Craig and I boarded a bus on Wednesday, just a quick 2-hour ride from Nazca to our next destination, Ica, a sprawling desert town that reminds me of Southern California’s Inland Empire. Per usual, we “checked” our large backpacks under the bus, and brought our small Flash-18 backpacks with us. We’ve also become in the habit of taking our duffel, containing hiking boots and whatever foodstuffs we happen to have, on board the bus as well. This, we usually store above our seats in the open compartments lining the ceilings.
Only half-an-hour into our trip, the bus made a stop at a small road crossing, where several passengers disembarked. As I watched them struggle through the narrow bus aisle, the thought came to me that a tourism officer had told us to be careful of our belongings on that bus, especially with putting things above our seats, and that one of the disembarking passengers was carrying something under his jacket that looked remarkably similar in color to our duffel.
“Is our bag still up there?” I casually asked Craig, who was engrossed in the movie that was playing overhead. I never expected anything but an ordinary answer. After all, light grey is a common color for bags and jackets, etc.
“No!” he replied as he sprang up out of his seat and ran out of the bus. I watched him out the window as the usual throng of waiting vendors, always ready to board the bus and ply us with their wares, parted for him. Frightened out of my wits that the bus would leave without Craig or bag, I yelled, quite needlessly, “Espera! Espera!” and slapped my hand on the window.
But Craig returned to view, carrying our duffel, almost as soon as he had left. Later, he told me the thief gave up the duffel quite easily. As he was re-boarding, one of the vendors asked him, “Did that guy just rob you?” When Craig replied in the affirmative, the males among the vendors shot off, still holding the melon slices and nuts that made up their sales, after the perpetrator. The passengers of the bus who weren’t sleeping stood up in their seats to try and get a view of what was happening. Most were aware of the situation, since I had yelled out earlier, and Craig had explained the events to some other curious passengers.
As for myself, I simply sat and tried to wrap my head around what just happened. Did I just thwart a robbery? Was it very heedless of Craig to run after the thief, despite it being midday amid a crowd of people? Thank god we still had our boots! What a nightmare that would have been to replace them. My emotions ran the gamut, as it all had happened so fast and I’d hardly time to process it all, from shock to disbelief to relief.
Several minutes passed, during which the vendors, including the ones who had given chase, came onboard. Most passengers were too excited to even think about such prosaic things as snacks, however, and the vendors returned to the street quickly, ready to pounce on the next bus that stopped.
Eventually, a bus employee told us to disembark as well, since they wanted us to wait for the police and to give a statement. When we stepped off, we could see the thief across the street, flanked by two bus employees. Despite the inevitable time and trouble, we decided to go to the police, as our guidebook advises to do so in cases of theft, and we almost always do what our guidebook tells us to, it being the Holy Bible of our trip.
We endured a few awkward moments when the thief was brought over to sit right next to us.
“Excuse me, my friends, excuse me. I’m sorry, my friends,” he said in English, with an ingratiating smile. We noticed his nice clothes and fancy shoes and dismissed his pleas.
“No queremos hablar contigo,” said Craig, not quite achieving disdain, as we were still in a bit of shock over the events. I managed to roll my eyes, just barely concealing the hysterical laugh that was threatening to overwhelm me. Since we had recovered the bag and escaped the tragedy that would have befallen us if we hadn’t, the whole situation had taken on a sheen of comedy. Life felt surreal and strange.
La Policia came quickly, driving what Craig and I recognized as a taxi. They bundled the thief off and we were to follow them in another taxi to the station. We climbed into an ancient and grimy station wagon, the plastic body cracked or peeling in most places. We rattled along with one of the bus employees (the other one having gone with the police) and another passenger who was sharing the ride, as all taxis are collective in Peru and most of South America. My scrambled state of mind became obvious then–I actually thought the other passenger might be the taxi driver’s invalid dad, who he was driving around since he couldn’t be left at home!
The ride was about 25 minutes long, and I admired the passing landscape, which included fertile fields and tawny, desert mountains rising in the background. A herd of goats had to be negotiated around, and any number of adobe structures dotted the road. All of a sudden, we heard a loud clang and our large, asthmatic taxi driver mumbled a string of curses. There followed an exceedingly quick tire change, the driver wheezing the whole time. A feeling began to creep over me, and would last throughout the entire ordeal, that we were being a huge nuisance. I wondered if any of the bus employees or police were wishing we had just let the thief get away–it would certainly have saved them a load of trouble!
