day we saw people taking afternoon strolls and selling chicklets.Back in Lima, we returned to our tourist indulgences but I viewed our pleasure seeking with a new perspective. Incidentally, while the statute of limitations is well up, we are not at liberty to reveal everything that happened in Peru, August 1997. Approaching twenty years later, Bruce — who has been back to Peru on several occasion — says the Shining Path still does have a presence in the jungle but one growing dimmer by the year.
On another thesis (made into cinematic fiction):
MORE FROM BRUCE BELOW ON HIS ADVENTURES IN ALBANIA (WITH A LITTLE KOSOVO)
ANOTHER 1997 MEMORY