A third-culture kid (TCK / 3CK) or trans-culture kid is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas and So Long 2011

2011 is just about over and what a year it has been! On my end, it has been an exciting year for the books although as usual, we all come to this closing with some regret. Hearing the word “regrets” always brings me back to one of the wiser people who have influenced me: my Grandad (or grandfather Bickford). When he was forced to spend years restricted to the Rideaucrest Nursing Home due to a series of debilitating strokes - one of the tougher moments in my life – in a brief moment of lucidity he asked me: “Will, are you happy with your life? Enjoy it and make sure you can’t look back with regret, because you can’t change the past.” These few sentences are dear to my heart and ever since helped me through hard times. From the time he imparted his wisdom onto me, it has been much easier to decide meaningful New Year’s resolutions and keep them as goals I will accomplish.

The Bickfords in 2011

As some of you knew beforehand and others have learned through reading this blog, no matter where the Fab 4 (David, Madeleine, Brian and I) have been, we were always traditional and united when it came to our holidays. Christmas and New Years were times we invested in our relationships (parents, siblings, and now, it has been updated to husband-wife for the Bickford boys) which are the most important pillars of life. You can accomplish a lot with proper support in your home life. The third-culture or transculture experience helped to build a very close network. We created our own microculture yet we are also able to adapt to other cultures easily, exercising the outmost sensitivity. When Brian and I were kids or teenagers, we were always there to dress our Christmas tree, “help” Maman bake festive cookies and watch as Dad carved our trademark turkeys surrounded by stuffing, cranberries, baked potatoes, carrots, peas. After the Christmas meal, we all retired to a well-deserved siesta and thematic movies such as A Christmas Story or National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. Even times where I have not been able to be with my parents or my brother (and now my sister, Melissa, better known as his wife and my favourite little princess, Emma) I have proudly continued with the traditions. My sweet wife Ana has taken to some of these rituals as her own and we have added her cultural spices to the traditional blend, hoping to build new traditions to pass on to future generations of Colombo-Canadians. Sometimes it is not easy to find all the ingredients in some countries where I have been, but when you apply yourself and have some creativity, everything is possible.

Among our special life-long traditions - something I think is worth passing on to people open to adopting new customs - are the stocking stuffers. We tend to go shopping for discounted items or cheap gifts before the special day, which we know will make the person laugh (a complete season 1 of Mr T’s reality show, a chocolate poo-pooing reindeer, doggy bags, a caroling Scooby Doo) or little knick-knacks that the receiver loves (chocolates, candy canes, cookies). These small yet thoughtful gifts always play a key role in setting a festive mood and showing that you do not need to break the bank to make others happy. After all, there is that important saying, “It is the thought that counts.” The most important gift for me this season is to be with those who I hold dearest to my heart. It’s enough of a present. If I cannot physically be with them, I am just happy they are enjoying their time wherever they are and making the most of the season. As priorities take on new faces, it is often hard to have everyone close by, especially with the tough winters we have in Canada causing major setbacks in air, road and rail traffic. In Ontario, we were clever enough to build a long stretch of highway along the Montreal-Kingston-Toronto-Niagara corridor, infamous for lake effect white outs and drifting snow. I cannot recall a smooth drive on that highway due to holiday blizzards. The locals call this miracle of modern engineering the 401, which I have had the pleasure of mentioning over a few entries. It is an icon of Ontario, yours to discover if the weather permits.

Christmas has never been a time in our family for putting a price tag on gifts and thinking: “Well Jack gave me something worth $20 so I will give him something equal in value.”  While in Latin America, we generally used to give gifts, food or anything within our means as a special thank you to the people who made our lives that much easier. In some of those countries, they talk about El Nino Dios (in Ricky Bobby’s Talladega Nights grace, “Baby Jesus”) showing up on December 25th, which is actually an accurate depiction of the holiday. Jolly Saint Nick is an international celebrity representing the commercialization of Christmas, but the actual embodiment of his persona serves as a positive message: “the season of giving.” He gives selflessly. Great example to follow! There are those material gifts we exchange with others, but in fact, the best gift we can give to the world is kindness and caring without expecting anything in return. It is a time to consider all the wonderful things that bless our lives but we should always think of what little thing I could give next year in order to make a world a better place. Instead of rushing everywhere and driving a high-octane adrenaline-based body from one place to the next, we should budget our time and run our errands with a smile. Ever noticed when you speak on the phone with a smile versus a frown, even your voice seems happier? Who doesn’t like happy people? Holding the door for someone you know is coming behind you, (with a smile) and even if they do not say thank you, just tell them “you’re welcome”, and maybe you can convert some people back to a sense of community. We need others to survive, (no man – or woman for that matter - is an island) so let’s all be a little less transactional with each other.

Ana and I in Mont Tremblant, Québec

As opposed to many of the conspiracy theorists (I am sure you have all heard the famous “The Mayans warned us”), 2012 will give us another 12 months to work towards our goals and hopefully reach for the stars with our dreams. If not, there is always 2013, but we have to make the most of time. It is also a chance to think of the greater good, our families, our neighbours, our communities and our planet. Canadians had generally been recognized for their sense of community involvement and being a good neighbour, something I think we can all benefit from. You used to be able to drop a wallet full of money on the street and someone would bring it to your attention, allowing you to recover it. Otherwise, if no one was around, you could double back the next day and you could still find it on the street where you had dropped it, untouched. Not even a dollar gone. This can be achieved through pride in your community, a sense of civic duty, respecting your fellow people as brothers and sisters and being ready to help others not only by thought or prayer. Anyway, I will be back to blogging January 15th, 2012, and hope you all have a safe break and tune-in for a whole new year of stories. I hope to find some time next year to write a novel or even a third-culture book of some kind as it has always been a dream of mine, and continue spreading some positive ingredients we can all use. New Year, new goals.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Aftermath

Dear readers, friends and family, this is the final installment (part 5 of 5) of David Bickford's "A Bloody Summer". Today we revisit the consequences and post-crisis environment in the life of Canadian diplomats and their families. Enjoy the read:

The last official act of the Group of Guarantors was a press conference the day after the release of the hostages. The Guarantors lamented the fact that a peaceful solution had not been reached. They expressed satisfaction that the vast majority of the hostages had survived, but regretted the loss of life, both the hostage killed, the military officers slain, and the 14 MRTA members. As Cipriani expressed it: “Throughout the hostage crisis, I felt like the father of a great family of 86: the 72 hostages and 14 members of the MRTA…My tears are those of a father of a family of 86 persons, of which 17 have been killed in one blow.” Privately, Cipriani later told me how sorry he was that he couldn’t have saved the lives of the teenaged terrorists. It took us all quite some time for the shock of the assault to wear off and to realize that the Group of Guarantors was no more. It was hard to believe that now it really was over.

