My Wife and I Were Fired Upon by Peruvian Military–Kinda (Maybe) Like Bill O’Reilly

The recent news story about Bill O’Reilly reportedly embellishing a story about the danger he faced covering the Falkland Islands was from Buenos Aires got me thinking about–of all thing–my honeymoon.  In October 1990, I married Jennifer. While we were considering where to go for our honeymoon, American Airlines announced a big sale on fares to Latin America. Jennifer and I were both interested in visiting Latin America, and we both speak some Spanish (she’d laugh at me for saying this: she’s fluent, I spoke it very poorly even then, having forgotten what I learned in an immersion program in Mexico a decade before). Anyway, we decided to honeymoon in Peru (against the advice of most of our friends and family. Typical conversation: “Where are you taking your honeymoon?” Us (before final decision): “Hawaii or Peru”. Them: “Hawaii’s very nice.”).

In 1990, Peru was suffering from massive hyperinflation. Their currency, the Inti (Quechua for “sun”), which had replaced the devalued Sol (Spanish for “sun”), had itself become devalued to the point that the exchange rate was 550,000 Intis to the dollar at the time of our arrival in Peru. Peruvians immediately exchanged their pay for dollars on the black market to protect against the hyperinflation. They had just elected Fujimori, the leftist son of Japanese immigrants, who had immediately instituted drastic austerity measures known as “Fujishock” . Think modern-day Greece but without the support of the Eurozone countries.

To make matters worse, Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, was actively fighting a guerilla war to try to bring down the government and lead to a Maoist revolution. So was the MRTA— Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (most known for its deadly attack on the Japanese Embassy in Lima some years later). Before going to Peru, we listened to the State Department’s 20-minute recorded warning about the dangers of travelling within Peru. (“On the road to ______, guerillas stopped a bus, had the Americans taken off, and executed them” and so on and so forth).

None of this deterred us.

Peru was, and for all I know remains, a great country to visit. We thoroughly enjoyed Arequippa, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Pisac. We loved the Incan ruins, the Andean music and dances, and the third world vibe. The travel was uneventful, the hotels comfortable and affordable, we had great guides, we drank excellent coffee and “café de mate”—coca tea (tastes like chamomile), and for the most part we enjoyed the food, including the omnipresent “chifas”—Peruvian-Chinese restaurants.

What does any of this have to do with Bill O’Reilly, you wonder. I am getting to that.

We spent a few days at the beginning and end of the trip in Lima, the capital city. That same year, a literary magazine to which I subscribed began an article about Lima like this: ”I arrived in Lima, having forgotten what a vile city it is. . . . That night I counted 17 explosions – not from police but from guerrillas. The next evening the restaurant around the corner was machine gunned and then blown up with dynamite.”

Lima was run down and dirty, but worth visiting. We saw churches and museums (including the Larca Museum of Pre-Columbian Erotic Pottery—I kid you not).

We didn’t encounter the explosions or machine gun fire referenced by the magazine writer, but we were fired upon by water cannons and tear-gassed by the military. We were in Lima on our way to the Museum of the Inquisition. (Yeah, the Spanish brought the Inquisition to Peru. Don’t tell me you didn’t expect this.) Throngs of people were moving in the same direction, passing out leaflets that announced HUELGA! —English translation: STRIKE. When we were just across a main thoroughfare from the museum, we were blocked by military or military police in tank-like vehicles. Some of the vehicles were water cannons, which they turned on the crowd. There was nowhere to go to get away. We were in front of a bank (impossible to enter it) pressed against the wall to keep from getting knocked down by the high pressure spray. Just as the water cannon was about to get us, it was shut down and it passed by without spraying us (probably because we were recognizable as tourists, and not strikers, our height and dress giving us away—essentially, our presence saved Peruvians around us from getting hosed).

We still couldn’t cross the street to get to the museum, so we resolved to go the long way, around the block. That meant walking through a street closed to traffic that was used as an open air market, which was packed with people. As we walked, we heard people yell “Bombas!”—in English, “bombs”. Then people coming our way were holding handkerchiefs over their mouths. Then our eyes started to sting. The military had tear-gassed the crowded market to disperse the strikers, and now we were walking into it.

We turned around. After a bit we felt fine, and we did not need medical care. We were not attacked again on our honeymoon. And we get a great story to tell everyone. “How was your honeymoon?” “Great. We loved the Incan ruins. And we got tear-gassed and water-cannoned!”

Getting back to Bill O’Reilly, who am I to question whether he wasn’t in just as much danger in Buenos Aires as I faced in Lima?

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