Going back to Peru

“Why’d you move here?” asked the kid, eyeing me with suspicion. “Because the headhunters got my dad,” I replied. That’s how I was branded a spinner of tales (or, less politely, a liar).

But the headhunter story was true. A corporate recruiter really had approached my father — and that really was why my family had left the barren beauty of Peru.

We’d lived there for almost four years, four years into which we’d crammed the most fantastic adventures: Together we had swum with piranhas, crawled under pyramids, soared high above the Nazca plains.

Nazca Plains Plane BLOG
My sisters, posing with the plane from which we saw the Nazca Plains

Peru seemed magical to me then, a wondrous tapestry of history and folklore. But within this culture’s fabric also ran a long, dark thread of violence and strife.

Sure, I’d seen the tanks rolling down the street outside my school in Lima, and I’d heard rumors about kidnappings and murder. But it never occurred to me that such things might affect my family.

One day, my parents told me and my three sisters to pack for a long vacation. “How would you like to visit Abuelita Josefina?” they asked. We went gladly. We adored our grandma and her charming little house in Mexico City.

What we didn’t know as we were devouring sopa de fideos was that my parents were back in Peru, hurriedly packing our clothes, emptying the house, and smuggling out the family dog. By the time they rejoined us in Mexico, my parents had built a new life.

“You’ll like Minnesota,” said my mother, selling me on the idea after the fact. “There are wonderful ballet schools, some of the best in the world.” I was intrigued, but also confused. “You mean we’re not going back to Peru?” I asked.

Our introduction to Minnesota that February was … awful. Through the airplane window the landscape looked bleak, a monochrome canvas of barren trees and gray snow. Then came our bone-chilling dash from the plane into the airport.

“You mean we’re not going back to Peru?” I asked again, incredulous at my parents’ decision.

My father was probably asking himself the same question as he bought the accoutrements of a Minnesota winter for his family of six: sweaters, coats, hats, scarves, thermal underwear, wool socks, snow pants, mittens, and molded-Styrofoam “moon boots.”

Then came the grocery store. Byerly’s is still upscale today, but in those days it was opulent. I remember its vast displays of seafood, the oceans apparently emptied to stage this scale-covered still life on ice. But it was the bread that got my mother.

In the months leading up to the coup, food had become scarce in Peru. Sometimes there would be no cooking oil, or a run on milk or sugar. My mother took to dropping me and my sisters off at different stores to buy whatever was on offer. (But, through methods that to this day remain a mystery, she always managed to find meat.)

Now, this resourceful woman — a woman who had come to see scarcity as a fact of life — was standing in the bakery aisle at Byerly’s. And instead of finding there the familiar bare shelves, she was gazing at a canyon of bread, its walls painted in hues of rye and wheat and white. Unable to choose, she buried her face in her hands and cried.

The contrasts were stark between Peru and Minnesota. There were the little things, like weighing myself in pounds instead of kilos, and stashing mittens in the glove compartment instead of bribes for the police. But there were some big things too; things you can only learn about a culture by observing it over time.

And yet, somehow, my family adapted: Mom got used to the bread aisle, and my dad — no longer afraid of being kidnapped — started jogging to work. My sisters bought new clothes and made new friends at school.

I tried to adapt, too. I tried to make my hair “feather” like the other girls’ curled-and-hairsprayed tresses. I saved money to buy designer jeans, and I tried to imitate my classmates’ nasal Midwestern accent.

For a while I joined the girls who smoked and swore and wore big blobs of black mascara. I told them about driving through a sandstorm and picking up monkeys by the tail … until one day I wasn’t welcome. “You’re boring,” said their leader, standing up to block me as I approached their table. “Go sit somewhere else.”

Two monkeys in Peru BLOG
My youngest sister, wearing a Shipibo necklace and holding a monkey (as one does)

My parents told me to give it time, so I sat dutifully through my classes. “Can anyone tell me who Loki is?” my teacher seemed to ask every day. Norse mythology rang foreign and empty, as unfamiliar to me as Peru was to my classmates.

I pined for my old life. I missed my friends — Claudia and her boisterous Italian family; the delicate and intellectual Eugenia; and especially Harry, the ambassador’s son who didn’t know I existed but around whom my whole world revolved.

Eugenia, Claudia and Mili BLOG
Eugenia and Claudia, standing in the back row

Occasionally a classmate would approach me. “Someone said you swam with piranhas,” they would ask. “Is that really true?” Grateful for an audience, I’d launch into my stories. But the questions slowly grew less curious and more full of suspicion and disdain.

Unable to find my place, I began to withdraw, like a prematurely old woman for whom the past was more real and compelling than the now.

I found myself living for Sundays, when my family would gather for lunch. My mom would serve hearts of palm — or maybe ceviche, or pulpo a la marinera — and the stories would begin to flow.

Sometimes we’d talk about daily life in Lima, like my dad’s habit of taking a different route to work every day. (My sisters and I later learned he was on a “top-10” kidnapping list.)

Other times we’d reminisce about setting off fireworks at Christmas, at the height of the South American summer, or about the drab gray uniforms every child had to wear to school. But mostly we talked about the adventures we’d shared on our frequent family vacations.

There were a few favorites, like the story of my sister and Afe the orangutan. During a particularly memorable vacation in a resort along the Amazon, my nine-year-old sister befriended the big orange ape. They quickly became inseparable and spent entire days walking hand-in-hand through the jungle.

Like most love stories, it ended badly: My sister went home, the despondent Afe attacked a man, and the villagers then killed and ate the big ape in retribution. Yes, it’s true. The villagers ate my sister’s orangutan boyfriend.

Occasionally, my dad would turn red with laughter over some particularly vivid memory, like the night he woke up to his daughters’ blood-curdling screams. He’d half-close his eyes and describe how his sleep-addled brain had struggled to make sense of our cries — “FROGS! FROGSSS!!!” — until he burst into our room to find a plague of tiny tree frogs flowing from the bathroom drains. My sisters and I would howl as he’d imitate our screams.

There was the time I came home from summer camp with a human skull. I was too young then to know the difference between archaeology and grave robbing, as I went poking about the wind-weathered graves along the beach. I don’t recall exactly how I got the skull home — but I do remember my mom spiriting my trophy away and throwing it matter-of-factly into the trash.

There were dozens of stories like these, tales I might not have believed had I not lived them. But as the years went by, my family moved on to new stories. We gradually forgot about our concrete house in Lima, with the mysterious secret room that smelled of the previous tenant’s gunpowder. We stopped talking about the earthquakes, or about the feral cats that stole our Thanksgiving dinner one year.

One by one, my sisters and I started our own lives — and one by one, my family’s stories grew more distant and less real.

With the benefit of many years’ hindsight, I see now that through our stories my family created its own mythology: a mythical Peru in which we felt safe, in which friends weren’t murdered, a Peru in which there was no corruption, where poor children didn’t sift through mountains of smoldering trash in search of food.

I see now that my stories did make me a liar, in a sense, because they told only part of the truth about Peru.

But those stories also awoke me to another, much deeper truth — the truth that drives all storytelling: Whether we’re retelling family yarns or ancient myths, our stories bind us in a collective history and a shared world view. I wonder sometimes if it’s because of these family stories that I became a writer.

I also wonder sometimes … what became of my friends, and the country I loved so much? Would I still feel at home in its arid colonial Spanish capital, its snowcapped Andes, and the dense jungles I once roamed like a blonde, sunburned Mowgli?

I don’t know, but I still miss it.

Maybe one day I’ll go back to Peru.