The heavily secured Canadian Embassy in Lima, Peru

The question of whether the death of all the 14 terrorists was justified continued to be controversial mainly outside Peru. Some suggested that a number of terrorists had raised their hands in surrender, but been shot down, that others had been in hiding after the hostages were freed but were shot when discovered, and several had pleaded for mercy, but to no avail. Several Western European counter-terrorism officers had told me earlier that in such operations, the first priority is to secure the safety of the hostages. Should someone attempt to surrender, you shoot and move on. If you stop to secure a prisoner, you have been diverted from your main task. Also that person may well be faking, and fire at you when you let your guard down. That appears to be the line taken by the Peruvian special forces assault group. Their own losses of two killed and ten badly wounded suggest that the battle was not completely one-sided.

After the rescue operation, the media suggested that Ambassador Vincent, since he was the last member of the Group of Guarantors to enter the Japanese residence – and only two hours before the assault – must have passed the word that the attack would take place that day. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were given no indication by the government that such an attack was to take place. Later Fujimori told the press that the attack would have proceeded as planned even if one of the Guarantors had been inside at the time – truthful but not very diplomatic. Tony was extremely lucky he hadn’t stayed longer, or arrived a bit later.

Nonetheless, the MRTA leadership blamed the Group of Guarantors for the failure of this operation. Apparently, a key part of their strategy had been to execute a hostage every few weeks should talks not proceed, in order to impress upon the Peruvian government the seriousness of their intent and demands. The presence of the Guarantors, particularly Cipriani, made the terrorists in the Japanese residence reluctant to carry this out, and their leaders blamed the Guarantors for interfering. As a result, the Canadian Embassy and its staff remained under a terrorist threat (kidnapping of a senior staff member or a car bomb at the Embassy) for several years after the hostage crisis, until the remnants of the MRTA were either hunted down and killed or imprisoned. My family and I travelled with Peruvian police bodyguards for the next two years, our home had 24 hour armed guards who enjoyed playing basketball with my two sons at shift change time, and the Embassy resembled a bunker with a private guard service within the perimeter of the property, barricades, cement barriers, and high grills/walls with barbed wires surrounding the grounds, and armed SWAT team from the national police (including a bomb squad truck) in the street in front of the building. Not a very welcoming impression for visitors.

Brian, Madeleine, William and David Bickford

Most Peruvians were elated by the result of the rescue operation, and gave the group of Guarantors at least some of the credit – Fujimori never did. For the rest of his time in Peru, Tony was often approached in public places by Peruvians who were anxious to shake his hand and to thank him for his efforts. A year or so later, Francisco Tudela, who had been Peruvian Foreign Minister at the time of the hostage crisis and considered by the MRTA as their prime hostage, told me that, undoubtedly, the Group of Guarantors had saved many lives, including his own. From that point of view, I think we done good, and that it was a good time to be a Canadian in Peru, eh!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Assault – Surprise, Surprise…

Dear readers, this week I am happy to provide you with part 4 of 5 of David Bickford's, "A Bloody Summer." Enjoy the read!

President Fujimori showing off his Chavín de Huantar tunnels

On one of his moral-raising visits to the Japanese residence, Tony was called into the dining room by the leader of the terrorists, Nestor Cerpa, and asked to put his ear to the floor. After a few minutes, scraping was heard underneath, and Cerpa said, “They are digging tunnels, aren’t they”. Tony would not reply. Later, in the Embassy we discussed this and saw it as a bad omen.

With hindsight, it is now clear that Fujimori was pursuing a two-track approach: If the terrorists gave up, all well and good. If they didn’t, he was prepared to send in the army – even though his younger brother was a hostage. For him, the role of the Guarantors was to keep the situation in the residence calm for long enough to build his tunnels. In the meantime, the presence of the Guarantors had given the MRTA a false sense of security. They felt protected, and relaxed their vigilance.  Dangerous for them, they slipped into a routine and the Peruvian authorities ultimately took advantage.

On April 22, 1997, Tony came back from a visit to the Japanese residence at about 13:30. He said that the police around the perimeter of the residence were edgy, tense and aggressive with him. We filed this thought away, but at 15:20 the assault began. Tony, and eventually Cipriani, Terada and one of his officers, clustered around the television in my office at the Embassy and we watched the attack unfold with horror. The final shots were fired some 20 minutes later, but the armed forces assault force did not declare victory until almost 16:00. We felt failure bitterly, believing that four months of work had all been for nothing. We were sure that the bulk of the hostages must have been killed, since the assault took so long. As reports filtered in, however, it emerged that most of the hostages had survived, to us a miracle. In the end, of the 72 hostages, only one died, although four others were wounded. In the operation, two commandos were killed and 10 badly wounded. All 14 terrorists died.

Commandos storming the Japanese residence

How had they accomplished this when experts from around the world said it couldn’t be done without massive losses among the hostages? In secret, the Peruvian army had build a full-size replica of the Japanese residence on a local army base, where 150 officers from the special forces had been practicing and refining assaults for weeks. In addition, the authorities were able to communicate clandestinely with some of the hostages, and on “D Day” told them to prepare for an assault at 15:20 by getting themselves up stairs without raising the suspicions of the terrorists, and behind some protection. The MRTA had gotten into the habit of gathering in the main dining room shortly after 15:00 to play table football. The commandos simply blew up the dining room at 13:20 from a tunnel below, killing or disabling probably half of the terrorists. Commandos simultaneously attacked the front door, emerged from tunnels to blast holes in the outer walls, or landed on the roof by helicopter. Also, when it came to the crunch, several of the young terrorists could not bring themselves to kill men that they had come to know and often admire. Fujimori played the assault as a major victory over terror, and his popularity soared in the immediate aftermath.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Terrorism For Dummies

Dear readers, this week comes part 3 of 5 in David Bickford's, "A Bloody Summer." This weekend, an inside look on Peruvian jails in 1997 and the inmate populations.

MRTA guerrilla training

During the off-and-on discussions between the terrorists and the Peruvian government, several times the MRTA expressed concern about the plight of their imprisoned comrades – shortly after the taking of the Japanese residence, all visiting rights to terrorists in jail were suspended by the government and any other of the limited privileges that the prisoners enjoyed in these stark institutions was curtailed. The Guarantors decided to form a sub-committee (I was chosen as the victim to lead the group) to visit the various prisons where MRTA members were being held. We were a small group consisting of myself, a Japanese diplomat, a Spanish nun, a Japanese doctor, a Peruvian doctor and another Canadian diplomat. We were to visit six prisons, and report back to the Guarantors on conditions within the prisons, including respect for human rights, as well as the health and well being of prisoners.

