Before the acting, before the directing, before the playwriting, and at times afterwards, I did myriad things to earn a living (haven’t we all!). Among sundry income-producing activities were stints with magazines and various media. I cut my teeth as a journalist with a news magazine and then went on to the glory and gluttony of a prestigious restaurant magazine in New York. My first international, over-the-seas assignment was to travel to Peru and capture an intriguing story or three about restaurateurs, chefs, and dining out in the not so voracious nightlife of Lima. Peru was and still is on the west coast of South America which was and still is considered to be the “hick” coast sans the vibrancy and chic of the East, of Caracas and Rio De Janeiro and Buenos Aires. It was okay by me.
I traveled on one of the last transoceanic Clipper flights with its all-night, in-flight restaurant, the overhead comfort of a bed for every passenger, and the charm of lovely and loving hostesses, stewardesses, now known, in our current politically-correct banality, as flight attendants. (Attendant. A name I always associated with the guy who gave me a hand-towel in a washroom.) Needless to say, I gathered my first story on the flight itself along with numbers and look-me-ups for a possible later survey of the East Coast (the “attendants” were all from Rio and Buenos Aires).
In my arrogant Manhattan innocence, I had made a naive mistake and so did my editor. I went to Lima in April, on a Friday, Good Friday, which provided a challenging scenario: nearly everything in this religiously over-burdened country was closed, for the Easter holiday, and the heavenly production designer art-directed a nearly unbearable heat wave for the celebration. It was an auspicious beginning.
After slowly, ever-so slowly making my way from the airport in a non-air-conditioned taxicab to the thankfully air-conditioned Gran Hotel Bolivar in the center of Lima, I called my photographer. Though I usually shot my own photographs for most of my stories, this assignment was long and broad enough to require a separate photographer, Tim McElhenny—a former news guy, National Geographic photographer and all-around shooter. Personal turmoil had reduced him to a stringer for news services, primarily in South America. But this was also his first trip to Lima. We were a couple of innocents and not too ugly Americans.
We met up at the Bolivar bar, which became our headquarters, and pumped up with the Bolivar’s famous Pisco Sour, which became our anti-heat, anti-dust, anti-anti drink. Pisco is an indigenous liquor in Peru and Chile, made from grapes, a bit like brandy, but quite distinct. It taught me a lot about the hegemony of European spirits. After all, alcohol is not just alcohol, it’s a fat drug.
After a restful dose, we wandered out into the thick heat of the Plaza De Las Armas (Plaza Mayor) where a huge crowd was building for the launch of the holiday. First shock to the eye: a helmeted, machine-gun toting soldier on every street corner. A scary, unfamiliar sight except in movies. Then a motorcade pushed its way though the crowd. Second shock to the eye: the government officials were arriving in brand-new shiny American Chevrolet automobiles (this before the Black SUV). The church officials including the Cardinal (who was not Peruano) arrived in Rolls Royces. Welcome to South America!
As the speeches began, newshound McElhenny decided to capture a few photos. He wormed and squirmed his way through the mass of people, as an experienced pro would do, and bounced up and down on barricades and lamp-post bases. His postures attracted attention and two soldiers, who shouldered him and grabbed his camera. He began to protest and one told him in Spanish, “No photographs!” The uniform opened the camera, stretched out the film, and threw it exposed to the ground along with the camera, a rather expensive Hasselblad. Then the other uniform leaned in nose to nose and said, “No photographs!”
A short time later, we needed to get out of the blistering sun and away from all the bombast of the speakers platform. We edged around the huge cathedral of the plaza and found a shady spot at the back wall. Suddenly, there was a familiar sound, the exciting purr of a sports car. It was a bright green racing-striped MG and it pulled up to a jolting stop just short of us. The driver was a gorgeous-looking young man, black curly hair, square-jaw, sharp roman nose—obviously a model, an actor, a playboy. But, no. When he popped out of the car, he turned his white collar around, smoothed out his shoe-length black cassock, tucked his square-cut Italian sun glasses underneath the folds of his robe, took a deep breath, put his hands together and walked quickly but easily around the corner of the church to where the voices and music were blasting. Yes, indeed, Welcome to South America!
I spent five weeks in Peru, picking up four good stories with exhilarating side trips to Cusco and the magic of Machu Picchu, and Mira Flores where… well, whatever you can’t find in Lima, you can find in Mira Flores. Among many memories, two stand out.
One Tuesday, there was a power outage all over Lima. It lasted for two days. Even though the hotel had emergency generators, they only powered essential facilities which didn’t include air conditioning or ice. No ice, no cold liquids of any kind, not even water. McElhenny came banging on my door. He wanted to see if maybe my water was cold enough to drink. It wasn’t. Then he discovered something in the bathroom, a hilarious something which satisfied what he was looking for. The bidet—it actually looked like a water fountain with its recessed seat and skyward spout. It shot out a high stream of cold water, not just cold, ice-cold, refrigerated. Why, he chortled and wondered, is the water from the faucet warm, hot enough to take a warm bath in while the water from the bidet was frigid like ice in the heights of the Andes? It was a media question, was it not? I still wonder about it today.
A few days before we left Lima, we were lounging one night at the bar of the Carillon, a friendly place that gave us a good food service story. As the Pisco Sours multiplied, in walked a group of politicos with blonde trophies on their arms. McElhenny recognized one of them, an important Judge, and immediately whipped out his little sneak-shot Leica and began to photograph the man. Two non-uniformed guys immediately stopped him. Tim was buzzed and struggled. In a few seconds, they clipped him in the belly and dragged him and his camera out the door. As I moved to interfere, another non-uniform stepped in front me, took off his sun glasses and shook his head ‘no’. I shook my head ‘no’, and sat back at the bar. A few hours later, I collected Tim at the local lockup, paid his fine, and understood that both our visas had been cancelled. We had 48 hours to retrace our steps to the airport. I remember thinking: I had already traveled through Europe and seen this happen there but not so blatantly.
I remember thinking: I’m happy that I live in the United States where this never could happen. That’s all it is, a memory of a naive thought. “Never” is a spike that the naive sit on!