My mother was worried when I told her I was going to South America for 6 weeks on my own. But things with my expected travel companion hadn’t worked out, and I didn’t want to lose the money paid for flights, or miss an incredible life experience out of fear.
Despite her reservations, my mother was proud of me for going, she wished me well, and offered me the only words of wisdom she could think of “Be careful and don’t befriend any men with gold teeth”. Though uttered in jest, she genuinely didn’t know what or who I might encounter on my travels across this vast and fascinating continent. Frankly, neither did I.
Peru was my third country out of the six I would eventually visit. I was headed to Cusco, the Peruvian ‘Base Camp’ for Machu Picchu, a pilgrimage that many who visit Peru will make. But on the way I wanted to stop off in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city after Lima. I had hungrily read of the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage site, its striking colonial and religious architecture, its gargantuan cathedral. A city surrounded by not one, but three, magnificent and worryingly active volcanoes.
Arequipa did not disappoint. It remains one of my favourite cities to this day. It had a soothing spiritual tranquillity emanating through it; the European architecture of this ‘White City’ dazzled against the azure blue sky, the immense Spanish cathedral with the majestic El Misti volcano rising behind it, and the arcaded square twinkling in exquisite continental fashion in the balmy evening air.
Though Arequipa had very much to recommend it, I had spotted a note of caution in my guide-book, advising vigilance if venturing far from the centre. There had been reports of tourists occasionally being stopped by fake policemen, who would present them with a badge purporting their official status and asking to see ID (with a view to it being stolen there and then, or perhaps later by onlooking youths hiding somewhere nearby). I logged this warning in my brain as I planned my next couple of days exploring the city.
Having worked my way through the back streets in the stunning centre of the city, and spending some blissful hours in the Santa Catalina Monastery – which was bursting with entrancing colours, buildings of intriguing angles and the historical energy of those who had gone before – there was an area slightly further out I wanted to visit before I left. Only a half hour walk, I decided to go on foot, always my preference where possible – in order not to miss anything of interest along the way.
As I left the hubbub of the Plazas de Armas, the traffic and the people thinned. Armed with my map I was an obvious tourist, but I hoped my stride was sufficiently confident and my ‘I know what I am doing’ energy enough not to be bothered by unwanted attention. Half-way to my destination, I was approached by a young woman. Her English was not great, but far better than my Spanish. I ascertained she was visiting the city from Uruguay and, as it happened, searching for the same place that I was. Trusting my judgement (which has tended to be a fairly reliable gauge of people’s character and intentions to date), I invited this lady to walk with me. We chatted in the lovely sunshine as we walked. When I told her I intended to visit Uruguay, she animatedly spoke to me of the wonderful places I might see on my visit. I was enjoying her company.
Nearing our destination, we were crossing a complicated junction, when we were approached by an older man in a suit. I noted his outfit was slightly shabby and then, as he opened his mouth to speak, I spotted gold teeth. My mother’s words returned to me, as did the note of caution I had read in my guide-book. “Here we go” I thought. As I anticipated, this man proceeded to produce a laminated card from his pocket, which, in his poor English, he suggested was the ID of a policeman. I was not even slightly convinced. My companion looked frightened and, as this gentleman asked us to show him our passports, she looked ready to reach into her bag. I don’t know from where I got the courage, but I was not having this man threaten us in this manner. I turned to my companion and said “Don’t do it. I have read about this. We do not have to show him our passports, I do not think he is a real police officer’.
Then, turning toward him, I said “I’m sorry. We are not going to show you our passports. I do not think we have to. We are going to walk away now”. Our intruder looked crestfallen. He briefly looked me in the eye, as if he intended to speak again. But then, obviously deciding against it, he lowered his eyes, and with one backward glance, he walked away, slowly, sadly.
This was not, I think, the experience of a man with gold teeth my mother had been nervous of. My heart slightly went out to this would-be criminal. As he walked away his shoulders slumped, as if I had burst his last bubble of confidence. He felt he had failed, which he had, and I felt a little sorry for him. His attempt at whatever it was he was trying to achieve had been inept, and I thought, “You may need to find another way to make a living sir. You have lost, or perhaps never had, the skills your gold teeth might imply”.
My companion and I continued on our way, without further incident, and feeling very grateful that the one we had ended quickly and without further unpleasantness. That night, I relayed to my mother over Skype my encounter with my man with gold teeth. We laughed about it, but I was left with a tinge of melancholy about this man, who I somehow felt did not really want to be a bad person, but circumstances had lead him to this ill-judged and unsatisfactory episode. I had no further encounters with any men with gold teeth whilst in South America, and I left Arequipa with a story to tell and having enjoyed the many beautiful sights it had to offer.
In my next post I will share some of the captivating images I took of this vibrant Peruvian city.
Copyright © 2016 · Words & Images · Forty and Everything After