We started out well – sort of - in a minibus rented by the Japanese Embassy from “Mickey Mouse Tours”, which even had a picture of the smiling mouse on the side. The visit to one of the most notorious prisons in Lima, called Lurigancho, was extremely interesting. This was the prison in the late 1980s where there was an internal revolt and the army went in and killed hundreds of prisoners, mostly terrorists. There were four major wings, two of which contained hardened criminals and where the guards never went, and the others where convicted terrorists were held. We had ready access to prisoners, sampled their food, and were rather surprised that prisoner morale remained high given a very Spartan regime. We emerged from the prison to be surrounded by the media (mainly Japanese) who hounded us worse than the prisoners inside. The intrepid Mickey Mouse bus was unable to outrun the swarm of press vehicles and motorcycles and we arrived back in the Embassy to write our report with the press milling and shouting outside.

Lurigancho prison cell

We visited several medium security facilities, but the highlight (literally) was a high-altitude prison at 4,200 metres near Puno in southern Peru: Yanamayo. We arrived from Lima - almost deaf - on a Peruvian National Police Antonov 22 (Soviet 1960s equivalent of a C-130 Hercules). The prison we were visiting held most of the MRTA leadership. We wanted both to look at their welfare, and also try to convince them to instruct their colleagues in the Japanese residence to be more flexible in negotiations. One of the problems we had experienced was that the leaders in Yanamayo had given the terrorists in the Japanese residence their instructions, through intermediaries, prior to the assault. Although prisoners were, theoretically, held incommunicado in the high-altitude prisons, they were in contact with the outside world – we presumed through bribing guards to convey messages.

The first impressions of Yanamayo were forbidding. On a windswept hillside, the prison was a huge 4-floor cement block with no windows, with a few outbuildings. The complex was surrounded by two chain-link fences topped by razor wire, with armed soldiers every fifty metres between the two fences facing outward - presumably to deter any assault from outside. Signs indicated that outside the wire there were land mines. From inside we could hear shouting, slogans and chanting of patriotic mantras. The guards didn’t want us to go in, fearing a riot, but we insisted. With some trepidation we entered a cellblock. There were cells on all four sides, with bars across the front of the cells. Once they saw us, the MRTA immediately started shouting, banging on the bars – strangely the Shining Path prisoners were calm, and talked to us in a relaxed way. The MRTA appeared half crazed, including one whose photo I recognized as being a Chilean. I was extremely glad that there were stout bars between them and us. What I remember most though was the cold. It was intense and pierced to the bone. I shook hands with some of the prisoners whose hands were blue and appeared to have little feeling in them. They were four to a cell (about 3 by 3 metres), sleeping on concrete shelves with thin foam mattresses. They were allowed out to exercise for 30 minutes a day – but this “privilege” had been cancelled, along with visits and parcels from home. I found it hard to believe that they could maintain their militancy year-after-year under such conditions, but they had.

Yanamayo maximum security prison, Puno, Peru

Later we met in a small conference room with the leadership, who were calm, relaxed, but argumentative and not forthcoming. We got nowhere convincing them to introduce some flexibility in their negotiating position – after all, for them the whole purpose of taking high-level hostages was to gain their own release from jail. Nothing else mattered.  We later visited the hospital, where I sat down on a bed with a Shining Path guerrilla paralysed from the waist down. He admitted that he had injured himself while preparing a bomb. He told me he had received little rehabilitation at the prison, but felt he was treated better than a poor Peruvian with no access to medical assistance. I found the Shining Path much more reasonable than the MRTA. We also visited the kitchen where we tried Alpaca stew (mostly leg bones, but nonetheless hearty and tasty). We went back to Lima late in the day with splitting headaches from the change in altitude (Lima is just a few metres above sea level). 

Our final report served to reassure the terrorists in the Japanese residence that their colleagues were not being mistreated, and may have helped to build a better rapport between the terrorists and the Guarantors. On a personal level, we in the sub-group became good friends, and I grew to appreciate particularly the work ethic, professionalism, and good humour of my colleague from the Japanese diplomatic service, Kenji Hirata. While these visits were something of a sideline to the main negotiations, I learned that the MRTA leadership, even after years in jail and with little prospect of ever being released, remained militant, dedicated to their cause and with spirits unbroken – a daunting enemy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is a Guarantor?

Dear friends, I am happy to share with you the second installment of "A Bloody Summer" (Part 2 of 5) brought to you by David Bickford. Enjoy the read:

The Embassy continued to monitor the hostage crisis, which took up an enormous amount of Peruvian political attention and energy, but there was no evidence that negotiations had even begun. Then, in early January, Ambassador Vincent was asked to serve in a personal capacity as one of a Group of Guarantors. With Ottawa’s consent and support, he accepted the role. As the acting foreign minister explained to us, the group was to include Japan (representing Asia), the Vatican (representing Europe), Canada (representing the Americas), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (providing food, water and amenities to the hostages on a daily basis). The Japanese representative opted to be an observer given the large number of Japanese hostages, and the ICRC representative decided to continue to devote his efforts entirely to the care and feeding of the hostages. The Guarantors effectively were limited to Tony Vincent and the Archbishop of Ayacucho, Monsignor Juan Luis Cipriani (representing the Vatican), although the Japanese representative, Terusuke Terada (Japanese ambassador in Mexico) provided much wise counsel.

Left to Right: Tony Vincent, Monsignor Cipriani, Domingo Palermo, Michel Minnig and Terusuke Terada

The mandate of the Group of Guarantors, as initially stipulated by the Peruvian government, was to be present when the terrorists laid down their arms, released the hostages and left the residence for a safe haven. They were not to be present during negotiations. The Guarantors argued successfully, that they could guarantee the implementation of an agreement if they had not been party to the negotiations. The Peruvian government reluctantly agreed with this point of view, and the guarantors discovered at their first meeting between the government and terrorists that negotiations had not yet started, and that the terrorists were becoming nervous about the unwillingness of the government to discuss their demands.

In order to kick-start negotiations, the Guarantors began to introduce ideas and to stimulate discussion in order to clarify positions and build at least a small measure of confidence. The Guarantor’s role moved from passive observer to facilitator, and eventually to mediator. As part of that process, I got to lead a sub-group to visit the MRTA leadership incarcerated in high-altitude, maximum-security prisons – scary, but that is another story.

To digress slightly, at some point in their career, diplomats receive training in “negotiating skills”. I had completed such a course several years before, and dug out the course material and my notes to see whether there was any inspiration there. It was a depressing exercise since, in this instance, none of the criteria for a successful negotiation were present: There was, inter alia, no willingness on either side to negotiate, no flexibility in positions, no mutual confidence, and on the terrorist side no clear understanding of what they really wanted. At times, they demanded the release of all their comrades from jail, at others better health, food and visits privileges, at others just the release of their key leaders. The Guarantors attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the terrorists that the release of their leadership was a non-starter, and they should lower their expectations.

I had talked with hostage rescue experts from a number of countries, including our own, and the consensus was that an armed assault on the Japanese residence would be extremely costly in human lives, since the building was large, with many rooms and hostages and captors were spread throughout the building. A major factor was that the MRTA regularly practiced their routine for responding to such an attack – which essentially meant killing as many of the hostages as possible before being overwhelmed. The view was that if the takeover could be accomplished in under 3 minutes, 50% of the hostages would become casualties, 50% of the remaining hostages would die within the next 3 minutes, and so on. If the operation lasted more than 12 minutes, it was likely that all the hostages would be dead or wounded.

