When the phone rang late that winter night, at first I was glad I didn’t recognize the man’s voice. Lately, someone had been prank calling me. He’d pretended to know me–flirting like–until I’d realized I didn’t know him and hang up. But this voice was different. Ominous. None of the macho confidence of the previous caller. He hesitated after I answered, almost nervous when he spoke.
“Señora Nancy? This is…” and he rattled off an acronym that meant nothing to me. It sounded like a rebel terrorist group, but it wasn’t one of the notorious ones that were in the news all the time. Still, the bottom fell out of my stomach. The blood pounded in my ears so that I could hardly hear him. And then I did.
“You will leave ten thousand dollars for us tomorrow.” He named a site. I was afraid to breathe. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the destination. I had no intention of going there. I tightened my grip on the receiver.
“If you don’t, something bad will happen to someone in your family, Señora Nancy. Are you listening? Something very bad.”
Too stunned to answer, I lowered the receiver to its cradle.
This was Lima, Peru, in 1987.
Twenty-two years before, I had arrived in a peaceful and democratic country to study Spanish on a simple junior year abroad. That’s when I fell in love–with the country and with the son of my host family. Maybe that clouded my nascent political vision, because I didn’t see that under the surface, revolutionary leftist forces were already gathering strength for an armed revolt. They meant to deliver the government and the nation to el pueblo–the impoverished and disenfranchised people of the indigenous population.
Two years later, I married my Peruvian, Rolando (Tito) Villalobos, and returned as a bride. Not long after I arrived, a military junta bundled up the President of the Republic in the middle of the night and dumped him on a flight to somewhere else.
For the next twelve years, the military dictatorship contained the insurrection to the southern mountains. In spite of all the difficulties the populace at large suffered under the military regime, no one expected the country to be in even worse shape when Democracy was restored in 1980, right around the time my husband died of an attack of acute pancreatitis.
Thank goodness Tito isn’t here to see what has happened to his country, I thought. I stood in the sprawling, one story home we had built together. Every room had a door to the outside so the children and I would be safe from Lima’s frequent tremors and occasional major quakes.
Safe. Now fear of natural disaster had been supplanted by terror of the man-made variety. In the seven years of my widowhood, Lima had become a city of rationing, gas shortages, and generalized unease. Rebel groups routinely disabled electrical towers, throwing the city into prolonged blackouts. Without electricity gas stations couldn’t pump gas. The Shining Path rebel movement known as Sendero Luminoso, espoused a violent version of Maoism. Mayhem appeared with the introduction of coche-bombas–vehicles filled with explosives that were detonated in affluent areas of the city. The armed insurrection had finally come down from the mountains into the capital.
In response, President Alan García imposed martial law. The constant ominous military presence. Those young, conscripted, illiterate boy-soldiers with heavy weaponry standing in the darkened streets, enforcing the 1:00 am curfew, filled me with dread.
And then there was the insane inflation. When the rate reached a ridiculous level, the government simple invented a new currency–the Inti–to replace the traditional Sol and gave it a new, artificial value. Not that it mattered much. There wasn’t a lot to buy. Grocery shelves that should have held cooking oil or rice or canned milk, greeted housewives with banks of toilet paper. Sendero was succeeding in its purpose–the country was in a tailspin.
When kidnappings of foreign businessmen and their families for ransom became common, large companies gradually repatriated their executives who had dependents and replaced them with single men. As a result, the roster of students in my international nursery school had dwindled.
Affluent Peruvians were also threatened. My mother and I had unknowingly interrupted the kidnapping of our neighbor’s son one afternoon when we pulled up in our driveway. The young man had just parked his car next to ours, in front of his house, when a scooter with two men aboard entered our cul-de-sac. Unconcerned, I left my mother in the passenger seat and got out to push open the heavy gate to our property. When I turned around to go back to the car, I noticed that the men on the scooter had stopped. That was odd. And why were they talking to my neighbor’s son? That’s when I saw the large handgun. The men hesitated, glancing at my mother and me, and roared away.
And now this. After I stopped shaking, I sat down to compose myself. Following Tito’s example, I tried to avoid panic by analyzing the situation. The caller asked for me and not my husband, so did he know I was alone? Likely. Many people knew me as a widow. He had said “your family,” not “one of your children.” Could he know how many I had or where they went to school? Unlikely. Or was he referring to my elderly mother, who now lived with me? Highly unlikely. I couldn’t remember the acronym of the group he mentioned because I was so scared. Any set of letters these days posed a potential threat, but maybe were these just wannabes, trying to cash in on the hysteria. Highly likely. Otherwise, it didn’t make sense. Why was I being targeted? I was American but not high-powered at all, just a private citizen running a small nursery school. And the sum...ten thousand dollars (as daunting for me as it seemed) was not a likely ransom. Compared with the enormous sums demanded of foreign companies for their executives, it was much too small.
With a deep breath, I decided it was too late to do anything that night. In the morning I would get some advice from my friends at the Consulate. Just that afternoon I had seen the long line of Peruvians standing outside it, hoping to get visas. They wanted to flee. Why was I still here?
I walked to the closet where my hands lingered on the highly varnished teak slats of the door. I pulled it open, revealing the small wall safe inside. Under my fingers, the reassuring click of the tumblers calmed me as they fell through the familiar combination. The heavy door swung open. Six valid U.S. passports lay inside. I put them under my pillow and turned out the light. It was time to go.
I’ve been a part of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years. Excerpts of my memoir, Peru;My Other Country, A Love Story have been performed in the Annual Memoir Showcase, put on by the San Diego Memoir Writers Association and San Diego Writers, Ink. and published in two annual anthologies. Another excerpt appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman. I belong to San Diego Writers, Ink and have been a board member of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association.