Three American girls run for their lives in the dark.
We’re having an amazing time in backcountry Peru. My twin sister Lynn and I and our friend Rachel hike the Kuelap ruins on foot, and explore the Gocta waterfalls on horseback. The jungle trail is so overgrown, a boy with a machete walks ahead to hack a path. For relaxation, we head for the Moyobamba hot springs. After a while, we decide to take the bus to nearby Tarapoto. In its Amazon basin on the back side of the Andes, the slightly lower altitude means warmer weather. The local economy is recovering only slowly from drug wars and anti-government rebellion led by guerillas from Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Sadly, the rainforest is gradually being cleared for small farms.
As the sun sets outside the bar and sandwich stand in Tarapoto, the bartender places on the battered table our Pilsen beers and mixto sandwiches, fragrant with toasted ham and cheese, like the typical snack in Argentina, where Lynn and I have been living for almost a year. Rachel is on vacation from the Peace Corps, where she counsels battered women in marginal urban communities on the coast. The bartender, along with the food, gives us the news that the last bus to Moyobamba already left.
Should we spend the night here in Tarapoto? We paid for our hostel room in Moyobamba. On our backpackers’ budget we can’t afford rooms in both towns. What about taking a colectivo, a communal taxi? The bartender shakes his head. The owner agrees. He says the road between Tarapoto and Moyobamba is dangerous at night, especially for three North American girls. A nearby policeman assuages our concerns, stating that the road is safe. We dismiss the others’ machista attitude we are familiar with after living in South America, and decide to take the colectivo.
“It’s funny that when you prepare to get robbed, you never do.” I joke as we hide our money in our bras, and our digital cameras under the seat cushions.
The colectivo pulls out of Tarapoto, the three of us in back, the driver and a male passenger in front. Cool air, musky with the scent of the jungle, fills the creaky Renault. The calls of night birds mingle with pop music from the radio. Halfway, we detour onto a dirt road, then back to a toll area lined with parked cars and trucks. Our driver pays the toll worker, bids him good night, and a man leans out of his truck and waves, talking on his cell phone. Rachel and I fall asleep, resting our heads on Lynn’s shoulders.
We don’t sleep long. Lynn jerks upright.
“Wake up!” she hisses. The road is blocked by giant logs. Four or five dark-clad men stand on each side of the roadblock, aiming their assault rifles at us. The driver speeds up and veers left past them, over the logs. Gunshots explode by the car windows. We cry out to each other, “I love you!” as we pull each other down to duck the bullets.
The car crawls over the logs, bottoms out, then sputters to a stop. The driver and passenger jump out and run. We dig our cameras from under the seat cushions, wasting precious seconds. As we sprint from the car, we hear shouts in Spanish -“Stop! Stop!” What are they after? Robbery? Rape? Ransom? We run faster. My mind clears and I feel calm – I hear the clack-clack of sandals on pavement, and our labored breathing. I see Rachel’s long dark hair swaying back and forth as she runs and Lynn holding her wrap skirt at the waist with one hand.
We pass the driver, but I am falling behind. I desperately peer through the dark into the roadside trees, and see a fence and a house tucked away from the highway. I reach through the gate to open it from the inside, but can’t. Lynn says “We can climb it. Go! Go!” Her flip flop catches in the fence. Rachel frees it and we drop inside, to be surrounded by ferocious barking dogs. They circle as we hide behind a small house. The night is now pitch black.
What if our attackers hear the dogs and figure out where we are hiding? Light pours over us intermittently from the trucks passing on the highway. Should we flag one down and try to hitch a ride? We crouch quietly, our hearts pounding. All that we want is to see the sunrise, to survive the night. Flashes of light startle us – only fireflies. We hear the faint sound of a woman’s voice inside the house. Should we say something?
“SeÃ±ora, SeÃ±ora,” Rachel calls softly. No response.
A flashlight beam emerges from the door at the back of the house, sweeping the trees. In the doorway is an old man with a rifle. We tighten our grips on each other. In a terrifying instant, the light stops on Lynn. The man begins to swear in Spanish and wave the rifle.
“Thief!” he shouts. “I have twelve bullets; I’ll kill you and the rest.”
Lynn stands, steps away from us, and puts up her hands.
“Please don’t kill me,” she begs in Spanish. “I’m 23 years old, I’m from California, I’m a tourist, not a thief. I’m a good person; please shine the light on me so you can see my face. I’m not a threat. Please just let me live.”
He continues to swear at her, as he makes his way toward her, aiming the rifle at her head. She can’t understand his thick campesino accent.
“Please” she says, “I’m so sorry, sir, but I can’t understand you.” The man yells at her to go away, and Lynn murmurs that she’d gladly go right now.
The sight of a gun pointed at my sister makes me frantic. I whisper:
“Rachel, we can’t just leave Lynn out there by herself. I can’t just let her die out there.” Rachel hushes me, saying that interfering would only heighten the man’s anxiety. We stay quiet.
A woman emerges from the house and Lynn appeals to her.
“SeÃ±ora, please, I mean you no harm, I swear.” Lynn gets down on her knees, her hands in the air. The old man repeats:
“I’ll kill you.” Lynn lies all the way down with her hands flat on the ground and pleads for her life.
I can’t stand it any more and rise to her defense. “I have her ID,” I say, “she’s from California, we’re only tourists.” The farmer turns and shines the light on me.
The SeÃ±ora blows a whistle and screams at the top of her lungs. Is she summoning our attackers, letting them know where we have been hiding? A mob of men and one woman carrying machetes and guns runs from behind the house. I look up to a machete pointed at my face. I feel my heart jump and my stomach lurch. The man with the machete demands:
“Who are you? Who are you?” The mob has us surrounded.
The leader says, “We’re from La Ronda.” Rachel, after a year in Peru, knows what that means.
“It’s OK, they’re from La Ronda. They’re locals who stay up all night, patrolling, and protecting the farmers.” I’m so relieved that I burst into tears and can’t talk.
Lynn, still shaken from her ordeal, her eyes brimming with tears, asks the leader:
“Are you one of the robbers? Please don’t kill us.”
“It’s OK,” Rachel says, “They’re from La Ronda. It’s OK.”
The La Ronda members calm down the farmer, who explains that several months before, he had been tied up and robbed in his home. Lynn holds out her hand, saying she is sorry for scaring him and his wife. Rachel and I apologize as well, telling them what happened at the roadblock. The woman is amazed that we climbed their high fence. A dog lunges at a La Ronda member’s leg, drawing blood. We don’t understand why they didn’t bite us.
Around midnight, our driver, who has retrieved his colectivo, shows up with two policemen in their truck. As we pay him his fare, he says that the last time this happened to him was ten years ago, before the road was paved. He drives away and we give our report to the police, who tell us we are very brave girls to have escaped our attackers. They get in their truck to leave, but we insist that they drive us to our hostel in Moyobamba.
In the kitchen we huddle around the scrubbed wooden table as the owner, Aurora, pours mugs of fragrant tea. She reassures us:
“You can’t think of the bad things, your angels were there to protect you.”
Robbers in Peru are usually armed with machetes, not assault rifles. The men at the roadblock who shot at us could have been Shining Path, looking for hostages. Maybe the trucker with the cell phone alerted them to three American girls on the road in a colectivo.
We’ll never know.