Peruvian police coaxing the terrorists keeping watch

The Guarantors believed that the only conceivable favourable outcome was a negotiated exit strategy. All efforts were made to ensure such a conclusion, but as the months passed, very little progress was made. Meetings between the government and the terrorists were few and pro forma, accomplished little. In consequence, the Guarantors spent more of their time in the Japanese residence attempting to make the terrorists listen to reason and urging the hostages to keep calm and not provoke their captors. In this, the Guarantors were more successful. Moral remained relatively high among the hostages, there were few instances of confrontation between the hostages and terrorists, and a form a reverse Stockholm syndrome emerged - several of the young (15 to 16 years of age) and impressionable terrorists were awed by being the presence of ministers, generals and ambassadors and saw them as role models.

In the meantime, the Peruvian army was digging tunnels under the residence

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Bloody Summer

This weekend, I am proud to share a very special blog entry with you all that my father, David Bickford, has generously contributed. These are his accounts of the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis. He was the Political Councillor at the Embassy of Canada in Lima, Peru from 1995 to 1999. Enjoy the read of A Bloody Summer (Part 1 of 5):

By December 1996, many of us believed that terrorist activity in Lima was on the wane. Attacks on police stations, bombings and car bombs were less frequent, and crime with violence appeared to be a more potent threat to our families’ security. Thus, terrorism was not at the front of my mind when I received a call in the evening of December 17 to inform me that Ambassador and Mrs Vincent were in some way victims of a terrorist occupation of the Japanese residence. Thus began the longest cocktail party in human history, or what one Peruvian newspaper later described as “The Bloody Summer.”

India and Israel's Ambassadors flanking the hosts

Not really knowing what was happening, as the number 2 at the Embassy, I called colleagues from the staff, and we sped to the Embassy to open up the office and a channel with Ottawa as well as to try to gather information on what had occurred at the Japanese residence. It soon became clear that Tony and Lucie Vincent were being held captive by an MRTA terrorist cell along with well over 600 other Peruvian and foreign dignitaries. At about midnight all of the women and some of the older guests were released, leaving perhaps 350 inside. At about 2:00 in the morning, I received a telephone call from a calm and collected Tony Vincent, to debrief me on what was happening in the residence. He had borrowed someone’s cell phone and we talked with the sound of snoring in the background. Tony informed me that, beyond himself, there were three other Canadians among the hostages. With four Canadian lives at risk, this became essentially a consular crisis for the Embassy – everything else was subordinated to the task of ensuring that these Canadians emerged unscathed. None of us slept that night.

The next afternoon Tony was released as part of a commission to present the terrorists’ demands to President Fujimori. I was near the front of the Japanese residence at that time, and it was a huge relief to see him emerge, tired and dishevelled but unharmed. For the next 24 hours, Tony made repeated attempts to meet with Fujimori, but his efforts had been rebuffed. At this point, Fujimori clearly wanted to devise and put a strategy in place before receiving any communiqué from the terrorists.

Minister Tudela surrounded by the MRTA

That evening Tony told me that he would be going back into the Japanese residence to inform the terrorists that he had not been successful in his task, but that he would continue his efforts. While the two of us got along well, this time we argued. I told him not to go back in – who knows whether he would be allowed to leave again. He persisted, and I told him to send in a written status report with the Red Cross. He refused, and I asked him why he was so insistent about going back in. “Because I gave my word” he replied[1]. Again, I argued that we were dealing with unpredictable terrorists, and one didn’t have to keep his word to such people. He again insisted, and while I didn’t agree with what he was doing, I appreciated his courage and desire to help ensure the safety of many of his colleagues and friends. I watched him go into the residence with a mixture of emotions: fear and apprehension that he wouldn’t be coming out alive; and pride that the Canadian foreign service had produced someone like him. I don’t think I took a full breath until he emerged some 30 minutes later.

Over the next few days, Tony was able to deliver the MRTA’s terms to the government’s “interlocutor” for negotiations with the terrorists, and all the other Canadian hostages had been released. With terms delivered and all Canadians now safe, I heaved a sigh of relief and thought that our direct involvement in the crisis was over. Little did I know…

[1] For more on this, see David Goldfield’s book “The Ambassador’s Word”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis

The ambience of diplomatic cocktail parties is very glamorous. The guest list includes the usual suspects: high-ranking foreign dignitaries representing each and every international mission in the country, senior business executives from companies with stakes in the local market, and the who’s who of the domestic political and business elite. Everyone pulls out their best attire, including the military attaches looking very official with all their colourful medals. Every country is subtly recommended to send the senior most people possible from within their ranks as kindling fueling the flames of an amicable relationship. Brian and I both had the pleasure of suiting up for some of these fine occasions, which helped to refine our networking skills and proudly represent our youth to the highest possible standard. These fancy shin-dings are usually held to celebrate important events such as national days or in this case, the Emperor Akihito of Japan’s 63rd birthday on December 17, 1996 at the official Japanese residence.

Japanese Ambassador Aoki and his wife Naoko greet Francisco Tudela

On that Tuesday evening, Brian and I were rocking out in the living room enjoying some quality mind-numbing American television programming – we had the major networks on Cable Magico transmitting from Denver, Colorado – while Maman was stuck correcting exams as her deadline for handing in her students’ end of semester marks approached. Dad’s mobility had been somewhat limited due to contracting a treacherous stomach flu, needing to remain at close proximity of his trustworthy white porcelain friend. No need to delve into further detail there. He was the number two in our Embassy and was scheduled to attend the function that evening however, due to his condition at the time, he honourably bowed out. Our Ambassador Anthony Vincent and his wife, Lucie, were the only fine members of our corps showing their friendly faces on behalf of our country. Aside from them, many of my friends from school’s parents were there as guests, sharing the memorable occasion as a sign of respect to the Japanese. The people from the land of the rising sun were also blessed with the presence of some of President Alberto Fujimori’s family (all very active in the political world), members of his cabinet and government. Now that’s what I call an A-list.

The lavish soiree was eventually halted by the wrong kind of bang. A most unwelcome and unexpected bang shifting to a rather molotovesque ambiance. An explosion on one of the rear walls of the residence announced the rapid entrance of 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (commonly referred to as MRTA), crashing the party with Nestor Cerpa Cartolini at the helm. As Tim “The Toolman” Tailor’s antics on Tool Time entertained Brian and I, Dad came running down the stairs dressed in his work attire, followed by Maman walking swiftly behind him to see him off. Ambassador Vincent’s driver, Segundo, had called him to let him know some inexplicable event had unfolded. My brother and I wondered what had occurred as there had not been enough time to tell us or to draw significant conclusions. Our mother rushed to us, asking us to turn to the local news channel. As the good sons we were, we complied only to witness live coverage from San Isidro – an upscale Lima neighbourhood – with no real tickers explaining developments as commonly observed on CNN showing all sorts of obscure live footage. Suddenly we saw military vehicles, a Peruvian version of the elite American SWAT team and other security forces taking over the streets amidst an air full of tear gas and shots rifled through the air. It seemed that even the media had no idea what was going on, except for an explosion having gone off. The locals were all very familiar with bombs and violence, but thought that the days of terrorism were long gone after defeating the Shining Path.

