Photo above taken driving in Lima, Peru – November 2001.
We left for our trip to Peru less than two months after the horrific events of September 11th. I’ll never forget that day as long as I shall live. Every American remembers where they were when the first plane struck the Twin Towers in New York. The horror that unfolded over that fateful day and the next couple of days of despair, confusion and pain will forever remain in America’s psyche.
It was hard to imagine getting back on a plane after everything that happened but I had no choice. At the time, I traveled for a living and made two to three flights a month. Going to Peru was even a bit scarier for me as I’d never been to South America and the flight was longer. Yet the hope of doing something great despite all the tragedy was worth it. My father and I were going to hike the Inca Trail! So I swallowed my fear, packed my bags and boarded the plane to Lima.
Luckily, were able to score a pair of Emergency Row exit seats giving us plenty of leg room for the flight. After a few glasses of free (yes it was free in those days!) wine, I felt calmer and was able to relax. Yet I couldn’t help occasionally glancing around the plane, nervously, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It was hard to fly to a foreign country, let alone even be on a plane, after hours on end of CNN replays of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. The visuals from hell where impossible to erase from my mind.
We landed without incident, safely in Lima, Peru around ten o’clock at night. I couldn’t help letting out a huge sigh of relief to be safely on the ground. I made it! I thought thankfully to myself.
As we exited the plane, the Lima airport welcomed us instantly to the sound of Peruvian music and culture. A full-fledge Peruvian band was playing lively music with wooden flutes and indigenous drums as we headed to gather our luggage and enter through customs. My heart skipped a beat. Here I was, finally in new continent to discover! South America here I come!
We gathered our belongings, easily passed through customs (a bit of a surprise given we just experienced 9/11 hell and getting through any security at the airport in the States required lots of patience), and exited the airport to the lurking crowds. People were everywhere-drivers, cabbies, families and friends-all holding up big white signs with names written in big letters. We had no one waiting for us. This would end up being one of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made while traveling. (Rule #1: ALWAYS hire a respected driver from the hotel to meet you at the airport, before entering into a foreign country).
We walked outside to the masses of chaos, and found the line for the taxis. Before entering the cab, we made sure that we knew the going rate to the city and that the cab had a meter. Everything seemed fine. My dad, being a curious fellow, decided to sit up in the front so he could get a better view of our new surroundings, while I sat alone in back (Rule #2: Never do this!).
Like most “smart” travelers I had read the US State Departments Travel Advisory and Warnings documentation (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html) as well as the country profile for Peru, before leaving. I had a copy of it in my packed suitcase. Yet unfortunately in all the excitement of the trip and the nervousness of a repeat of 9/11, I forgot. (Rule #3: Always read the above documentation right before you are departing or better yet, even on the flight there).
The half-hour ride from the airport to lovely Mireflores, a rich, upscale district of Lima was mostly uneventful. It was dark and there wasn’t much to see. I asked the driver in broken Spanish some questions here and there. But he wasn’t really the talkative type.
We followed the main drag from the airport into quiet, peaceful Mireflores and reached a stoplight. It was dark and there were no other cars around. I was getting excited to reach our hotel, and unwind. Then, all of the sudden, out of nowhere….WHAM! Glass flew everywhere, I screamed and thought I was going to die, while I saw a long, black-sleeved arm reach inside of the back of the car and grab my bag! It happened so fast that I was speechless.
After realizing that I was ok, my dad jumped out of the car (as I frightenly followed) just as the motor scooter pulled away with my backpack! All we could see where two dark figures with a baseball bat and my backpack driving away.
Horrified, I burst into tears and noticed that two policeman were at our side talking to the driver quickly in Spanish. There was nothing we could do. It happened so quickly and then they were gone.
We arrived at our hotel, completely horrified about our experience. I’d been inside the country for less than an hour and had already been mugged!
I called my husband at home, in tears, more so due to fear than loss of anything valuable. I did a quick inventory of my bag and realized those thieves would be sorely disappointed for all they got was my make-up, a hairbrush, some personal medication and unfortunate for me, my beloved journal (which had all my thoughts and feelings about 9/11 written down in anguish, in English). There was nothing of value to them whatsoever in my bag. I’m sure it was promptly discarded into the Peruvian trash.
I couldn’t sleep a wink that night. I was terrified by the experience. What a rough entry! Unfortunately that experience would taint my views on Lima and make me constantly uneasy and nervous. Yet somehow or another, we weren’t going to let one bad experience ruin our trip. I remembered to keep my eye on the price….the upcoming hike along the Inca Trail. I also realized that I had learned a valuable lesson about traveling. Never let your guard down.
Note: After I returned home to the US, I re-read the US Government Travel Summary for Peru and saw to my dismay and horror that what happened to me was not a random act. It said in big letters that there have been many reported muggings and robberies along the main road from the airport to downtown Lima, and be vigilant! To my disgust, I realized that the entire deal was most likely a set-up, that happened at the airport. The muggers waited and watched for us, easy prey, as my father got in the front seat of the taxi and me, a stupid American victim, in the back alone. They probably followed us the entire way, waited for the right moment (a stoplight) and bang.
The good news is at least they didn’t get anything valuable except women’s toiletries! The bad news is it shows how desperate people are in third world countries.
P.S. I looked up the US Government Travel Website and here is what I found. FYI- I went to Peru over ten years ago and this warning still exists today! It is exactly what happened to me!!!!!
“Violent crime, including carjacking, assault, sexual assault, and armed robbery is common in Lima and other large cities. The Embassy is aware of reports of women being sexually assaulted in their place of lodging. Women travelling alone should be especially careful to avoid situations in which they are vulnerable due to impaired judgment or isolation. Resistance to violent crime often provokes greater violence, while victims who do not resist usually do not suffer serious physical harm. “Express kidnappings,” in which criminals kidnap victims and seek to obtain funds from their bank accounts via automatic teller machines, occur frequently. Thieves often smash car windows at traffic lights to grab jewelry, purses, backpacks, or other visible items from a car. This type of assault is very common on main roads leading to Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport, specifically along De la Marina and Faucett Avenues and Via de Evitamiento, but it can occur anywhere in congested traffic, particularly in downtown Lima. Travelers are encouraged to put all belongings, including purses, in the trunk of a car or taxi.” (from http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_998.html).
Obviously I made a stupid mistake and should have been more careful. Furthermore, this kind of stuff can happen anywhere, even in Minneapolis where I live. All I’m saying is that you just need to be cautious when traveling to another country, especially one where the population is much poorer than your own. Lesson learned!!!!
Stay tuned…next post about “lovely” Lima.