When we arrived at the station, we sat for some minutes in a strained silence with two of the bus employees, while the police dealt with the thief. My guilt at dragging so many people into our mess, when we could easily have decided not to pursue the matter, weighed on me. Finally, I got up the courage to ask the employee closest to me, “How long have you worked for this bus company?”
“Six years,” he replied.
“And this situation…”
“It’s the first time,” he said, with a grin. There followed a nice, comfortable chat about Craig and my doings, our thoughts on Peru, his recommendations for anything to see… it was really quite congenial and removed most of my guilt. I think most Peruanos would prefer not to have thieves and criminals running rampant in their country and it seemed a duty to other travelers to give a statement. But eventually they had to get back to work, and the police didn’t need them any longer for questioning. Craig and I were left to ourselves in the empty office, for the next three hours. My nerves, already wearing thin, were tried by a seven-year-old boy named Fernando who persisted in staring at us, mostly hidden behind the doorway. Our attempts at drawing him into conversation were not successful, and we eventually let him be, but I wished he would go away. I felt out of my element enough without him reaffirming the fact that we didn’t belong there.
The police never asked us any questions except for our IDs, and we eventually found out that we would be taken back to Nazca, where there was a police station just for tourists to handle situations such as this. We were waiting for transportation, since the little rural station didn’t have any police cars (hence the taxis).
Finally, it was announced that a friend of one of the policeman’s had lent them a truck. We piled in with the thief, who began to talk loudly about people from the United States coming to take advantage of poor people in Peru, etc. etc. Really, his communist rant might have been convincing if he hadn’t been wearing nicer clothes and shoes than most other people I’ve seen. He had a down puff jacket, for goodness’ sake! Even I don’t have one of those! He then made a “phone call” to somebody and said, “Hello, honey? I’m not going to be able to come home for dinner… you’ll have to eat bread and water tonight.” Hah! Any last remnants of guilt were totally swept away by the actions of this shameless man.
At around 4:30pm, we arrived back in Nazca, more than five hours from when we left. Craig and I were by this time starving, so I ran across the street for some take-out. By the time we had scarfed down our food, the police officers were ready to take our statements.
I will say that my Spanish has improved markedly, but the way the police officer made me sound in my statement is beyond a level of sophistication that I could ever hope to achieve. In it, I have perfect grammar, if you ignore the fact that it was all written in one long, run-on sentence, and my vocabulary–well! Here’s an especially fun quote that I’m keen on: “Me encuentro realizando turismo por este hermoso pais acompañado de mi novio de nombre Craig y ingrese al Perú el 22 Abril…“, which is to say, “I find myself a tourist in this beautiful country, accompanied by my boyfriend of the name Craig, and entered Peru on the 22nd of April…”
Perhaps the police officer who took my statement had a hankering for becoming a writer! Craig did not have the same luck with his officer, and as a result, I sound much more learned than he does on paper!
I think police procedure is very similar in Perú to that in the States. Which is to say there is a lot of waiting, a lot of paperwork, some fingerprinting, and a lot of waiting. It wasn’t until 8:00pm that we finally were asked to point out the thief in a line-up–yet another surreal experience. After that, we were “free to go”, as they say, and we dragged our weary bones back to the bus station to attempt once more the road to Ica.
Things are probably not quite so disorganized back home, but I will say that our experience, though long and tiring, was one that did Perú credit. I never felt disrespected, and everybody treated us with kindness and courtesy. They seemed to desire justice just as much as we did, and nobody, except for the thief, ever tried to make us feel that we were only some rich tourists throwing our weight around for the fun of it (in our book, spending 9 hours in a police station is not really fun). In fact, the jefe of the station even told us that the minimum sentence for petty theft without violence was 1-3 years! Although he did amend this by adding that the thief would most likely be put on parole quickly. I’ve never been responsible for anybody going to jail (that I know of), and this just gives me one more strange emotion to tack onto all the others that have arisen.
We are in Huaccachina now, a tiny pueblo springing out of the desert around a tiny lake that is no longer natural due to the demands of tourism. It reminds me a lot of Disneyland since it’s essentially a manmade oasis surrounded by curving sand dunes, and lots of tourists flock to it for its unnatural splendor. At any rate, it’s a nice, quiet place that allows for a lot of contemplation of everything that’s happened.
I’m so glad we still have our hiking boots… and I feel comfortably sure that this makes up for losing our tent poles. But oh, what a horrible, funny, strange experience to add to our repertoire!