After hours of watching and no news update from Dad, the situation was crystal clear. This was a hostage crisis. My father was at the Embassy in Miraflores, organizing a crisis centre to keep in the loop and act as a channel for Ottawa. He brought in the RCMP attaché, security and consular staff with others on standby if need be. They were bracing for everything and anything. My first reaction was to thank God for my father’s stomach flu and my mother’s work. Otherwise, they would have been there without a doubt. Then my mind turned to the diversity of the school’s population and my friends. Actually, even those who I just knew existed. Damn! Maybe they had parents in there! What was going to happen to them? Would they ever see their parents again? Would the terrorists execute one of them to demonstrate to the Peruvian government that this was a serious outfit? Every scenario usually witnessed in a suspenseful Hollywood action movie seemed possible. Surely, this never would have happened in Canada.

Canadian Ambassador Anthony Vincent as he was released

As the clock struck 2:00 AM, the first hostages were released. These were primarily women and older guests. Among the women was none other than Alberto Fujimori’s mother who could have been a major bargaining chip. This was a significantly male-driven society, similarly to its South American neighbours, therefore it was impossible to conceive that any female hostage could be a potential strategic asset. Within twenty-four hours, our Ambassador Anthony Vincent was released along with Heribert Woeckell of Germany, Alcibiades Carokis of Greece (these last two fleeing Peru on the first available flight after their return to freedom) and Armando Lecaros, of the Peruvian Foreign Ministry at the time. The MRTA released them in the condition they would take their various demands to President Fujimori to begin a negotiation process. The Peruvians held strongly to their conviction of not negotiating with terrorists, and Vincent and Lecaros were continuously turned away by the closed door of the head of state’s office. It was hardly a time to breathe easy as 300 men were left and their lives were still in the balance. A good few weeks later, this number was reduced to 72 who would be in this for the long haul. Some of my buddies such as Kensuke Kobayashi and Jorge Gumucio were going to have to wait in suspense to find out if their fathers were ever going to return home safely.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Making Friends And Drinking In Moderation

After returning from my Incan adventure, I was ready to tackle yet again another year of high school in Lima. Not only was it another year, but it was my last one. Brian would be heading to Canada for post-secondary education and I was only three years behind him. I would be stuck doing my Grade 13 back home. I had finished my previous year on a solid footing, including an excellent performance in my English, an accomplishment I was very proud of. My teacher had been Mrs. Barbara Walker, a lovely woman from Minnesota who had applauded my skills and learning curve, especially realizing it was my first time reading and writing in this language. She had recommended me to Advanced English for Grade 10, but for some reason that teacher did not want me in her class. Algebra with Mr. Daniel Brenig was awesome, and I would be in his Geometry class this year. Awesome again. Honours Biology was a result of having done well in Physical Science with Ms. Zalecki and History, my all-time favourite subject-matter was now Peru-Latin American History. The road was paved for a very exciting academic year.

Brian, Maman, myself and Dad on Canada Day, 1996

Aside from that, I had also earned my respect guaranteeing my own safety and sense of belonging among my peers. No one messed with me and I didn't get involved elsewhere. Over the summer, I had added to my gang Glen Swanson, a Guatemalan-Canadian kid who had lived in Peru most of his life when I met him. His father was from British Columbia and worked for a Canadian NGO. We found a connection when I came to the school campus during the end-of-year break, bored out of my mind, looking to play some basketball. Basketball seemed to be a very unifying sport at this time in my life. We hung out over the summer at his father's office, quite close to my house, and played games on the office computer. During those visits to his patriarch's workplace, we discovered the wonderful world of E. Wong - the widely popular and only supermarket franchise when we arrived - and the food samples. We used our coins to play arcade games there, especially Cruisin' USA. You could choose from a decent range of vehicles and I preferred the school bus. There you have to race through traffic jams and you have pedals, a steering wheel and a gear shift. It was a great introduction into how not to drive.

Back to school now. My Grade 10 English class was with Ms. Barbara Brough, a Canadian from Odessa, Ontario - if you are not familiar with it, it is a town of 10 houses across the highway from Amherstview, west of Kingston, a real hotspot. In this class, there was a kid everyone referred to as Crack, but named Sebastian Olivares. This kid was born in Peru but grew up in Oaklahoma, USA. There were many questions about how he got his nickname but apparently, the true version, is that he came to soccer practice wearing a fancy kit but was terrible at the sport. Some also said that he used to bend over frequently, exposing his but crack. I, personally, had the pleasure of never seeing his butt crack. In the beginning, I remember he was slightly unpleasant with me but I couldn’t have cared less. He was shorter than my mother who is about 5' 2" so I did not feel threatened. I believe, still to this day that he had always looked up to Glen but as soon as he realized we were friends, he suddenly changed his opinion about me and began hanging out with me. Students of every age seemed to push this kid around, punch him and shove him around as he was small and defenseless. I think I was the only one who never got involved in that, as I was never one to go with the flow. Eventually, he caught on to this and I told him he should stick up for himself. After all, it worked for me even though it was rather unexpected.

Another friend who got thrown into the mix was William Erickson. Erickson and Crack were Glen's roller hockey buddies and eventually became good friends of mine, like Alejandro, Glen and Kensuke. William was a very quiet American kid, even more shy than I was. I couldn't believe it. I would try talking to him when he would sit and join us, but he would look away and not even answer. I couldn't understand if I was cool with him or not for the longest time. There was also Miguel Peschiera who had spent some time in the US and I had Biology with him. I got to know him that year, having become lab partners and working on some projects together. He was a really friendly kid and his family was adorable. I remember once being there for dinner with his parents, his older brother and his younger sister and they were all really chatty and curious about my country and my family. I think his father had a government job or something of the kind, so perhaps they were well schooled in protocol and manners. I almost felt at home but with a Peruvian-American spin. There was also Melor Mokhtar (better known in the inner circle as Mel), the daughter of the Malaysian Ambassador who became one of the best friends I have ever had. She grew up living a similar life to mine so we could relate on many levels. Even more, she was born the day after my birthday. She was my sister from a different continent. Well, she still is. These guys really made Peru for me. Looking back at our lunches on our every-day picnic table, it was a real potpourri of cultures, coming together and having fun. I know to this date these guys would still do anything for me if I ever needed them and I hope they know it is reciprocal.

Erickson, myself, Alejandro, Glen, Crack and Mel in the middle

Our out-of-school hangouts are still treasured memories. Generally, we would get together at someone's house on a Friday night - a sacred ritual that no one dared to break - and we would play video games or watch movies all night. This was also a period that saw an introduction to alcohol. It is a taboo subject in North America where society does not seem to have evolved much from the temperance movement, unlike Peru who never stumbled into these dark ages. However, we never did this hiding from our parents or anyone. It was completely normal for teenagers to enjoy a few beers. Beer and Domino's Pizza. Later, we discovered the British pub – I kid you not! I can't recall any time where we got drunk or drank to get drunk. Other kids did in fact use and abuse as a weekend ritual, something that could be easily noticed on Monday mornings. This freedom allowed us to learn to enjoy drinking socially and to understand limits, something I think is lacking in North America. There, people are magically introduced to drinking when they are "independent" as they go off to college and mommy and daddy are no longer around to ground them. If you are raised in responsibility and moderation, you will observe less abuse. Europe leads by example on this. Those who abuse and behave violently often are attempting to bury serious personal issues. We opted for a healthy life, including lots of sports including softball, basketball and soccer.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Machu Picchu, The Lost City

Following the steps of the mighty Hiram Bingham and his brave band of archeological brothers, we made our way to Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn. Well, Hiram probably did not get out of Cusco on a train to a Machu Picchu, as he was the one who discovered the place back in 1911. This place used to be a Quechua citadel, buried deep in the jungle-like flora, on a mountain top overlooking the sacred Urubamba River. Before then, the site had not been undiscovered by non-Peruvians. A very well kept secret. Some have catalogued this magnificent find as one of the New SevenWonders of the World. There are three ways to get there from Cuzco: the first one was to venture through the famous Inca trail – this ancient civilization was known for its excellent road system – a walking trail of about 80 kms (more or less 50 miles) through challenging heights; the second was to hire a helicopter tour for those who are drowning in dollars; and the third, the train. Hiram probably walked… to the tune of El Condor Pasa.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu towering behind

Although the train was more of a midrange alternative, there were also many famous people that have travelled using these means, such as Ernesto Guevara, better known to the world as El Che. The engine and the overall system were designed in Switzerland, ingenious people that are very familiar with treacherous mountain terrain. The route climbs to around 3,800 m (11,800 ft) above sea-level. While the tourists watched the scenery, I kept feeling as if my skin was turning blue, purple and green as the train seemed to climb the side of the hill following a pinball pattern in slow motion. On certain sectors of the track, the train would move forward then come to a stop, and continue climbing up in reverse, and repeating the pattern until reaching a straight track down the sacred valley, to Ollantaytambo and beyond toward the final frontier. The train actually descends until coming to a full stop at the village of Aguas Calientes, now only at 2,040 m (6,693 ft). This colourful little town is on the Urubamba River bank and a short distance from the climb to Machu Picchu (6 kms or 3.7 miles). This village welcomes primarily tourists to the site and boasts some hot spring baths, restaurants, shops and a few quaint hotels.

Tourists generally tend to go on a day trip, but we decided to stay overnight. Upon arrival at Aguas Calientes, we boarded a small Japanese combi that would take us all the way up the hill. We sat in the back seat unfortunately, and when the bus navigated the hairpin turns near the top, the back swung out over the void, with a straight drop down to the valley floor where the train looked like a toy. The more adventurous gung-ho visitors can hike as there is a walking path intersecting parts of the windy road to the summit, although you would require an outstanding physique. Upon arrival to the site, it is easy to take in the overwhelming view of the Incan ruins and the surrounding hills and peaks. The iconic mountain on every postcard and famous picture of the area is called Hayna Picchu (meaning Young Peak), towering above and challenging the hardy foreigners that want to climb it in order to get that hallmark picture. What is so special about this site is that, as it had never been discovered by the Spanish, it was not subject to the kind of destruction and looting of other archeological sites. You can get a reasonable idea as to what the original construction must have looked at and admire the classical Incan architecture. It is speculated that it had been built as a royal estate in 1400 and the natives abandoned the fortification to fight the conquistadores. Of course, there are many variations of this story narrated by the various guides as nothing was written in stone to immortalize the accounts of a conquered civilization. What a shame.

Our trip here was also highlighted by sharing the moment with a Canadian celebrity. Our itinerary coincided with another embassy officer who brought along her visiting friend, Luba Goy from the Royal Canadian Air Farce, a beloved comedy show. The show itself contains satirical content regarding political issues affecting our beloved Canada, including imitations of public figures of all sorts. It is generally not well-known outside our borders as I suppose, the subject matter may be universal but the issues are domestic. I admired her behaviour as she was not constantly functioning with the on-switch, showing a very diverse persona. The short time she had spent in Peru allowed her to gain some perspective on the different reality people in the country faced. Even though she was unable to communicate in the local language, she was friendly with everyone, especially with the local kids – generally kids working for token wages and tips to help feed their families. She enjoyed entertaining the children, giving Donald Duck-like impersonations and often presenting them with small mementos she seemed to carry around in a bottom-less purse. Kids seemed to react very positively to these exchanges and it almost seemed as if they ran off generally happier than when they came.

Maman, Brian and I enjoying some shade

I must say, everyone who has a chance to make it there should make the effort. I really treasured this unique experience, knowing many people may only have a chance to see Machu Picchu in a history book or a documentary. It is even more magical than one can imagine. As you walk through the ruins, admire empty chambers, remainders of plazas, the agricultural terraces with a major drop several hundred meters to the valley floor, your dreaming kicks into high gear. There are no foreign obnoxious noises, such as trucks zooming by, car alarms serenading the landscape, or people arguing over everyday nonsensical topics. Quiet prevails, which is unique when compared to most places in the world. Through this peace, you can imagine what people’s lives were in a simpler time. Of course, back then the Incas seemed to have constructed a multi-layered pyramidal hierarchical structure to their civilization, much like we seem to have replicated throughout most of our human history. It would not have been fun being the farmer or the courier. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their version of El Condor Pasa: “I would rather be a hammer than a nail.” However, much is left to the imagination as to the wealth we could have harnessed from their knowledge in medicine, construction, astronomy and other undiscovered advancements, perhaps forgotten due to a time where violence asserted supremacy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cusco, The Imperial City

After living for a while in Lima, foreigners often had the misconception that all Peru would be more or less the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Incan capital of Cusco (or Qosqo in the native Quechua) stands the test of the time, high atop the lofty Peruvian Andes. My family and I had the pleasure of visiting this national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site in July of 1996. It sits comfortably at a whopping 3,400m (11,200 ft) above sea level and yes, you can certainly feel the altitude and lack of oxygen up there. Everyone will advise before arriving to take it slow and drink mate de coca (coca tea). This hot beverage helps the transition to high altitudes and is part of the Andean culture, both in traditional medicine and religion. Some of the locals also chew the leaves and there is a colourful ritual involved making it a very social custom. Coca-Cola once contained this natural leaf as a key ingredient, explaining the first component of the hyphenated name. It is crucial to your survival to walk slowly, taking small penguin steps, as soon as that airplane door opens and everything gets depressurised. Don’t worry if the locals are faster than you, they are used to it. Don’t be a hero. Not many people are used to living at these altitudes, perhaps explaining why the city’s population holds a mere 350,000 inhabitants.

Brian, Maman and I posing before the city of Cusco

As the plane made its descent onto the Velasco Astete runway, a sea of white houses with ceramic tile roofing dressed the scenery, giving us a picturesque colonial architectural welcome. There were no hints of major modern construction from afar. The city looked frozen in time. We claimed our luggage from the carousel, found our shuttle booked by our travel agent in Lima, and headed for the heart of the city to our boutique hotel. I believe it was called La Posada del Inca. It was located in the radius of the Plaza de Armas, formerly known as the Square of the Warrior back in Incan days. This strategic centre was the location of several important events such as Francisco Pizarro’s proclamation of conquest and the execution of one of top 19th Century’s indigenous rebels. The businesses in the area included many fine restaurants, ready to plate high quality Peruvian food and the traditional Andean cuy (guinea pig) - a real delicacy many of us opted out of except for my adventurous Dad. I ordered my dependable and delicious lomo saltado, a dish I would strongly recommend to my meat-loving brethren. Keeping in line with culinary references, this is also the potato capital of the world cultivating over 2,000 different varieties of spuds. Your chances are high there of getting serenaded by a local pan flute band playing El Condor Pasa. In the covered sidewalks surrounding the square, many of the local business people displayed their arts and crafts hoping a tourist would be interested in purchasing. Here I bought a wonderful grey alpaca sweater that accompanied me easily for 10 years. The main park in the centre of the Plaza de Armas displayed some of the local flora, including some beautiful pink flowers that provided a distinguished touch.

The oddest characteristic of this square was that there were two major catholic shrines built by the Spaniards: the Church of La Compañía (Jesuits) and the Convent of Santo Domingo (Dominicans). Usually on the main square of Spanish cities, whether established or colonized, there is one major sanctuary holding vigil over the square. Maybe the Europeans felt remorseful regarding their behaviour in “interacting” with the locals. Inside one of these churches, a tour guide had mentioned that the Spanish originally built their structures over existing Inca walls, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate their supremacy. Furthermore, they had constructed their buildings with a type of European retrofitting able to withstand earthquakes in the old world. The problem with the old versus new worlds was that earthquakes in one place tend to shake the land up and down whereas in Latin America, side to side. As a consequence, the early buildings constructed by the Spanish caved in causing substantial havoc to the general population. I am not too sure how much of this interesting fact is true as I have only felt these phenomena in the new world. The conquistadors and their future generations had fought tirelessly to convert the locals to their religion and culture, but it appeared that the quechua was able to prevail in many aspects to this date. The locals dressed their traditional outfits, especially the women with their fabulous hats and colours. When roaming through the streets of the city, the predominant language was still the native and Spanish seemed to be reserved for the tourists. Peruvians from other regions would tell you that their Spanish is not inferior due to their lack of education but to the trained ear, this language was a form of early Spanish which had not evolved over time as it had in Lima. Obviously the Peruvian coast had been strategic for the colonizers to ship the extracted riches to the Madre Patria and the Church of Spain, therefore local peoples in the area were more susceptible to change. The mountain people, isolated in a tough terrain, were able to hold out longer and keep more of their identity. Modernization seems to have taken its sweet time to reach those areas. 

The following day after arrival – first day usually spent acclimatizing – we were picked up early in the morning to tour Cusco and the surrounding era. Our guide was a local who possessed many degrees in tourism and archaeology named Boris. Great name for a Quechua native, I know. The tiny narrow streets of the city uncovered secrets of the past, as remnants of Inca construction served as the base for newer Spanish-style buildings. Some of the locals referred to the lower portion as the wall of the Incas and the upper, the wall of the Inca-pables. After some uncomfortable bouncing around in the van, we made it to one of the most important pre-Colombian constructions in the northern outskirts of Cusco: the ruins of Sacsayhuamán – similar to perhaps other tourists, I initially though the ruins were called, Sexy Woman. This fortification provided an excellent example of Inca walls, and the many stones weighing several tons fitted together seamlessly. How anyone, even several thousand quechua people, could have placed these gargantuan stones on top of each other was beyond any tangible belief. Nevertheless, they were unbelievable architects. Their constructions were able to withstand years of decay and heavy earthquakes, and still, they stood proudly before any visitor and their cameras. The huge fortress and walled city provide also a great panoramic view into the valley where Cusco passively sits. Absolutely breathtaking, especially with El Condor Pasa playing in the background. This place left many unanswered questions, similarly to other native constructions, the Europeans had left a path destruction. The settlement could have housed people as their were systems of labyrinths resembling streets, a possible location of a destroyed temple, and even a large gathering area mimicking a city square, where nowadays locals dress in ceremonial outfits to entertain tourists dancing to the beat of El Condor Pasa. We visited afterwards other minor (in size but not importance) sites and retired to our hotel to rest for the next day.

Maman and I at the ruins of Sacsayhuamán

Our final day in Cusco was dedicated to the pre-Colombian mega structure of Ollantaytambo, a royal estate next to the sacred Urubamba River. On our way there on a Japanese van full of foreigners hailing from all corners of the world, we were able to see the various terraces on the sides of the mountains. The soothing sounds of the El Condor Pasa song delighted us on our way there. As flatlands were not readily available in these regions, the farmers had learned to create a system of steps for their crops where water could trickle from one to the next irrigating them as it descended. It is amazing to see the amount of work to convert mountains into an agricultural field. They had perhaps done this for thousands of years. As we arrived to the town bearing the same name as the royal estate, we walked around what used to be a ceremonial centre created under the orders of Emperor Pachacuti, who annexed this region on behalf of the Inca Empire. The carved rocks were massive and perfectly cut to fit into different ones, leaving the observers to wonder, did these people know something we didn’t? Beyond this, they were transported many kilometres to this site. How? It’s a mystery Charlie Brown. We had a lot of work done by contractors in our homes and embassies in Lima, yet none of these labourers seemed to have had a knack that the Incas did. Once we wrapped up this tour, we headed back to our hotel, as we would leave early the next day in the first train to Machu Picchu. I could not wait.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Transport Carnival

Traffic is a cross-cultural topic with everyone having his or her own war stories to relate. The veteran road warriors share their local wisdom with rookies entering the fray, such as “Here in Los Angeles, we stick to the freeway” or “In Caracas, we use shortcuts to avoid traffic jams.” Lima is a city with traffic bottlenecks of different and sometimes uncommon nature compared to its sister cities around the globe, at least in contrast to those that I had the pleasure of visiting. I became aware of the nature of their high seas of congestion when my parents agreed to take me to the Centro Peruano-Japonés, where I was interested in pursuing my Martial Arts studies. I wanted to take audit classes and examine facilities for the students. I had completed three years of judo in an Ottawa dojo, a defensive discipline, which had greatly aided me in becoming more serene and focused. The value of hard work as some may say. I wanted to progress in Peru, a country that housed a strong concentration of Japanese people. They continued to preserve aspects of their culture, including the ancient arts of self-defence. The unfortunate thing was having to cross the city through very disorganized and heavy traffic patterns. The dreaded rush hour. I cannot remember how long the trip was, but I soon decided judo would have to take a back seat in my own road of life. We did not even get to the destination.

A normal day in Lima traffic

When travelling through the streets of Lima, you would think there are no rules to driving. Cutting people off is a normal daily manoeuvre and almost everyone is prepared for this. If you give an inch, be ready for the other person to take a mile. Expect it. Intersections can get clogged with four cars, each of these unwilling to surrender that precious inch to another motorist. The holy trinity of Me, Myself and I dictated priority. The logic was: a) it is important for me to get where I have to go; b) everyone in my way is an obstacle to complete my task. The wide avenues have several pretty little white lines (more or less lines depending on the specific road in question), suggesting this is a three-lane road. This lane concept had been agreed during some international summit for ministers of transportation and communication or something of the sorts, as it is a generally embraced concept worldwide. However, the ingenious Peruvian people realized they could fit more cars in the given space between curbs. It was a clever problem-solving method increasing road capacity, facilitating intimacy with the neighbouring drivers and passengers as they waited in a large parkade hoping for order to prevail. The white dividing lines on the pavement sole purpose was décor, propping up the prestige of an already elegant thoroughfare. Minor streets, such as my Monte Real in Chacarilla, did not have these aforementioned lines. Actually, most streets did not even have signs, perhaps due to the rapid growth of the city in a short time leading to respective governments dropping signs from their priorities, which is understandable. Socio-economic concerns are paramount along with the development of human capital. My guess was that locals were so familiar with their own city that it was not necessary to have signs. Here I became an expert using points of reference to know where I was or how to locate specific areas when going to a given location.

The variety of cars involved in the carnival of transit provided some insight as to the income disparity of the metropolis’s inhabitants. Perhaps in Canada, my home and most recent posting, this was somewhat more camouflaged as owners were supposed to adhere to certain standards and regulations qualifying their vehicle as roadworthy. The city bus population was made up of second or third hand vans originating from Asia – some of these had original markings in Japanese – and carried colourful passengers almost hanging from its windows shouting at pedestrians on the street. Don’t be offended if you encounter this as many public transit riders cannot read or write. The approaching voices from the vans announce the heading of the van. I remember the first time I encountered this I thought I had offended or angered the locals with my attire or behaviour unknowingly. The widely accepted use of older generation models of automobiles contributed to concern for overall safety, especially as some cars may not have had headlights able to operate in a night driving theatre. It may be romantic for a couple to be illuminated solely by ambient lights as they sit in a car in the dark, but quite dangerous for a pedestrian timing his or her run across the Panamericana freeway. Although some places did have pedestrian overpasses, some opted for an Olympic dash through waves of incoming traffic. Other interesting concoctions from Asian automakers dressed for their participation in the local dance rehearsal on the pavement were the Daewoo Tico (one of my favourites as you could stick your arm out the window and touch the street), many Toyotas and Nissans bringing flashbacks of a different age in the industry, the beloved, reliable Volkswagen Beatle, buzzing through the busy streets as well and even Soviet-era Ladas. Those were indestructible cars but I never met anyone who could properly fit in one. The Tico was an incredible machine designed to combat aerodynamics. I had seen many of these overturned, but due to its boxy build, they could easily be re-flipped and continue to their destination. If their engines were pushed hard enough, the cars would even levitate.

The real kings of the road there were the cab drivers. They knew the ins and outs of this place. First of all, the radio taxi service, the kind you order the night before or call a central number for pickup is beyond secondary in the travellers’ menu. During our first year we tried different services, including one of the leaders, EcoTaxi, whose drivers had issues in simply showing up. One day, a driver showed up when we had not even requested or needed the service. Through my friends, especially Alejandro Alves and Glen Swanson, I learned that the easiest way of getting anywhere was going to the edge of the sidewalk in any street, waive your hand in the air when a car approaches and they would stop. A taxi. They were not of any specific colour as they were individually owned and operated. Who knows if any of them ever bothered to register. The only way you could tell they were a taxi was when they were within a close enough range, a hot pink sticker on the windshield would display the letters T-A-X-I. Once the vehicle comes to a stop, the first thing you do is say where you want to go and they will not reply with an affirmation as to the fare. You must never say yes. Foreigners like myself had often been told $15 to $25 Soles – somewhere between $5 to $8 US dollars - only because we looked like outsiders, therefore, we were rolling in cash. If this were true I would probably have hired a helicopter taxi. You then reply with a ridiculously low rate that you know will be shot down. Then eventually you can agree to a price. I learned that one of the best things if the negotiation breaks down is to move away from the window of the car saying “No way, man!” (not to use the more colourful and “obscene-to-some” language) loud enough. Chances are the driver will fold. Then you can resume the negotiation committing to $5 Soles (in the neighbourhood of $2 US Dollars) and he will be game. I say “he” because I never met a female taxi driver in my time there. Of course, you have to be reasonable with them as this is their daily bread and they have families like all of us. Make sure you do not get ripped off, but be sure not to rip them off either, after all, it is a service.

The world class Daewoo Tico posing next to a city bus

Besides knowing relatively well their city, the main streets and neighbourhoods, many of the drivers had other jobs. They were not driving cabs for fun. I learned this through one of the drivers I seemed to get three times in one week from pure coincidence. The third time I asked for his name and he told me his friends called him Piña (Pineapple in English). His face must have suffered from a terrible case of acne as a youth due to the several holes in his skin, resembling the outside of a pineapple. He was a lawyer with a degree from a Peruvian university. He was knowledgeable as we chatted about issues affecting his beautiful country and he was curious about the world outside of his Peru. His work as a professional alone could not pay the bills to dig his family out of the pueblos jóvenes. Other drivers I met were in similar situations with jobs as policemen, civil engineers and teachers. You could always tell when they were truthful in their dialogue and purpose in life. I enjoyed talking to these friendly drivers to become more acquainted with their struggle and continuously asked myself how I could help. They were hard workers and resourceful but could not catch a break. Who knew if they would. Although I became a good negotiator for my fares, I always gave them a tip, which was not customary, hoping the extra little bit would help these brave road warriors put some more food on the table for their families to survive another day. Most fourteen year olds here were put to work to help feed the family and school was only for the really privileged.